If you’ve been watching Fox’s MasterChef, you know the breakout star of the season is contestant Christine Ha, the modest Vietnamese-American cook who’s been turning out stunning dishes despite being legally blind. She’s the first-ever sightless contestant in a cooking competition series and has been a fan favorite since the third season premiered. This week’s episodes have concluded with Christine — who navigates the kitchen with the help of a cane and a sighted assistant — overcoming great obstacles to beat out rivals, complete with heart-tugging music, Gordon Ramsay’s effusive praise, and tearful applause from the other contestants.
It’s been emotional TV, and we’ve gotten misty-eyed too. But given Christine’s ability to create perfect-looking meals using surprise ingredients against a ticking clock, we had to ask: How blind is she? While we never doubted Christine’s sincerity, the show hasn’t specified the extent of her condition, which could in theory range from not being able to discern objects to not being able to tell if it’s day or night.
Fox put Christine on the phone to set the record straight. It turns out her vision loss is severe enough to make MasterChef an almost impossible challenge. She’s just not, as some viewers assume from watching the show, 100 percent blind.
“It’s a very common misconception that people think blindness is all or nothing, it’s not true at all,” says Christine, who gradually lost her sight between 1999 and 2007 due to an autoimmune disease called Neuromyelitis optica. “From a medical standpoint, doctors call my vision ‘counting fingers.’ If you hold your hand 10 to 12 inches from my face, I could count your fingers as long as the lighting isn’t too dark or glaring. The way I often describe it is that it’s like if you take a really hot shower and then you look into the foggy bathroom mirror, where you only see vague shapes and shadows.”
The definition of legally blind is 20/200 vision that cannot be corrected by lenses or surgery, and Christine notes she’s “much worse than that.” The MasterChef kitchen has been a tricky environment because of the bright stage lighting used on the show. “My pupils are continually dilated,” she says. “I was having a lot of trouble in the beginning.”
Christine has been candid with producers and the network about her condition. She wrote a statement to Fox describing the extent of her blindness before the show launched so the network could communicate her situation to any media outlets that might inquire. Especially given the severity of her vision loss, her accolades in the MasterChef pressure cooker are obviously well earned.
“Everybody has been super positive,” Christine says about fan and family reaction to the show. “The outpouring of support from strangers has been amazing. The awesome fan mail I’ve been getting. Just saying, like, ‘You’ve inspired me to try out for the high school soccer team.’ It’s even weird to be saying ‘I’m getting fan mail.’ It’s been awesome to be in a position to affect people’s lives in a positive way.”
Here’s one of Christine’s heart-tugging victories: