Kathy Zhu’s reign as a beauty queen was short-lived. But in losing her crown, she found her voice.
On July 17, Zhu excitedly announced that she’d won the Michigan title in the Miss World America pageant. The following day, a few of Zhu’s online posts surfaced, leading the pageant’s organizers to strip the honor over what boils down to perceived racial insensitivity.
This week, Zhu is doing an exhausting round of media interviews, from Fox News to CNN, defending her reputation — and her political point of view.
What happened to Zhu is emblematic of a troubling trend in a social media world where judgments are instantaneous and individuals are labeled without taking context into account.
Zhu, 20, is a senior at the University of Michigan. She also is vice chair of UM’s College Republicans — and an open supporter of President Donald Trump.
It’s her conservative political leanings that have gotten the college student into hot water, particularly since the left is doing its best to portray all Trump enthusiasts as racists.
Zhu predicted the firestorm. When she announced her win, she said the following on Twitter:
“My message while as Miss Michigan is to advocate for speaking your truth. Especially in today’s political climate, we r quick to attack each other based on perceptions & stereotypes. It’s time we take a step back & realize that our diversity of thought is what makes America strong.”
Yet Zhu’s diversity of thought and her provocative commentary ended her stint as Miss Michigan World America.
“It’s pretty ironic,” she says.
This was Zhu’s first beauty pageant, and it’s something she says she wanted to do to cross off her bucket list.
She’s disappointed in how pageant officials handled her dismissal, and she says Miss World America had all her social media handles for months so organizers had plenty of time to vet her ahead of giving her the crown.
“They never let me explain myself,” she says. “They just automatically assumed everything.”
Those assumptions are that Zhu was “insensitive” and “offensive” in two of her Twitter posts from past years. One tweet regarding a Muslim student group at Zhu’s former Florida campus had already been deleted a year ago. The other was related to a comment she made about black-on-black crime.
She says these tweets were taken out of context and that they were based on fact.
“Honestly, I actually don’t regret anything I’ve posted on my account,” she says. “I know my own intentions and I know that my heart wasn’t in the wrong place when I posted those things.”
Zhu bristles at labels, describing herself as a “right-leaning moderate” rather than Republican or conservative. That hasn’t stopped others on social media from slapping her with all kinds of unflattering labels, calling Zhu racist and a “white nationalist,” even though Zhu is Chinese-American and came to the U.S. with her family when she was 5.
The political science major says she doesn’t plan to back down from her views — nor her willingness to share them on social media. And she encourages other young conservatives to do the same.
“I would say to stand your ground,” Zhu says. “We conservatives should stick together and make sure that there’s no unjust things that happen to us. I know there’s a lot of political tensions in this country right now and it’s super important for everyone to stick together and be able to express their views.”
She says she expects her university to stand by her but she should prepare for pushback from fellow students, who may find her past comments offensive. UM is facing a federal lawsuit over its bias response team, which encourages students to report words or actions they don’t like to administrators.
For now, Zhu is trying to find the upside in losing her crown. One is that her already-robust social media following has exploded to more than 140,000 on Twitter and 34,000 on Instagram. That’s likely to grow. And for Zhu, who dreams of having her own talk show one day, that kind of following is a great start.
“I’m very glad a negative thing could turn into a positive thing,” she says.
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