Francisca Luhong James — beauty queen on a mission

Francisca brought Malaysia through her national costume ‘kampungku’ to the international arena.

In the recent Miss Universe 2020 pageant held in May, Francisca Luhong James made history as the first native Sarawakian to represent Malaysia in the prestigious event. Despite not managing to take home the crown, Francisca remains motivated to champion her cause in empowering women.

Walking the talk on women empowerment

Even though she did not make it to the final round of Miss Universe 2020, Miss Universe Malaysia Francisca Luhong James remains dedicated to her cause. Having been a strong advocate for women empowerment even before she found fame in the event, she remains committed and dedicated for the cause.

The 26-year-old recently returned from the United States, and described her experience in the international pageant arena as something surreal. “It was totally unreal! I loved it. I was so excited and I enjoyed every moment, having the opportunity to represent Malaysia on the international stage.

“It wasn’t just about me but the whole nation and to think of it until today, I wish I could’ve brought something back. But I know that I’ve done my absolute best,” she said.

With Miss Universe being her first experience in an international pageant, Francisca described the experience as completely different. Throughout her time in the competition, she admitted that she learned about a great deal of things. “I realised that working as a team matters a lot and public relation is very important, especially when you need to compete with over 70
other contestants.”

Francisca brought Malaysia through her national costume ‘kampungku’ to the international arena.

The Kayan-Kenyah-Iban lass also said that she made the most of her time there, making friends and creating memories. “I cherish every moment throughout the whole competition. I knew that once it is over, we’re all going back to our respective countries and at some point, just being realistic, I probably won’t be able to meet some of these girls again.”

Hence, Francisca had made sure that she made tonnes of friends, took hundreds of photos with the girls and the Miss Universe team. “Because that might be the first and last time we will ever spend time together. I learned that people come and
go, chances come and go, but experience and memories last forever.”

One of her most notable moments during the pageant was during her National Costume segment. Her theme for the night was ‘Kampungku’ and as innovative as it may be, many criticised the massive ‘house’ that Francisca had to carry on stage.

Having been through it all in her first international pageant, Francisca still felt surreal at the experience.

Sharing about the experience, she said was quite upset by the situation. “Who wouldn’t? IIt could have been better but there were technical problems, and that is something beyond our control.”

Even during her journey at the airport, Francisca revealed that she was stopped at the immigration checkpoint in Dallas Airport, Texas. “They opened the boxes to check what was inside and told me it was supposed to be brought in by cargo and not excess luggage.”

As soon as she reached Florida, Francisca said she had to build the costume on her own with some help from the crew, “I only got it check thoroughly on the day of the national costume segment itself. It was chaotic, but we managed to made it somehow.”

Thankful to the team behind the Miss Universe Organisation, she was glad that they helped her with the ‘house’ on stage as she could not carry it herself due to technical problems. “I hope netizens won’t blame them for turning the house around early because it was an honest mistake. It wasn’t easy to bring it on stage in the first place!”

Lifelong mission

Francisca’s mission for women empowerment stemmed from her younger days in secondary school. As a student in an all-girl school, she said that empowerment doesn’t exist in that environment at that time. “It saddens me and I decided that want to create a change.” When she joined modelling and pageantry in her early 20s, she realised how powerful women can be when they support each other.

“I see it as a personal goal, to empower women who doubt themselves when pursuing their passion. I want them to know that if I can wear the sash on stage and create history, they too can pursue their dreams. Nothing is impossible if you trust yourself,” said the strong-willed Francisca.

Asked on how women can start supporting each other, Francisca said there are many ways to do it. “You don’t have to focus on just one area. Empowering women is not exclusively a women’s job but men too. Everyone plays a huge role in order to create changes.”

During the swimsuit segment of Miss Universe 2020.

She also opined that, “To empower, we need to reach out to help one another. We need to respect and understand the individual’s position and their level of understanding or mindset, and we need to talk more about inclusivity and equality.

“We need to explain why it is important. But at the same time, we have to walk the talk. We must practice what we preach. It starts from us, from home, from school and our actions as a society,” she added.

With debates held globally on how pageantry is irrelevant as it pushes women to fight against each other, Francisca said otherwise. The beauty queen competed in her first beauty pageant at 19, and after much experience in pageantry, she said that such competition actually push women to fight for each other, instead of with each other.

“Pageantry teaches us that women can be leaders. If you give us the chance to lead, we can contribute many things for the country. Women can make the country proud too, you know,” she said.

Elaborating, she said that pageantry is like sportsmanship. “When you see a representative carrying your nation’s sash on stage, there’s a sense of empowerment. Women all over the world support each other and we need more of that to influence not just the present but also the future.”

After her Miss Universe endeavour, Francisca said that she is looking forward for her advancement in the fashion entertainment industry. “I also look forward to collaborating with individuals that I look up to and to work with big brands.”

She will also remain steadfast in advocating for women empowerment through her Instagram platform ‘Women Rise’. Francisca hopes that her journey will inspire more indigenous woman to pursue bigger things in life, living their dreams and creating their own history. “I want them to have the ability to determine their own choices, and their right to influence social change for themselves and also others,” she said.