She’s the first Canadian and the first indigenous woman to win the title of Mrs. Universe. But that’s not the only thing that sets actor and model Ashley Callingbull-Burnham, 25, apart from your average beauty queen. Rather than rely solely on her spectacular looks, the Blackstone series regular is using her newfound public platform to get political, taking on the Canadian government and the media on behalf of First Nations people. “Now that I’ve got the exposure I’m going to use it to talk,” she says over the phone from her home on the Six Nations Reserve in southwestern Ontario.
And talk she does. Read on for Callingbull-Burnham’s no-bullshit take on politics, First Nations poverty and what it’s really like on the pageant circuit.
You won the Mrs. Universe competition—a pageant for married women—on August 29 in Belarus. What’s your life been like since then?
Non-stop, going, going, going. I haven’t really had any time to relax or do anything I like to do. But everything I’m doing is really amazing and great so really I shouldn’t have any complaints.
Did you have any idea it would be like this?
Honestly, I didn’t think it was going to get this much attention because it’s a Mrs. pageant. But as soon as I opened my mouth people were shocked to hear what I had to say.
You’ve positioned yourself as an atypical beauty queen. Why so?
I’m using my voice for the right reasons. I feel like a typical beauty queen is supposed to be neutral on everything, especially politics. We’re not supposed to really have an opinion. Why do I have to do that? Why do I have to fit someone else’s norm? Why can’t I be the person that I want to be?
You are the first indigenous woman and the first Canadian to win Mrs. Universe. How do you feel about that?
I have this ability to have an impact on people’s lives, and it’s a huge honour. It’s really humbling and it’s something that I’m going to be proud of for the rest of my life.
What do you want to tell non-indigenous Canadians about First Nations people?
To stop judging us on stereotypes. A lot of people don’t know the kinds of problems that are going on in First Nations communities in Canada. A lot of people don’t even know that there are First Nations people living in third-world poverty—people living in shacks with green water. There are so many issues that I’ve been talking about, like the murdered and missing indigenous women; it’s a huge, huge, huge problem. Also, the environment. The oil pipelines being built on reserves—they’re basically taking away our land and treating us like terrorists for protesting…we’re treated very secondhand, or if anything, last. We’re never as important as other Canadians, which is really sad because we are the first people of Canada.
Why aren’t more public voices representing indigenous people?
The media doesn’t really like to show it. The truth hurts and people don’t like to hear it. Also, our government likes to hide it. We’re always on the backburner.
It’s awesome that you’re using your Mrs. Universe platform to talk about such political issues.
Well, technically you’re not supposed to be doing as much press as I’m doing. I mean, you’re supposed to be going to events but I’m also going to rallies and protests…that’s stuff you don’t usually see pageant queens at.
Have you always done pageants?
I started in 2010 when I was 20. I wasn’t a regular pageant girl. I didn’t really know anything about them other than what I saw on TV or in Miss Congeniality. My friend said [the pageant circuit] would make a good platform for the charities I work for so I said, OK. When I joined it was such a different world. I didn’t know any of the tricks or how evil those girls can be. I didn’t know the politics of it. I didn’t know anything. I did really well…but it was a lot of suffering because other pageants are so different from the one I just did. You have to train forever. You have to have a great body. Everything has to be perfect. It’s really tiring and stressful and really wears you down.
Yesterday was the national outfit parade for all the delegates. I wore a custom Canadian Jingle dress & beadwork that showcased my culture 😊 Made by my friend Dabney Warren. ❤️🇨🇦❤️ #GoCanada @mrsuniverse2015 A photo posted by Ashley Burnham (Callingbull) (@ash_burnham) on
What’s a diet and exercise routine for a pageant queen?
It’s hell. It’s hell. Eating completely clean: egg whites, chicken breast, fish. No salt. Working out like crazy, always having to get extensions, having to have the best skin, the best nails, the best clothes. It’s too much.
What kind of exercise do you do?
I would do heavy weights at first and then cardio. Towards the end we’d do more intense cardio and conditioning where I’d be dropping more weight and getting lean and sculpted.
It sounds like you’re training like an athlete…
Pretty much. I remember one of the first pageants I ever did, we were wearing swimsuits while doing walking training and this guy came up and squeezed the skin on my stomach. He’s like, ‘You have too much body fat.’ That was the most uncomfortable thing ever. But that’s just something you have to deal with if you want to do something so competitive because you’re fitting society’s norm of what’s perfect and what’s beautiful. That’s why I don’t really like those kinds of pageants. With Mrs. Universe, you’re with the judges all week, you have one-on-one interviews so they really get to know you. In a regular pageant they only get to hear what you have to say during the question portion! You could be the dumbest girl in the world and rehearse your answers for this thing and you could win.
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You mentioned some beauty queen tricks. What are some tricks you can pass on?
Definitely hair spray—not for you hair but for your swimsuit. Put it on your butt to keep it in place! Put Vaseline on your teeth so you won’t stop smiling, and hemorrhoid cream for the bags under your eyes just like in Miss Congeniality.
You mentioned the element of sabotage in pageants. Have you ever been sabotaged?
I’ve had girls try and steal my stuff. They’ve tried stealing my sash and my gowns. Girls will do anything to sabotage you in a pageant. They’re crazy. They’re not there to make friends. They’re there to win.
What are your plans for the future?
I want to build a youth centre—a lot of youth centres, eventually—in First Nations communities. Kids can get into a lot of trouble after school because they don’t have a place to go. They don’t have sports or art…I think we need those things. I think we also definitely need more shelters for men and women and children who are suffering from abuse or poverty. All of those things I want to do. I’m obviously still going to act—because that’s one of my main passions—and do my charity work. But it’s crazy. You never know what’s going to happen in life.