Tulsi Vagjiani was just a child when a terrifying accident changed the course of her life forever. At 10 years old, Tulsi survived a plane crash that killed her immediate family, and she sustained second and third degree burns to 45 per cent of her face and body.
But 32 years after the horrific accident, the 42-year-old Londoner is determined to help others.
Now working as a motivational speaker, she has learned to love her scars, and she wears them with pride as a charity campaigner for people living with visible differences.
Tulsi, from east London, says, “Growing up, the anxiety was gut-wrenching. There were times when I didn’t want to leave the house. I put on a façade but behind closed doors I believed I was ugly and I wasn’t good enough. It’s only in the last decade that my confidence has soared. I stopped measuring my beauty against what I saw on TV, in magazines or on social media.
“I realised the essence of who we are comes from the inside, and the moment we accept ourselves, that beauty radiates for miles!
“I now want to inspire others to find their own version of beauty, and to show that people with visible differences can be whatever they want to be.”
On 14 February 1990, Tulsi boarded the fateful flight from Mumbai to Bangalore. She was enjoying a three-month tour around India visiting family there with her parents, Premila and Dhanji, both 35, and her younger brother Kamlesh, four.
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Two hours later, the plane missed the runway as it landed in Bangalore and was immediately engulfed in flames, killing 92 of the 146 people on board. Tulsi was dragged out of the wreckage by a fellow passenger.
She says, “The last thing I remember is arguing with my brother about who would sit near the window. I wanted to look out at the bright blue sky and the green fields below. I was in the middle seat, with my dad next to me, and mum across the aisle from us. One minute we were taking off, the next, I was waking up, confused and heavily sedated. There were bandages covering my eyes and I heard my grandmother’s voice. She explained that I’d been in an accident. She said my parents and my brother were gone and the crash had made me look different.
“I was drifting in and out of consciousness, and I couldn’t understand what was happening. In my mind, I was still on the plane and my grandmother had come to surprise us. I couldn’t believe that my parents and my little brother were dead. It was too much.”
As she tried to cope with the trauma and high doses of medication, Tulsi struggled to accept her new reality.
A few days later, she was put on a medical flight back to the UK, where she was taken to St Andrew’s Burns Centre in Essex. There, she endured four months of painful skin grafts and rehabilitation.
She recalls, “I didn’t properly take in that my family was gone. I was so confused and everything was a blur. My doctors treated me just like anyone else and I was in denial about my injuries. But six weeks in, I saw my reflection in the mirror for the first time and I thought someone had drawn my face on. I didn’t think the person staring back with those red, raw scars could be me.”
While Tulsi was in hospital, her parents and little brother were cremated. She moved in with her grandparents on the same London street where she had lived before the tragedy. She says, “It was then that it hit me that I’d lost my family. Our life had been full of love and joy. I missed them so much.”
Over the next decade, she endured at least 50 skin grafts and surgeries, plus physiotherapy and rehabilitation.
She says, “Most afternoons I was taken out of school and to the hospital for treatment. I missed loads and it was hard to catch up. The bullying started at secondary school when I was travelling to appointments.
“People would stare and shout things and, suddenly, everything became about how I looked. I had supportive friends and my family would confront anyone who stared or whispered about my burns, but I just wanted to run away. I couldn’t cope with having scars.
“In my culture, I was also expected to just get on with things. For a long time, I only went out to school and that was because I didn’t have a choice. I felt like the ugly friend and like no one would ever love me.”
Cruel bullies would shout at Tulsi in the street, comparing her to Freddy Krueger, the villain from the horror film series A Nightmare On Elm Street. She became depressed and turned to comfort eating to cope with her insecurities.
She recalls, “My bullies made me believe I was a bad person. It was only when I did a counselling course at college when I was 21 that I realised I was depressed and I’d gained too much weight. A friend encouraged me to go to the gym and that’s when I discovered Pilates. It helped so much with my body confidence and realising what I was capable of despite my injuries.”
However, during her second year of university studying health sciences, Tulsi encountered another setback when she was diagnosed with kidney failure. She had to endure dialysis every night for three years while juggling her studies, until a kidney transplant became available in January 2009. Tulsi then spent several years in recovery until two years later, when she saw a documentary about fellow burns survivor and activist Katie Piper, who suffered horrific injuries and was left partially blind after an acid attack arranged by her evil ex-boyfriend. Inspired by what she saw, Tulsi wrote to the Katie Piper Foundation and the pair connected.
Tulsi says, “I was in awe of Katie. She was so beautiful and I wanted to finally accept my burns and feel the same way about myself. I was invited to an event organised by the foundation and I’ll never forget when Katie walked into the room. It was lovely talking about normal things like hair and make-up. Through meeting her, I recognised that people didn’t necessarily just see my scars; they also saw me as a person. That’s when I stopped feeling sorry for myself about the way I looked.”
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After years of self-doubt, Tulsi embarked on a new career as a motivational speaker. She also teamed up with the charity Changing Faces to demand positive representation in the media for people with visible differences. She mainly visits schools but also talks at charity events and has spoken to groups of up to 500 people.
Tulsi says, “I know how important it is to feel accepted. I’ve been challenged my entire life and it felt good to fight against injustice.
“Since then, my entire outlook has changed. I can’t remember the last time I felt ugly. I practise self-care and daily affirmations in the mirror. I will say things like, ‘Today is a great day to just smile.’ One of my favourites is, ‘I am enough, I am worthy and I’m an important person in this world. I matter.’ I believe that by showing kindness and compassion to ourselves, that energy will resonate to those around us.
“I’m single at the moment. In the past, boyfriends have treated me like a secret, and my passion for what I do is much greater than my desire to settle down. I’m a free spirit and I want to make the world a better place.
“The grief of losing my family is always with me, but I don’t mark the anniversary of the crash any more.
“Despite everything, I can honestly say that I wouldn’t change a thing. All those horrible days when I didn’t want to go on have led me to where I am today. I no longer aspire to society’s standards of beauty and my scars are beautiful gems. I’m here to tell people they shouldn’t be defined by anyone else. We all deserve to love ourselves exactly the way we are.”