Despite being crowned Miss Universe Australia, “My Legitimacy Was Disputed Due To My Brown Skin”

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In the 69-year history of the Miss Universe pageant, Maria Thatti has accomplished a remarkable feat by becoming the third woman of colour to represent Australia proudly. However, Maria’s victory unfolded unexpectedly, leading to significant national and international discussions. Maria, also an accomplished author of the book “Unbounded,” narrates her remarkable journey to fame within its pages.

Supplied / Maria Thattil

Elaborating on the insights shared in Chapter 6 of her book, Maria highlights the discourse that followed her triumph, centring around her Australian identity. Shockingly, she encountered derogatory remarks, even suggesting her deportation from the very country of her birth and upbringing. Additionally, the discourse took a peculiar turn with comparisons drawn between her appearance and that of Miss India and Miss Israel, inadvertently ignoring her Australian identity.

Supplied / Maria Thattil

In her own words, Maria adds, “The conversation extended beyond my mere title as Miss Universe Australia. It delved into the broader complexities of beauty, authority, and achievement, revealing the unfortunate exclusion that numerous individuals of colour face.” She likened her situation to the hypothetical scenario of “Kenya sending a white woman with blonde hair and blue eyes to represent them.” This incident wasn’t solely about her journey; it exposed the deeply entrenched systems perpetuating bias in beauty standards, influence, and success. This experience was undeniably daunting.

As a woman of colour, Maria candidly admits she understands the need to put in extra effort to seize opportunities in a world marked by inequality. She confesses that it felt safer to avoid knocking on doors of opportunity for a long time, as she anticipated they wouldn’t open. Nevertheless, her perception shifted when she assumed the title of Miss Universe Australia. At that pivotal moment, she embraced her parents’ guidance and took immense pride in her unique qualities.

Rather than concealing her status as a woman of colour who confronted racism due to deviations from societal expectations, Maria decided to confront this reality head-on. She illuminated this issue, incorporating critiques into her campaign and channelling them as her driving force. Maria asserts, “I initiated dialogues challenging the misrepresentation and underrepresentation of individuals of colour, authored articles advocating for diversity, and led campaigns promoting inclusivity.” Her achievement of making it into the top 10 of the global Miss Universe competition affirmed that what marginalizes us can be harnessed to propel us into once-off-limits spaces.

Maria acknowledges she is the third black lady ever to represent Australia in the Miss Universe pageant, but she firmly believes she will not be the last. Her evolution continues, anchored by memories that keep her groundedā€”a bundle of plastic bags in her mother’s kitchen, the resonance of Bollywood melodies, the aroma of biryani in her family home, respect for elders, and profound pride in her cultural hybridity. Having immigrant Indian parents, she is of Indian descent. one of whom was an ex-Catholic priest, which is an integral part of her identity.

Supplied / Maria Thattil

Her father, known as “Father Tony,” had his life course altered when her mother, wearing a leather skirt, captivated him away from the priesthood. In her narrative, Maria reflects, “I grew up in Melbourne, a bustling city, immersed in the richness of my Indian heritage. However, during my teenage years, I grappled with the incongruence between my Indian roots and the culture of my birth country. Calling every adult ‘aunty’ or ‘uncle’ appeared overly familiar to my friends.”

Maria needed help to elucidate the presence of a bag filled with smaller bags in their kitchen. She found it challenging to explain to her friends the 10 pm curfew imposed by her father for a party commencing at 9 pm. The dichotomy between the roast chicken dinners she experienced outside and the biryani she savoured at home intensified her yearning to conform to a more “white” identity.

She often wondered whether people assumed a secretive network among people of her ethnicity, given that the first reaction upon disclosing her Indian heritage was often, “Oh, I know an Indian person!” Yet, the bitter reality of enduring racism-induced bullying fostered a persistent sense of being marginalized. This reality conflicted with her parents’ advice to embrace her differences with pride. Caught between these conflicting experiences, she struggled to find her place as neither fully Indian nor entirely Australian.

Supplied / Maria Thattil

The intersection of racism, sexism, and pervasive prejudice further compounded her sense of invisibility. This lack of representation relegated her to harmful stereotypes and caricatures, making it difficult for her to embrace ambition fully. She opted for a conservative approach to success. Eventually, Maria earned degrees in Psychology and Management with first-class honours and secured a scholarship nomination for Harvard through a fellowship program.

Supplied / Maria Thattil

She actively engages in corporate human resources while pursuing a passion for makeup artistry to satiate her creative impulses. Her Instagram presence showcases beauty content while advocating for diversity, a cause she passionately champions in the aesthetic realm. This journey facilitated the creation of a community that transformed her perspective on purpose, service, and influence.

Maria’s path to Miss Universe Australia was uncertain, especially after witnessing the victory of Priya Serrao, an Indian-Australian lawyer, in 2019. Inspired by Priya’s success, Maria confronted her internalized biases and recognized the potential of the Miss Universe platform as a vehicle for her aspirations. With courage and determination, Maria now stands as a fervent advocate for diversity, LGBTQIA+ rights, and eradicating violence against women and children.

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