Mahalia Handley Shines for Diversity
We chatted to the stunning Irish Maori model and co-founder about diversity, trolls and what's in store for the future.
Mahalia, we are so excited to have this chat with you- thank you so much for being here! For those who are yet to learn who you are, could you please give a little introduction?
Hello! Thank you so much I'm always excited to interview and love what your doing with Her Society!
Well I think the best way to introduce myself is to explain how to say my name correctly! If you say Australia out loud and then follow it with my name you'll get the right vibe- which is why I have my Instagram name as Mahalia from Australia! I'm a model and activist, I've been in the fashion industry for 8 years now, and am a born and bred Territorian, raised in Darwin.
I've always wanted to be a model so I pursued that career with gusto and am pretty proud to look back at all my accomplishments and career thus far. I've always had a passion for women's rights and as a curvy woman with a mixed-race heritage, I've felt that it was my responsibility to speak up for women who are in the same position as me, but do not have a platform.
You are an incredible ambassador for diversity within the modelling industry which lead to you co-founding Shine4Diversity. Could you tell us a little bit about the organisation?
So Shine is a passion project that, with the help of my co-founder (Shareefa J), became a non-profit social awareness campaign. It was the first time that I managed a full production and was able to take on a leading role as creative director as well as stylist and taking part within the campaign. Shine is a project that focuses on the experiences of people of colour through their own eyes, and how not being equally represented in the media has affected them and what we, the public, can do to help make changes We hope to inspire brands to be more inclusive of people from a variety of different ethnicities, and aim to illustrate the indirect discrimination that occurs regularly in the media.
How much of founding the organisation had to do with your own struggles in being underrepresented as an Irish Maori woman?
100% of it. The inspiration actually came from a lifetime of noticing the lack of representation in the media, and feeling like I never saw someone who looked like me growing up. Even when I started being represented in the media, I knew and felt like it wasn't enough.
Shine really revved up when I was told that the trend of race was 'no longer a thing in fashion' and people of colour had equal representation already.
Truthfully, I had actually considered leaving the fashion industry after so many years of battling what seemed to be brick walls, and the development of Shine is something that I wanted to do to leave a lasting impression on the industry that would hopefully initiate change. But, after developing the project and campaign and seeing how much it resonated with people, a flame was ignited inside me again and I now have no thoughts of giving up my platform or position any time soon.
Although we’ve seen some positive steps towards change, there is still a long way to go. Do you still face moments of discrimination or are they becoming more few and far between?
I would say that I'm not getting as many bluntly obvious remarks anymore, I've always heard things like "oh you are very exotic" or "unfortunately you're too exotic looking for us", which has always dumbfounded me. My dad is from New Zealand, which is 2 hours away from Australia, and my mum's Irish. I'm proud of my heritages but I wouldn't classify them as exotic. I guess what I see more than anything that is still predominant in the industry is tokenism, and it's clearly seen in ratio. Often I'm still the only model of colour on set and I see the lip service of tokenism in fashion every day. For me unless there is equal representation of noticeable people of colour used within fashion brands then the industry still has a long way to go.
Unfortunately, there are still some people out there who believe the body positivity movement and acceptance of marginalised bodies is glorifying obesity. This leads to trolling, fat-shaming and bullying. How do you deal with the haters and trolls?
I believe that people are still trolling and bullying because they themselves are still caught in a negative relationship with their own body. They are still at war with themselves because the media has told them that they are not allowed to love themselves (why would they when it would just decrease sales?). I think when people bully or troll others, it's self reflecting, and viciously attacking another is just a reflection of how they feel about themselves. If you were sitting in a restaurant, the likelihood of you caring what the person across from you is eating would be low, so why is is the concern high when it's about a complete strangers body or lifestyle. I don't feel like anybody has the right to comment on another persons body unless they are their doctor. It's detrimental when somebody on the internet comments without knowing any medical history (physical or mental) to the person behind a photograph. It took me a long time to find my own body positivity, I'm still learning every day, but I've accepted my body as it is and see power in the fact that I get to live and breathe every day- that's a blessing. I don't buy into anybody's opinion of me is, it's my opinion that matters the most.
You are an important voice for women of colour and marginalised persons and have built a following being truly authentic and unapologetically yourself. What is the main message you want to get across to girls and women who may follow you?
I want to represent women, ethnic women and curvy women who have come from small country towns who aren't typically seen in fashion or given the opportunities to have the success I've been able to achieve. I hope it highlights to women that what we want isn't out of grasp, and that our dreams are achievable. I want to be something I haven't seen before.
Women are in an amazing place right now and we have to be more vocal in creating our own stories and opportunities. I hope I can show women they can have the same success by going as far as I have in my own career.
I was just a small town girl from Darwin who was told I'd probably never work a day in my life as a model.
I've always stuck true to my aesthetic and opinions on my Instagram page, and only ever endorsed products and companies I fully back and have tried myself.
Where do you hope to see yourself and Shine4Diversity in 5 years time?
I'm currently waiting for my Visa to be approved for the United States, so I envision myself living between New York, London and Australia. In 5 years time, I see myself at the pinnacle of my career and having laid the foundations for the many businesses I wish to bring to life. I hope to have written a children's book and to have had the chance to speak to women and girls directly and ignite change and hope within their lives. I hope I am able to speak daily to the masses about my hopes and perspectives.
I like to think that in 5 years, Shine4Diversity becomes a movement that breaks the barrier of tokenism in Australia and is a crucial example for businesses to base their casting and branding from. I hope it has a domino effect and inspires many other people to create their own movements and stand up for what they believe in.
Above all, I hope to be healthy and loving so that I can give love and receive it. I hope to be by a beach at all times and more courageous and fearless than I've ever been because all steps I've taken have shown me that dreams, passion and hard work will make way for change and growth.
You can follow Mahalia on Instagram @mahaliafromaustralia