Tell us about yourself, Elissa.
I’m a twenty-something conservationist building a career in science, advocacy and environmental correspondence. I love the ocean, french braids and my family are the most important people in my life. No matter where I go or what I do, I’ll be trying to leave this place a little better than I found it.
How did you become interested in conservation?
I was learning about biodiversity and the environment as a high school student and I became really interested in the subject. At home, I’d do my own study and look deeper into topics like morphology and evolution. Along the way, I learned about the threats to the planet. It was information I wasn’t getting in school, and later, not at university. I learned about how human expansion through overpopulating the planet was a driving force behind deforestation and land clearing for farming and development, possibly the single largest threat to wildlife. I learned about how even simple things, like what we buy and the clothes and make-up we choose, can impact the environment; some cosmetics have parabens that pollute the ocean, other cosmetics are tested on animals, and the demand for high-fashion items like fur can be linked directly to the hunting of tigers and other endangered species for the pelts and parts. I wanted to do something positive to create an awareness and help. I decided to study biology and specialize as an educator and advocate through science and correspondence.
What are your goals?
I’m still at a point in my career where I’m finding my feet, and I think it will always be that way. The nature of the environment is ever changing and my role as an environmental advocate is ever transforming too. I see myself continuing down my path as an advocate, and using the platforms made available to me to teach others about science, biodiversity and conservation. I’m currently pursuing a PhD at university; it’s a life-long academic goal. From there, perhaps I’ll become an environmental journalist, or I’ll continue to research important species. I could chair an organization for the environment or work non-profit in other ways. Eventually I’d like to dabble in politics and finish my career as a lecturer. I don’t see myself ever retiring. I want to keep consuming information and teaching others about the things that matter in science.
Any new projects you are working on?
I’m juggling a few exciting ventures! On top of my studies, I’m launching two new platforms, tentatively. One is a public awareness and information resource about the environment and all things conservation. We’re working with creative photographers and filmmakers to produce beautiful images and compelling shorts about important issues, and offering subscribers ways to help the planet that are effective and doable. Another project is an environmentally friendly lifestyle website with a heavy emphasis on sustainability. Along the way I’ve become an accidental ambassador to cruelty free beauty and lifestyle. I’m sometimes asked what products I use or if I can recommend suitable companies to followers and subscribers who are looking to take care of their bodies whilst still being kind to the planet. It’s been a daunting process since I’m a simple, no-fuss girl with little experience in the beauty department. But I can see that there’s an opportunity to make positive change by re-directing others to kind companies. I’m also doing some advocacy work, non-profit and mostly non-professionally, for other conservation groups. I recently helped actor Adrian Grenier (Entourage, The Entourage Movie) and filmmaker Josh Zeman to create awareness for the upcoming documentary “Lonely Whale”, the search for a mysterious whale who sings in a frequency too high, other whales can’t hear him. It’s been fun to chat with Adrian about the film and create posts to support the project. I was also recently named in CLEO magazine’s 30 under 30 as one of their successful and influential Australians, and that process has been a lot of fun!
Who was your role model as a child?
My role model as a kid was always my mum. She was so strong and never failed to provide for me. My childhood was tumultuous at times and my biological father was absent. I didn’t have a perfect relationship with her husband and when that relationship eventually broke down, my mother, brothers and I became a close unit as well took on the next chapter in our lives. I would never dare to say we lived through adversity because we didn’t: we had food, water, a home, love, toys, and pets. But we did go through a lot together. I’ve drawn so much as an adult from the strength she displayed when I was a child.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
My spare time is filled with some of the most generic and polar activities. I love to read, run and cook. I love wine and going to dinner and seeing movies. I spend a lot of time at the beach. I love being underwater. When I can, I like to travel and experience other cultures. I’m big rest and relaxation fan! I love reality television; it’s my guilty pleasure. I can sit for hours and watch docu-drama about people I don’t know. Over the last year, since returning from time spent in Antarctica with an anti-whaling and marine conservation group, I’ve become a real adult – a real one. I’m starting to enjoy shopping for home wares and collecting cookbooks. I stay in a lot more. I’ve mellowed and I love that.
What does fashion mean to you?
Fashion, to me, is a little scary. I admire the artistry that is fashion design and I’m a big consumer of clothing. My favourite things to buy are jeans, knit cardigans, boots and rings. My ideal outfit is very New York City winter, which is starkly different to my love of summer and the ocean. I love stripes, statement shirts (political messages or prints), a lot of black and gold, and I’ll buy anything if it’s white or grey. Fashion is, to me, a culmination of whom you are as a person, represented on the outside. I represent myself as very casual and down-to-earth. I do a lot of un-styled hair, straight or braids, and I wear little make-up. I think fashion is often a person’s attempt at art. I don’t take it as seriously as others do, if at all. But I really love it.
Who are some of your favorite models and designers, and why?
I love Miranda Kerr. She’s a fellow Earth Hour ambassador and I can’t wait to collaborate with her on something for the campaign. She’s intelligent, earthy, compassionate and beautiful. She has a range of eco-friendly beauty products called KORA Organics. They’re great. She’s a published self-help author and an advocate against bullying. I’m so proud of everything she’s done! I love Calvin Klein, Olsen Haus and Stella McCartney as designers. All three are vegan, or mostly. I’m also into off-the-runway brands and designers like House of Riot, TOMS and shirts from Sevenly. All those companies use some of their funds to make a social difference. I think that’s important.
Who is your biggest beauty inspiration? Why?
I love Scarlett Johansson. She’s natural and ethereal and I adore her determination to eventually age gracefully despite the pressures of Hollywood. She’s clever and thoughtful and promotes real expectations for women and girls: that it’s okay to be short or tall, slender or curvy, big lipped or thin lipped, loud or quiet… I especially like that she is sex-positive and relates all human behaviour to animals, like her very vocal questioning of monogamy. I like anyone who draws the very necessary parallel between human and non-human animals. On top of that, she’s stunning and talented. I find her very personally empowering.
What are your makeup bag staples when traveling?
Not so long ago, I was gifted a box of goodies from a company called Bellabox. Inside were cleansing facial swipes from Wot Not and a hand sanitizer from Thankyou, which started as a charitable water company. Those two things have become staples in my every day bag, especially when travelling. I always carry a red lipstick, usually the DeVine Goddess lipstick in Xenia from Napoleon Perdis. It’s discontinued now, but I have a bunch of turn-up lip balms from The Body Shop – I’ll be devastated when they finally run out. I keep Sea Spray from LUSH in my travel bag to give my beach-styled hair a pick me up. I’m currently using the extra moisturizing body lotion from China Island, it’s amazing for dry skin on a flight.
How would you describe your style?
My day-to-day style is very casual. I wear jeans or shorts with singlets, cardigans, knits and rings. I love ballet flats, TOMS, Keds, Vans or Reef shoes. My favourite pair of shoes is an old pair of original blue TOMS. I just purchased an elephant print pair from the TOMS Animal Initiative line. Last year, I became social media friends with Heather MyCoskie, wife of TOMS founder Blake MyCoskie. She started the Animal Initiative Line and her designs are beautiful. I helped TOMS launch their shoe at Australia Zoo as an ambassador in early 2015. They’re very reflective of my style. At night, I like boots and heels, blazers, copper gold accessories and loose curls, usually achieved from my braid for the day. I add some red lipstick or a nude balm and apply some long-lash mascara and I’m ready to go. My go to brand is Calvin Klein and I love YSL and Alexandra Wang for my scent – though it’s gotten tricky to find the ones that aren’t animal tested.
Name 3 things you can’t live without?
Three things I can’t live without are… my family, the ocean and my iPhone. Is that a terrible answer?! It’s true. My iPhone has become a limb.
What are your guilty pleasures, food wise?
I try to eat really healthy during the week, you know, a lot of greens, chickpeas, lentils, sweet potato… I eat as well and as naturally as I can without compromising on treating myself. I try to eat from the earth. But on Friday, it’s all different. Friday (and probably Saturday and Sunday, too) means pizza, french fries, Thai or Indian take-out, dinners, popcorn at the movies, sugary drinks. I’m terrible on treat days. Of course, I don’t eat all those things at once. Or at least, I try not to.
Best advice ever given?
I met Jane Goodall, world-famous primatologist, at her speaking engagement at Australia Zoo. I was really lucky to be invited by the Iriwn family, Terri, Bindi and Robert, to hear Jane speak. It was around the time of her birthday, and I remember an event organizer rolled out a giant vegan birthday cake for her at the end of her speech and stories. I was preparing to leave when a different organizer grabbed me and said, “We’ve organised for you to meet her. She’s waiting for you.” I nervously entered a room full of press, VIP guests and a long line of audience members who were lined up for the chance to have their books and pictures signed. I saw Jane sitting on top of a table, smiling and waving. I was ushered over to her and at a total loss for words, awkwardly presented her with a copy of her book. She signed it graciously and we stood for a moment. It was then that she gave me the single greatest piece of advice: “Be a rebel.” If the world’s greatest advocate thinks I should break the rules to help the world, I will.
What do you think of Social Media?
I think social media is an incredible platform to express your views, find comrades and make a positive change. Although it can also be a place where bullying and violence exists, I’ve found it to be an expressive platform to talk about my views, accept feedback, learn new things and spread awareness. I think it’s an important tool for organizations, designers, artists, companies and individuals to create a presence and create an impact.
What are your social media channels?
I can be found online at @ElissaSursara on Twitter and Instagram, and on Facebook and YouTube as /ElissaSursara. For my love of social media, I go through phases where I use it more or less than others. I’m also on We Heart It as /ElissaSursara and WhoSay, the celebrity network, as “Elissa Sursara”.
What’s your favorite music genre?
I have a miserable crush on Alex Dyson and find myself listening to Triple J, an Australian radio station, not just for the great music but also for Dyson’s commentary. Tripe J is an almost perfect collection of everything I love. I love grunge and 70’s rock. I love new-school indie rock. A lot of my favourite bands come out of the UK, like the Arctic Monkeys, Alt-J and Foals. Right now, I like the Weeknd and Banks. I’ve been listening to a lot of Oasis’ old stuff. And I think everyone loves Ed Sheeran!
And lastly, what’s your ideal travel destination or recommendation?
I’ve been so lucky to travel more than the average person. I’m so blessed and I count my lucky stars at every opportunity I’ve had and will have in the future. My favourite place on Earth has been Antarctica, but it’s not somewhere I recommend. Antarctica is stunning and isolated, pristine and mostly untouched. It’s for that reason I would discourage anyone from ever going unless absolutely necessary. It’s the last place on Earth. It’s full of whales and fish and orca and seals and albatross and penguins. It’s yet to be drilled or overfished. It’s yet to be polluted. Its wildlife is yet to face mass decimation. Right now, I’m looking forward to an upcoming trip to Victoria, Australia to work with Philip Island Nature Parks with their penguins and seals for a creative and science collaboration. I’m also planning to visit the Great Ocean Road, Victoria for the first time. It will be with a friend, an experienced local guide, and we’re planning to spot koalas and whales and explore the scenery.