It is clear from Sasha Sarago’s extensive resume she believes she can do anything she sets her mind to.
It is this belief, where she hopes to inspire other Aboriginal woman and girls.
Founder of the online fashion magazine Ascension and director of the recent documentary Too Pretty To Be Aboriginal, Sasha is a proud Aboriginal woman of the Wadjanbarra Yidinji and Jirrbal clans, and is also of African-American, Malay, Mauritian and Spanish descent.
A former model, Sasha wanted more visibility of women of colour in fashion and media, and in 2011, founded Ascension, Australia’s first Indigenous and ethnic women’s lifestyle magazine which was brought to life as a digital online publication.
Sasha says the vision to start Ascension was borne out of a frustration of having to import magazines such as Essence and Ebony from the United States or the UK to see representations of women of colour.
However, as Sasha says, international magazines cannot capture “what it was like being an Aboriginal woman in Australia.”
As such, she developed Ascension in order to connect “with women of colour from across the world, but making sure we have a very distinctive Australian voice.”
Sasha explains that the name Ascension came from, what she refers to as, a spiritual journey. She reflected on her own history and searching for her next move forward.
She says she saw the word on a flyer for meditation classes and it immediately stuck with her.
“I wanted something that would be universal to all women,” she explains. “We do get a lot of questions [whether the magazine] is for all women — Of course it is for all women. But I’m setting a seat at the table for women of colour because we don’t have that representation.”
Growing up between the United States and far-north Queensland, Sasha began a modelling career at the age of 9.
“Mum entered me into a modelling competition over in the States,” she says.
“It was because I was very shy. As soon as I got on stage … I could leave all my fears behind and have a big spotlight on me — and wear amazing clothes!
“It just brought something out of me.”
Her mother, Sasha says, was a huge influence on her, being a strong Aboriginal woman who owned a beauty salon in Cairns.
“My mum had one of the first Aboriginal-owned beauty salons in Cairns. That was my first employment, working as a receptionist, helping do facials and even going out to remote communities up in the Cape teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls about self-esteem and wellbeing.
“For me, it really set the tone of the importance of taking care of yourself or taking pride in your appearance and breaking down the shame complex.”
Sasha says that one of the aims for Ascension, and her involvement and encouragement of Aboriginal models, is to break down stereotypes and typecasting, and to open new doors for young talent in Australia.
Reflecting on her own experience, she says that after moving to Sydney to pursue her career, she quickly became tired of “going to castings for coffee or chocolate [products], because that’s all black people can sell.”
She says that such prejudices meant that, as a model of colour, “you’re never going to be seen or never going to work as much as other models in the industry. And not much has changed.”
However, as Sasha says, there are growing opportunities overseas for models of colour, including Aboriginal people, where diversity in the industry is far more likely to be accepted and embraced.
She says simply, “I would love to see more Aboriginal models.”
However, she recognises that Aboriginal women and girls need to become more visible in order to inspire the younger generation. This is the purpose of Ascension magazine, and a theme she explores in Too Pretty to be Aboriginal.
“I speak from my own experience, and hopefully other women and young girls can resonate with it, but when you don’t see yourself reflected back at you, you might not have the opportunity to believe it is possible.
“You might like to dress up or like fashion, but can I be a fashion designer? I don’t really see that. I don’t really have contact with other role models, therefore, is it possible?
“It takes a lot of strength and courage to create something or be something when there is not a lot of reflection around you, or support. It’s important, because you need to plant a seed.
“When you pick up a magazine and see a black woman who is a doctor, or a black woman who is an editor, you can achieve it. We haven’t had that in this country, particularly for Aboriginal women.”
In Too Pretty To Be Aboriginal, Sasha explores notions of beauty and confronts colonial stereotypes of Aboriginal women.
In doing so, she reflects the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women from around the country, even that of The Bachelor/Bachelor in Paradise contestant Brooke Burton who recently uploaded an emotional video on Instagram condemning people who often comment, ‘you’re too pretty to be Aboriginal.’
Yet Sasha has a message for any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls:
“What is your heart’s desire? What makes you passionate? What makes you get out of bed? What are your goals and your dreams? That’s something that no one can take from you.
“Even if you’re shame, just believe in yourself.”
Ali MC (Alister McKeich) is a writer, photographer and legal professional who holds a Masters in Human Rights Law. His work documents global human rights issues, and he has had the privilege of working with a number of Aboriginal communities here and internationally. Follow @alimcphotos
Sasha's film Too Pretty To Be Aboriginal is available on SBS On Demand as a part of NITV's #OurStories