Former Mrs. Universe Ashley Callingbull on speaking out through style
“I could’ve dressed as a typical pageant girl on that stage but I wanted it to be something more than that..."
Ashley Callingbull is no stranger to being the 'first'. At 21, the actress and dancer from Alberta's Enoch Cree Nation became the first Indigenous woman chosen as Miss Canada, a title that took her around the world, representing the country in copious beauty pageants. In 2015, she topped this feat by winning the title of Mrs. Universe — and being the first Indigenous woman (and Canadian) to do so. When she and her stepfather came in third place on The Amazing Race Canada, they crossed the finish line as the first Indigenous team in the show's history. And if you think the 28-year-old is done breaking down any wall that gets in her way, prepare to be proven wrong.
Since emerging from the pageant scene, the actor, model, philanthropist, public speaker, and personal "hero" to David Suzuki has been steadfast in one pursuit: to use her budding platform and social following to bring attention to human rights issues affecting Indigenous communities, with a particular focus on raising awareness around the inquiry into the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) from across our nation. It's this work that led her to the stage at this year's Indspire Awards (airing Sunday, June 24th at 8 p.m. on CBC), where she was honoured with the First Nations Youth Award. And in true Callingbull fashion, she used her moment in the sun to shed light on a cause she cares about — this time by making a sartorial statement.
We caught up with the multi-multi-hyphenate earlier this month to talk all about the "beautiful masterpiece" with a message that is the dress she wore to accept her award, about finding strength in fashion, and the most important thing she's learned from her pageant past.
The beautiful red ribbon dress that you wore to the ceremony was custom designed for you by Norma Baker-Flying Horse and it carries a lot of symbolism. To start, can you tell us a bit about the design process, working with Norma and how the dress came together?
I wanted something that would have a big impact on people, something that stood for something. So I thought, 'Who is a great designer that I've worked with before that makes amazing ribbon dresses?' and it was Norma. I came up with this idea for the dress to be red, because it's in honour of murdered and missing Indigenous women, and to incorporate women on the dress. So she incorporated warrior women on the dress, from all different walks of life, and we incorporated some florals as well. I wanted something that was traditional, something that made a statement, and something that represented who I was as a woman. I was very proud because usually people would wear evening gowns or suits and I decided to go for the more traditional look.
Typically, with the ribbon dress, it is very modest, it hides your legs, it hides your arms. I also wanted to wear moccasins, custom moccasins, with it. So with the designs and the custom ribbons that were on it, it made it appropriate, but the sparkles were really what made it stand out. I'm thankful to Norma for being able to create something that I dreamed of.
You mentioned that the dress honours MMIWG across the country. I'd love to hear a bit more about the symbols on the dress, why they were chosen and what specifically they represent.
There are four different women on there. There's a woman wearing a headdress, there's a warrior woman, there's a woman with a child. We were trying to represent all different women who have [been] murdered and [gone] missing. A lot of people have this stereotype of murdered and missing Indigenous women, that they come from a bad background, which is not true at all. I know people who haven't come home yet, so I know a lot of these women are successful, are mothers, are sisters, are warriors in their own way, so we wanted all these women from different walks of life. And to have Norma's guidance and her ideas come to life, it really made the dress more wonderful and it gave it meaning.
Why did you choose to bring awareness to such a serious (and personal) issue through fashion?
It's something that I've been very outspoken about, it's something that I've been very involved in. I thought, 'Why not use this opportunity to represent these women?' I could've dressed as a typical pageant girl on that stage but I wanted it to be something more than that and I wanted it to be bigger than me. And it was — because of that dress.
Do you think fashion and personal style can be an effective outlet for talking about larger social issues?
Oh definitely. I think you can make fashion political and you can use it to have statement pieces, like I've done. It's actually a very creative way to express yourself. It's a great outlet to express your views, and it's beautiful at the same time.
The first ever Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto wrapped up earlier this month. What role do you think events like this one can play in making the fashion world more inclusive?
Well, I'm glad that there was an Indigenous fashion week because I think that we need more Indigenous representation in fashion. I'm glad that they're able to bring our designs — our own original Indigenous designs — into fashion, which is a beautiful way to represent ourselves. But it's also a way to be political. I saw one of the designs said "no need for your apologies", or something along those lines (CBC Life note: It was Sho Sho Esquiro's collection that featured a jacket with the words "No Apology Necessary" on the back). A lot of Indigenous people have been receiving apologies, and it's usually because of residential schools, or things that our people have gone through, and for an Indigenous designer to make something that says, "we don't need your apology", that's a way of them saying, 'You know, we have made it this far. We have overcome everything and we're still here strong today.' It's amazing that we're able to be strong through fashion and make a stance, which is quite a remarkable thing to see.
Which Indigenous designers are you really loving right now?
I love Bethany Yellowtail. I've always really loved that her designs have something that is sort of political in a way, but is also floral. Because I'm Cree, a lot of our designs are floral, so I love that. I've seen Bethany progress over the years and now she's even in Vogue, which is pretty astonishing to see, an Indigenous designer in Vogue. A new designer that I really like for her beaded designs is Helen Oro. I really like how she's incorporating her designs on hats, on her shoes, on her wrists — so many parts of the outfit where you wouldn't really think it would go, but she's making it look really beautiful.
You're someone who's accomplished a lot of "firsts". There's a phrase that Shonda Rhimes (creator of Grey's Anatomy and Scandal) uses when speaking about her experience as a Black writer in Hollywood, which is "First. Only. Different" or "F.O.D". She talks about how there's obviously a lot of pride in being the person to break down those barriers, but a lot of added responsibility that comes with it as well. What has your experience with that been like and how have you navigated the pressure while staying focused on your goals?
Honestly, being the 'first' for a lot of things, it was very difficult to even get to that point. I felt like I had to try even harder because I am an Indigenous woman. I feel like things are more out of reach for me. So when I finally accomplished those goals and I became a role model for a lot of women, it was a lot to take on, because there's a lot of responsibility, but I'm happily taking that on. But I wish that it didn't take this long for an Indigenous woman to be the 'first' at something. I feel like we should already be past that point. The only way I can take it is that I'm glad that I'm opening this door for other women to follow, breaking barriers and stereotypes along the way. Juggling how many different careers I have is hard work, but it's worth it.
Do you have any techniques for self-care that you use in those moments where it can feel overwhelming that you find to be particularly effective?
You know, I travel every week, anywhere from seven to 13 different flights a week. It's exhausting. The time that I take to myself is when I go back home to Enoch and I just sleep, and I rest, and I take time to focus on myself. I make sure that I go into the sweat lodge and that I'm taking care of my mind, my body, my soul. To me, rest, a lot of water and being very culturally in tune with who I am keeps me very grounded, and it keeps me strong for everything that I have to do.
You've continuously used your platform to give voice to issues that you're passionate about, and you've also opened up about the physical and sexual abuse that you've personally faced. What prompted you to come forward about those experiences?
I've always wanted to be like my grandparents. They were a medicine man and medicine woman, so they lived their lives helping other people. I wanted to find my path, I wanted something similar. So when I started doing charity work, I started working with a lot of women. I noticed that, in order for me to heal, it was by healing others. I noticed that by being more outspoken, and being able to talk about what has happened to me was a relief for me. It was a way for me to heal and let go. My story is a very common story in Indigenous country, so for me to be relatable on that level, for women who are experiencing the same thing, it was a way for us to be strong together. So I thought 'Why not use my voice for others who aren't being heard? Why not use my voice to help reach other women and help them come out of that hard place? And help them be strong again?' You know, there's nothing for me to lose. I'm only gaining strength by being able to heal.
Switching gears a little bit, the Miss America pageant announced recently that it will be ending the swimsuit competition portion of the event. As someone who's been involved in pageants and has competed in similar events, what are your thoughts on this decision?
It's a great move for the Miss America organization. I've never been involved in that organization, but I have participated in pageants where I had to compete in swimsuit, and one where I didn't need to. There is definitely a difference, confidence-wise. I feel that women who do want to participate in beauty pageants with a swimsuit competition, a lot of them do it out of self-confidence, because they work so hard on their bodies. They're very into their physical health and they're very into fitness. It's a proud moment for them to show their hard body of work. But there's also a negative side, because we are being judged on our bodies [against] someone else's point of view, what they think is right, what they think is best. So it's not really your best, it's whatever's best to them. I personally believe that there is more to a woman than her body. For me, pageants have always been about my mind, about using my voice, about using my platform. It's a unique approach for [the Miss America organization] to [take], because it makes it more diverse, more inclusive for women who didn't feel comfortable participating in that portion of the pageant. I think it's a wonderful step because it sets that organization apart, and now that they don't consider themselves a pageant, it is more of a competition of the mind, so that will be interesting to watch.
What's the biggest lesson you've learned from being a part of the pageant world that you still apply or find relevant in your daily life?
When I joined pageants, I realized after a certain amount that you can't be the best version of what somebody else wants, because you won't be happy. When I presented myself, I was always the best version of myself, what I thought made me happiest, where I felt the strongest. I take that lesson in life. You can't expect to please people forever, because you can't make every single person happy on this planet. So it's really about your own happiness. That's what I learned from pageants. It's a very competitive world and you're trying to live up to someone else's standards and I thought, 'Why do I have to?' That's how I live my life now. I'm just the best version of myself everywhere I go and if you like it, great, and if you don't, that's not going to phase me.
This interview has been edited and condensed.