Ashley Callingbull on Smashing Stereotypes and Finding Strength in Her Indigenous Culture

Actor, model, philanthropist and former beauty queen Ashley Callingbull talks showing up as you are, not as others believe you should be.

Born in Enoch Cree Nation in Alberta, Ashley Callingbull became a household name after becoming the first Indigenous woman — and Canadian — to win the Mrs. Universe title in 2015. The historic victory marked so much more than a beauty pageant win for Callingbull: Her moment in the spotlight turned into a prime opportunity to shed a light on causes that hit close to home. During her time with the crown, Callingbull used her Mrs. Universe platform and budding social media following to bring much-needed attention to human rights issues affecting Indigenous communities, including raising awareness around the inquiry into the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls across Canada. She’s also been very vocal about the domestic violence crisis, something she endured as a child, along with her mother.

Since emerging from the beauty pageant scene, Callingbull has never stopped using her voice to make a difference, and has gone on to become an actor, philanthropist, public speaker, model and brand ambassador for mainstream fashion brands. Here, she shares, in her own words, her role models, major life lessons, and why her big pageant victory felt hard-won.

On being a model muse for mainstream brands like RW & Co.:

“I love that I’m able to do these big campaigns for these [type of] organizations because they actually let me have a voice; they let you be an ambassador for them, and you’re an ambassador of what your platform is. RW & Co lets me donate back to the different charities that I volunteer for. Not very many organizations will do things like that. And it’s amazing what you can do with modeling if you do have a voice — it’s all about giving back. Campaigns are not just about you; they’re about who you’re impacting and what lives you’re changing. And as so long as I have a voice, I’m happy, because I don’t like to be silenced. I always like to speak my mind because I’m speaking on behalf of other people all the time. Being a face of a campaign and being an Indigenous woman is rare to see; it took a long time for that to happen. I’m glad we’re finally being recognized.”

On being from Enoch Cree Nation:

“I’m really proud to be from Enoch Cree Nation — to be a Plains Cree woman. To be from the small community where I’m from, to do all the things that I’ve done — and to see more Indigenous youth coming out of my community and being successful — is a proud moment because there’s a huge stereotype on us that we’ll always fail. I love to prove myself wrong; I love to prove other people wrong. Nothing will change me, no matter where I go or what I find success in. I’m still that girl from the reserve, and I carry that pride everywhere I go.”

On her beauty icons and role models:

“The two people closest to home: my mom and grandmother. They were the ones that kept me straight. I remember growing up, a lot of people would make fun of my skin, make fun that I looked different and that I came from the reserve. People just called me out on everything that I wasn’t. And whenever I felt bad about the way that I looked or where I came from, I would talk to my grandmother and my mom. My grandmother always made me feel beautiful. She always told me that it’s beautiful to look the way that we do and to be proud of our background. It’s crazy how culture can make you feel strong and beautiful.”

On the power of being different:

“Growing up, I was pretty much a tomboy and didn’t get into makeup until I turned 18. When I did my first pageant, that was a completely different world for me in regards to fashion, makeup and hair. I never experienced anything like that before. And it became a big thing right off the bat that no one around me looked like me, which made it hard to look up to people. I told myself, ‘If this is going to happen, I’m going to be one of the first, but I’m not going to be the last.’ I basically just started doing my own thing. Now, seeing more indigenous models and designers, everything is finally being acknowledged in the right way.”

On competing for the Mrs. Universe 2015 crown and her pageant experiences at large:

“I remember right when I joined, there were no Indigenous women competing. It was rare even to see other women of colour in the pageant because pageants had this standard of beauty: tall, white, blonde. It felt like, as women of colour, you had to work harder to break that mould. I experienced racism at a whole new level: A lot of people were telling me to go home, telling me I didn’t belong here because I didn’t dress like them, look like them, or didn’t present myself in the way that they wanted. But I always thought to myself, I’m not going to change myself for anybody. I’m just going to give you the best of what I have and who I am. And if you like it, you like it. If you don’t, that’s not my problem. I’m proud of who I am. I remember when I became the first Indigenous woman to be Miss Canada in 2010, I thought, ‘Wow, this is crazy!’ I never thought I’d see that coming. And when I competed in international pageants, no one ever thought I was Indigenous. They always thought I was Latina or Filipino — they always thought I was something that I wasn’t. Now, I see a lot more Indigenous women competing. Pageants are definitely becoming more diverse and have more purpose. Like, when I was competing, there were maybe only a handful of us who were doing it for charity reasons. But today, you have to have a purpose.”

On her definition of beauty:

“Beauty to me has a lot to do with culture and just being proud about the way you were created. I wouldn’t want to ever look like anyone else because I was made this way for a reason. Beauty is about embracing who I am every time I wake up.”

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On beauty rituals she’s adopted from her grandmother and mother:

“My grandmother never had wrinkles. I couldn’t believe it! She always moisturized her face every night and never wore makeup. She always told me, ‘Don’t wear makeup if you don’t have to. Give your skin a break.’ So when I’m not working or doing any events, I never wear it. I like to go to the sauna a three times a week, but when I can’t, I boil hot water in a pot, take it off the stove, rest my head at a distance over it and place a towel over my head so that the steam opens up my pores cleans out my skin. My grandmother and mom taught me that, and mom does it a lot. It’s almost like a little sauna for your face. I do that maybe twice a week when I can’t got to the sauna.”

On future goals:

“I want to create my own foundation, and I want it to be focused on women and children who are facing homelessness and have gone through domestic abuse. I do a lot for Edmonton’s WIN House, but it would be amazing to have a foundation strictly for Indigenous women and children, because that’s the highest rate. A lot of times there’s no room in shelters, and that was the problem me and my mom had when I was growing up and we tried to escape domestic violence. There was no room for us. So I know what it’s like not to have somewhere to go, and I don’t want our women suffering like how I did. If they can get another chance at life, give it to them. That’s a big goal of mine.”

Ashley Callingbull was FASHION’s September 2021 cover star. Read the story here.