PHOTO: The Straits Times
It has been three weeks since the controversial Miss Universe Singapore 2018 national costume was unveiled.
But despite the online backlash, Miss Zahra Khanum remains unfazed and "not surprised" by the ridicule heaped upon the dress inspired by the Trump-Kim summit here in June.
Instead, the 23-year-old beauty queen interpreted the negative comments as Singaporeans' passion for how they want their country to be represented in the best way possible.
Miss Khanum told The New Paper: "There was no personal hate, which was helpful. Being in the public eye, it was important not to be disheartened.
"We all have a lot of ideas as to how we ought to be represented, so maybe for the next few (national costumes), we can get suggestions from the public."
She was also amused by the memes that popped up on Facebook, such as edited images of durians over her skirt.
Miss Khanum said: "Singaporeans are quite creative."
Funnily enough, the ensemble was one of the top 12 fan favourites on the official Miss Universe Instagram page.
She said: "A lot of people thought it was vibrant, and said I looked like an angel in it."
Miss Khanum's Miss Universe journey in Bangkok was not without its challenges.
She admitted it was "a bit disappointing" she did not crack the Top 20 as she "went in with high hopes".
She said: "It was overwhelming for me to meet 93 other girls who are already so used to the media and cameras because they have bigger competitions within their countries. They had more stage experience, and I felt like a newbie at this.
"I wanted to do as well as them and to make Singapore proud. It's not so much about competing with other people as being the ideal spokesperson of my country. As a person and a country, we have so much more to do if we want to be picked for the final rounds. The exposure here has to be bigger."
Miss Universe 2018 contestants show off national costumes
Although her personal favourite for the crown was Miss Puerto Rico Kiara Ortega, Miss Khanum described eventual winner Miss Philippines Catriona Gray as a "wonderful person" whose volunteer work for non-profit Young Focus in her home country had helped shape her personality.
Perhaps the biggest controversy to emerge from this year was when Miss USA Sarah Rose Summers appeared to poke fun at Miss Vietnam H'Hen Nie and Miss Cambodia Rern Sinat on social media for their poor command of English.
The comments went viral, with her later posting an apology on Instagram.
Miss Khanum said: "She's an open, outspoken person who's quick to have a comment about things. I would say it didn't come from a bad place, because the language barrier was a real issue, but the way she said it triggered reactions. She definitely felt upset about it."
It did not seem to affect Miss USA's relationship with the pair, as "they still hung out with her and are on good terms".
Miss Khanum described her Miss Universe experience as "empowering". She plans to continue working with local charity Daughters Of Tomorrow, which aids underprivileged women and their children.
"Meeting all (the Miss Universe contestants) has made me grow so much. I had a lot of self-doubt and insecurity, but now I've never been so confident or self-assured. It set the bar for me to do even more in my life," she said.
"I feel empowered knowing that as a community, we can do a lot more for society as a team. It makes me feel like I'm not alone."
NUS graduate crowned Miss Universe Singapore 2018
This article was first published in The New Paper. Permission required for reproduction.