Australia's Miss Universe representative Maria Thattil has claimed a spot in the top 10 as the pageant makes its return after being postponed due to COVID-19.
Often dismissed as a battle of beauty, the competition has afforded Thattil, 28, a powerful platform to call for greater diversity and inclusion in the public eye.
Thattil was born in Australia to Indian migrants and was crowned Miss Universe Australia last month.
The Melbourne-based fashion blogger addressed her participation in the pageant in a post to her 129,000 Instagram followers this afternoon following the final, explaining she entered the competition to "shake it up".
"I was told she's too short, she's not Australian enough, she can't stand up against the taller women," the 5'3" model wrote.
Noting she was the "third woman of colour to represent Australia" in the pageant's nearly seven-decade history, Thattil announced, "I placed in the top 10 in the world."https://instagram.com/p/CO9dj1fBJY6/
"My friends, I always said @missuniverse would be one way I'd live my purpose - but with or without the incredible title I'll still be true to my heart," she continued.
Thattil concluded her post with a call to action, prompting her followers to look at her and "be reminded of your ability to carve out your OWN place."
"Australia ... I'm coming home and the fire in my belly is just warming up. I didn't get to speak on that stage tonight but for the rest of my life, you will hear my voice - and it will amplify the voices of many others like me who were once not heard.
"I'm a force to be reckoned with and there isn't a ceiling I won't shatter."
"I love you all, I'm so blessed, fulfilled and grateful and I can't wait to come home."
Thattil previously said on her Instagram she entered the pageant "because barriers are made to be broken, and ceilings were meant to be shattered."
The University of Melbourne and RMIT graduate, who holds two honours degrees, enlisted her mother as her photographer and brother as her trainer in the leadup to Miss Universe finals.
She also created an Instagram series dedicated to empowerment and self-awareness, chronicling her journey with those concepts even in her darkest moments.
Discussing her participation in Miss Universe with 9Honey last year, Thattil said her interest was less about appearance and more about the opportunities the contest could provide.
"The modelling industry continues to diversify and it's phenomenal to see someone like me - an Australian woman of Indian heritage - walking the stage."
"We are more than this, we are multi-faceted, intelligent, powerful, accomplished. Just because we may be celebrating beauty, that doesn't have to be done at the trade-off of other aspects."
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Thattil claimed the "old-fashioned notion" about the contest is "no longer true", celebrating her fellow pageant finalists.
"These women are educated, working in fields like engineering, medicine, media, education and business. They're advocates for what they believe in," she explained.https://instagram.com/p/CMNwKUlhpvK/
"All of them deserve to be 'Miss Universe' because they're all articulate, intelligent, poised, hard-working, confident, impactful and yes - beautiful."
Thattil discussed her struggles with her image growing up, telling Beauty Crew the lack of diversity in the media prompted her to want to be "fairer-skinned" in order to be "beautiful".
"There's actually a picture that I have from my 20th birthday, and now my heart breaks seeing that girl because I'm wearing a foundation that's four shades too light," she explained.
"I had green eye contacts and dyed hair, and I look like I'm wearing a mask.
"It's scary to think that I internalised a limiting concept of beauty so deeply that I ended up trying to occupy skin that wasn't my own."
The model and activist says her interest in the competition piqued at an early age, revealing she used to watch Miss Universe as a young girl. © Instagram
In the lead up to the pageant, Thattil wrote a powerful post on representation to Instagram.
"An Australian face. A South Asian face," she captioned a portrait taken for the Miss Universe competition.
"A global citizen, my identity is a beautiful fusion of one of the oldest civilisations and one of the most diverse societies in the world."
"No matter what lens I am viewed through, I will always be a valued daughter of the Universe and a woman in charge of her own destiny."
Thattil is also an avid filmmaker, having shot a short film in tribute to Australia prior to the Miss Universe competition.https://instagram.com/p/COaYGcUBJnZ/
Sharing a clip from the film, both written and directed by her, on Instagram, Thattil said she was "moved by a love for my nation."
"Moved by my vision for our world. Moved by how my life has shaped my perspective," the caption read.
"I present to you 'My Australia,' a short film I wrote and directed so that you too can experience the beauty of my country and its potential to influence worldwide."
The five-minute feature, narrated by Thattill, labels Australia the "magic" of the world.
"We are a melting pot of beauty and creativity," she continues.
"A vibrant expression of just how alive the universe truly is."