From a shy boy with a penchant for beauty pageants, Frankie Cena overcame bullying to become an accomplished young man on the world stage.
Photo: Courtesy Frankie Cena
“Growing up to become the person you were meant to be takes confidence and determination.”
My story begins on my mother’s couch in Vancouver. When I was a child, she and I would eagerly sit down in front of the TV to watch The Miss World Pageant. Each year, we would choose our favourite contestants to cheer for. I would determine who these “favourites” were by taking meticulous notes on each contestant’s poise, confidence and personality. I stored these thoughts in my trusty notebook.
As a nine-year-old boy obsessing over Miss World, I intuitively understood I couldn’t let other kids discover my passion for pageants. This was the year 2000, and homophobia was rampant among children. Boys were routinely called “sissies”; masculinity was rigidly defined and heavily policed.
I was considered an odd duck for my love of singing and my tendency towards being the teacher’s pet. Children pointed out how I spoke differently from them, how I dressed differently and how I didn’t like sports like the other boys.
I remember the cruel way kids used what I loved against me. One day in music class, my favourite class, a fellow student began a horrifying chant. “Frankie’s gay! Frankie’s gay!” she shouted. It was as if she’d opened the floodgates of homophobia. Other children joined in on the chant. I ran out in tears. The music classroom I adored had been transformed into the site of my greatest humiliation. At school, no space was truly safe for a kid who knew he was different.
But the bullies didn’t change who I was. I continued to experiment with the activities I loved. I joined the school debate team, which taught me how to stand up for myself and for others. I attended music competitions, and further developed my voice through song. Eventually, I was prepared to literally sing about who I was from the rooftops, and I received that opportunity in 2012.
Photo: Courtesy Frankie Cena
Crowned as Mr. World
When my good friend Marika suggested I try out for the Mr. World Canada competition, I was taken aback. I was a long-time pageant lover, but I hadn’t known there were pageants for men. When I found out, it felt like fate. And it also felt terrifying. I was five feet five inches tall, while most male beauty contestants are at least six feet. Would I stack up, so to speak? How far could I go if I didn’t fit the mould? I went on to win the Mr. World Canada title! I had earned the right to represent my country at Mr. World in England.
The men there were even taller, and most were professional male models in their home countries. I found myself dealing with imposter syndrome, telling my friends back home over Skype that I felt defeated. I was upset by the online backlash I received from viewers who felt I wasn’t fit for the competition, but ultimately, I refused to give the haters the satisfaction of seeing me falter. I put on my bravest face and went out on that stage. In the end, I placed in the top 10, and was crowned Mr. World Talent. The voice I’d struggled so hard to develop was now singing proudly on the world stage. Sure, I had some haters, but now I had more fans. I had found my people, supporters who wanted to see me soar.
Two years after I competed at Mr. World, I received the most important phone call of my life. Julia Morley, chairman of the Miss World Organization, called to ask if I’d be interested in hosting the next edition of Mr. World. Obviously, I said yes! I’d be sharing my hosting duties with Megan Young, a former Miss World who hailed from the Philippines. After this, Megan and I would work together on Miss World 2014. I was flabbergasted. This show had been previously hosted by Pierce Brosnan—a.k.a. James Bond! The nine year old inside me cried for joy. I’d found a place where I wasn’t just accepted for who I was, I was celebrated for it.
It’s now years later, and I am set to host the Miss World Competition for a fourth time. The finals will be watched by millions of viewers across the globe. I hope one of them is a little boy who sees me and realizes just how wonderful his life could be. I’ve come a long way from my mom’s couch.
Next up, 10 great Canadians reveal the people who inspired them.
Photo: Courtesy Frankie Cena
Along with becoming Mr. Canada and eventually working for Miss World, I have many other interests. I’ve modelled for American Eagle, appeared as an actor in the Britney Spears biopic for Lifetime, competed on CBC’s Canada’s Smartest Person, tried my hand at competitive bodybuilding, and won a car on The Price is Right. However, what’s dearest to my heart is the career I’ve built coaching speech and debate. Helping others learn debate and public-speaking skills is a passion I have pursued for the past decade.
Largely self-taught, I began coaching students while still in high school. I wanted to work with young people so I could be the coach and mentor that they didn’t always have. I coached the debate team at Burnaby Mountain High School, and I was delighted to watch them soar. The bright Burnaby Mountain kids continually won regional and provincial championships, and I couldn’t have been prouder of them. Eventually, I decided it was time for a new coaching challenge. I was hired as a debate coach by a Vancouver all-girls private school called Crofton House School. These students already loved debate, and together would climb to greater and greater heights.
Most notably, I coached a team of Crofton House students who won the right to represent Canada at the World Debating Championship, as well as the World Public Speaking Championship. These are events that only a handful of Canadian students get to attend each year, and I was so honoured my students were ranked among that select group. My positive experience at Crofton prompted me to open “Fostering Debate Talent Academy,” one of Canada’s only spaces devoted entirely to the coaching of public speaking and debating. In only our second year of operation, we now have 23 staff members, including my wonderful mom and sister! I am thrilled to say we have more than 200 clients today.
Because I believe debating is an activity that should be open to every student, the academy also offers scholarships to talented students with financial need. These scholarships allow me to help foster talented students like I once was: kids who love debate but whose family resources are limited. I hope to provide the gift of debate to as many young people as possible.
Check out Frankie’s website for more.
Don’t miss these other inspiring stories of Canadians making a difference.