She knows what it is to struggle with an outside-the-box appearance, despite her undeniable physical beauty. She also knows how it feels to be considered less than, even though her petite 5″3 frame (combined with her innate confidence and self-worth, nurtured by her immigrant parents from the get-go) make her the true definition of a pocket rocket. Using her growing platform to campaign for social justice issues is no easy feat in today’s too-quick-to-cancel culture, but she approaches it with pride and excitement. Plus, Maria has a genuine interest in both the cultural and personal aspects of beauty, from the disheartening to the purely fun, and she shares with us her all-time favourite mascaras, and why she never starts her day without skincare.
“I grew up in a big, vivacious family. My parents immigrated to Australia in the ’80s and settled in Melbourne with all five of my mother’s siblings and their partners. They were in their late twenties and early thirties, and it was a full house of bold people yearning for an adventure.
Growing up, I was raised by not two, but many. There were impromptu family parties every weekend because informal social gatherings were a cultural norm. My cousins were unofficial siblings and we had sleepovers every weekend, and whether we were pretending to be shop owners, running a ‘school,’ or imagining that we were trekking in a jungle, we always played and indulged our creativity.
I started to notice racial bias and feeling different from as early as Prep. I told a little boy I fancied that I liked him, and he retorted that he didn’t have a crush on me because my skin was “dirty”.
Growing up, I navigated the challenges of feeling othered: it seemed I wasn’t ‘Indian enough’ to be Indian, nor ‘Australian enough’ to be Australian. All I wanted to do was assimilate, and yet all I did was stick out. Given the lack of representation in mainstream media, the perceptions of South Asian people were rooted in stereotypes, and my peers often joked about my dad “probably owning a 7/11” or my mother wearing “the red dot”. I remember walking into school one day and a ‘friend’ proclaiming in front of our whole group that I “looked too Indian today”. I promptly went out and bought my first foundation, purposely three shades too light. As a teen, I didn’t leave the house without too-white foundation, blue contacts, and my hair bleached to an unsightly orange colour in a bid to make it blonde. The changes were gradual, and I told myself that I was just experimenting with my look, but in hindsight I was unconsciously compressing myself into the beauty ideals of the time.
As a little girl and as a teen, I observed gender norms that conflicted with my natural inclinations. My parents told me to pursue an education and find my voice, but society told me to bite my tongue.
Gender was fed to me as a binary construct (which I disagree with) and if I dared to cross the line and not adhere to the expected qualities of a ‘good’ girl and woman, then I was a trouble maker, problematic, unappealing. I remember being slut-shamed in high school relentlessly for the same things my male peers did, having my intelligence and value questioned because of irrelevant factors like the amount of makeup I wore or how I dressed, and called ‘bossy’, ‘difficult’, and ‘bitchy’ when I used my voice… so I learned to subdue myself.
You internalise the racism. You internalise the misogyny. These experiences in my childhood led me to believe that in order to fit in I had to allow mistreatment, because the markers of my social identity warranted it.
However, there were experiences in my childhood that also ignited a spark that couldn’t be extinguished. The faith, love, and confidence my parents breathed into me from infancy carried me through. And while for a significant period I was a chameleon, adapting everything about myself to suit whichever context I found myself in, my family’s teachings became my internal barometer. As I progress now in my twenties, I have confronted my confusion about my hybrid cultural identity and what it means to be a good, valuable, worthy woman. I know I am an empowered Indian-Australian woman.
Racial microaggressions are a part of my daily life. While more overt experiences (like being blatantly told I am not ‘Australian enough’ to be the national delegate for our country) are less common, they still happen as well.
However, I believe the Black Lives Matter movement has created space for conversations and actions to drive inclusivity and an appreciation for differences. People are starting to take responsibility for their own education, and to contribute to the collective dismantling of systemic racism and sexism.
A huge part of what I do is working for visibility, because representation is essential to combatting injustice.
Challenging the expectations of who can be an Australian representative for Miss Universe has helped spark conversations about what it means to be Australian at a broader level. By seeing me, a 5”3 woman of colour, in that space, women of different sizes and ethnic backgrounds see that they too can and should take up space in arenas they have traditionally been told to keep out of. Representation matters – because if you don’t see it, how can you believe it?
Being involved in pageantry wasn’t always in my plan. When I found out last year that the Miss Universe Australia was Indian-Australian lawyer Priya Serrao, that really piqued my interest. So I decided to explore it further, because I perceived there was an opportunity to amplify the messages I had started sharing on my own humble social platforms.
I was a very creative as a child, and I developed that in a professional sense when I pursued a makeup qualification while also completing a Masters in Management. Studying simultaneously in these different areas turned out to be the catalyst for what is now my multi-hyphenate career, which I could never have conceived of at the time. Now, I work for myself. I am Miss Universe Australia, a writer, a speaker, a creator, a model, and a passionate activist for equality, inclusivity, and empowerment. The best part about my work is that, regardless of the medium, I am able to champion my values and the social justice causes I believe in.
Recently, I’ve become more conscious of how I prepare for the day ahead. If I can’t carve out a few pockets of peace in the morning for me to honour myself, then how can I give to anyone else?
I like to draw the blinds and lie in the sunlight, then start a guided morning meditation. Breathwork primes my mind and body for a day where I am calm, in control, and centered. I then put music on to raise my energy; I have a ‘Vibes’ playlist with an eclectic mix of everything from ‘God Is A Woman’ to ‘Mambo No. 5’ to get me bopping into my beauty routine (this is embarrassing, but I love it). Cuddles with my dog Axel are always slotted in sporadically, too!
I definitely don’t wear makeup every day, but I always apply skincare. Starting with skincare is important to me because it is a chance to show up for myself and to have a play.
No matter what else I am wearing on my face for the day, I start by applying one of the Olay Super Serums. There are four varieties for different skin concerns, and I have recently been using the Olay Luminous Niacinamide Super Serum. I’ve found I am really in need of hydration at the moment, owing to seasonal changes and stress, both of which are resulting in a few more fine lines, itchiness, shadows under the eyes, and a little dullness. Over the past two weeks using this serum, I’ve noticed my skin looks more supple, hydrated, and naturally dewy.
Everyone should be vigilant with sun protection, particularly under the Aussie sun. As a woman of colour, my skin doesn’t always show an immediate reaction to sun damage, like burning or peeling, but I still need to stay vigilant. The impact sun damage has on my skin may be more gradual, but in the long run, no less detrimental, so a non-negotiable for me is good SPF. I use the Olay Regenerist Whip UV SPF Face Cream Moisturiser, because I like the lightweight texture, and it helps to hydrate, prime, and protect my face for the day.
I like that beauty is a medium that can be used for self-expression, to show up for ourselves, and to indulge creativity. I loathe that the standards of beauty to date have often been exclusive and projected as a mould that people have to fit into. And I love that we are changing that!
In terms of day-to-day makeup, I usually go for products that are multi-purpose and nourishing. My favourite foundation of the moment that fits that bill is Clinique Even Better Clinical Serum Foundation SPF20: it has buildable coverage, gets the undertones right (so it works beautifully on my brown skin), is highly moisturising, and contains SPF. If I am using any makeup at all, then I absolutely have to put mascara on. My two favourites are the IT Cosmetics Superhero mascara and the L’Oréal Paris Lash Paradise mascara. Both give me amazing length and volume and are easy to apply; they’re better than any others I have ever tried.
When it comes to a night out, there are so many products I love!
There are a few special ones that make my ‘staples’ list, though, and they include: concealer that won’t crease and will go the distance (that would be L’Oréal Paris Infallible More Than Concealer, set with the Laura Mercier Translucent Loose Setting Powder), a durable lipgloss (team Fenty Gloss Bomb over here!), and a classic perfume (my scent is Si by Giorgio Armani). My favourite makeup trick is to use eyeshadow (I love the Single Shadows by Mecca Max) with an angled brush to achieve a smokey yet subtle cat eye. It requires less precision than a liquid liner and looks softer and more natural. Then to take it all off at the end of the night, I like my Olay Scrubs Hydrating Vitamin C + Caviar Lime Facial Cleanser. It has little crystals in it which slowly disappear, which means you exfoliating just enough without over scrubbing. I use this at the end of the night to ensure I go to bed all clean and glow-y.
My hair is only of medium thickness, but I have a lot of it!
It tends to be naturally healthy and shiny, although it does get damaged with regular colouring. As such, I try to minimise heat styling, so when I’m doing it myself I like to use the Dyson Airwrap Styler because you can achieve a great blowout without extreme heat. I also use certain products religiously for hydration and repair. I apply my Eleven Australia Miracle Hair Treatment, Philip B. Detangling Toning Mist,and ghd Bodyguard heat protect spray after every wash, and Ayurvedic hair oils once a week. My mum used to wear Ayurvedic hair oils, either oils she purchased from Indian grocers or that had been brought back by family from trips overseas, and she would oil my hair weekly. It was a simple routine rooted in ancient secrets, and it taught me how important it was to prioritise the care element of your routine.
My favourite clinic in my home town of Melbourne is Kaya Cosmedica, where Dr Parvin Khinda looks after my skin.
I get regular facials there every six weeks which include an LED facial treatment, a sulfur mask, and a vitamin infusion, and I see these as a way of investing in my skin while giving myself time to relax. For my hair, I go to Joey Scandizzo for treatments every month, and trims every six weeks.
I believe it is imperative to honour your body through movement, and I mainly do this through Lagree Fitness: a high intensity, low impact, full body conditioning practice that combines strength, cardio, core, endurance, and flexibility training.
I power through five Lagree classes a week at K-Kore with my trainers Tracey, Steph, Kylie, and Adam, and I love it. I also have regular training sessions with a certain furry trainer by the name of Axel: we have regular jogs around the block.
My diet is comprised largely of Indian cuisine (favourite dish of all time? Chicken biryani!) followed closely by an eclectic mix of many others; I don’t discriminate and enjoy lots of different foods. I also aim to take care of myself from the inside out by trying to ensure I drink enough water and prioritising rest.