Plane crash survivor: ‘I don’t notice my scars – I just see the beauty inside myself’

Decades on from a life-altering accident, survivor Tulsi Vagjiani has finally found happiness…

plane crash survivor closer magazine

by Kim Willis and Hadley Middleton |
Updated on

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.

Check out: reality stars who dated A-listers


Reality stars who dated A-listers - slider

Reality stars who dated A-listers1 of 11

Chris Hughes and Jesy Nelson

Jesy and Chris began dating in secret back in November 2018 and soon moved in with each other. They both appeared on each others' documentaries and we hoped this relationship could last forever but sadly they split in March 2020. They are apparently still 'good friends' though... We'll see how long that lasts.

Reality stars who dated A-listers2 of 11

Paige Turley and Lewis Capaldi

Before Paige shot to fame on Love Island with her current boyfriend Finn Tapp, and Lewis was yet to have a number one single, the pair actually dated for a year in their late teens after meeting at college.

Reality stars who dated A-listers3 of 11

Sinitta and Brad Pitt

During his years in Hollywood, Brad Pitt has dated his fair share of high profile women including Jennifer Aniston, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie but what you may not know is that he actually had a two year relationship with TV personality and singer Sinitta. When they first got together, Brad was nothing more than a jobbing actor in LA whilst she toured the world performing. Eventually however, long-distance broke them up.

Reality stars who dated A-listers4 of 11

Charlie King and Sam Smith

Imagine counting both Gemma Collins and Sam Smith among your exes? ICONIC. Well, that's what former TOWIE star Charlie King can say. Charlie and Sam apparently met on social media back in 2015 in enjoyed a few secret dates together before they decided to just be friends.

Reality stars who dated A-listers5 of 11

Calum Best and Lindsday Lohan

Back in 2007 Lindsay and Calum had a tumultuous relationship that often hit the headlines. They apparently broke up after Lindsay caught the reality star lothario in bed with another woman.

Reality stars who dated A-listers6 of 11

Kate Wright and Rio Ferdinand

She may be Mrs Ferdinand now, but back when she met her footballer husband Kate Wright was best known for getting the run around from then-boyfriend Dan Edgar on TOWIE. Kate had just split from Dan when she met Rio and the rest, they say, is history. The genetically-blessed pair married in Turkey in 2018 and welcomed baby boy Cree in December 2020.

Reality stars who dated A-listers7 of 11

Samira Mighty and Chris Pine

These two met at a GQ Man of the Year afterparty in 2018 when they swapped numbers and Chris asked Samira out on a date. WHAT? Chris seemed keen to continue the relationship but Samira had to turn him down because she was appearing on Love Island. Obsessed.

Reality stars who dated A-listers8 of 11

Stephanie Davies and Zayn Malik

Hollyoaks and CBB star Stephanie actually dated for five months in 2010 before Zayn moved on with fellow X-Factor star Perrie Edwards. Incidentally Perrie and Zayn's relationship was plagued by cheating rumours including with Love Island's Lauren Richardson.

Reality stars who dated A-listers9 of 11

Louise Thompson and Niall Horan

Made in Chelsea's Louise Thompson experienced her fair share of heartbreak during her tumultuous relationship with SW3's resident bad boy Spencer Matthews, but she ended up doing the dirty on her next boyfriend Andy Jordan. It was later reported that Louise's other man was none other than One Direction star Niall Horan.

Reality stars who dated A-listers10 of 11

Kim Kardashian and Kayne West

In fairness we would definitely call Kim Kardashian an A-Lister as well but technically she is also a reality star. Kim and Kanye met in 2003 but, after her two failed marriages, they confirmed that they were finally an item in 2012. Unfortunately, after a six year marriage and four ADORABLE kids, the two decided to call it quits January 2021.

Reality stars who dated A-listers11 of 11

Chad Johnson and Sarah Harding

Girls Aloud's Sarah Harding met The Bachelorette star Chad Johnson on Celebrity Big Brother back in 2017 but after a whirlwind three months together, long-distance and Chad's cheating ways broke them up.

plane crash survivor closer magazine
She endured a decade of treatment

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.”


Mum of conjoined twins: ‘I won’t separate my girls – they’re thriving’

Booze horror: 'I looked 9 months pregnant... but I was hours from death'

Gran of 17: ‘I can’t wait to become a mum again with my 24-year-old toyboy’

plane crash survivor closer magazine
With her parents and brother before the crash

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.”

closer magazine

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.”

WATCH: Nik and Eva Speakman on how to combat mental health issues

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.”

Tulsi supports Food4all UK, providing a hot meal and a shower to those less fortunate. Visit Food 4 All UK for more information

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us