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Ashley Callingbull, First Nations woman, crowned Mrs. Universe

Wins beauty pageant in Belarus for married contestants

August 11, 2016

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Ashley Callingbull, 25, is the first First Nations woman and the first Canadian to win the pageant  3:46
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A 25-year-old from Alberta's Enoch Cree Nation has become the first First Nations woman and the first Canadian to win the Mrs. Universe pageant.

Ashley Callingbull, whose married name is Burnham, was crowned the winner in Belarus Saturday night.

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"I'm really overwhelmed right now," Callingbull said.

"My phone is blowing up. Everything is blowing up. I love it."

The Mrs. Universe competition, which started in 2007, is an international beauty pageant that focuses on married contestants.

Callingbull said winning the Mrs. Universe crown is a blow against the stereotypes surrounding First Nations people. When competing in previous pageants, she said, she was judged for coming from the Enoch reserve, west of Edmonton, and told that she wasn't expected to place well in the competitions. 

She gained attention after becoming the only First Nations contestant in the 2010 Miss Canada pageant. She said that while she got a lot of support, she was also the target of racist comments. 

"A newspaper (wrote), 'What is she going to do for her talent, write a welfare cheque with her toes?'" Callingbull said.

"Just horrible, horrible things."

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Ashley Callingbull, whose married name is Burnham, became the first Canadian and first woman from a First Nation to win the Mrs. Universe pageant. She took the title on Aug. 29, 2015, in Belarus. (Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters)
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Callingbull, 25, is from Alberta's Enoch Cree Nation, west of Edmonton. She earned the Mrs. Universe crown in Minsk. (Tatyana Zenkovich/EPA)
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Callingbull wore a jingle dress, common during pow-wow dances, and sang a traditional Cree song for the talent competition. Callingbull raised her pageant profile in 2010 after winning the Miss Canada title as the only contestant from a First Nation. She calls her latest win a blow against stereotypes. (Tatyana Zenkovich/EPA)
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Wu Zhixin from Hong Kong shows off her outfit during the contest's costume segment. The Mrs. Universe competition is an international beauty pageant that this year saw 60 contestants compete for the title of 'most honorable married woman,' according the contest's website. (Tatyana Zenkovich/EPA)
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Karol Uzaga Valerin, from Costa Rica, was among the performers for the talent part of the contest. Contestants must be between 25 and 45 years old, have a family, a career and be involved with a charitable organization. (Tatyana Zenkovich/EPA)
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Japan's Takako Honda Hiruma, puts on her best face ahead of the contest. (Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters)
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Mrs. Universe participants take a selfie backstage before taking to the stage. (Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters)
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The contest took place over seven days and included stops like this one at the Belaz manufacturing plant, in Zhodino, about 55 kilometres from Minsk, on Aug. 26. (Tatyana Zenkovich/EPA)
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Before the main event, contestants toured Minsk and gave interviews. The theme of the pageant this year was battling domestic violence and child abuse. Callingbull, who overcame sexual and physical abuse, says she was motivated to help others dealing with the same pain. (Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters)

That made her only more determined to showcase her culture. During the competition, she wore a jingle dress, often worn during pow-wow dances. For the talent competition, Callingbull chose to sing a traditional song while wearing a white buckskin dress.

"Everything basically stated, 'This woman is First Nations native, and she's proud of it,'" she said. 

'A success story'

Callingbull, who is a trained dancer and professional actress, has taken part in several pageants in the past. But she said she was particularly drawn to the 2015 Mrs. Universe competition because of its theme: battling domestic violence and child abuse. 

As a survivor of sexual and physical abuse, she wanted the chance to help others dealing with the same pain. 

"I was picking bottles for food. I would have never thought I'm going to be Mrs. Universe someday," she said.

"Growing up and dealing with that, I thought this is a perfect platform to share my story … to be a success story for them."

Callingbull said she hoped her win would be a blow to stereotypes about aboriginal contestants and encourage other First Nations women to participate.

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