Autism & Activism: A Candid Interview With Miss Universe Ghana and Mental Health Advocate, Chelsea Tayui

Miss Universe Ghana, Chelsea Tayui, is using her crown to raise awareness. Chelsea is a 25-years-old communications executive with a multitude of philanthropic work experience, prior to her pageant competing days. After winning the crown, she took on the mission of raising awareness for Autism within the Ghanaian community in order to decrease the negative stigma behind mental illness. She also holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications from DePaul University in Chicago, USA. We got a chance to speak with her about her newly found role and her Autism initiative. Read our conversation below!

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Olaedo for OTM: So I’m gonna go ahead and jump right into it. Thank you for sitting down with me today. I know things have to be virtual not only because of distance but because, global pandemic, we’re still in it, we’re still going through it. Tell me a little about how your 2021 is going so far? 

TAYUI: Sure of course! The family’s doing great. I actually came down with COVID-19 at the very beginning of 2021 and that was a shocker to me in of itself because I am beyond careful, I do not take this pandemic lightly at all. I’ve been doing all the right things like washing my hands, social distancing, etc. but I still caught it. 

I’m so sorry to hear that. 

Thank you so much, I’m just very grateful that my immune system is fighting it so well. Other people are not so lucky so I’m very grateful for that. And you know… 2021 has started to pick up a pattern similar to 2020 but I refuse to go just “go with it”. It’ll probably be just a week or two and then 2021 will have a mind of its own. *both laugh*

And how is your family as doing as well?

My family is doing really well. My mom is here with me but unfortunately, I gave her COVID as well and she has all the symptoms that I have. My brother, sister, and my dad are all in Chicago and they are doing well. We’re kind of just taking it easy, I would say. We’re just waiting for the moment where 2021 picks up. So everything’s in God’s hands. 

I wanted to formally say congratulations on being named Miss Universe Ghana! Definitely a great title and a great honor. So how does it feel to hold the title?

Thank you! It feels really mesmerizing, it feels really surreal. You know when you’re a little girl and it’s something you’ve always wanted and now it’s finally here? It’s here but honestly, I realized my work isn’t finished, I would say. Now is when the real preparation and the real groundwork are needed for the international pageant. So that’s what I’m preparing for and looking forward to. I’m throwing all my energy into that now. I’m already grateful now but I’m gonna be super grateful when I get to the international pageant. 

Tell me a little about how you first got into the world of pageantry?  

I always had a very distinct attraction to it when I was young. Obviously, I come from a “nuts and bolts” family, and what I mean by that is having my parents born and raised in Africa and then migrating over to the U.S. it’s like our options for any career we wanted was either a lawyer or a doctor or an engineer. *both laugh* And I was like, no I don’t fit into any of these three categories! I think my parents could see that and I just kinda did my own thing. Even when I started pageantry, my mom didn’t understand why I wanted to do it. She said “it’s only the girls that are last in class or not smart that do pageantry.” And I told her “I’m smart and I’m first in class, so if I do pageantry, I would be changing the narrative you have about it”. And she goes “well you’re right!”. It’s a world that’s foreign to a lot of people. So when my mom realized how much I enjoyed it and how much I excelled at it, she figured that this was where my destiny lies. So my family is now my biggest support system. 

You did mention before in a few other interviews that you’re passionate about working with NGOs. Could you expand a little bit on it and other philanthropic works you’ve done before?

Right, well I am a communication executive. Before I joined the Miss Ghana Universe pageant, I was working with KJM Foundation. We supplied boar holes, running water, and educational supplies to impoverished villages that don’t have the means to live a “normal” life. I believe that water is a natural human right and without water, we can’t do a lot of things. I worked with the NGO to create different communication platforms. It was a little difficult because I don’t speak Twi very well but thankfully I had a lot of help with that. But I do believe that it’s really important to help people live better lives for themselves. The same way you help people is the same way God will help us as we’re going out there doing His work. 

As part of the Miss Ghana Universe pageant, there was a particular mission that you got behind. Could you tell us a little bit more about that mission?

So my mission is to help eliminate the stigma behind Autism in Ghana. Ghana is a country that is not really aware of what autism is. The few people or cities that know about it don’t have much information on it. I’ve been working a lot behind the scenes with different speech pathologists and advocating for early childhood intervention. Here in Ghana, some people have the idea that “oh well maybe it’s some sort of curse or something from the Gods”. But my goal is to really educate as much as I can. 

Right, and honestly when I heard from one of your interviews that your brother had autism that really resonated with me because I have a little brother who is on the Autism spectrum as well. And I know from experience how Nigerians can be in terms of understanding their perceptions of mental disorders, mental illness, or basically anyone who’s not considered neurotypical. I’m really so proud that people like you are taking steps to provide resources and awareness in your local communities.

Of course, and there are so many support systems in place and the necessary tools to understand Autism the way it needs to be understood. I think the stigma surrounding mental health is still around due to lack of exposure. You cannot really accept what you don’t know unless you’re willing to accept that what you did know previously was false. It all boils down to tradition – if you don’t know about something, chances are you’re just going to accept whatever your family called it without challenging that. 

So how do you think that your position as Miss Universe Ghana would help you with your mission?

My position gives me a powerful platform that lets my voice ripple across nations to speak for autistic individuals, not only in Ghana but all over the world. It gives me the chance to be a voice to the voiceless or those who have been silenced. I can be that microphone for them especially since this is a cause that is near and dear to my heart. And especially here in Africa, there are many voices that get lost in the crowd so to speak.

What are some new ventures you are looking to expand on in 2021?

In 2021? I would have to say probably learning new skills that I’ve never really known how to do before. I’m just gonna say this and I don’t care who knows but I don’t know how to swim or ride a bike at age 25! *both laughs* Those are things that I never really knew how to do in my childhood and it sorta transitioned into my adulthood so I’d definitely like to learn how to do them. And I’m still closely involved with NGOs in the states and working with speech pathologists to see if it would be possible to have them travel to Accra to hold different seminars with the people here.

This interview has been edited for clarity.
Follow Chelsea on Instagram here.

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