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Mental health, lived experience and beauty pageantry: Michelle Gissara is breaking down misconceptions in her quest to help others

Dechlan Brennan -

When National Indigenous Times sat down with Michelle Gissara, she was correct to assume this journalist’s pre-conceived notions of pageantry.

But Ms Gissara, a Kardu Diminin/Kardu Yek Naninh woman living off Country on Boonwurrung Country in Naarm, is using the platform for a purpose. 
 
Acting as a positive role model for First Nations Australians, she is using her lived experience to speak about mental health in Indigenous communities on the world stage. 

“A lot of people don't know that Australia actually has a very vibrant pageant community, and a pageant scene," she said. "People tend to think of it as toddlers and tiaras.”

Last year, Ms Gissara represented Australia in an international beauty pageant - Miss Universal Global - in the United States, winning the people's choice award for her division, and will be going back again this year. 

“I got into it [pageantry] just to be able to increase my self-esteem, my self-confidence, and [to] put myself out of my comfort zone and to see what opportunities come from it,” she said. 

“And one of the opportunities from winning a pageant here in Melbourne was to be able to actually go over to America last year and compete in Orlando.”

Her people's choice award she won in Florida has allowed Ms Gissara a larger platform to be able to talk about her work in mental health and her passion for helping others. 

“I'm passionate about the work that I do in mental health,” Ms Gissara said. 

“So just being able to have a bit of an extra platform to be able to talk about it to a wider audience… is amazing.”

Asked how she navigated the cultural representations on these platforms, especially as a proud Indigenous woman, Ms Gissara acknowledged there is not enough people of colour entering pageants to begin with.

“So, just by me entering, I'm kind of showing that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, men and kids can enter pageantry as well, and that it’s something that is positive for your self-esteem,” she said. 

She noted this can also involve promoting First Nations culture, with a national costume round last year allowing her to “show off” Emu feather skirts she had created, along with possum skin she had been burning with her stories. 

Part of the Black Dog Institute's Indigenous Lived Experience Centre Network, Ms Gissara is also a Vice Chancellor's Indigenous Predoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Global, Urban, and Social Sciences at RMIT University.

Her passion for helping people plays a role in all facets of her life, from volunteering; to donating food hampers; to her pageantry. 

@natindigtimes Beauty and brains, Pageant Queen Michelle Gissara, is making waves in the international pageantry world. When the Aboriginal Research Fellow at RMIT isn’t representing Australia in competitions overseas, she spends her spare time advocating for mental health and her culture. With an important story to tell, this is just the start for Michelle. #aboriginalaustralia #indigenousaustralia #beautyqueen #pageant #missuniversalglobal #indigenousexcellence ♬ Will to Live - Jacob Yoffee

It is a passion born from lived experience. 

Asked how she got involved with the Indigenous Lived Experience Centre Network - which elevates the voices of Indigenous people to share their own lived experiences to better educate and design mental health initiatives - Ms Gissara was open about her life experiences. 

“I have PTSD and anxiety from my lived experience of not growing up on Country,” she told National Indigenous Times, “and being split up from my Aboriginal parent — and then also losing her to pancreatic cancer in 2017".

“The parent that I lived with as well…was an abusive parent…so just dealing with that; I wanted to use my lived experience to help other people that might be going through something.”

Meeting on the grounds of RMIT, Ms Gissara was open about how she wanted to be a positive role model for Indigenous people, and this extended to her encouragement for people enrolling in higher education. 

She said, regardless of what you wanted to do, it was often about “giving it a go,” and highlighted the support she received from the Ngarara Willim Centre - which offers free services for Indigenous students at RMIT - when she first enrolled in a Bachelor of Criminology and Psychology. 

“There’s also a centre where you can go and get a snack, you can have a yarn with someone, you can get help with your homework,” Ms Gissara said.

“There's always going to be people that are here to support you…so you're not really going to feel like you're on your own.” 

This support has led her through undergraduate, honours and now postgraduate work, and Ms Gissara was firm in what she wanted from in the future.

“I'd like to be a professor of criminology,” she said. 

“I know that there's not enough Indigenous psychologists here in Australia, which is a problem…but also there's not a lot of criminologists that are Indigenous as well.

“Especially with the political and socio-economic things that are happening here in Australia, it's important to have that Indigenous voice.” 

Outside of education, Ms Gissara said she wanted to “keep telling and sharing” her story around Australia, with the hope of helping people on issues like separation from family, where she said it was important to know you can “reconnect and work through your intergenerational trauma".

“I'm here to help,” she said.

“Any way that I can.”

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