Beauty pageants often get a bad rap but since being named Miss Universe Australia in 2020, Maria Thattil has strived to use her public platform to advocate for women's rights, anti-racism and more diverse representation in fashion, the media and beyond.
"Watching last night's episode back, I feel so relieved and proud because I initially was very anxious," Thattil told Refinery29 Australia over the phone on Thursday. "I didn't sleep the night before. I got in my head a little bit about it."
Having grown up in a "very conservative, religious South Asian family", Thattil shied away from being open about her feelings towards women in her teens and early twenties partly due to Indian community pressures and expectations.
"Not only are you trying to find yourself within your own immediate family unit, but you've got eyes on you from just about everyone else in your extended family, and that is really hard when people have very conservative beliefs," she explained.
She came out to her mother and her father, who's a former Catholic priest, well before going onto the Channel 10 reality show and while they've been "incredibly supportive", they were initially taken aback.
"They were surprised because I've always been your pretty conventional South Asian daughter," explained Thattil. "I was conservative. I went to uni, I got good grades."
After studying psychology and management and working as an HR advisor in Melbourne, Thattil entered Miss Universe in 2020 and has since used her social platforms to be vocal about various social and political issues.
"I started to show them [my parents] that 'Hey, I'm challenging with this career that I'm having, and being a little bit more about sex and sexuality.' But when I told them this, they were shocked," she said.
Thattil, who had watched her brother Dominic come out, said the prospect of publicly coming out had weighed on her mind over the past few months as she suspected the truth would eventually surface.
She recalled receiving screenshots of her online dating profiles from friends and immediately changing her preferences. "I would just get so anxious and not want to confront it that I would then switch back to just men," she said.
For Thattil, coming out publicly was about owning her story and sharing it on her terms.
"I have been on dates and going out and being paranoid that someone's going to see something. It might be published in a headline or someone will share a photo around and all of a sudden, the narrative has been taken out of my hands."
The reality star hadn't planned for her coming out to unfold the way it did on I'm A Celeb but said the candid admission to co-star David Subritzky during an intimate conversation in the jungle was authentic and would hopefully encourage other young Aussies to embrace their sexuality.
"The response has been beautiful and it shows me that it's already having the impact that I hoped it would," she said.
During her time on the show so far, the model has been spending a lot of time with The Only Way Is Essex star, Joey Essex, and the pair have admitted there's a strong connection between them.
Of course, avid viewers love weighing in on a budding reality TV romance, but Thattil won't tolerate rude comments on social media, especially when they refer to race and her relationships.
"Why some Indian girls go for white guys instead of their own???" read a recent comment on the model's Instagram profile, which she shared as a screenshot in her Instagram stories on Monday.
Thattil said receiving that narrow-minded comment on social media made her think, "If you think me dating a white man is a problem, wait till you see what I have to share."
"It's not the first time I've gotten remarks about that, let me tell you," she told Refinery29 Australia.
The media personality said she's dated people "from various ethnic backgrounds" in the past, including Indian people, but whenever she's dated a white person, she's been shamed for it or asked questions that stem from problematic stereotypes of who brown women can and can't date.
"Every time I've dated somebody who has appeared to be white, there's always been that conversation around, 'What do your parents think?' There's almost this assumption that my family are going to want me to marry a nice Indian doctor, which is actually something that a man said to me on Tinder – he asked me if that was the expectation."
Thattil recalled the time she shared a video on TikTok of her dancing with one of her gay friends. "He's a white man, and the exact comment came up – why do brown women only ever go for white men?" she explained.
"So when it's come up with Joey, I thought let me address this because there is a real double standard here. When you see Black and brown people dating somebody outside their ethnic background, for a white person there is such a fetishisation of 'Wow, they're so exotic. Look at you dating someone who's different.' But women, in particular Black and foreign women, they are held to such an unrealistic standard of scrutiny and they are shamed for it.
"It's, 'Why don't you date your own?' and 'How dare you?' and it's just a disgusting double standard, and I think that we're past that. We're past analysing and scrutinising interracial relationships."
Thattil said she believed that for so long many WOC have been "shamed" and "therefore silenced" about their sexual and dating preferences and she didn't want to stay quiet about it.
"I think it is really great to own it and be like, 'It's actually none of your business and I date whoever I want. I sleep with whoever I want.'"
Australia's yet to see what's next from the rising star, but in the meantime, she's promised to continue being unapologetically real and honest on I'm A Celeb and we're all the better for it.
I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! airs on Sunday to Thursday at 7:30pm on Channel 10 and 10 Play on Demand.