wellness

A health scare and taking on trolls: Inside MasterChef judge Melissa Leong's life.

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It's hard to miss Melissa Leong’s incredible charisma, talent, and let’s be frank, fashion, on this season's MasterChef: Back to Win currently taking over our loungerooms. 

As her fan base grows with every appearance on the revamped Channel Ten cooking show, the food and travel writer has started to open up about her personal life.

From her husband Joe to her struggles with mental illness and an autoimmune condition, here's everything we know about the popular judge. 

WATCH: Melissa Leong on MasterChef helping to calm down contestant Dani.


Video by Ten/Instagram @Fooderati

Born in Sydney to parents who immigrated from Singapore in the 70s, Leong, 38, first studied accounting and economics and worked in digital advertising before eventually turning her love for food into her full-time job.

In an interview with Design Files last year, she said working in advertising “left her unfulfilled and fantasising about pushing her boss out the window”.

A lifelong passion for food saw her make the switch, and now she’s worked in practically every facet of the Australian media food space. 

In TV, she’s worked on Everyday Gourmet, The Cook’s Pantry and the Chef’s Line, but Leong is also a cookbook editor, food media consultant, travel writer and radio host. Her Instagram, which operates under the name “Fooderati”, is filled with delectable food photos from her career, travels and own kitchen.

 




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But behind her smiling demeanour and infectious energy, Leong has a history of mental health struggles.

“I started going to therapy in my early to mid-20s. I had a breakdown, I’ll be really honest. I don’t hide it but I don’t advertise that either,’’ she told the We Are The Real Ones podcast.

“It has been part of my life and my story. It was an instance of too much on the plate and the plate ended up breaking under the weight of all those things.”

Since then, she's done a lot of work to ensure she's in touch with how she's feeling, telling the podcast: “The only person who can pick you up and put you back together and help you navigate all of the struggles in life, is you.”

“There are some times when I just need to go into a quiet space and shut the door and have half an hour to myself.

“If I need a day like that where I just need that little bubble of time, it could be 10 minutes, I will tell them [the MasterChef crew] and they will find the next available opportunity for me to just have a minute. It doesn’t take long, it could just be five minutes, just to kind of be quiet and then you gather yourself and keep going," she said. 

Leong also struggles from anxiety, which she says is often sparked when she walks into a room full of people she doesn’t know.

“If I know you, then great, if I know I’m walking into a room full of people I do not know then I’m racked with anxiety,” she told the podcast.

In her younger years, Leong was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition that left her bedridden for months. Speaking to Who, she explained that she had Pyrrole disorder which is a stress-induced disease that left her "extremely unwell" and unable to work.

"Through a correct diagnosis, supplements and good nutrition, I was able to slowly get better. But that time was a great exercise in patience for me because, as I’d lived my life at full throttle previously, I hadn’t been very good at patience. I had to slow down, I was forced to, but it was a good lesson to learn," she told the publication.

As she told Stellar last year, she is proud of her “scars”.

 




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Leong’s husband Joe also works in food.

He is a classically French-trained chef and owns Melbourne cocktail bar, Romeo Lane.

The couple, who met through a mutual friend, eloped to the Californian desert and got married in a ’60s rock’n’roll themed ceremony in February 2017. 

Sharing the story of her engagement with Vogue, she said it happened after a casual conversation over dinner one evening.

“Over dinner, Joe asked me ‘So, how does eloping work exactly? Do you need to get engaged first?’ I told him I had about as much idea as he did (none), so instead, we decided to speculate on where we’d run away to, if we did decide to elope. The all-knowing dice decided that our already planned trip to the US in three-ish months would be it, so we just went with it,” she said.

 




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We’ve been married for three years today… ⁣ ⁣ Mel is in the depths of one of the most challenging, defining career moves of her life, and the things I’ve wanted to occur in my spectrum of work for the last decade are finally coming to pass (more on that another time…).⁣ ⁣ So between 6am call times for @masterchefau and my self loathing fuelled 17 day straight stints at work, we’re not going to see a lot of each other today, because duty calls!⁣ ⁣ The sentiment behind my feelings is that most things worth doing aren’t always easy and have the capacity to be dramatic and really stressful at certain times, but I sort of believe the hard parts of your life overlapping and trying to dissolve your comfort is what living really is, and even if it gets heaps harder – I’m still happy to do it with you @fooderati Happy anniversary x

A post shared by  Joe Jones (@joeyromeolane) on

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The pair have two cats - Ghost, who MasterChef fans have seen on the show, and who also regularly pops up on Leong and Jones’ social media - and the much more camera-shy Ghoul.

"I find it absolutely hilarious that the internet has decided they love my cats," she told Who, adding that they "bring Joe and me so much joy."

When Melissa Leong was announced as one of the new MasterChef judges, tweets she wrote seven years ago about MasterChef Australia’s credibility as a training ground for aspiring chefs resurfaced, with some questioning her apparent negativity.

But as she told Stellar at the time, “the tweet had nothing to do with MasterChef at all. The comment was actually about entitlement. In hospitality, we pride ourselves on doing work. And the comment was, ‘If you want to be a chef, by all means, go on a show like MasterChef, and those doors will open for you. But take that opportunity and use it to go out there and do that hard work.”

She told the publication she thought long and hard about accepting the judging position on MasterChef, given the scrutiny it would invite into her life and of those she loves.

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She was unfortunately right. Since appearing on MasterChef, Leong has received a tirade of abusive trolling. She told Who she doesn't pay attention to any of it. 

"My strategy in regards to being in this very public space is to just focus on what I do well, be grateful for the positive aspects and to just own who I am," she said.

On Instagram, Leong wrote alongside a 'lovely' piece of feedback, "these moments make the less savoury parts of this job (like being stalked daily from my home by creepy photographers and receiving projected anger and racism), worth it."

She added at the bottom of the post, “Standing up for each other is way cooler than tearing each other down”.

Fellow judge Jock Zonfrillo recently called out abusive and racist messages towards Melissa on his own Instagram page.

An Instagram story from Leong in July, revealed the "unsavoury" side of her new role.  Image: Instagram

Leong doesn't allow comments on her Instagram page, a decision she revealed this week she came to because of her new life in the limelight.

"To answer a persisting question, there's a very simple reason comments are not publicly accessible on my page: because it's my choice," she said. 

"The role of a lifetime comes with a huge adjustment, and I actively choose to take responsibility for how I navigate life, social media, the universe, everything.

"People have left everything from messages of kind confusion to full on projected intensity at the fact they cannot share their thoughts on my Instagram page."






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To answer a persisting question, there’s a very simple reason comments are not publicly accessible on my page: because it’s my choice. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ This role of a lifetime comes with a huge adjustment, and I actively choose to take accountability for how I navigate life, social media, the universe, everything. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ People have left everything from messages of kind confusion to full on projected intensity at the fact that they cannot share their thoughts on my instagram page and no, it’s not because I don’t care, or that I am afraid of what people may write. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ Social media has become a place where entitlement, solipsism and misguided rage reign, in addition to being a source of inspiration and connection. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ Never forget that YOU have the power to use social media in a way that’s ok for you, but remember to respect differences of opinion, don’t live your life through it, and as always, remember kindness in all things. Likes don’t equal love. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ 🎨: @lukejohnmatthewarnold

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While Leong is adjusting to the newfound interest in her life, over the years she has shared various insights into her personal life. 

Like her two-year sabbatical in Tasmania where she stayed with a guy who owned a local abattoir.

“I spent time on the killing floor, learning how to meat pack, and milk sheep, and make cheese. It sounds like an Eat Pray Love moment because I guess it was,” she told Stellar. “It allowed me to be very hands-on with food and was the most generous and powerful education I could’ve ever been given.”

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And her relatable morning routine, which she admitted to Design Files in 2019, usually starts with a scroll on social media rather than what she wishes she started with: meditation. 

The other side of Leong's life that's hard to look past, is her obvious love for fashion. 

“I’m not mad that the television and MC part of my job means that I get to play dress-ups. Fashion is my sport, so any chance to get dressed up, is welcome,” she told Design Files.

Then there's her love for pilates which she found while recovering from a back injury, all little insights into Leong's life that she hints to throughout her social media.

 




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I really miss group exercise. It keeps me sane as well as healthy and I’ve been in love with pilates since recovering from a back injury a few years ago. For me, it’s the single most beneficial thing for definition and flexibility, but more importantly, strength. ⁣ ⁣ I miss the community spirit created by @catwebb__ at her studio @goodtimespilates, and its inclusive feels, but iso life doesn’t mean giving up what you love. ⁣ ⁣ Check out your favourite studio or gym’s online classes, try free workouts like the great ones on @popsugarfitness, and when you need a little motivation, a cute outfit doesn’t hurt the cause (this one was a gift from my girl @annahrist’s Aussie label @contrologyactive and her pieces are form and function perfection!). ⁣ ⁣ Keep moving for mental health, for fun, and for more pasta!

A post shared by  Melissa Leong | FOODERATI (@fooderati) on

As both the first female and first Asian MasterChef Australia judge in 11 years of the show, Leong knows how incredibly important that is.

In her chat with Stellar, she said: “I think Sandra Oh put it best when she spoke about not being seen, and then seeing yourself represented.”

As the current season winds to the tail end, Leong told Who she is "open-minded" to the possibility of staying on for Season 13.

Let's hope she signs on for another year.

READ: An ode to Melissa Leong, the hero of MasterChef's redemption story.

Feature image: Instagram. 

This article was first published on May 5, 2020, and updated on July 3, 2020.

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