Miss Universe Australia Francesca Hung thought her career could be over when a video of her appearing to mock another contestant went viral. There was much more to it, she tells SBS News.
My Australia is a special series exploring cultural heritage and identity, and asking what it means to be Australian in 2019.
Francesca Hung answers the intercom of a six-level waterfront mansion in one of Sydney’s most exclusive suburbs - dressed in white the current Miss Universe Australia looks right at home in the luxurious surrounds.
The 24-year-old lives at home with her parents in Cremorne, on Sydney’s North Shore, along with her older brother Josh and dog Charlie.
"I've grown up in a very beautiful part of the world, I'm very lucky in that respect," Hung tells SBS News, before her mother Kerry chimes in.
"We haven’t kicked them out yet…we are encouraging them."
Francesca just laughs.
Despite being surrounded by luxury, her privilege isn’t something that escapes her.
Hung was crowned Miss Universe Australia in June and was whisked off to compete in the Miss Universe final with 93 other women from around the world in Thailand in December.
It’s a path her mother says she never anticipated her once shy and reserved daughter would take.
“She'd never been in a pageant ever before, this was her very first time, and when she first said that she was going to enter it, nobody was more surprised than I," Kerry told SBS News.
Hung’s mother is of Irish heritage, while her father’s parents migrated to Australia from China. She says her mixed heritage has played a significant role in shaping the person she’s become.
“As a kid, I always felt like I was a bit different to the others," she said.
"I grew up in a very Westernised community so, at my school, I was one of the only Asian students."
"I definitely learned to be really secure and confident in myself, but it also challenged me in a lot of ways."
Born and raised in Sydney, she recalled her friends referring to her as the "token Asian."
"It was that constant, 'oh, you're my Asian friend'...'you must eat Chinese food all the time', jokes about my eyes, or 'your dad must be a nerd'."
Sensing some hesitation, her mother encouraged her and her brother to embrace their Chinese heritage.
"In the schools they went to there were very few Chinese, so they were a bit shy about it, and I wanted them to feel proud about it," she said.
Hung is grateful her mother pushed her as it allowed her to form a close connection with her Chinese family.
"It was a really good way for me to feel closer to my grandparents, and gave me a way to understand where they had come from and how they assimilated to Australia," she said.
Hung said her desire to see greater representation of mixed-race Australians in the media was part of her decision to enter Miss Universe Australia.
While beauty pageants have been criticised for being outdated and having sexist undertones, she said, for her, competing in Miss Universe alongside other women from around the globe was an empowering experience.
"Miss Universe is an amazing platform for girls who help out in society, there's a lot of emphasis on what you do for your community and how much you contribute to your community in terms of social enterprise and charity," she said.
While at university, Hung spent time volunteering for a charity in rural India where she helped set up social businesses aimed at providing opportunities for vulnerable women and single mothers.
Hung said representing Australia on the Miss Universe stage was one of the proudest moments of her life so far.
But a backstage incident involving an Instagram live video added a sour element to the once-in-a-lifetime experience.
"There were a few days I spent in tears, I'm not going to lie," Hung revealed.
In the video, Hung, Miss USA, Sarah Summers, and Miss Colombia, Valeria Morales, are heard discussing the language barrier some contestants face at international meets.
Miss USA led the conversation, talking about how Miss Vietnam H'Hen Nie "pretends to know so much English" and suggested things must be "confusing" for Miss Cambodia, Rern Sinat, because she also doesn't speak English.
In the video, Hung agreed, “it would be really hard".
All three women faced fierce criticism online.
They were accused of being racist, bigoted and were compared to characters in the movie ‘Mean Girls’ after some interpreted their conversation as being condescending.
Hung apologised at the time and insists her comment came from a place of empathy.
"I said sometimes they might feel isolated because I myself have felt that way, so I was empathising with them," she said.
"As a Chinese Australian, not being able to speak Chinese makes me feel incredibly isolated when I'm around Chinese family and friends and I can't speak with them.
"What hurts the most is that I went over there to be an advocate for cultural diversity and it almost went back in my face."
Learning from her own experience, Hung said she has vowed to help future Miss Universe hopefuls become more aware of the challenges involved in navigating social media.
"What I'll be saying to them is, be careful what you put on social media. You might have all the right intent, but sometimes things can be taken out of context and misconstrued and it can come off in a not-so-great light."
Hung placed in the top 20 in the competition but hopes life beyond Miss Universe will involve opportunities to continue working in the Australian media as a presenter or TV host.
Australia's diversity and willingness to accept people of all cultures is what makes it such a special place to live, she says.
"We are such a melting pot of cultures and me representing Australia [in Miss Universe] is an example of that," she said.
"When I think about my grandparents ...from both sides ... I think that they would be so proud looking down now thinking, ‘I'm so glad that we came to Australia because our children have flourished and made such incredible lives here’, and that's what Australia can do for people."