Alberta’s Ashley Burnham was crowned Mrs. Universe 2015 at the event in Minsk, Belarus, on Saturday — and there is something extra special about her win.
Not only is Burnham, née Callingbull, the first Canadian to win the pageant (held for married women) but also the first First Nations woman to take the title.
The model and actress is from the Enoch Cree Nation, west of Edmonton, and her heritage is something she is deeply proud of. According to Canada AM, during the competition she wore a white buckskin dress made by a First Nations designer, for the costume segment she wore a customized traditional jingle dress, and for the talent competition she performed a traditional song.
But she also credits her culture for helping her get through the sexual abuse she suffered when she was a child.
“I’ve lived through it and can use it to help other people,” Burnham said of her abuse, the National Post reports.
Burnham was reportedly raped and beaten during her childhood, and it was not until her mother moved her back to her grandparents’ house in Enoch (from Hobbema, now Maskwacis) in her early teens that she rediscovered her Cree culture and spirituality, which helped begin her healing process.
“I think my culture saved me,” she reportedly said. “Fear had held me back for so long. I needed to find myself… and I did.”
Winning the title has propelled Burnham into the public eye (she’s already trending both nationally and internationally), and she is using this spotlight to raise awareness for a cause close to her heart: child sexual abuse.
Being a survivor herself, Burnham hopes to help others who may be in a similar situation know they are not alone. This was also one of the reasons she was drawn to the competition.
This year, the pageant had the theme of addressing “domestic violence and reflection over children.” The topic took a closer look at how domestic violence affects children and what can be done to combat it, sending out a powerful and educational message. Burnham revealed to Canada AM how she could personally relate.
“I thought, this is a perfect platform for me, because I’m relatable to people, I’ve experienced this myself, and I’m able to speak about it,” she said. “I’m glad I’m able to use this title as a way to speak for others that can’t speak for themselves.”