When former Miss Universe Australia Maria Thattil came out as bisexual on national TV, her world changed forever. Here, she reveals the courage needed to overcome her strict religious upbringing to tell the truth, and why it was the most liberating decision of her life.
The first person I ever expressed my bi-curiosity to was my former partner, a vulnerable admission made during our relationship in the comfort of our bed as I divulged my inkling that maybe I was also attracted to women. He was respectful and he listened but— being in a monogamous relationship—I didn’t want to open a dialogue around exploring that while committed to him.
After becoming single, I toyed with the thought more, with the wildest expression of this curiosity resulting in me switching my dating app preferences from “Men” to “Men and Women” in 2020. It was a thrill to see same-sex matches come through, even more thrilling to exchange messages with these women, knowing that the conversation was occurring within a context where I knew they were attracted to me too.
I exchanged a few messages with two or three women before one night, in midst of the 2020 lockdown, when one of my friends texted to tell me she thought I’d been catfished.
“My friend just messaged me telling me that someone they knew saw a profile using your pictures on Tinder!” she wrote. With my best interests at heart, she wanted me to know that the person who found my profile messaged her friend asking, “Is Maria gay?”
I thanked her for alerting me to this, told her to tell them it was a catfish and swiftly changed my app preferences back to “Men” only. Afterwards I told my friend in confidence that it was actually my profile and that I didn’t want others to know that I was…curious. [It was] a curiosity explored only in my mind and within the confines of my phone, until one night in June the following year.
It was the middle of 2021 and I had just returned from the global Miss Universe competition. I had moved out of my parents’ home, was living alone for the first time, and was single and thriving on a night out with friends. Wearing bold red lipstick and a little black dress strategically cut out in all the right places, that’s where I met her.
After a formal dinner event at a Parisian steakhouse in Melbourne, two of my best friends and I ended up at a random mansion party in an affluent suburb nearby. Rather than mingle with the crowd gathered by the downstairs bar, the three of us congregated around a grand piano in the foyer, playing songs, singing and in our own world. It was getting late into the night, and after belting out a rendition of “7 Rings” by Ariana Grande ballad-style to my best friend on the piano, that’s when she approached me.
She complimented my dress and I happily shared the label name, naively unaware of her intentions. She thanked me and left, but returned to continue the conversation.
We continued to talk, but with my best friend pounding the piano keys beside us we couldn’t hear each other well. I found myself looking at her lips in an attempt to read them, but then I couldn’t stop staring at them. We moved to a discreet corner to “get away from the loud music” and continued to speak, maintaining intense eye contact, which was broken only when our sight would dart from each other’s eyes to lips. The tension was palpable. Powered by liquid courage, I couldn’t ignore it.
“Am I imagining that I am getting all the vibes from you right now?” I said. Her lips curved into a smile and she leaned in to kiss me. Things happened quickly, her hands moving from my face to my shoulders, around my waist, then my neck, mine just wanting to touch her. My mind was screaming finally, but I couldn’t think, I just felt her. I can’t even remember how long we were kissing before one of my best friends turned a corner on her search for me and her audible gasp interrupted the moment.
Breaking away, I was shocked to see my red lipstick all over her face – horrified to even imagine the mess on mine. I grabbed her hand and led her to the bathroom to clean ourselves up but as soon as the door shut, she had me up against a wall. She kissed my face and then moved to my neck, sliding a hand up my thigh as I yearned for it to make its way under my dress. We were insatiable. I wanted to let things escalate further but there was a knock on the door that quickly broke the tension, so I scrambled to wet some paper and clear my face.
“I have to go,” I said. “But I just want to tell you something,” she replied, holding on to my hands in a last-ditch attempt to get me to stay. She wanted the escalation too.
I left the bathroom, regrouped with my friends and begged them to leave the party with me. Suddenly, fear and anxiety were running through my head. What if someone I knew saw? What if someone took photos and it ends up in a tabloid? What if the narrative is taken out of my hands?
I had only just gotten back from Miss Universe, was trying to navigate the in-between as I looked for my next big opportunity, and was trying to make sense of where I was at. This uprooted all of that. I had just tapped into something that I tried to suppress … and the sound of my heartbeat drummed up the anxiety as I wondered what might have ensued.
Shortly after that night, I was confirmed to join the cast of 13 celebrities on season eight of the Australian version of I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! and was due to go away to film the production. So I left Melbourne for the bush, excited at the prospect of filming my first TV show.
At the time, I had received other offers for great shows but turned them down. I wanted my first introduction to the country via such a wide-reaching national platform to be one where I could be stripped back and have them see me for me, not Miss Universe Australia and not a character.
Every celebrity cast on the show competes to raise awareness of and funds for a charity of their choice. I chose Minus18, a charity that aims to improve the lives of LGBTQIA+ Australian youth. When I made the decision to support LGBTQIA+ youth like Dominic (my brother) and share their stories, I did not expect that I would be in the thick of my own.
While filming the show, I shared many moments with my fellow cast members where I talked about the bullying, discrimination and homophobia that Dominic faced, often getting teary because I knew that he was one of the lucky ones.
For every time that he survived being called a “fag”, being excluded by the church or condemned by the beliefs that even our extended family held, other LGBTQIA+ young people had not. I cried in many conversations as I recounted my gratitude that my brother survived it and grew into an out and proud gay man, confident in his decision to wear handbags and heels and love whoever he wants to love, because he had shed the beliefs that doing so would compromise his masculinity and chastity.
But I also cried because, internally, I knew I was still doing a disservice to myself. I cried for the woman who only months ago had left a party burdened by the weight of the judgement she feared in churches, schools and that mansion as she kissed another woman.
I cried knowing that despite all I had come to believe and be an ally for, I was not showing up for myself. So one day, I found myself in a private conversation with a fellow castmate, who became one of my closest friends. We were talking about men I had dated when it came over me like an impulse.
Under the blanket in a treehouse in the most unnatural setting of a reality TV set, I opened up about something that was most natural to me. “I haven’t told anyone but I’ll tell you,” I said, exhaling a deep anxious breath. “Growing up, I always thought maybe I was a little bi-curious. I only ever dated straight men. I just felt like it’s ‘easier’ to, you know, date men.” Then I told the story of that night in the mansion. “It just felt natural,” I said. “I just want to break out of this and know that it’s OK.”
Something about that [reality TV] environment strips you bare and draws out a raw vulnerability. I found myself relating to celebrities who I had only ever seen before through a TV screen, and baring my heart to them.
The castmate casually responded, “It’s OK. You can do whatever. You can love whoever.” I replied, “It is so nice to say it and know that there is absolutely nothing wrong.” I came home knowing that before the show aired there would be a period of time where I could come out privately to family and friends first.
When I came out to my parents, I sat them down and I explained to them that I was bisexual. “It’s OK, Maria, you don’t have to make it a big deal,” Dad said. The same ex-priest who initially thought that his son being gay was a phase he needed to guide him through, had grown into a man who embraced his kids and came to believe that his only right as a parent was to love them.
My folks didn’t comprehend what bisexuality meant [though] and it took several conversations over many months and me seriously dating a woman for the first time before they started to understand it. But I loved that while they didn’t necessarily understand sexuality in a fluid way, they tried – and that took them shedding the beliefs they had rooted in religion, their upbringing and generational attitudes – [in order] to show up for their daughter.
The night before the episode aired, I called Dominic, anxious about what the reception would be to my public coming out. We spoke on the phone until 2am.
The little boy who grew up bound by the same beliefs that scarred much of his young life with anti-gay sentiment was now a grown man who lovingly reminded me of why we call it “pride”. My bisexuality was no longer a part of me to hide but to celebrate. I was ready to come out.
When I watched the episode, the scene of me coming out to my castmate cut to a separate solo interview with me in a wooden interview room, ironically resembling a confessional. With a smile and air of relaxation I said, “It just feels bloody good to say it.”
Unbounded by Maria Thattil (Penguin Random House, $34.99) is out on February 21 and is available for pre-order now.