Shanghai, China (CNN) -- It all started with the lure of the glitz, the glamour and the dream of being China's next pop star. But, as with many reality shows, Lou Jing's instant fame came with unanticipated consequences.
Lou Jing was born 20 years ago in Shanghai to a Chinese mother and an African-American father. According to her mother, who asked not to be identified in this report, she met Lou's father while she was still in college. He left China before their daughter was born.
Growing up with a single mom in central Shanghai, Lou Jing said she had good friends and lived a normal life. "When I was young, I didn't feel any different," she said.
But as soon as she stepped into the national spotlight on a Chinese reality television show called "Go! Oriental Angel," Lou Jing became a national sensation -- not necessarily because of her talent, but how she looked.
"After the contest started, I often got more attention than the other girls. It made me feel strange," Lou said.
The reality show hosts fondly called her "chocolate girl" and "black pearl." The Chinese media fixated on her skin color. Netizens flooded Web sites with comments saying she "never should have been born" and telling her to "get out of China."
Lou Jing's background became fodder for national gossip, sparking a vitriolic debate about race across a country that, in many respects, can be quite homogenous. There are 56 different recognized ethnic groups in China, but more than 90 percent of the population is Han Chinese. So people who look different stand out.
"We lived in a small circle before," said her mother. "But after Lou was seen nationwide, some Chinese people couldn't accept her."
It has been a shocking ordeal for someone who says she always considered herself just like every other Chinese girl.
"Sometimes people on the street would ask me, 'Why do you speak Chinese so well?' I'd just say, 'Because I'm Chinese!'" Lou said.
But, as any curious child would, Lou Jing certainly thought about why she looked different. In a clip reel aired on the show, her classmates say they tried to protect her from feeling out of place.
"She used to wonder why she had black skin," said one classmate. "We thought about this question together and decided to tell her it's because she likes dark chocolate. So her skin turned darker gradually."
Another classmate weighed in, "We said it's because she used to drink too much soy sauce."
Even Lou Jing's maternal grandmother admitted in a taped interview, "I told Lou Jing she was black because her mom was not very well and had to take Chinese medicine."
But such explanations were not enough for a voracious Chinese public. Show producers convinced Lou Jing's mom to appear on-air and asked her to address the many unanswered questions.
"Lou Jing did not ask about her father until she was sixteen years old," her mother told the audience. "She said, 'Where is my dad?' I didn't answer, I just cried and Lou Jing never asked me this question again."
On stage this time, it was Lou Jing who wept as she held an arm tightly around her mother, gripping the microphone in the other. The camera zoomed in on audience members tearing up as well.
"Lou Jing would cook dinner for me before I got home," her mother said. "I was quite sad then. In other families a girl her age would have a mom and a dad who loved her."
Although her father has been absent, Lou seemed to be curious about learning more. On the reality show, the host inquired, "Lou Jing, have you ever thought about going to find your dad, to get to know him?"
Lou Jing pauses for a moment and softly responds, "Yes, I have thought about that before."
In this way, the most private aspects of Lou Jing's otherwise quiet life became painfully public. But as the show went on, so did Lou Jing. She stuck with her daily routine, listening to Beyonce, her favorite artist, hanging out with her friends and continuing to go to school.
"I was so angry," said her drama teacher, Tao Yandong, of the Shanghai Drama Academy's School for the Television Arts. "My student had been insulted by others so of course I felt bad, too. But she told me she was fine and wasn't letting these things hurt her heart."
Watching Lou Jing laugh and gossip with her Chinese classmates today, this appears to be true. Back in her modest two-bedroom apartment, it is hard to imagine that Lou Jing and her mother are subjects of national scrutiny.
Instead, they are focused on her future. Her career goals are many, spanning from hosting a television show to becoming a diplomat "to bring people together," she said.
As a college junior, Lou Jing is thinking about graduate school applications, hoping to pursue a master's degree in foreign policy in New York City after she graduates from college.
When asked what she will do without her mother, Lou excitedly said, "My mom is going to come with me!"
Her mom shakes her head and smiles. If anything, their enduring bond as mother and daughter only seems to have gotten stronger. After all, for all their critics, there were just as many supporters.
Until the end of her run on "Go! Oriental Angel," fans continued to vote for Lou Jing show after show. The judges praised her confidence. Lou Jing was eventually eliminated before the finale, but not without a powerful parting message.
"I think I'm the same as all the girls here, except for my skin color. We share the same stage and the same dream. I've tried my best, so no matter what happens, I'll hold onto my dream."