On Sunday night, I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! said goodbye to former Miss Universe Australia Maria Thattil. The move, which seemed quite ordinary for a game show, actually carried a deeper meaning for South Asian women such as myself. Maria, a beautiful, accomplished woman from an Indian background has been one of the very few people of colour on our television screens, and she represented us in the very best way.
Using her platform to advocate for women’s rights, anti-racism and more diverse representation, the 28-year-old entered the jungle with confidence and it was refreshing to watch someone who I and many other women of colour could relate to.
“Entering as a woman of colour, and not just as a woman of colour but as someone who represented our country within a global competition, I was very conscious of the fact that it is a big deal,” she told POPSUGAR Australia. “It’s a very big deal for Indigenous people or people of colour to turn on the telly and see someone who doesn’t look like what is constantly put forward as the ‘ideal Australian’. It was an opportunity to show the beauty, intelligence and diversity of Australian women.”
Aware of her impact, Maria knew her presence on-screen would shift the mindset of young South Asian girls and boys, allowing them to envision the day they may also get a chance to front a television show.
Maria was one of 13 celebrity contestants to enter the jungle this year, and despite being the third personality to head home, she’s broken so many barriers in such a short time. In one of the episodes, she came out as bisexual in a refreshingly candid moment where she openly spoke about her identity.
“It was extremely anxiety-evoking knowing that was coming up. And that I had done that, however, on the show I didn’t plan on doing it, so in my interviews in the lead up when I spoke about my charity and advocating for the LGBTQIA+ community, I spoke about my brother but I wasn’t ready to share my own experiences,” she said.
“But I started feeling this dissonance with what I was saying and what was going on inside. And I thought ‘you’re saying this, but you’re not walking the talk Maria if you’re not being true to yourself’. I was nervous but it just flowed. So, when the show aired I thought, no Maria, there’s no better way to show the world who you are than by letting them in on an intimate conversation with your best friend.”
Pressure to fit within a particular mould in South Asian communities is intense, especially for women who are expected to follow societal norms from the way they dress to what career path they choose. While Maria focuses on highlighting the beauty of our culture, which there is plenty of, she also wants to be the guiding light for those who are facing the more problematic side of it all.
“I hope that young people, in particular people from the South Asian community, I hope they can look at me and know: ‘Hey, I actually can break cycles of toxic beliefs that might have been passed down between generations,” she said.
“I can transcend what is expected of me, and all I bloody need to do is be myself. I don’t have to be what anyone expects of me and for South Asian women in particular there is a lot of expectations to be the blueprint of what we’re told a good woman is. I think it’s important to know that the only responsibility and duty you have is to make sure you’re being true to yourself.”
But despite her hard work, Maria knows there is still a long road ahead when it comes to diversity within Australian media, pointing out that many other communities aren’t given a voice at all. Representation goes beyond what you see on screen, because the truth is, if we want to see true change, people of colour need to have a seat at the table.
“I think we’re definitely making strides but we’re not there yet. So, any progress is to be celebrated because you still have communities that don’t see themselves on the telly. They don’t even have the chance to speak for themselves because they’re not behind-the-scenes, in costume rooms and production teams. So it’s not enough to see faces on the screen, but you need their voices in the decision room too because that is how you have people speak up on behalf of the communities they represent.”
Her time in the jungle may be over, but this is not the last time we’ll be hearing from Maria. Hinting at future projects, it’s evident that she is booked and busy and we couldn’t be happier.
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