As Miss Singapore Universe 2016 Cheryl Chou prepares to hand over her crown, she wants aspirants to know that taking part in the pageant requires “a lot more hard work than you think”.

She certainly did her homework and put in extra hours before claiming the title last year.

For help with the question-and- answer segment, she sent videos of herself answering questions to the national director of the Miss Universe Singapore Organisation and Miss Singapore Universe 2002 winner Nuraliza Osman for feedback.

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As a newcomer to pageants, she also knew she needed extra practice to sort out her weaker areas such as walking down the catwalk and posing.

“I took notes during training sessions, went home and practised up and down in my living room every night in heels,” says Ms Chou, 21, who is single and lives alone. Her parents are based in Shanghai, China, where she lived for 11 years before returning here in 2015 for further studies.

Registration for the Miss Universe Singapore 2017 contest is open now and closes on Monday. The winner will take home $10,000 in cash and prizes worth $45,000.

Ms Chou decided to participate in the pageant last year – her first and last, she says – because she believes that “life is always about trying something new and trying something that scares you”.

Her advice to aspiring Miss Universe Singapore contestants is “to be comfortable with who you are and never ever lose yourself in the process”.

Related: 15 life lessons to learn after watching Miss Universe Beauty Pageant

“You’re going to have people commenting and giving you advice, but as long as you know who you are and the message you want to send to people, that’s the most important thing,” she says.

Exuding an easy confidence that belies her age, she continues: “Miss Universe is not a competition about who’s the skinniest or who has the best figure – it’s to showcase who you are as a person. Every girl is different and you can’t be expected to fit a mould of a lanky and lean girl.”

Being of a build different from the beauty queen norm, she has had her fair share of haters. “I got negative comments when the solo video for the Miss Universe Singapore finalists was first released because I have an athletic build – I can’t help it, so I embrace it.”

The fitness enthusiast works out five to six times a week, for an hour to 90 minutes each time, doing high- intensity interval training and circuits.

She feels it is especially important for young girls to understand that they cannot be expected to conform to unrealistic body types.

Related: Miss Universe Singapore 2016 Cheryl Chou’s BFF is…

“The bikini segment of the competition is a great way to showcase how different every body is and you just have to be comfortable with what you’ve been given,” she says. “I want people to know that I’m a normal 21-year-old woman and I’m not dolled up 24/7.”

True to her beliefs, her Instagram stories feature her unfiltered and without make-up.

“I don’t put on this mask and I want girls out there to understand that it’s good to be glammed up at times, but we’re still human, so keep it real.”

It was this confidence that probably won her the title last October. Even the judges noted that her answer to the question “What do you believe is the essence of a true Singapore woman?” was the best of the lot. Her response was: “A woman who is confident in her own skin and… not afraid of failure and to follow her dreams.”

In January this year, she represented Singapore at the Miss Universe pageant in Manila, the Philippines, and did not make it to the top 13.

After she hands over her crown on Oct 11, first on her agenda is going back to school in January to continue to pursue her degree in fashion media and industries at Lasalle College of the Arts. She took a year off school to focus on her Miss Universe commitments.

“I have to go back to school to get my degree and I also want to start work and provide for my family,” she says. Her mother runs her own business, while her father is an operations manager.

Ms Chou, who is keen on digital marketing and social media, would also like to try new things.

“I feel like Miss Universe Singapore has opened so many doors for me… It helped me grow as a person and changed my life.”

Related: The best and worst costumes from Miss Universe Singapore

This story first appeared on The Straits Times on July 7, 2017.