Herworld (Malaysia) - - CONTENTS - POON LI-WEI

What keeps Thanuja Ananthan on her toes.

W hen Thanuja Ananthan’s mother placed both her daugh­ters in front of the tele­vi­sion so that they wouldn’t dis­turb her in the kitchen, lit­tle did she ex­pect the glitz and ritz of the Miss World pro­gramme that was on screen to com­pletely al­ter the course of Thanuja’s life. “My sis­ter and I were hooked! We loved watch­ing the women pa­rade in their huge ball gowns as they an­nounced their coun­try’s name. From then on, it was an an­nual af­fair at home – we’d watch the pageant to­gether,” she rem­i­nisces, be­fore charm­ingly quip­ping, “My dad told me to fin­ish my de­gree and then I could do what­ever I wanted. I did that and the next thing I knew, I had the crown on my head and you can find all footage of my ugly cry­ing on­line!”

“BEAU­TI­FUL FACE, BUT TOO MUCH HAIR” You'd think that fresh af­ter get­ting her de­gree and win­ning Miss Malaysia at the ten­der age of 23, she'd be on a high and on her way to be­com­ing Malaysia's dar­ling – but a rude awak­en­ing was in store for her. “I had peo­ple telling me that my hair was too big, my skin too dark, or that I had a beau­ti­ful face but too much hair. I'd been asked to cut, colour, and straighten my hair!” she shares. In fact, she puts forth the fact that she's the first full-In­dian girl to win such a big ti­tle, ru­mi­nat­ing aloud if per­haps that had ruf­fled some feathers.

She lets me in on the knowl­edge that sup­port was hard to come by, even dur­ing the in­ter­na­tional pageant when she rep­re­sented Malaysia. “Car­ven Ong was the only de­signer who sup­ported me fully – he loaned me 10 gowns over the six weeks of com­pe­ti­tion. With­out him, I don't know where I would have got­ten my gowns. I had a man­age­ment team that tried to help, but there was just no sup­port.” Those were cer­tainly try­ing times, and while she may not have been im­per­vi­ous to com­ments that would leave her in tears some days, she stood strong and re­fused to be strong-armed into stereo­typ­i­cal beauty ideals. “If they want ver­sa­til­ity, I'd tell them to look at my pic­tures. But be­ing as stub­born as I am has worked out be­cause to­day, I'm known as the girl with long, big, lus­cious curls.” “WHY DOES IT MAT­TER WHAT COLOUR I AM?” In an in­dus­try that hinges very much upon aes­thet­ics and can, at times, come across as highly su­per­fi­cial – an­other thing that re­ally gets to her

I’m Malaysian. Al­ways. Peo­ple need to start look­ing at some­one be­yond their hair, colour, or any­thing else.

is when peo­ple can­not see be­yond the colour of her skin. “I al­ways get mes­sages ask­ing me if I'm In­dian. I've even had peo­ple tell me I'm not as dark-look­ing as they had ex­pected. Why does it mat­ter? I'm hu­man. I'm Malaysian. Al­ways. Peo­ple need to start look­ing at some­one be­yond their hair, colour, or any­thing else. There's a more tact­ful way of ask­ing, such as ‘what her­itage are you from?' or ‘where were your an­ces­tors from?'."

Still, it's not all bad as she hap­pily tells me that she's see­ing the pos­i­tive di­rec­tion the world ap­pears to be mov­ing to­wards, what with the paradigm shift of beauty ideals from “tall, slim and a Vic­to­ria's Se­cret su­per­model” to a more in­clu­sive cul­ture that cel­e­brates all women. Her role model? “I ad­mire Ash­ley Gra­ham so much. She has no qualms about be­ing her­self – cel­lulite and all,” she chimes. Don't mis­take her though, she's not ad­vo­cat­ing be­ing curvy for the sake of it: “I'm all about be­ing fit and stay­ing healthy. Curvy has to be healthy. If a curvy woman is over­weight for her body and height, she needs to do some­thing about it. You need to have your heart checked and be re­al­is­tic about body im­age.”


Speak­ing of im­age, I ques­tion her about an­other im­por­tant part of her life: act­ing, and the process that comes with pick­ing her roles. There's no dim­ming the en­thu­si­asm in her voice as she speaks of her largest act­ing gig to date in Anak Merdeka, a suc­cess­ful tele­vi­sion se­ries set in the 1980s, in which she played an ath­lete. “It was a three-month project and I'd wake up at 5am and train with a coach till 8am, be­fore go­ing on set. You wouldn't recog­nise me as I be­came four tones darker with no makeup. I was fit as a fid­dle though and it was amaz­ing! I want to do roles that are chal­leng­ing – roles that will al­low me to grow as an ac­tor and per­son,” she gushes.

Her ded­i­ca­tion to the art is pre­cisely why she's turned down countless roles that have come her way, even a par­tic­u­lar one that turned out to be a huge Hol­ly­wood hit: Crazy Rich Asians. “Beauty queens and su­per­mod­els al­ways get the role of hav­ing to steal some­one's hus­band, or are ex­pected to prance around in a miniskirt through­out the se­ries. There's al­ways tons of makeup and big hair – although, I al­ready have the hair go­ing for me so they can save cost on that,” she jokes. “Anuja (her twin sis­ter) and I were ac­tu­ally of­fered the role of the twins in Crazy Rich Asians. I said no be­cause I didn't want to be pro­jected just hold­ing hands with my sis­ter, wear­ing skimpy cloth­ing and look­ing pretty, with­out di­a­logue. I'm not judg­ing any­one at all – but per­son­ally, it wouldn't have worked for me. It would have been a real dis­grace to my act­ing ca­reer and val­ues. Af­ter watch­ing the movie, de­spite my girl­friends telling me how stupid I was for turn­ing down a Hol­ly­wood gig, I was glad I did. That wasn't how I wanted to be seen in Hol­ly­wood.”


It's cer­tainly re­fresh­ing and heart­warm­ing to know that even af­ter be­ing in the in­dus­try for about a decade, her vi­sion isn't eas­ily warped or blinded by the bright lights. She at­tributes this not just to her par­ents, but to her love for an­i­mals and the res­cue work she

does. It may sound adorable now, but lit­tle did she know her opin­ion­ated five-year-old self was putting roots down for the im­por­tant work she does to­day. “When I was five, I’d throw out veg­eta­bles and fruits from my mum’s mar­ket bag so I could bring stray kit­tens home. By the time I was 10, I’d jump over my house’s fences at 2am to res­cue pup­pies and kit­tens. Dad would rep­ri­mand me, say­ing I could get kid­napped or raped. I told him: ‘God’s look­ing af­ter me. I’m do­ing some­thing good. Noth­ing’s go­ing to hap­pen to me.’ My dad was stumped – he didn’t know how to ar­gue with that!” she chuck­les.

In­ter­est­ingly, her love for an­i­mals was also an­other drive be­hind her tri­umph at Miss World Malaysia, as her mother had en­light­ened her while grow­ing up that she could use it as a plat­form to broaden her an­i­mal ad­vo­cacy work. Th­ese days, she not only adopts strays and has been the SPCA’s am­bas­sador for the past six years, but also does res­cue work that sees her sit­ting by the drain for two to three hours, coax­ing ter­ri­fied strays. One par­tic­u­larly heart-wrench­ing in­ci­dent hap­pened as she was driv­ing past a black dog on the side of the road. “He looked fine, but I could sense some­thing wasn’t right. As I neared him, there was a foul stench and I could see flies on his back. Some­one had taken a ma­chete and sliced his whole back, from tail to spine, and the wound was filled with mag­gots. I took him to my friend’s shel­ter as I work with in­de­pen­dent an­i­mal res­cue groups. We spent the whole night pick­ing out the mag­gots and drown­ing them in bleach. He sur­vived and his name is Blackie.”

If that story sent shiv­ers down your spine, just imag­ine the amount of times she’s had to face all that pain and suf­fer­ing – even to the point of fall­ing into de­pres­sion. “I had to take time off from it for awhile as it re­ally af­fected me. It’s not easy at all,” she ad­mits. But, she stresses, an­i­mal res­cue work is pre­cisely what keeps her in check. “We are all hu­man be­ings. We have our flaws and make mis­takes. My work with an­i­mals re­minds me that there is so much pain and suf­fer­ing – this is re­al­ity. My ul­ti­mate dream is to see Malaysia free of strays and I re­ally hope I’m able to see it in my life­time.”


Be­tween act­ing, modelling, em­cee­ing (she’s mul­ti­lin­gual), and res­cu­ing an­i­mals – you’d think that Thanuja barely has time to breathe. But ever since she was hired by Miche­lin to go on a trip to Thai­land, where she ex­pe­ri­enced driv­ing a For­mula One car on the race track (just two weeks prior to our in­ter­view, in fact!), she’s fallen com­pletely head over heels with the sport. “I’ll never look at tyres and For­mula One driv­ers in the same way again. There’s that trust one needs when you’re on the track. At one point, I took a bend and de­cided to press the ac­cel­er­a­tor af­ter see­ing the pro­fes­sional driv­ers do it. The car swerved, but it didn’t go off the track. It cut the ground so smoothly like but­ter and I re­alised that my tyres were do­ing all the work,” she adu­lates. And while it may be deemed as a ‘man’s sport’, she af­firms that she’s been lucky that ev­ery­one has been su­per sup­port­ive of this new en­deav­our she hopes to ex­plore in the fu­ture.


Mov­ing for­ward, she’s ex­cited to share that she’s been work­ing on her own hair prod­uct for the past year, which will launch some­time next year. “It’s what I’ve been us­ing my whole life and it’s my mum’s se­cret. Not just for those with curls, it’s for any­one who wants a good hair day, ev­ery day.” It’s cer­tainly a joy to see how far she’s come since her days of hav­ing oth­ers try to mould her into some­thing she isn’t. Still, there are those who judge: “Peo­ple stereo­type oth­ers with cer­tain looks and height as they won­der if she has any­thing ‘in there’.” And that is ex­actly why she de­spises the com­pli­ment she views as back­handed – “beauty with brains”. “Peo­ple think beauty pageant con­tes­tants are bim­bos who do noth­ing but pa­rade in a two-piece. It shouldn’t have to be a case of ‘she’s a beauty and oh, she’s got brains!’ as if it comes as such a sur­prise,” she laments. In­stead of chas­ing ideals and con­form­ing to stereo­types, she urges ev­ery­one to be their best self. “As cliché as it sounds, do you. Work hard, be good in what you do and de­liver – even­tu­ally, you will suc­ceed. I have this anal­ogy: You’re an ap­ple and I’m an or­ange. If you’re try­ing to be an or­ange, how can you be your best ap­ple self? You’ll fail mis­er­ably. So, just be the best, health­i­est, and most beau­ti­ful and hard­work­ing that you can be – you’ll flour­ish.” She should know, as she’s liv­ing proof of those wise words.

"Anuja (her twin sis­ter) and I were ac­tu­ally of­fered the role of the twins in CrazyRichAsians. I said no be­cause I didn’t want to be pro­jected just hold­ing hands with my sis­ter, wear­ing skimpy cloth­ing and look­ing pretty with­out di­a­logue."

Vest, BCBGMAXAZRIA. Tank top and ring, both Thanuja's own. Bracelet, Wan­der­lust + Co. Neck­lace and ban­gles, stylist's own.

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