When she grew up in Uganda women were viewed as nothing more than domestic servants. But now award-winning fashion designer, author and celebrity Suzan Mutesi truly owns her own voice - even though her journey to get there was difficult. Suzan has just unveiled her new book, The Immigrant That Found Her Unapologetic Voice’, a powerful and inspiring story that reminisces on her difficult upbringing, looks at the hardships many immigrant women face living in Australia and how she overcame it all to become, unapologetically, herself.
Q Suzan, thank you for talking to Lifestyle News. Please tell us about your upbringing.
A: I was born in Uganda after the dictatorship of Idi Amin, the parties of Obote and current president Museveni were fighting for power. Things hadn’t settled in the country and rebels were terrorising civilians.
As a child I recall rebels violently banging on our house in Uganda. Raised in a five-bedroom house inhabited by 20 people, ruled over by her polygamous father, the women in my family were raised to have no voice, valued only as domestic servants.
I took refuge in imaginative games, as we could not afford to buy Barbie dolls - so instead I would make dolls from banana plantation fibre and I would use scraps of fabric to design outfits.
My experience was so far from the reality of most people. Up to the age of 11, I was educated in a prison-like boarding school.
By the time I moved to Australia to join my mother, having been so used to the society that I was raised in, I had such a big culture shock when arriving on Australian shores.
It was June 21 2002 when I celebrated my first birthday with my mother in a foreign country. As a young girl being exposed so suddenly to a predominantly westernised culture, it was challenging, I had only seen predominantly black children, women and men at any social gatherings.
Like many Africans, my family came to Australia seeking safety and a better future. Yet assimilation wasn’t always made easy.
We were the only black family on the block, I faced racist micro aggressions from many of my classmates. During the holidays my Australian friends would easily get jobs but I struggled to get any job.
With no work experience in Australia, the only place I found opportunities to work was at a printing factory in Lidcombe which printed fashion magazines.
In the dusty, rusty tiresome long graveyard shifts at the factory on breaks, I would scan through the ink printed pages of magazines and I would envision myself being influential, with a voice.
I would admire the red carpet dresses and I would wish to dress celebrities one day, being on a glossy cover as a black woman was a dream.
Although I was locked inside the dark rooms picking and packing magazines, my mind was not locked out from seeing a bigger life.
At the end of my high school education, I immediately applied for design school at Raffles KVD in North Sydney.
While waiting for college to start, I wandered through the mall applying for retail work. I was approached by an agent who was searching for Black actors and models (as at the time I arrived in Australia there were barely many black African Australian participating in the industry).
I joined the coffee coloured characters agency, it was here I could hear and feel my thoughts and opinions becoming stronger, I knew that I should not waste the opportunity given to create my own sense of self.
My agent at the time encouraged me to enrol in a NIDA course during the holidays session, so that I could better my skills and build my confidence in acting. It was during this period I really could understand more of the world and how I could make a change for young African actors raised within Australian borders.
Through my years of schooling I graduated with a bachelor of Visual Communication majoring in Fashion Design. It was at the same time I interned at Steven Khalil, where I was motivated to pursue a career in fashion.
There I decided to start my own fashion business as a designer. As an individual I have always had an eye to see gold in people using all aspects of creativity. My passion for the arts and music, acting and modelling are geared towards empathy, compassion, truth and love and that’s expressed in every art form I use.
As a fashion designer I symbolised structure and class in my pieces, but most importantly wanted to give women of all shapes the ability to feel confident, valued, loved, comfortable and beautiful.
I was fortunate to dress and style the late model Charlotte Dawson for various engagements. I also had the opportunity to dress Lisa Viola for the Independent Artist Music Awards, Miss Diana Rouvas for Arias 2012 and actor Tammin Sursok.
However, despite such success, I have experienced various downfalls throughout my career, namely when my manufacturing deal ended, and at the same time my job was made redundant.
There have been a few times where I have faced debt and in these difficult times I found mentorship from a distance, by watching interviews, reading books, and following social media from the likes of Oprah Winfrey to Tyler Perry.
Q: What has inspired you?
A: Throughout my life I have been inspired by various fashion trends, models, and activists that have contributed to me being unapologetically myself. It’s a lot to be considered a style icon, actress, author, model, singer, producer and all-round creative powerhouse.
Coming from humble beginnings - I was born in Uganda, a country far from what I call home today - it is a blessing to be considered a household name in the Australian creative industry. I enjoy and love the person I have become today!
I will be featuring alongside a Best Actor Oscar winner in an upcoming Hollywood movie later this year - watch this space!
Q What is your book about?
A: This book is a reflection on the positive and negatives experiences that have aided my decision in who I am today.
This version of myself is a close up view that bares all into the most authentic, unabridged version of myself. Showcasing more of my success and failures in the fashion industry, this new book discusses my church culture, trauma with relationships, racism, friends that I have kept and left along the way.
This story goes beyond the entertainment industry, by providing advice and comfort for other people of colour who can identify with the experiences and masked versions of myself.
It looks closely into themes such as what is it truly like to leave your home and enter a whole new world? What does it take to succeed where thousands fail and leave your mark in not just one field, but several? How does one cope with all the adversity that weighs us down every day?
Q: How did you learn to own your own voice?
A: I learned how to own my voice through the process of journaling. It’s been incredibly therapeutic. Having this expressive outlet helped me focus on the issues that were closest to my heart.
As it went along, I travelled deeper within and gained access to complex thoughts and emotions I could never have reached otherwise. Penning a heartfelt letter to someone you care for is a personal and special thing, even more so when that person is you.
It shows how much you’ve grown to love and understand yourself. Before we love others, we need to have come face to face with the person in the mirror and brutally get real honest with him or her. In essence, how you love others is a reflection of how you see yourself and what you feel when you do.
We all have enemies, internet trolls, haters, jealous friends, and many more. The worst enemy, however, is the enemy within.
These are the inner demons that we fight daily. Fear, self-loathing, negative self-talk can all plague us and our steps as we try to move forward.
These can take root in your mind, body, and soul, and eventually, they’ll become a part of your guiding beliefs. Letting our inner demons control us is akin to sabotaging our future. It shows we have neglected to ask the girl or boy a deceptively simple question,“How is your heart?”
To be unapologetically you or finding your own voice is to be honest with yourself. That inner truth frees you from all self-deceit and false perceptions that you might hold.
Embracing truth and speaking words of kindness is like honey on the tongue —s weet relief to the soul and heart and an elixir for good health in body, spirit, and mind.
Q: Do you think Australians realise the hardships and difficulties many immigrant women and children face here?
A: Sadly I don’t think many Australians realise this.
Many immigrants have fled their homes in search of a safe haven with the hope to find refuge in a Westernised country we perceive as safe.
Most of the time once you land in a country so far from home, you are reminded you are not an equal and you don’t belong when you arrive.
Some people with trauma can feel hopeless in new environments - assimilation can be difficult.
Q: Why did you want to write this book?
A: I wanted to share the commonality that we all have as immigrant children whether you are black or white. We all face challenges some more so than others but it’s not easy.
Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes before you start judging them. Open your heart and learn something different from those that don’t look like you.
See the positive always, you will realise we have so much in common then what divides us.
Find out more about Suzan here.