THE BEST VERSION OF HERSELF
THANUJA ANANTHAN SPEAKS UP ABOUT BEING BULLIED WHEN SHE FIRST DEBUTED IN THE ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY AND HOW HER ANIMAL RESCUE WORK HAS KEPT HER GROUNDED THROUGHOUT THE YEARS. BY
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.”
“I TURNED DOWN A ROLE IN CRAZY RICHASIANS”
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.”
“WORKING WITH ANIMALS HAS KEPT ME GROUNDED”
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.”
“I HAVE A NEW LOVE IN MY LIFE”
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.
“I HATE IT WHEN PEOPLE SAY SOMEONE IS A BEAUTY WITH BRAINS”
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.