Mrs. Universe Ashley Callingbull fights for justice and uses her popularity to speak up for First Nations people.
A talented actress, Amazing Race Canada finalist and winner of Mrs. Universe 2015, Ashley Callingbull has a lighter side: a talent for impersonating people— Gollum from Lord of the Rings, for example.
But there’s more to her than that. In 2015, Callingbull made her breakout move. She became the first Indigenous woman to win the Mrs. Universe title. Despite her success, she chose to break the rules and fought for what mattered to her.
“Pageant girls were told not to be political whatsoever,” says Callingbull. “I spoke up for all Indigenous people and I spoke about all the issues that needed to be heard because it wasn’t about my success, it was about what I did with it.”
Callingbull, 28, from the Enoch Cree Nation in Alberta, spoke about issues related to murdered and missing indigenous women, the foster care system and the lack of clean water in First Nations communities in Canada. To this day, she considers “calling out the government” her biggest achievement.
‘Being able to carry my culture around with me, that made me stronger every single day and that ’s what saved my life.’Ashley Callingbull
The road to resilience
Callingbull’s road wasn’t always smooth. As a child, trauma and hardship were her companions. At the age of five, her family moved to another reserve in Edmonton to live with her mother’s “charming” boyfriend, who started physically and sexually abusing her—a pattern that went on for six years.
Money was tight and her mother Lisa (Callingbull) Ground had to collect bottles with her and exchange them at the bottle depot. Picking those bottles kept them alive.
“I hated taking her to the bottle depot—it made her feel disgusting,” says Ground.
Callingbull hated the sickening smell of the bottle depot and it affected her mindset. “It was hard to have big dreams when I felt like I was limited,” she says. “I was treated poorly so it was hard to think big.” She also experienced racism. At one point she was called a “dirty native Indian.”
After years of abuse, Callingbull’s mother finally decided to leave when her mother’s boyfriend was away. The two packed all of their belongings and didn’t turn back. They drove straight to her grandparent’s house in Enoch. Just after getting there, Callingbull opened up to her mother and told her about the abuse.
Though Callingbull went to therapy, she hated it because no one gave her a solution to fix herself, instead asking her about how she was feeling. Ultimately, she says, it was the power of her culture that saved her, allowing her to heal and move past her traumatic childhood.
Callingbull was able to follow the “red road.” In her culture, the red road is the right path of life where one stays away from negativity like drugs and alcohol in order to have a clean body, spirit and mind. She was helped on this path by her grandparents who were both a medicine man and a medicine woman—also known as traditional healers, who ran sweat lodges, heated dome-shaped structures used to promote healthy living.
“Being able to carry my culture around with me, that made me stronger every single day and that’s what saved my life,” says Callingbull. “With everything I dealt with growing up and all the negativity, I could’ve spiraled downwards and gotten into addictions, but I didn’t want to be a stereotype. I wanted to break barriers.”
Even though Callingbull received immense support from her grandparents, her mother is her number one inspiration. “A lot of the things I do now is to make her proud, because she suffered so much to give me a good life. I just want to see her smile,” says Callingbull.
Her mother has been a constant supporter and was by her side throughout the bumpy ride. “It’s surreal because when anybody goes through those obstacles or that trauma, they usually turn to alcohol and drugs. They throw their lives away,” says Ground. “It was real perseverance and resilience that brought her through.”
Callingbull started volunteering for charities at age 14 when her little sister, Ambee passed away at only six-days-old. Ambee had trisomy 18, a genetic disorder that causes the baby’s organs to develop in an abnormal way.
Callingbull experienced more heart-break when her grandmother suffered from pulmonary fibrosis in the same year—and died a year later.
Callingbull started volunteering with Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation and continued to volunteer for other charities including Run for the Cure and The Lung Association. She is known as a “charity freak” because of her commitment to helping others.
“I realized that charity work and working with underprivileged youth was my thing and it makes me feel really good, like I’m doing something positive,” she says.
At the age of six Callingbull starred in her first commercial, but because of her circumstances, she couldn’t pursue more acting until later on.
Callingbull graduated from high school at the age of 16 and went on to pursue acting at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, where she enrolled in the film and television program.
At age 20, Callingbull made her debut in the television show Blackstone, which is an award-winning series that airs on APTN, Showcase and Maori Television in New Zealand. The show is a political drama that addresses First Nations issues. She plays the role of Sheila Delaronde, a young positive role model. While she was pursuing acting, Callingbull was convinced by a friend to enter pageants.
‘Never let fear stop you from chasing dreams because you have no idea of the potential you have inside of you.’Ashley Callingbull
With her minimal knowledge of modelling, she hesitated but later realized she could turn it into something more than just winning. “I said I would use the pageant system as a way to raise awareness and funds for all the charities that I work for,” she says. “I feel like if you have a title, you have a voice and you have the opportunity to create change and reach people. That’s what I want- ed to get from it and that’s exactly what happened.”
Callingbull started giving motivational talks and sometimes even spoke at events alongside her mother. Ground says her daughter always took the time to have personal conversations with people. She describes one of her daughter’s experiences at a speaker’s forum. “It was her turn to speak and this little girl came running up to her and hugged Ashley,” says Ground. “Ashley gave that mic back and said ‘just wait.’ There was hundreds of people waiting and Ashley was just hugging her and talking to her for five to 10 minutes.”
Ground says her daughter always goes above and beyond what she is asked to do, inspiring her to be a better mother and a better human.
While Ground describes her daughter as fearless, Callingbull participated in the Amazing Race Canada to conquer some of her biggest fears like heights and touching bugs. “I had to monkey bar underneath a sky gondola in the mountains holding my own body weight and the weight of a bungee cord,” she says. “I never thought I’d be hanging above the mountains like that—ever.”
The future calls
Callingbull doesn’t have any “for sure” plans yet, but one is furthering her education. She has been accepted into a forensic psychology degree program this fall (2018).
She is currently the face of the jewellery campaign Hillberg and Berk. “To have Indigenous representation everywhere is a beautiful thing,” she says. “It’s even more amazing because they are con- tributing their funds to the charities I support. It’s inspiring to see an organization that gives back to women and to charities.”
Looking back, she says she never imagined seeing her face on billboards. “It’s a little overwhelming at first because I’m thinking, ‘wow, look at where I came from,’” she says.
If Callingbull were to give women one piece of advice, it would be to love and live fearlessly. “Never let fear stop you from chasing dreams because you have no idea of the potential you have inside of you,” she says. “I always encourage women to feel strong, empowered and beautiful. That’s a way to create a ripple effect, so that other women will feel the same.”
More Inspiration: You might also enjoy this great interview with Canadian recording star and actress Jann Arden.
Author: David Holt is Associate Publisher of Optimyz and parent brand Hum@n Media. An avid kayaker and yoga enthusiast, David is a prolific writer and active in his community of Halifax, Nova Scotia.