Lou Jing sings Shanghai opera and speaks fluent Mandarin, but when she competed to be China's next reality TV pop star, it was not her voice that was criticised -- it was her black skin.
The daughter of a Chinese mother and an absent African-American father, 20-year-old Lou caused a media storm when she was named one of Shanghai's five finalists for "Let's Go! Oriental Angel," an "American Idol"-style show.
But her fame has been for all of the wrong reasons, after her appearance sparked a vigorous and often vicious nationwide debate on whether she was even fit to be on Chinese television because of the colour of her skin.
Ahead of US President Barack Obama's first visit to China, Lou's experience has put a spotlight on perceptions of race in the country and the challenges the Asian giant faces as its economic boom fosters a more ethnically diverse society.
"I am Chinese," Lou told AFP in an interview. "But when I read the comments, I started to question myself. I never questioned myself before. This time I started to think about how I am different from others."
Even though Obama is wildly popular among the Chinese people and the country is rapidly expanding its ties with Africa, commentators said Lou's story exposes deep racism in China, where the ethnic Han are in a vast majority.
"In the same year Americans welcomed Obama into the White House, we can?t even accept this girl with a different skin colour?" wrote Hung Huang, a talk show host and magazine publisher often described as "China's Oprah Winfrey."
"We tend to be biased against those who are darker-skinned, while admiring races that are paler than us. It is a deeply rooted evil within us," Hung wrote on her blog.
China Daily columnist Raymond Zhou called it "outright racism," saying the bias against dark skin had defined notions of beauty, but was also an offshoot of class discrimination: field labourers were tanned while the rich were pale.
"Many of us even look down on fellow Chinese who have darker skin, especially women. Beauty products that claim to whiten the skin always fetch a premium. And children are constantly praised for having fair skin," he wrote.
Lou said she feels tougher and more mature after her experience, but added if she could do it all over again, she would not have gone on the show at all.
An instructor at Shanghai Drama Academy, where Lou studies broadcasting, put forward the mixed-race beauty and a handful of classmates to appear on the television talent show, without asking first.
She was selected for the top 30 nationwide, but was not among the 12 contestants chosen by judges for the next round.
Lou said she was not surprised by the judges' decision, but was shocked by the thousands of web postings that followed, most of them negative and many of them expressing racist views.
"I couldn't help crying. I felt hurt. I never meant to offend anyone," she said.
Although Lou is still working towards her dream of being a television presenter, she said the episode had left her less optimistic about whether she can find a place on China's airwaves.
"They want a TV host who is considered traditionally beautiful," she said.
"Ever since I appeared on TV, I realised that maybe I don't fit the image of a TV host. Many believe a TV host should have white skin, high nose and big eyes."
Lou said she would follow Obama's visit to China, listing the US president -- himself of mixed-race descent -- as one of her heroes alongside her mother and Winfrey, whose show she watches over the Internet.
She said Obama's autobiography had inspired her, but added that she was unconvinced she could change people's minds about race.
"He convinced people that he has the capacity to change what people thought of African-Americans. Compared to him, I don't have that capacity for change because the Chinese media is too powerful," she said.