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Growing up, Maria Thattil didn't see much diversity in Australia's media landscape, but after recently being crowned Miss Universe Australia, following in the footsteps of fellow Indian Australian beauty Priya Serrao who won last year, things seem to finally be changing.
Speaking with Yahoo Lifestyle, the 27-year-old revealed why her win felt so special, especially after Priya took out the top spot last year.
"I think it is important and it's special and I know that people are saying, 'it's such a win for South Asians,' but the way that I'm thinking about it is it's such a win for us as a diverse nation. It goes to show that we're not buying into perceptions of Australia that are rooted on ethnic background,” Maria said.
"For a long time I was getting asked whether I thought that the fact the reigning Miss Universe Australia was Indian would hurt my chances of winning. It's a funny thing because that question reflects perhaps a perception of Australia as being a certain way and when you are fitting into a certain box of ethnicity it's, 'OK, more of the same, more of the same,' and it goes to show that we're blanketing generalisations to people.
“I think the fact that that hasn't mattered and it's been, 'well, maybe this is the direction we want to go in because of the value that I have to offer,' I think that's a really big win."
When you think of previous Miss Universe Australia winners, your mind might immediately go to someone like Jennifer Hawkins or Renae Ayris, which is why Maria believes the diversity of the competition in recent years has been so incredible.
"Those women are phenomenal, Jen Hawkins and Renee Ayris, they deserve to be there and they're fantastic. I also think it's important that we see diversity of people because when you think of Australia, what you see represented in the media landscape, that forms people's perceptions of our country,” she said.
"I actually just did a podcast with a former Miss Universe contestant and she was saying, 'it's so interesting, because when I think Australia, I had a certain idea in my head,' and I'm the complete opposite of that.
"That goes to show, we want to actually represent the diversity of our country. Because the fact is, yes, there's a big South Asian community, but I'd love to see an Indigenous Australian as Miss Australia one year, and maybe see the East Asian community representing us on the global stage.
"Because this country – immigration has been such a big part of who we are. Australia is multicultural so I think if we can start to see different representation every year, that's the point and that's Australia."
If it hadn't been for Priya Serrao’s win last year, Maria says she may not have even entered the competition.
"The fact that Priya won did play a big part and that's why I keep saying representation matters. It does because when you see someone who looks like you doing something all of a sudden it's possible,” Maria said.
"When I saw Priya win and I saw how different all the finalists were, they all came from different backgrounds, they all had different advocacies. When I saw that, I realised maybe I could take up space in this arena too and if I had that platform, what a brilliant way to amplify a message I believe in."
She added: "I just kept reminding myself of my why and if you do this right, it could pay off and it was worth the risk."
Maria said that by herself and other finalists showing up and doing it, they're "actually changing what this is from within" and "opening doors for other people to realise they can do it too".
Of course, it hasn't been without its challenges with the model, who is 5'3", revealing her height has come up before as a potential negative in the past.
"One of the things people have spoken about with me is height, for example, being unconventional. And I've just never really understood why the number of centimetres I stand tall has anything to do with my substance or my capacity for impact because it doesn't, but now I have the opportunity to just show that,” Maria said.
"And the amount of messages I've gotten globally from women saying, 'I have never thought I could do this because of my height, but seeing you now, I can do it’. That's all it is, you see it and then you believe it. So, I think a lot of women did that just by entering this year. Beyond just me, so many women in this program have opened doors for other women to follow, which I'm really proud of."
The message Maria really wants to put out there to other women is to "create space for each other".
"I've always said it doesn't matter what your past or your circumstances are, where you come from, you have the ability to define your future and I know, I'm living proof of that,” she said.
“When I reflect on my childhood and growing up and to be in this particular role now, that's testimony to that. But I also think it's so important as women, that we understand that we have a responsibility to each other and that's to create space for each other and to uplift each other.
"A lot of people might look at the Miss Universe arena and think it's competition and they focus on that, but every single woman who showed up in the Australian competition, who are going to the global competition, we are all worthy, we're all deserving and if one of us wins, it doesn't actually take away from the rest of us and our capacity to do something, to serve, to help."
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