“It’s been the most beautiful thing, where people are like ‘this is an official welcome’. It’s been so wonderful – and it’s exciting because now the dating pool has expanded!…It’s the most liberating thing. It’s like life has just opened up because I had the courage to say: ‘This is me.’”

Maria Thattil is effusive when she talks about the response from the LGBTQI community to her very public coming out as bisexual. It was in the trailing moments of her tenure on I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here, while she was sharing a heartfelt chat with her best bud, David. 

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“You know what, I could not think of a better way to come out to the country than by letting them in on an intimate conversation with my best mate,” says Thattil. 

Didn’t Regret Coming Out

Maria Thattil and her brother Dom. Image: Daniel Spellman

The producers gave her the option of removing the clip but she chose to keep it in. It wasn’t a spontaneous, heat-of-the-moment thing that she regretted saying;  it’s something she had been wanting to share for a long time. In fact, on the eve of the episode, Thattil was on the phone with her brother, Dom, until 2am discussing her intention. 

Dom Thattil had himself come out as gay eight years earlier, but his experience wasn’t exactly reassuring. 

“We grew up in a very conservative, religious Catholic, South-Asian household. Our parents moved here and struggled to assimilate to a lot of Western ideals, and they brought over a lot of social and cultural norms from India,” explains Thattil. “So, when my brother came out they didn’t understand it…[They] kept thinking they needed to guide their son out of what they thought was a phase.”

Religion, culture, and the personal aspirations of her parents were all factors that induced Thattil to internalise and suppress her true sexual identity. But there was more to it.  

‘I Didn’t Really Understand My Own Sexuality’

Maria Thattil and her brother Dom. Image: Daniel Spellman

“I didn’t really understand my own sexuality; it was very confusing to me because you don’t see a lot of bisexual visibility,” Thattil explains.

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“When you look at the state of affairs when it comes to sex education […] A lot of sex education is taught to us – and it certainly was taught to me – through a heteronormative lens. It often excludes people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. It excludes people with different physical abilities and it certainly excluded, when I was growing up, people from the LGBTQIA+ community. And sex ed never talks about consent, or healthy intimacy, or pleasure. It was always talked about from a very reproductive anatomical lens […] Nobody every talked to me about sex with a woman and what that could be like.”

Thattil first confided inklings of same-sex attraction to her long term male partner. They were in a monogamous relationship and it was only when that ended around two years ago, that Thattil felt free to dip her toe in the rainbow waters. 

“It was like this burning desire to know,” says Thattil. 

A Beauty Influencer

Maria Thattil. Image: Daniel Spellman.

But it had to happen at her own pace and on her own terms. “I didn’t want the narrative to get taken out of my hands. If for example, somebody saw me on a date with a woman, kissing her, and then there was this headline on a tabloid – that’s not what I wanted.” 

By this time, the public platform she’d started building six years earlier had grown into a viable entity, so she had a fair bit of control over her personal brand.  

Recognised as an influencer in ‘beauty’, Thattil was originally motivated to create content after her dismaying discovery that people of colour were mostly excluded from the discussion. 

“And then I saw that Miss Universe Australia (the woman who won before me) was Indian-Australian,” says Thattil. 

Suddenly there was a new opportunity available to her, and Thattil signed up. 

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“I was very intentional with why I wanted to do it. I didn’t want to do it to be Miss Universe, I wanted to do it so that I would have the vehicle to amplify the reach of my messages.”

Miss Universe Australia Finalist

Thattil was among the Miss Universe 2020 top 10 finalists, but it was a victory for her that she was even on that stage. Not only was she a departure from the blond hair, blue-eyed classic Miss Australia, she was also much shorter than your average beauty contestant or model. 

“I feel like it completely challenged antiquated ideas about our national identity and it forced people to think about what it is to be a beautiful Australian woman in a completely different way to what they’re used to,” says Thattil. “But beyond that, I also think it was important for me to be there as a woman who is 5’3” when the beauty standard is normally a tall, thin, glamazon.”

Through her Miss Universe Australia campaign, Thattil took her advocacy for inclusivity and diversity to the world. 

As an ambassador for Olay, Thattil can present new standards of beauty and be a spokesperson for the queer community.   “I am so proud to partner with Olay, Minus18 and Mardi Gras because they are committed to progressing inclusivity by going where others may be afraid to. In our video, Dom and I shared our experiences as queer children of Catholic migrants and had the opportunity to talk about how the intersection of religion and culture influences the experiences of not just queer folk but their families. It is a privilege to be able to share my lived experiences and help create spaces where others are safe to do the same,” said Thattil.   

“The message I was able to share and what I hope I was able to inspire in people is, you don’t have to fit the mould for success or beauty, you can just be yourself and that’s enough. With enough conviction and self-belief, if you hustle at it you can do it.”

 

 

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