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Ashley Callingbull is breaking barriers one camera flash at a time.
Model from the Enoch Cree Nation in the province of Alberta, Canada, makes history as the first Indigenous First Nations woman to appear in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit. The magazine hits newsstands May 19.
The 32-year-old, a finalist in this year’s SI Swim Search, was chosen from thousands of applications to be flown to the Dominican Republic and photographed by famed photographer Yu Tsai. The winner of the annual cast will become a rookie in issue 2023.
The motivational speaker and pageant queen told Fox News Digital why she gave it a try this year, how she overcame her personal insecurities and what the honor means to her today.
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FoxNews: What inspired you to try the SI Swim Search?
Ashley CallingBull: I saw that SI has created a Swim Service network, where women can join and have different discussions. It was about female empowerment, and that really encouraged me to get involved. And, the truth is, I felt ready. I was ready for this. I wanted to do it last year, but life has gotten so busy. But this time, I knew I had to. I knew thousands of women would try it, but I couldn’t miss my chance.
FoxNews: How was it to receive the call?
Callingbull: It was six o’clock in the morning. I was still in bed. I couldn’t tell if I was still dreaming or half awake. I was told, “Are you ready to go to the Dominican Republic? I was crying. I turned around and kissed my husband. I was so happy that I couldn’t go back to sleep *laughs*. I was so excited.
FoxNews: Did you follow the magazine before trying?
Callingbull: The first time I saw Sports Illustrated was in the 90s. It was the era of models. I remember seeing Tyra Banks. It was so rare to see a woman of color on the cover of a magazine. It made me feel safe. I thought, “Maybe one day I can break down barriers in my own way. If she can do it, I can do it. It’s more than just seeing a face. Representation matters.
As a woman, I want my voice to be heard. I wanted to break those stereotypes about Indigenous people. I want our people to feel like they belong where they want to go. All my life I have heard racist terms. I was told that my skin is not beautiful, my culture is not beautiful. I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere.
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I was an insecure girl from the reservation. I never dared to have dreams because I didn’t see anyone out there who looked like me chasing those dreams. Now I am in a position where I can open the door for other Indigenous women to comfortably enter this space. It’s just crazy to think that this insecure girl is a strong, empowered woman who is comfortable in who she is. I feel beautiful and I want to help other women feel the same.
FoxNews: Was there ever a time when you felt insecure because you didn’t feel like you fit the so-called beauty standards?
Callingbull: Of course, I was actually on a national stage for a competition. Now, in 2010, I was the only Aboriginal woman to compete. A media decided to make a joke about it. I remember they wrote, “A native woman is competing. I wonder what she’s going to do for her talent. Will she sign welfare checks with her toes or swallow Lysol?”
Well, that wouldn’t fly today. But for some reason, it was okay to write in 2010. People associated me with that stereotype, and it was so amplified because I’m so proud to be Indigenous. I was wearing my badges. I didn’t change for anyone in this contest. I remember that only my mother could afford to go to the competition because it was too expensive. I got into the top five. I’m standing here in my traditional attire. I looked at the women next to me, and they were all wearing typical evening dresses. For a moment, I felt so alone.
I then started to hear a woman singing our traditional song. I thought I was going crazy. And I realized that Native people were coming to support me. My people came to support me. And that blew a fire in me. It lifted me up. And I knew, in that moment, that I was going to belong, no matter what barriers I had to cross. Although I should fight even harder just to be in this space. I wasn’t going to change for anyone.
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FoxNews: You are making history as the magazine’s first Indigenous model. What does this mean to you?
Callingbull: It’s such an honor. Not only has it changed my life, but it can change the lives of others. I am so happy. My heart feels happy. It seems to smile. That’s how this honor makes me feel.
FoxNews: What was it like finally doing the filming?
Callingbull: That’s when it finally hit me. It was real. I couldn’t believe I was on set…I was soaking up every moment. And once filming started, I was so excited. I felt so confident – more confident than I’ve ever felt in my entire life. It gave me that fuel that I can make bigger changes and do more things.
All my life, I felt judged. I want to use this platform to amplify my voice, celebrate who I am, and uplift those like me. It’s a time of celebration. I remember [photographer] Yu Tsai was so encouraging. He’s someone who shot all the SI models. And yet he was so welcoming and kind. I knew I was in my place and it felt good.
FoxNews: How did you prepare physically for your shoot?
Callingbull: You know, at the start of the pandemic, I started to feel lost. All of my work had to go virtual and a lot of what I do revolves around traveling and working with young people. But for Indigenous people, we believe movement is medicine. I wanted to feel better, so I started training. I was going for a run with my dog and it made me feel healthy again.
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I am also a jingle dress dancer. Being in nature made me feel free. It’s my connection to the earth, to be outside. So before I even did IF, I wanted to work on my strength training and be in the healthiest shape possible, so I could feel good about myself. And I always prepare to jingle in the summer. By the time SI arrived, running had become my routine… I just wanted to be the best version of myself. And SI just wants you to feel comfortable and confident the way you are. I still snack a lot *laughs*.
But bodybuilding and running are part of my background. One of the main reasons I started training was my mental health. I had no motivation. Running with my dog and stretching outside cleared my head. And when I’m mentally strong, I feel like I can conquer anything. Working on my physical was so important to help my mental and my spiritual [health]. Even though I do a little little workout, I feel like I’ve accomplished something. And from there, I feel ready to accomplish anything. It was about improving myself. And that was my real motivation.
FoxNews: What is the message you hope women and girls will receive when they see your photo in SI for the very first time?
Callingbull: I want all women to love and appreciate themselves for the way they were created. I want them to live without fear and never let fear stop them from pursuing their dreams, big or small. I was an anxious little girl who dared not dream. But I am now a strong and resilient woman. I hope my image will let others know that they are not alone.