The Touching Story Behind MasterChef Judge Melissa Leong's Face Mask

Creator Rian Difuntorum credits Mel as the “sweetest person” who came up with the idea that she sell these masks.

Since ‘MasterChef’ judge Melissa Leong shared an Instagram post in July of her “sickeningly chic” face mask, the accessory’s creator Rian Difuntorum has been bombarded with over 400 orders.

The Melbourne-based creative credits Melissa as the “sweetest person” who came up with the idea that she sell these masks to fund her gender affirming surgery before her 30th birthday next year.

What many wouldn’t know is the story behind the mask is based on a beautiful friendship that has been in the making for years. It all began over three years ago when Melissa met Rian, then known as Ian, during the filming of ‘The Chef’s Line’ on SBS.

While their engagement on the cooking show set was rather limited, they reconnected on social media a year later when the program aired.

“In that time, I had begun my transition,” Rian told HuffPost Australia. “So when Mel and I connected on social media, she saw my story and was like ‘Oh my god that’s so cool, I’m so happy for you’.”

Rian Difuntorum has made over 700 masks since Melissa Leong's Instagram post.
Rian Difuntorum has made over 700 masks since Melissa Leong's Instagram post.

“Ever since then we’ve been an incredible support for each other, whether it’s in person or via social media. She is the kind of soul who will always send a message, will pick up the phone and dial just to check in. She’s honestly the sweetest person.”

Having worked as a stylist, Rian embraced her creativity back in February, making her own Swarovski-encrusted face mask in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. When the first lockdown in Melbourne eased, Rian and Melissa met again in person

“She saw my mask and was like, ‘I want one’,” explained Rian. After the food writer wore it to work, the ‘MasterChef’ hair and makeup team requested one each, before judges Jock Zonfrilo and Andy Allen’s partners were also asking for the accessory. Then came the idea to sell the masks.

Since Rian came out as trans in 2017, she has been taking testosterone hormone blockers and estrogen. After she shared with Melissa that her plan is to get a vaginoplasty and set up a GoFundMe page, the TV star suggested she sell the masks to help fund the expensive surgery.

"At the time I still identified as male," she said of her first time meeting Melissa. "So I was on the Chef’s Line as Ian." (LEFT)
"At the time I still identified as male," she said of her first time meeting Melissa. "So I was on the Chef’s Line as Ian." (LEFT)

“We were sitting in the lounge room and just talking about our future plans,” said Rian. “I was telling her about how I was going to speak to my parents about my surgery that I wanted and that’s when Mel mentioned, ‘You know you can sell these masks and you can use that money for your surgery’.

“As I’ve said to many people before, this was not in my plan for another five years because it’s a lot of money,” explained Rian. Little did she know she would be busy stitching away over 700 masks after one powerful social media post from her famous friend.

“I was like, before you can go public with this I have to speak to my parents first, just so they’re aware,” said Rian. “Because the last thing I want is for them to find out on TV and they weren’t aware that this is something I wanted.”

Having grown up in a strict Christian household after moving to Australia from the Philippines as a baby, Rian wasn’t sure how her parents would react. She had initially come out as trans to them via a letter, but to get the surgery was another conversation yet to be had.

“Mum was very concerned but then after talking she said, “I want you to be happy and keep us in the loop, and make sure you’re going to see the right doctors.”

“As a member of the trans community, to be seen and heard is so important to us," said Rian.
“As a member of the trans community, to be seen and heard is so important to us," said Rian.

Rian later received a call from Melissa while grocery shopping.

“She messaged me going, ‘I’m going to share it on my Instagram now, are you ready?’” Rian recalled. “I came back home and looked at my phone… it was going crazy. It was actually quite stressful,” she said, explaining she had to put a pause on new orders due to high demand.

However, as Melbourne now lives through a second lockdown, Rian couldn’t be more grateful for the support as she finishes off the remaining masks before potentially taking more orders in the future. This has also given her the confidence to speak out and educate others.

“There’s a huge stigma behind trans women,” she said. “A lot of people still have this assumption that trans women, drag queens and cross-dressers are all in the same category and all some how are magical sex workers which is not the case at all.

“As a member of the trans community, to be seen and heard is so important to us.”