Francisca Luhong James was just another tall, willowy girl who was en route to having a career in public relations, before destiny (and her own initiative) set her on a detour that would change her life forever.
The 24-year-old Sarawakian entered and won Miss Universe Malaysia 2020 in a special ceremony held last month.
Born in Kuching, Francisca is of Kayan, Kenyah and Iban lineage.
She is the very first native Orang Ulu to win a major beauty title in the country, and the eighth Miss Universe Malaysia winner to come from Sarawak.
Francisca looked every bit a queen as she walked into the suite on the 30th floor of EQ Hotel Kuala Lumpur for our interview.
Her modelling background made her a dream subject for our photographer, who had no problems getting excellent shots of her.
She explained that her first foray into a major beauty pageant was in 2016, when she took part in the Miss World Malaysia pageant.
At the time, she joined out of curiosity more than anything else.
She also took part in the Miss World Malaysia 2018 pageant at the encouragement of her supervisor at the firm where she was interning, and made it into the top five.
When she took part in Miss Universe Malaysia 2020, which was livestreamed on the Miss Universe Malaysia website due to Covid-19 restrictions, she said: “I did it wholeheartedly.
“It was different because there was no live audience. But knowing there were people [watching us online], was still nerve wrecking.”
She said they tried their best to follow the necessary SOPs to ensure everyone was safe.
“My cause is on behalf of women empowerment. It leans towards young women who want to achieve their goals, and ladies who are from different backgrounds who have personal problems that prevent them from achieving their goals.
“You have young ladies who drop out of high school, for example. Some of them come from single parent families, or live very depressed lives. So we try to help them.”
There was a campaign that was supposed to be held in Kuching for these young ladies to set up booths and show off their entrepreneureal skills in March this year, but it had to be cancelled due to the pandemic.
“So we reached out to these ladies via social media,” Francisca said.
She said they would be looking into SOPs and getting proper documentation to get the project off the ground again.
People have criticised her for picking women empowerment to advocate as a pageant winner, because so many people are advocating the same thing.
But Francisca said it was something she could relate to.
“I used to go to an all-girls school, but I never felt empowered. People teased me for being too skinny, too tall, too dark-skinned because I was active in sports and co-curricular activities.
“I was called a weird girl, [accused of being] very quiet, having big eyes. I understand how it feels to be ostracised.”
She said the best thing about being a part of Miss Universe Malaysia was that the girls supported each other and lifted each other’s spirits.
“I believe women empowerment is important to build a better society, instead of pulling each other down.
“Miss Universe is the biggest pageant in the whole world. So anyone who wants to join will think twice. There are many beautiful girls who want to take part, but they always [hesitate over] whether they are beautiful enough or good enough.”
Some will take part in smaller pageants to build their confidence before entering bigger pageants such as Miss Universe.
“The thing about girls is that they have insecurities. When they join a minor pageant and don’t win, they think they are not good enough.
“That’s why I joined Miss Malaysia Universe. Maybe Miss Malaysia World was not for me. I thought if I could win Miss Malaysia Universe, I will try my best to show and share what makes me different.
“I have a very different background that is rich with culture. My ethnicity is different. Usually you will hear of Iban or Bidayuh, but mine is Orang Ulu. My dad is Orang Ulu Kayan Kenyah.
“When people ask me what they are, I will ask if they have seen those commercials of women with long ear lobes and [who are] covered in tattoos. That is my dad’s side. Iban is my mother’s side.”
When she talks about her background to people outside of Malaysia, they become curious about the country. “That is my advantage when it comes to promoting Malaysia, in a way.”
Francisca is undoubtedly a role model for Orang Ulu girls. Many have sent her personal messages saying they never thought a girl from a background like theirs would ever win the crown.
“Every year you have Bornean girls joining, but they never win. The standard was that a Chinese, Indian or Eurasian would win the Miss Malaysia Universe title.”
Now thanks to her, Bornean girls will definitely have more of a voice when speaking to the rest of the nation, and the world.