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Mrs. Universe Ashley Callingbull on Going Beyond Beauty Queen

Last year, Ashley Callingbull became the first Canadian and first aboriginal woman to be crowned Mrs. Universe. Here, FLARE’s newest columnist talks to fellow titleholder Siera Bearchell about using pageantry for social progress

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(Illustration: Bijou Karman)

Your house burned down when you were 16, and you entered your first pageant shortly afterward. Did one experience influence the other?
The fire is what actually made me want to compete. The Red Cross helped us out a lot, and I thought, How can I give back? I started volunteering—doing disaster relief presentations at schools—and that was really good, but then I thought, How can I make a difference on a greater scale? That’s when I heard about Miss Teen Saskatchewan. I made disaster awareness and relief my platform, and I ended up winning.

You’ve since won a string of Canadian titles. Next up, you’ll compete at Miss Universe in January. When you go into a pageant, what’s your strategy?
What I think is best. With Miss Universe Canada, there were a lot of people telling me what I should do: get eyelash extensions; get hair extensions. I knew if I was doing things I didn’t feel comfortable with, I wasn’t going to perform my best.

Many people think pageants are outdated and sexualize women. What’s your take?
I understand where these people are coming from, but the stage thing is just a part of it. Winning Miss Teen Canada opened so many doors. I travelled to Kenya to help build a school with Free the Children. I was invited to speak about leadership at 2010’s We Day in Toronto. I was able to meet so many world-changers, like Jane Goodall and Free the Children co-founder Craig Kielburger; I even got to hear the Dalai Lama speak. As a result of being exposed to and inspired by people like this, I co-founded Watered Down Apparel. For every clothing item purchased, we donate money to clean water projects in Kenya, Ghana, Ethiopia and Haiti.

What do you plan on doing with your Miss Universe Canada title?
Access to clean water­—around the world and here at home—is one of my main platforms. Many First Nations communities in this country lack clean water. I also love talking to kids about self-esteem and bullying, because I’ve been a victim of online bullying myself.

Like me, you’re an aboriginal woman on the pageant circuit. Do you think that your experience differs from those of other competitors?
Yes, because I can speak to different issues. I have always lived in Moose Jaw, Sask.—I call myself an urban Metis—but I’ve seen a lot of racism toward First Nations people there. I have light eyes and lighter skin. People say, “Oh, you’re Metis?” But just like many things, you don’t have to look a certain way to be something.

What do you think of being called a “beauty queen”? I’d rather be referred to as a titleholder, because there’s such a stereotype that comes with doing pageants. Being categorized that way is demeaning to what we’re all about.  
Exactly—I’m involved in pageantry for reasons beyond being a beauty queen. It’s given me an education in world issues that I’d otherwise not be exposed to.

You also ran marathons. What’s harder: knocking out 42.2 km or competing in a pageant?
Competing! You have to have your hair done, your makeup done; you have to be “on” in so many areas. [A typical pageant involves a photo shoot, swimsuit and evening gown competitions, an onstage Q & A and one-on-one interviews with each judge on the panel.]

You’re in your second year of law school, with a focus on human rights. Do you ever worry you’ll be taken less seriously as a lawyer because of pageantry?
At first, yes‚ especially if I become a judge one day. But my professors, my fellow students and the lawyers I’ve worked for have been nothing but positive.

(Photo: Allumski Photography)

(Photo: Allumski Photography)

Name: Siera Bearchell
Age: 23
Hometown: Moose Jaw, Sask.
Titles: Miss Canada-World 2009; Miss Supranational Canada 2015; Miss Universe Canada 2016

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