"an opportunity to represent women of colour"
Miss Universe Australia Maria Thattil is using her Indian heritage to reshape Australian society.
She realised this after receiving racist abuse.
Maria said she has received countless comments telling her she “is not Australian enough” to represent her country on the world stage.
One person told the 28-year-old on Instagram:
“I miss the days when Australia would send tall, white women to Miss Universe.”
Maria was the second consecutive woman of Indian origin to be crowned Miss Universe Australia after Priya Serrao in 2019.
She is also one of the shortest contestants in Miss Universe’s 69-year history, at 5’3″.
Despite embracing her height and heritage, Maria has still be subjected to racial slurs.
Maria was initially self-conscious about applying for the pageant but soon realised she could use these differences to her advantage.
She said: “It was an opportunity to represent women of colour and especially women of average height in a space they are not usually seen.”
Maria’s parents moved to Melbourne from India in the early 1990s.
Although she remembers watching Miss Universe with her mother as a young girl, Maria never imagined herself on stage because of her height.
She told Daily Mail Australia:
“I never thought that modelling was something I could do because I didn’t have the ‘right look’.”
After seeing Priya Serrao representing Australia in 2019, Maria decided to apply.
“She looked like me. I thought, if she can do it, maybe I can too.”
Maria applied but was aware of the misogynistic reputation associated with beauty pageants.
“I had concerns about going into this world, of course.”
The majority of questions came from her colleagues at the Victorian Government. They wondered why Maria was applying to compete in a contest notorious for glorifying the female appearance.
Maria told them she intended to use her platform to do the opposite.
She said: “I wanted to take something that has patriarchal roots and use it to represent people like me – children of immigrants, people from ethnic minorities, anyone who feels on the fringes of things.”
She believes having another Indian-Australian Miss Universe Australia is a step towards better cultural representation across the country.
Maria continued: “We have an opportunity to accurately represent Australia’s true identity.
“I wanted to use the title responsibly, to challenge incorrect perceptions of what an ‘Australian’ actually looks like.”
While she praised her fellow contestants and Miss Universe organisers, Maria admitted there is “a way to go” to make beauty pageants a positive and inclusive space for people of all backgrounds.
“We need to see a lot more body inclusivity, women of different shapes and sizes.”
She called for an increase in women of different shapes and sizes, as well as more transgender representatives.
“Until we see that diversity visually, we have a way to go. We need to see women who look different so that it reflects the world we live in.”
Her calls to improve diversity seem to have made an impact.
Following the 2021 event, Miss Universe Philippines removed its minimum height requirement for applicants.
At the grand finale in Florida, Maria finished inside the top 10. Miss Mexico Andrea Meza ultimately took the Miss Universe 2021 crown.
Maria got into shape for the pageant by taking up lagree, a 40-minute Pilates-style workout that combines cardio and resistance training to tone and strengthen the entire body.
She said: “I actually started about a year and a half ago.
“I’ve never been a sporty person, but this is something I actually enjoy. It’s quite intense but I love it.”
She spent a year training three to four times a week before hiring a personal trainer to help with weightlifting.
Maria avoided weighing herself so she could focus on how she felt rather than obsessing over a number on the scales.
With the contest now over, Maria is looking towards the future.
During her time in hotel quarantine, Maria wrote a children’s book on diversity and inclusion. She hopes to have it published before the end of 2021.
She is an Olay skincare ambassador and has lots of collaborations in the works.
Maria said: “Olay are amazing because they believed in me before anything exciting happened.
“It’s wonderful to have our relationship grow as my career grows.”
She hopes to have a career in television but rules out another beauty pageant.
Maria explained: “I didn’t enter Miss Universe because I loved pageants.
“I entered with an intention and I did what I went there to do.
“My message has always been about promoting diversity, and I’m going to use the platform Miss Universe gave me to do just that. But no, no more pageants!’