"It's about damn time": Cree model becomes first Indigenous woman in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit

Mar 14 2022, 7:26 pm

It was a whirlwind week for Ashley Callingbull after she was selected as the first Indigenous woman to model in this year’s Sports Illustrated (SI) Swimsuit Edition.

The former Mrs. Universe, who is from the Enoch Cree Nation located west of Edmonton, spent about five days shooting on the sandy beaches of Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.

“It’s crazy because it was so surreal at first, and I felt like it was all a dream,” Callingbull told Daily Hive on Sunday. She had just arrived back home the day before. “It just all happened so fast and I’m just so happy.”

Out of thousands of submissions, 13 women were selected to participate in the “Swim Search” photo shoot, an annual casting call by the magazine that gives aspiring and established models the opportunity to meet with the SI Swimsuit team with hopes of being featured in the next edition of the issue.

Callingbull says that as an Indigenous woman who experienced poverty and domestic violence growing up, she’s always had to fight to be in these spaces, so when she got the call at 6 am on March 1, she couldn’t believe it.

“As a little native girl, I didn’t have dreams like this,” she said.

“I just cried. I was just so happy because that little girl who didn’t feel beautiful… that little girl who was just shamed for being Native…now, I see the growth, I see who I’ve become. It really makes me want to continue like sharing my story because it just shows that these dreams are attainable.”

Why representation matters

Callingbull is aware of the pressure that comes with being the first Indigenous woman to reach this milestone.

“Yes, it’s 2022, it’s about damn time, but now that it’s been done, who knows?” she said. “I’m so thankful for being able to open this door for the next generation.”

She’s had many firsts — she was the first First Nations woman and first Canadian to win the Mrs. Universe title, a competition honouring married women.

Since then, she’s landed major contracts with Nike, Canadian jewellery brand Hillberg and Berk, and fashion brand RW&CO.

The model and advocate wants to continue using her platform to uplift others. She says she’s received hundreds of messages from Indigenous women and girls, and women of colour since the SI news.

“Honestly, a lot of the messages have made me cry. Girls will be saying things like, ‘I feel beautiful now seeing that you’re there,'” said Callingbull. “That’s why representation is so important because it creates this positive ripple effect. [Women] see their faces reflected in mine.”

Behind the scenes on the Sports Illustrated shoot

Born and raised on the reserve in Alberta, Callingbull is accustomed to cold weather, so she welcomed the heat in the Dominican Republic.

The 13 women stayed at the Hard Rock Hotel in Punta Cana, a place that Callingbull says reminded her of West Edmonton Mall.

“It’s just so big and it has everything. I could have left home and not packed anything and would have been able to just buy clothes there,” she said. “You can go bowling, go to the casino, there’s just so much to do…I’ve never been at a resort like that.”

The model says she appreciated that the SI Swimsuit team gave them the freedom to choose whatever they wanted to wear.

“We want you to feel beautiful and to express yourself and represent who you are,” shared Callingbull of what Sports Illustrated Swimsuit editor MJ Day told her. “She said we’re not going to shape you in any way or form.”

Callingbull was in good company at the shoot. There were a diverse array of models chosen including an ICU nurse, a breast cancer survivor, and a NASA physicist.

It was essentially a summer camp for inspiring women. Callingbull documented her trip on Instagram, showing fun activities like bowling and trying on all of the gorgeous swimsuits.

To top that off, she experienced a special, Canadian moment during her Sports Illustrated shoot on the beach.

“You know what was crazy? I’m out, away so far from home and this couple walked by, and the woman was really staring at me,” shared Callingbull. She added that the man the woman was with had a shirt that said “Saskatchewan” on it. “And they were really staring at me and I wasn’t allowed to say anything, but they were like ‘Wait, you’re Ashley Callingbull!'”

She said more Canadians started showing up and yelling “Go, Ashley!”

What’s next for Callingbull?

With the shoot finished the next step is to vote for rookie of the year. Callingbull says whoever wins that gets the cover of the magazine. There are no details on voting yet, with further announcements expected in the summer.

In the meantime, Callingbull continues her work with Indigenous communities all over Canada. She works with women and children escaping domestic violence at WIN House in Edmonton and Discovery House in Calgary.

She also hopes to continue her in-person motivational speeches at remote, First Nations communities, which were paused due to COVID-19.

Other exciting things in the works — Callingbull just signed her first book deal with Harper Collins and she has a jewellery collection coming this summer.

Overall, Callingbull feels blessed to have all of these opportunities.

“When Indigenous people succeed, we all succeed together, and that’s all I want.”

Isabelle DoctoIsabelle Docto

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