How is it you can be left feeling so uplifted your heart could burst and filled to the brim with optimism after listening to the life story of a person who has been dealt some of life’s most difficult hands in quick succession?
I’m not sure how she managed to do it, but as Tulsi Vagjiani tells us her unforgettable story founded on trauma and loss, I could just hear the bright smile on her face. I couldn’t see it, but it was most definitely there. Audible, infectious; loud and clear.
Once again, it is our true pleasure to be sharing yet another incredible real life story from another remarkable real world person.
This time, it’s Tulsi - an empowering warrior who is using her own experience as a survivor to instil confidence, self-love and ownership of personal beauty in others. More than just a survivor though, she’s a thriver through and through. Tulsi believes she has conquered the battles put in her path in order to be here today, sharing her story on platforms just like ours - and what an honour it is to support her.
“10 years old, looking different is maybe a new outfit, or new trainers, or a new hair colour or something - it’s certainly not a whole new identity”
Tulsi’s story is one which requires some chronological context so let’s go back to when she was just 10 years old, fighting with her younger brother over the window seat on a flight to Bangalore.
Tulsi was born in London but her family has roots in India. On the cusp of starting high school, her parents wanted her to experience authentic Indian culture, and to garner a deep gratitude for the privileged life her and her brother had back in London. Part of the family tour around India included a trip to Mumbai to reclaim some lost luggage but tragically, Tulsi’s mother, father and brother never made it off the flight.
The last thing Tulsi remembers is the sibling rivalry over the window seat. The next thing she recalls is being woken up by her grandma, in a hospital bed and being told that her family “were no more” and not to worry as she would be okay but that she looked “different”.
Muddled by painkillers and sedation, Tulsi couldn’t initially comprehend what was being said but later learned that she had been pulled from the wreckage from a plane crash, a plane crash her loved ones had not survived. She also learnt that she had suffered smoke inhalation, a fractured arm and at 10 years old, had suffered 45% burns to her face and body.
In Tulsi’s words, reflecting on the incident in retrospect as a 37 year old, she “got away with it quite lightly”. I’m in awe of her ability to see it this way, having lost her family, her physical identity and life as she knew it in one fell swoop.
A level of strength I’m sure we can all be inspired by.
“I started to make peace with the fact that the reason I survived is because I’m here to tell this story”
It wasn’t until 4-6 weeks after the accident that Tulsi saw herself in the mirror - something she was “excited and enthusiastic” to do. Blissfully unaware at such a young age what the weeks of reconstructive surgery she had just undergone really meant. “I thought someone had drawn that face on”, she tells us, recounting the moment she saw the unfamiliar person blinking and talking back at her in the mirror.
Her visible difference is something that took Tulsi a very long time to come to terms with, even leading her to a battle with drugs and alcohol at one point in her later years. It was at 19 years old, through a friend at college that Tulsi discovered spirituality though - something that she was initially sceptical about, but a perspective which has since transformed her entire existence.
After reading The Power of Now (by Eckhart Tolle) and resonating with the importance of staying grounded in the present moment, Tulsi “started to make peace with the fact that the reason [she] survived is because [she’s] here to tell his story”. Her newfound spirituality taught Tulsi that “there’s a bigger purpose to surviving than just surviving”, that “giving up is not an option” and how we can all become better people every single day.
“Beauty is a personal journey and I own my own beauty - it’s not your version or anyone else’s”
Tulsi’s spiritual outlook is a testament to her emotional strength, not made easy by the physical consequences attached to being a survivor of severe burns. Still though, Tulsi looks on the bright side of life, telling us how in more recent times, she has called her scars her “gems”. “They decorate my body”, she exclaims with a punch of genuine pride in her voice that once again leaves me awestruck.
The very fact that I find myself awestruck and full of admiration that somebody could take such pride in a visible difference of appearance speaks volumes. It confirms the unrealistic standards of beauty that are shoved down our throats by mass media every single second of the day.
Tulsi tells us of a time she visited a make-up counter, explaining that she wasn’t looking for foundation or concealer but something that would “enhance [her] face, not cover it”. This throwaway comment from Tulsi left the make-up artist in tears - presumably as embarrassingly shocked as me that in today’s society, somebody would want to show off what mass media would deem unappealing.
But who cares what I think anyway? Who cares what a make-up artist behind a counter thinks either? “Beauty is a personal journey”, Tulsi tells us. It’s nobody else’s version. It’s not even in the eye of the beholder. “I own my own beauty”, proclaims Tulsi and it’s a mantra I will be keeping much closer to my own heart moving forward.
“Behind each visible difference is a human being with goals and aspirations”
In 2012, Tulsi made contact with the Katie Piper Foundation - a charity run by activist and burns survivor in the public eye, Katie Piper, who she described to us as being totally “warm, welcoming and relatable”. This lead Tulsi to becoming involved in regular social meet-ups with other visible different people and “what a relief” it was to be surrounded by a community of people who understood her, and to talk about regular stuff.
Tulsi is now a dedicated campaigner herself, working as an ambassador for Changing Faces - a UK charity supporting anybody with a visible difference, from scarring to skin conditions. She is “helping change the dialogue of the future” because “there’s a place for all of us in this world” and “behind each visible difference is a human being with goals and aspirations”.
As with all ONEOFTHE8 guests, we asked Tulsi where she finds her inspiration to which she replied: “my 7 year old niece”. Tulsi’s niece teaches her daily about kindness, patience and love. She’s a constant reminder to live an authentic, transparent life, and to always “remember who’s looking up at you”.
So, once you’ve finished reading this story, we invite you to take two minutes to just sit and think about who’s looking up to you as a role model, or as their own source of inspiration? And finally, in the wise words of our guest herself, ask yourself: “what are you now going to do to change the narrative of your story?”
There’s much, much more to Tulsi’s incredible story so far - including a victorious battle against end-stage kidney failure and a hallucinative visit from Lord Krishna - so make sure you catch the full episode over on the ONEOFTHE8 podcast.