Ms. Tunzi — at the time the reigning Miss South Africa — had just beaten Ms. Kryst — the reigning Miss USA — in the Miss Universe pageant. The rival beauty queens were to be roommates for the next six months, until a new Miss USA was crowned in May 2020.
The setup certainly had the potential for awkwardness, if not outright animosity. But the apartment — a sprawling three-bedroom, three-bathroom in a luxury doorman building near Central Park South — was too good to pass up. Pageant winners live there for a year rent-free (or a year and a half, if Miss USA wins Miss Universe), and weekly housekeeping and grocery expenses are also covered. (Both pageants are run by the Miss Universe Organization.)
Ms. Kryst, who moved into the apartment after she won the Miss USA title in May 2019, wasn’t worried. In college, she was often friends with her track-and-field competitors. Besides, the women travel extensively during their yearlong reigns. “I barely ever saw my last roommate in the last seven months. I think we went out together for dinner five or six times,” Ms. Kryst said.
“Of course, if I knew about the pandemic, I would have been much more stressed,” she added.
When coronavirus hit, both women’s busy travel schedules came to an abrupt halt and their roster of international appearances turned virtual. In the first few weeks of the pandemic, they went from barely being in the apartment to barely leaving it.
“We would just go and walk in the park for hours. We were too scared to do anything else,” Ms. Kryst said. “I would wear gloves to the grocery store.”
The Miss USA 2020 pageant has been postponed until later this year, meaning that Ms. Kryst will retain her tiara, her room and her roommate until organizers determine that it’s safe to hold the competition again. The same goes for Ms. Tunzi, as the Miss Universe pageant has been postponed indefinitely.
Fortunately, while the two women hadn’t spent much time together in the months leading up to the shutdown, they had enjoyed one another’s company when they did.
“I don’t want to lie — you do worry about having an unpleasant person as a roommate,” Ms. Tunzi said. “But we got along at the pageant and I knew that if I won, my roommate would be Cheslie. Whereas she could have had 90 different people.”
“I was happy that it was Zozi,” Ms. Kryst said. “People handle competition in different ways. Some people are outgoing, some people are quiet. Zozi and me are both chill. We liked to be together in the formations. After I didn’t make top five, I was like, ‘Let it be Zozi.’ ”
“She’s the best roommate ever,” Ms. Tunzi said. “Also, I’m a bit messy.”
“I’ve lived with much messier people,” Ms. Kryst said. “I have four little brothers. She’s not that bad.”
Both women lived alone before moving into the apartment. Ms. Kryst, 29, a civil litigation attorney, had a loft in downtown Charlotte, N.C. Ms. Tunsi, 27, who had been interning at an advertising firm in Cape Town, had never lived with anyone who wasn’t a family member.
$0 | Midtown
Zozibini Tunzi, 27, and Cheslie Kryst, 29
Occupation: Ms. Tunzi is Miss Universe; Ms. Kryst is Miss USA.
Suitcase storage: Is an issue, despite the apartment’s large size and the many closets. Each woman has numerous suitcases since so much of the job usually involves long trips and many costume changes. Traveling with multiple gowns and a suitcase just for shoes is not unusual.
Where do they keep their crowns? Ms. Tunzi prefers to store hers at the nearby Miss Universe offices, but Ms. Kryst keeps hers on the night stand. “It’s a Mikimoto tiara, which is one of the most iconic designs,” she said. “It’s embarrassing, but I like to wake up and look at it.”
Ms. Tunzi and pageants: “At 7, my mom took me to this pageant at church. I was really shy, she wanted me to meet other young girls. But then I loved it, the feeling of making friends and then the confidence of walking onstage.”
Ms. Kryst and pageants: “My mom was the second Black Mrs. North Carolina, so I knew no matter what, I was going to compete. I started when I was 13 or 14, in high school.”
The apartment’s size, they agree, makes sharing it relatively easy. Both were surprised at how large the space was the first time they saw it.
“Before I came to New York, everyone told me things are really small; even the hotel rooms are like shoe boxes,” Ms. Tunzi said. “I walked in and was like, ‘This is a huge space.’ ”
“You think of New York as being 300-square-foot apartments, but this is massive,” Ms. Kryst said. “With the pandemic, you get to the point where you want to be outside, but I have my own room, I have my own bathroom, we have an extra bedroom.”
The third bedroom, which is reserved for Miss Teen USA when she visits the city, has become a work space — the closet is great for recording voice-overs — as has the living room. They had used the living room sparingly before, as a place to catch up between work trips, but they now shoot all their videos there; there’s even a teleprompter corner.
Unlike most people working from home these days, the women still spend a lot of time getting ready for work — a Zoom shirt will not suffice for a Miss Universe appearance. But even they have been able to relax things a little bit.
“If you’re doing your hair to go somewhere, it has to be really on point. On camera it’s not quite as hard,” Ms. Kryst said. “And probably the strangest thing is that I haven’t worn shoes — heels — in a really long time.”
When they do go out, it’s often to Central Park. They like to walk through the park to get banana pudding at the Magnolia Bakery on the Upper West Side. The pandemic has meant not only getting to know the city better than they otherwise would have — “Before, people would be like, ‘What’s your favorite thing to do in New York and I was like, ‘I don’t know. I’m at the airport,” Ms. Tunzi said — but also each other.
“We’ve talked about Covid, Black Lives Matter,” Ms. Kryst said. “I think us being both women of color, having a real sister in the house, we understand the impact that being a person of color has on the titleholder. When we won we both had to face unkind comments.”
They had been talking about going to a Black Lives Matter protest together when, on a walk to Central Park, they bumped into one and joined in. “It was really cool to go to one with someone who valued it as much as I did,” Ms. Kryst said. “She knows we’re in this together.”