- By Jenna Kunze
Thirty-two-year-old Ashley Callingbull has been the first many times: the first kid from her First Nations territory in in Alberta, Canada, to model professionally; the first Canadian and Indigenous women to win the Mrs. Universe title in 2015; and now—as of last week—the first Indigenous woman slated to appear in an issue of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition.
“It feels great to be the first for a lot of things, but it’s so important that I’m not the last,” Callingbull told Native News Online over Zoom from her home in British Columbia. “Breaking these barriers and having to break glass ceilings, that's great and all, but it's so important to push that glass aside so other indigenous people can comfortably and confidently walk into these spaces.”
You wouldn’t guess it, but the model, actress, and activist once had coke-bottle glasses—” the geeky science fair girl”—known for her “weird voices” and impressions, like Gollum from the Lord of the Rings, she says. She began her career doing voice overs for cartoons at age 12, before she ever felt comfortable enough to step in front of a camera.
The backbone of Callingbull’s life work has been in volunteer work and motivational speaking. When Callingbull was just 14, she lost her younger sister, which motivated her to start volunteering for the local children’s hospital and various other charities that helped underprivileged youth going through similar circumstances her family had gone through.
As a descendant of residential school survivors, Callingbull said her grandparents—both medicine men and women— taught her that helping others heal will heal her, too, and that nobody could take away her culture. She’s used her culture as a launching pad.
Callingbull signed a book deal with HarperCollins to write a memoir on her journey in the coming year.
“My story, the beginning of it, is a very common story in Indian Country,'' Callingbull said. “Something that a lot of Indigenous people face is intergenerational trauma, and I share how I overcame that and how I'm still on my healing journey, and what my steps were to become the person that I am. For me, I decided that the cycle (of intergenerational trauma) ends here with me.”
At 20, the actress began modeling in local beauty pageants as a means of amplifying Indigenous voices and giving back to her community. Pageantry work led Callingbull to more and more opportunities, eventually landing her on The Amazing Race Canada to compete alongside her stepfather in 2016, and an ambassador gig for the Nike N7 Fund created to enhance access between Indigenous youth and physical activity programs. This year, she’s also designing her own jewelry collection, where a portion of her sales will go back to Indigenous women programs, she said.
But on International Women’s Day this month, Callingbull got the biggest gig of her career yet when her phone rang at 6 a.m. and a casting agent from Sports Illustrated asked if she’d be able to fly to the Dominican Republic the following week. Of the thousands of applicants for this summer’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition, Callingbull was selected as a finalist among 13 women. Each woman will appear in the summer issue, and compete to be named “Rookie of the Year” for a chance to be featured in the 2023 swimsuit edition.
Among the other models are women who identify as astronauts, criminal justice lawyers, ICU nurses, breast cancer survivors, professional athletes, and more. “This group of women is emblematic of SI Swimsuit’s values and all the finalists inspire action throughout their communities,” the magazine wrote in its announcement.
“These women are all so remarkable in their own right, and they all stand for something,” Callingbull said. “So to be in this space with them, it’s remarkable. They’re acknowledging I’m not just a face, it's about what I can do with this vision that I have.”
For that reason, she said, she doesn’t take any criticism she might hear too seriously. “When you see me in my swimsuit, I'm showing that I'm owning the skin that I’m in and I'm confident and comfortable,” she said. “If you have a problem with that, that’s on you.”
In the past week, Callingbull said she’s been flooded with messages from Indigenous women around the world that say seeing someone that looks like them in such an acclaimed modeling space is validating that Indigneous people are being seen, and have value.
“I'm hoping they'll see like their faces reflected in mine,” Callingbull said. “That’s why representation really matters, and for an organization to welcome the diversity—it’s about damn time.”
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