KENWOOD — Ashley Salibellas has long felt disrespected by potential employers and others because of her physical disability, which stems from a childhood brain tumor.
Now, the Kenwood resident, mother and housing activist plans to prove people with disabilities can do anything — not least of all, model for an international magazine’s centerfold — as she campaigns to be Maxim’s 2022 cover girl.
“People have a sense that this girl can model, she can pose,” Salibellas said. “It’s just that [I have] a disability and I think that’s where some people stop at.”
The Maxim cover girl will be chosen through an ongoing public vote. Salibellas is in first place in her group ahead of Thursday’s cuts, which will whittle her group down to five.
The winner will be announced July 21. Group stage winners advance to the quarterfinals, which start July 25. The competition ends Aug. 18 with the announcement of this year’s Maxim Cover Girl.
If Salibellas wins, she’ll receive a $25,000 cash prize and will be photographed in France this fall for a spread in Maxim magazine, which will likely be published in early 2023.
“If I win this Maxim cover … it would mean a wider audience for differently abled people — a bigger audience that will listen to us,” Salibellas said. “We are capable, and I think that me winning this would prove to people that we are.”
To vote for Salibellas, click here.
Salibellas developed a brain tumor as a young child, and had the tumor surgically removed when she was 6.
After the surgery, Salibellas’ “whole life changed” as she was left paralyzed. Doctors told her mother that the wheelchair-bound girl was unlikely to feed herself, drink without assistance or walk again after the surgery, she said.
“But by the grace of God, I bounced back,” Salibellas said. “I walk and I talk and I eat,” and though the right side of her body is partially paralyzed, she maintains some movement and sensation, she said.
Despite the improvements, Salibellas still feels the impacts of her childhood health scare, she said. In adulthood, she applied and was rejected for numerous jobs, which she blames on discrimination.
“I know that feeling of feeling sad because someone discriminated against your disability,” Salibellas said. “Even though it’s against the law, you still see that out in the world.”
Salibellas eventually secured a job at the ShowPlace ICON movie theater in the South Loop, which she held for years until becoming pregnant with her daughter, she said.
Since leaving the position, she’s raised her daughter at the Ellis Lakeview Apartments, a troubled affordable housing tower in Kenwood.
She’s experienced water damage and suspected mold in her apartment, and since 2020 has advocated for better living conditions with the building’s tenants association.
The association’s campaign scored a major victory last month. A county judge ordered Ellis Lakeview’s owner to replace its management company, which oversaw the building as it racked up more than 150 code violations in less than three years.
Housing justice and gun violence prevention — both pressing concerns for Ellis Lakeview residents — are among the issues Salibellas wants to highlight alongside disability justice if she wins a Maxim cover story, she said.
“I plan to raise not only [the need for] affordable housing, but also how poorly this affordable housing is managed,” Salibellas said.
“I would like to see [firearm dealers] be more careful with who they sell guns to,” she said. “Make it harder for the person to purchase a gun. Add more rules and regulations.”
Salibellas would use most of the $25,000 grand prize to support her daughter “in the way that I want to support her.” Salibellas receives a disability check, but “that’s not enough to live off of” with housing and other costs of living looming, she said.
She would also donate some of the money to the Special Olympics, whose athletes deserve equal endorsements and TV coverage as the Olympic Games, she said.
Salibellas is early in her journey of being an advocate for people with disabilities, she said.
She hopes by being vocal about her experiences throughout her Maxim campaign, she can make disability justice a topic of conversation for those in the fashion and photography industries who wouldn’t otherwise wouldn’t pay attention.
“I’m just realizing my purpose,” Salibellas said. “I’d seen this Maxim cover girl competition, and I thought about I can spread awareness from doing that.”
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