CLINTON TOWNSHIP — Native Detroiter Carole Gist made history twice in 1990.
She became the first Miss Michigan to win the title of Miss USA and also the first African-American to win the national pageant held in Wichita, Kansas, that year.
On the morning of March 18, Gist talked about her pageant days to female students at Clintondale High School. She even brought her Miss USA crown and sash.
During her visit, the mother of two also gave a motivational talk titled “Choices: Goal Setting for Life” to encourage the young women to set goals for themselves, both in the present and in the future.
“If you mess up yesterday, it doesn’t matter,” Gist said. “You have another opportunity today to make it right. No matter what you are dealt in life, does that have to determine your destiny? If you have a parent that didn’t go to college, does that mean you can’t go? What is the only thing that can stop you from achieving your destiny? You.”
She advised the students to take charge of their own choices, behaviors and paths. If they come from humble beginnings or have endured a personal tragedy, that should not stop them from achieving in life, she said.
“Do you want that ‘A’? Do you want that high score on the ACT (test)? Do you want to graduate by the skin of your teeth, or do you want to graduate with honors?” Gist asked the audience. “Write your goals out in complete detail.”
She encouraged the students to write down their goals in a positive tone rather than a negative one. Based on Gist’s life experiences, it’s also important to have goals in the following six areas: mental/educational; spiritual/ethical; family/home; financial/career; physical/health; and social/cultural. Also, seek the support of adults and peers around you, she said.
For years, Gist was self-conscious about her height. She also heard comments about not being the “right shade.”
“We all have something we could be teased about,” she said. “Pimples. A bad hair day. I’m me. That’s the attitude you have to have.”
And when things don’t go as planned, Gist offered a personal quote of her own.
“Life may give you lemons, but it’s up to you to make lemonade, so make the best dang lemonade you can,” she said. “The tears and sweat of your hard work make the water for the lemonade. Your discipline, determination and achievement are the sweet results that make the granules of sugar for the lemonade.”
During Black History Month in February, CHS students displayed photos of prominent black figures that have made their marks in history. When CHS Assistant Principal Meloney Cargill spotted an image of Gist, she informed the students that she personally knew the beauty queen. They both graduated from Detroit’s Cass Tech High School in 1987 and keep in touch via Facebook. At the students’ request, Cargill invited Gist to the school.
“I remember it like it was yesterday when she was in the pageant,” said Cargill, who usually didn’t watch pageants. “I was so proud of her. She represented Detroit and Michigan. The crown was for everyone that knew her and came in contact with her.”
Gist’s sparkling evening gowns and glittery crown during her reign might have seemed she like she had it all, but her journey was not exactly a fairy tale. Her mother had a drug problem, which affected Gist. At one point, Gist — who played volleyball and ran track — said she lived out of her car and bounced back and forth between two friends’ houses, something nobody knew.
“I showed up in class. I showed up to practice,” Gist said. “I did my work. I smiled.”
She soldiered on with the grace of God and her stubbornness, she said. She has since forgiven her mother.
“My mother has been clean 28 years now,” Gist said proudly. “Hallelujah!”
Gist had been modeling since the age of 12, and a friend kept asking her to do pageants, but Gist felt they weren’t for her. She finally relented so her friend would back off. She won Miss Michigan USA without “even trying.” But then she made the choice to try to win the national title.
She solicited businesses for donations to pay for pageant costs while attending Northwood University in Midland. She went to Miss USA that year after following a five-year streak in which the Texas delegate won each year. That ended when Gist claimed the title and later that year placed first runner-up at Miss Universe, the next step after Miss USA.
CHS sophomore Briana Allen enjoyed Gist’s speech. She liked what Gist said about feeling self-conscious when competing in pageants.
“I took it to heart,” Allen said, adding that many girls feel like they aren’t “pretty enough or skinny enough.”
Sophomore Courtney McCullum found Gist’s speech so inspirational that she broke down in tears as it concluded. When Gist saw McCullum crying, she put her arm around her and gave her a pep talk.
Afterward, Gist let the students try on her crown and also posed for pictures.