To ride life’s roller-coaster “till the wheels come off”—that’s one legacy of the late Chelsi Smith.
Another, more tangible legacy is The Chelsi Smith Foundation, which was announced October 7 at a celebration of life in The Ballroom at Bayou Place. Smith was Texas’ only Miss Universe, a fierce champion of the LGBTQ community, and an advocate for children and women’s empowerment.
She died from liver cancer on September 8 at the age of 45.
“The mission of The Chelsi Smith Foundation is to provide grants and awards to charitable and social initiatives that Chelsi advocated for during her life,” says Jarrod Klawinsky, who co-founded the nonprofit organization with fellow gay Houstonian Michael Hannah and Smith’s longtime friend Kara Cox, of Cypress.
The foundation hopes to add about 12 more members to its board of trustees this fall.
“Each year, the foundation will choose three initiatives to support in fulﬁlling our mission,” says Klawinsky, adding that the Montrose Center, The Council on Recovery, and The Women’s Resource Center of Houston will be the group’s ﬁrst grant recipients.
“Chelsi loved life and lived it to the fullest, many times making her own rules,” Hannah says. “I feel privileged to have been part of her life. Chelsi is at peace now and pain-free, but I have been left heartbroken and will miss her so much. My heart is in a million pieces.”
Klawinsky says he met Smith at a Christmas party thrown by Houston bon vivant Bubba McNeely, who explains that Smith often attended his happy-hour cabaret shows at such venues as The St. Regis Houston and Hotel Granduca Houston.
“You know how we all love pageants, so I had followed her long before I technically met her,” McNeely says.
Smith was a pageant novice when she made the Top 12 at the 1994 Miss Texas USA pageant. The next year, she returned as Miss Galveston County. Her fellow contestants voted her Miss Congeniality, and judges selected her as Miss Texas USA 1995.
“It was a whirlwind year,” says Klawinsky, noting that Smith was crowned Miss Universe 1995. In addition, Smith won swimsuit competitions at the state, national, and international levels.
“Did you know that when Chelsi won Miss Universe, she received a baby elephant from Namibia?” says JJ Smith (no relation), a Houston pageant aficionado who was a speaker at the memorial service. “She named the elephant Pepé. He remains in the country at a protected safari park.”
Some of the 178 persons in attendance at the service in downtown Houston simply knew Chelsi Smith as a fun-loving friend, but they had no idea she had been a beauty queen, Klawinsky says.
“I never followed pageants,” he admits. “You never knew unless someone recognized her and they brought it up.”
However, a number of former titleholders attended the service, and pre-taped tributes from Shanna Moakler (Smith’s first runner-up at Miss USA who then ascended to the title when Smith became Miss Universe), Michelle McLean (Miss Universe 1992), and Shauntay Hinton (Miss USA 2002) were also played during the event.
Musical tributes included performances by McNeely of “Amazing Grace” and “Faithful Friend.” Also, Smith’s friend Morena Roas composed a song that she sang.
Klawinsky told the crowd, “In our founding year, the primary goal is to raise money to provide for our initial grants and awards while building our endowment. We are asking for those in attendance today to consider making a donation of any amount, and to attach your name to this foundation.”
At Smith’s request, the memorial service concluded with spirited music by a New Orleans-style jazz band.
For more, visit ChelsiSmithFoundation.org.
This article appears in the December 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.