The Sunday Leader

Beauty & brains Stephanie Siriwardhana

By Raisa Wickrematunge
Picture by Pavithra Jovan de Mello

In person, Stephanie Siriwardhana is vivacious, down-to-earth, and eloquent-especially when talking about her passion- social activism. Born in Kuwait, Stephanie moved to Sri Lanka when she was 3 years old, after the Gulf war broke out.

Her ‘Eureka’ moment, she says, came while she was a senior in school, watching her classmates graduate with extra-curricular involvements like the Model UN whilst she graduated without any extra acknowledgments. “I realized I was really uninvolved- I didn’t do anything!” Stephanie said.

She resolved to turn this around in university. Stephanie studied Journalism, Communications and Political Science at Concordia University and duly enrolled in every club – from Chinese, African, or Caribbean clubs to martial arts. Soon, she got involved in student politics and was elected vice president of the student union, handling a budget of 2 million dollars for 40,000 students. In her capacity as VP of the student union, Senator and Governor of her university, Stephanie organized many events and conferences featuring Nobel Laureates like Dr. Wangari Maathai, Dr. Shirin Ebadi and many notables like human rights advocate Martin Luther King III and Craig Kielburger, founder of charitable organization ‘Free The Children’. Craig inspired Stephanie so much that she wanted to move to Toronto and work with them.

“It was so empowering. You felt like nothing was impossible!” Stephanie said, recalling the feeling which inspired and empowered her immensely.

Stephanie was by no means idle at university – whilst balancing studying and her involvement with the student union, she also spent her evenings practicing with her dance troupe. An avid salsa, merengue and bachata dancer, Stephanie and her troupe traveled to New York, Toronto, Bermuda and Miami for salsa conventions. On the weekends, she worked in order to help pay her university fees. Her favourite job was in experiential marketing, where she was simply supposed to demonstrate Playstation games, or perhaps how a coffee machine worked. “I love meeting people and chatting with them, so it was fun for me,” she said
So what brought Stephanie from activism to beauty pageants? It all came about purely by chance. Stephanie was in Sri Lanka on holiday. “I came home one day and my mum was like ‘Guess what I did!’” she recalled. Her mother had sent in her application to the Miss Sri Lanka pageant.

Stephanie’s first reaction was, “I hope my friends don’t find out!”
“It is really sad to say, but I bought into the stereotype about beauty queens,” she explained. However, she realized that this might be the perfect platform for her to speak out on issues that she cared about. Ever the tomboy, Stephanie thought it was also a good opportunity to get in touch with her femininity.

Little did she know that she would soon be crowned Miss Universe Sri Lanka.
Stephanie recalls the moment when her name was announced. She was still clapping, thinking that someone else had won, when it sunk in that the name being called was hers – she was overjoyed and surprised.

It was a long road to the crown. “I worked hard. I went on a diet, which I’ve never done before, and lost 10 kilograms in one month,” Stephanie said. This was especially hard considering Stephanie’s love of food (upon being asked what she enjoys doing in her spare time, she says ‘Eat!’ without a moment’s hesitation). At one point before the competition she even broke down as she watched her family eating waffles and pancakes smothered in Nutella, one of her guilty pleasures, while she had to pick at a Caesar salad. “All you see of beauty queens is waving and blowing kisses, you don’t see the hard work that went in,” Stephanie said. She also had to learn how to apply make-up, and laughingly recalls how she and her room-mate, Miss India, would wake up at 5 a.m. before the other contestants, and earnestly study a piece of paper explaining what concealer was, and where it should be applied.

Stephanie also discovered that beauty queens were more than pretty faces – Miss India, for instance, had two degrees and was a human rights lawyer.
“It was amazing. The girls were great and I learned a lot… I learnt the responsibility that comes with representing your country. I was wearing a sash – it was so light – that said Sri Lanka, but that sash was the heaviest thing I’ve had to carry because that represented 20 million people,” Stephanie said, recalling the experience on the Miss Universe stage. She added that she was humbled and honoured to be given such an opportunity.

Following the contest, Stephanie has spoken at several events like the Rotary Annual Conference, UN Youth Day, The National Conference on the Role of Youth in Reconciliation and the SAARC youth conference in Bangladesh.  She also hosts many events like the SLPL with Rameez Raja. She has also fulfilled a lifelong dream and set up her own Foundation, the Stephanie Siriwardhana Foundation, which works to empower, inspire and educate women, youth and children.

Part of this work comes from collaboration on projects; for International Women’s Day, Stephanie arranged to showcase all the women’s rights organizations on Gregory’s Road. Each organization had a tent and also participated in a full range of free workshops on everything from self-defence to dance, styling and pranic healing. The aim of was not just to show the problems that still needed to be tackled in terms of women’s rights but also to identify the organizations working to solve those problems. “I want to be the glue that brings organizations together, because we need formal policy implementation, and to do that we have to have a united voice… Collectively I believe we have more strength,” Stephanie said.

Stephanie believes in instilling a love of giving, and this is what her Foundation sets out to do, by illustrating a problem and then offering a solution for youth and others to participate in.

As might be expected, Stephanie’s schedule is usually jam-packed, just like during her days at university. “I like being busy. I like trying new things. I get bored easily, so I like to have my hands in lots of different things at the same time,” she explained. “It is a bit hectic, but what’s great is, you never know what’s coming… I can’t stand the mundane.”

1 Comment for “Beauty & brains Stephanie Siriwardhana”

  1. Punsiri Zoysa

    Who the hell is Alice !

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