She's been through the mill. But, she’s ready to do what she does best: Empower women.
“YOU HAVE TO TRY THIS CHEESECAKE! IT’S THE BEST!” STEPHANIE SIRIWARDHANA PUSHES A PLATE TOWARDS ME, AND AS I TAKE A FORKFUL OF THE DECADENT GOODNESS, I HAVE TO AGREE. Stephanie unapologetically loves her food and I love that about her. As I sit down next to her with my own slice of cheesecake, I take in the jeans and shirt ensemble, bare face with a smidgen of tinted lip balm, and her oh-so-beautiful eyelashes. She looks effortlessly put-together and I can already feel all eyes at the café focusing on us as they register who she is.
This wasn’t always the norm for Stephanie. She’d grown up as a young girl full of insecurities and suffered at the hands of many bullies. But, fortunately, Stephanie always had a fantastic support system in her family, especially her parents. Her mother would always tell her, “Darling, it’s so easy to try and change to fit in, but being different takes a lot of courage. So, have the courage to be different!”, and her father firmly believed you don’t need anyone’s character certificate. So, over the years, Stephanie worked on herself, learning to define who she truly is and what she wanted to stand for as a human being. This process, slowly, yet steadily, empowered her. It is this journey that has inspired her to create an anti-bullying campaign and empower women and children to find the courage within themselves to stand out—to be whoever they want to be. “What’s important for me is that these individuals believe in themselves and realise that they really have the strength within to make their dreams come true.”
Curious, I had to ask her how she transformed into who she is today. Turns out it’s been a constant work in progress, but it began with dance. “When I was 16-years-old, I’d just moved to Canada and had taken up some group dance lessons with my friends. Then, my aunt took me dancing with her. Little by little, I got addicted to dancing but I couldn’t do any styling at the time (embellishments that each dancer adds that’s unique to them). So at one point, I just stopped and watched the others dance. Then, I began again…it’s tough to explain this but as I began to let go I realised who I was and with that knowledge came freedom, and what followed was confidence. Today, this is how I express myself…on the dancefloor where nobody cares who you are or where you come from, and your mind, body and soul are all connected and moving as one. When I experience an emotion, every fibre of my being translates that emotion, so I’m living that sensation to the fullest—body, mind and spirit. I’m completely in sync. It gives you such a sense of freedom and so much self-awareness that you really start to understand that this is who I am! It’s through my love of dance that I started to lose weight and began to truly feel beautiful.”
Sipping on her cappuccino, lost in thought for a few seconds, Stephanie says, “I think everyone should find that one thing they love that makes them feel liberated. Most of the time we’re looking for control and we’re afraid to show everyone who we really are. I know I was afraid of rejection.”
For as long as she could remember, Stephanie had always wanted to give those who couldn’t speak up for themselves a voice, particularly girls and women. Since she was in university, Stephanie has been an activist, organizing speaker series to empower the youth in Canada, where she lived at the time. “When I came back to Sri Lanka, I was trying to be a disrupter… trying to to get people to listen and pay attention to the many projects I’d got lined up to help women and girls,” she reveals. “But no one listened or paid attention to me. But, the minute I had a crown on my head (thanks to becoming Miss Sri Lanka for Miss Universe 2011) everyone wanted to hear what I had to say. In that moment, I realized that if you want to change the system you can’t throw stones at the castle, you need to be in the castle to throw down the drawbridge and bring in the troops!”
I asked her how she even got into competing for the Miss Sri Lanka pageant in the first place. Turns out, her mom enlisted her. “I’d just finished university and I had a month off. I found out she’d done it and I flipped!” she said. “I was like, ‘No way! I’m an academic and I’m not going to be this shallow girl who values her looks over her brains.’ And my mom said, ‘Don’t you think you’re being a little narrow-minded?’ So, I figured I didn’t have a lot to lose and if at all maybe I’d make peace with the fact that I’m a woman.”
Funnily enough, Stephanie never expected to win the local pageant, but when she did she decided to embrace the whole experience. Contrary to popular belief, pretty much all the ladies hailing from all parts of the globe at the Miss Universe pageant are in reality very smart. Chuckling to herself, she narrates an experience just as the whole thing began. “Everyone told me to watch out for India because they’re rumoured to be pretty cutthroat and when I discovered Miss India was going to be my roommate, I freaked out! I was certain she was going to sabotage me! So I took a decoy dress and hung that up in the closet, while my real outfit was tucked away safely under my bed. As it so happens I really had nothing to worry about. We wound up being great friends and now we have a good laugh over the story! The girls are so intelligent. Miss India is a human rights lawyer in New York, for example. And nearly all of them turned out to be such empowered, fabulous women and I realised I had judged my entire gender.”
Throughout her life, Stephanie has enjoyed the ups and battled through the downs, but what’s remarkable is that she never lost sight of who she was and what she wanted to do. When she was 26-years-old, Stephanie was ironing her clothes for a show and sneezed causing two slip disks. An electric shock travelled through her spine and she fell to the floor. Her dad promptly rushed her to the accident ward, but they were afraid of moving her in the event one small movement could cause paralysis. “I spent one month in the accident ward, and I saw so many horrors. Girls were brought in half naked, some burned, and it was traumatising. I begged my father to take me out because I couldn’t take it anymore. So, when I could move just a little they took me back home, where I stayed in bed for another month. I couldn’t walk and didn’t know if I would ever walk again. I became so depressed because I’m a dancer and for me, my legs and movement are so important. Even to turn from one side to another, someone else had to do it.
One day, I called my close friend in Canada and I said, ‘I had so many dreams and now I can’t even move. What do I do?’ And, he said, ‘Follow your dreams, Stephanie. You’ve always wanted to make a difference and now’s the moment. Just do it.’ So, I signed the papers for the Stephanie Siriwardhana Foundation in bed. Thankfully, another month later, I could slowly sit up and, then, stand. I slept on the floor for almost a year and after loads of treatments, like laser therapy, physiotherapy and alternative medicine, I could slowly walk again.”
Stephanie recently got hitched and it appears has met her match in her husband, Dushyanth Weeraman. “I feel so blessed,” she says. “He is an absolutely amazing man. Our values and principles are so in line with each other and he makes me laugh every day—he’s hilarious! He’s an idiot and I can be an idiot with him! It’s a side people don’t ever see because he’s super shy and takes time to open up. And, people often think he doesn’t talk too much because he’s arrogant, but that’s not the case.” But, it turns out just as he’s a goofball with Stephanie, he is also an utter romantic.
On her birthday, he sent her a video because she was away working in Dubai. “At first, I thought it was a video of everyone wishing me, but it turned out to be so much more. So my favourite things to eat are a badapu mallu lunch packet and thambili so he took the two and gave a whole lot of lunch packets and thambili to underprivileged people living on the streets. They were very confused, assuming this was an almsgiving, but when he explained that I was still alive, they blessed us both for our upcoming wedding. By the end of the video, I was bawling my eyes out. It meant so much that he did this for me – I know it’s a temporary charity for just one day and it’s not sustainable, but it was the thought behind it that counted.” Today, they work together on projects for the Stephanie Siriwardhana Foundation, as well as at events, singing together.
How did you get to know each other, I ask her. They’ve dated for 5 years, out of which 3 of them were a total secret. “We got to know each other inside a car because we couldn’t go anywhere—people would start talking even before we knew what was going on. So we’d get prosciutto, bread and cheese, park outside my house and just chat until morning. Finally, at one point, my father said, ‘Enough of sitting outside in the car. Can you please bring this boy inside?’
The first time I saw his parents was when he’d gone to pick up something from his house. He parked and he told me not to go into the house and just to sit here, he’d be back soon. I was so curious and his front door was open, so I slowly snuck in and looked around. They have this little hall with all these pictures. So I went down some stairs and started looking at them. After I’d finished I went back up towards the entrance and little did I know that his dad had been there the whole time observing me. Hello!’ he said. I whipped around and said, ‘Oh! Hello, uncle! I’m Stephanie!’ And, that’s how I met his parents!”
Stephanie has her hands busy these days. Aside from playing a large role in the entertainment industry, compering and singing, she’s putting together a women’s day event complete with workshops, yoga and self-defence classes, all of which are free. Her goal: to bring awareness to the organizations and groups that work with issues around women and girls in the event you wish to get involved or are silent victim seeking help.
Her other project revolves around the women’s section of the Welikada prison. “For one year, we’re giving a 100 convicted women care packages. These women don’t have a lot of visitors and they don’t have access to a lot of basic things like pads, panties, bras, toothbrush, toothpaste etc.. We started the first batch in December and we go every 3 months. The superintendent gave us complete access to go throughout the prison to see everything with our own eyes, so we could assess what actually needed to be done. Initially, we went there with the idea to give out care packages, but now we have a project to set up a multi-functional vocational training centre, as well as rebuild the toilets in the women’s section. Right now, due to how the sewage system is built, all of the gunk from the entire prison goes past the women’s section. And, when it floods up, they literally have to walk through sh*t to go and do their business. As a result, a lot of them have foot and skin rashes. So, we’re currently fundraising for this.”
As our conversation draws to a close and I hug Stephanie goodbye, I realize, with all her experiences, she is the embodiment of the modern woman, fearlessly pushing the boundaries. The world is her oyster.
Photographer: Jehan D Adahan. Hair & Make-Up: Meraki By Sumi. Location: King Of The Mambo.
Styling: Sumaiya Shuaibdeen. Beauty: Lakshika Pinto. Art Direction: Iskhan Ahamed.
For more of Stephanie Sirwardhana, pick up a copy of our April 2019 issue on newsstands now, or click here to subscribe.
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