The divas of Samoa (Cherrie Rhodes)
Article Words : Paul Miles | 01 August

Cross-dressing in Samoa

From the centre of Samoan families to raucous beauty pageants, Paul Miles shows us a glimpse into the life of a Samoan fa’afafine

Roger works in the Ministry of Women as a principal policy analyst. He wears a dress to the office. Where is this liberal country? The Netherlands? Denmark? 

Neither – this is Samoa, in the South Pacific. Roger also wears puletasi, the traditional women’s formal wear, when he goes to church in his village each Sunday. He (although he prefers to be called ‘she’) is one of Samoa’s fa’afafine

“Fa’afafine have always been in Samoa, since before missionaries arrived,” she said. “We’re very much accepted in the community. We are the heart of the family and church. A good fa’afafine stays at home looking after parents, nephews and nieces.”

Men who dress as women and perform ‘women’s chores’ have been an important aspect of Polynesian culture for centuries. In 1789, British sailor George Mortimer, an officer on the merchant ship Mercury, wrote about a stop in Tahiti. On a trip ashore, one of his fellow sailors ‘took it into his head to be very much smitten with a dancing girl’.

After tempting her aboard with ‘beads and other trifles’, the man was very surprised ‘to find this supposed dancer, when stripped of her theatrical paraphernalia, a smart dapper lad’. This greatly amused the Tahitians. ‘[They] enjoyed this mistake so much that they followed us to the beach with shouts and repeated peals of laughter.’

These days many fa’afafine – pronounced ‘fa-fa-feen-ay’ and meaning ‘like a lady’ – stay at home to look after the family, while others work in government, or in bars, boutiques and hotels. They take part in netball tournaments and have their own beauty pageants. Last year, Roger was crowned ‘Miss Tutti Frutti’ in Apia, Samoa’s capital. The theme was the environment. “My undergarments were made from bottle-tops and my dress from plastic bags,” she said.

These pageants are always fun and rather raucous, but are family events, attended by all ages with the aim of raising funds for the community. One I attended at a hotel in Apia raised money for an old people’s home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor. Elderly nuns sat in the front row, giggling behind their pandanus fans at the compère’s increasingly ribald jokes while the ‘gals’ sashayed past in their finery. 

The theme was My Fair Lady, and parasols and elegance started the show. (“That dress just screamed Audrey Hepburn in the racecourse scene,” exclaimed one of the expat judges about one contestant’s black-and-white number.) 

By the end of the evening the girls were squeezing fake bosoms into revealing swimming costumes and trying to balance homemade Carmen Miranda fruit headdresses. Several such beauty pageants are held each year at various venues. In true Pacific style, nothing is ever confirmed until a few weeks in advance.

Roger, like most fa’afafine, still lives with his family and, currently anyway, is single. “I had a boyfriend but now he has three kids. He’s straight and always has been.” The Samoan concept of sexuality is complex. 

“We have relationships with straight men only, not with other fa’afafine or gay men [who are ‘straight-acting’]. It’s a genetic thing. In English terms we are gay, although we are reluctant to use that word.”
In November, Roger relaunched the Samoa Fa’afafine Association; at the launch, the country’s Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, gave a speech – he is the patron. Roger is the president of the group, which has more than 20 paid-up members. “The main aim is to raise the skills of fa’afafine and highlight our role in society.” The group is also involved in raising awareness about HIV/Aids. 

According to Roger, fa’afafine have suffered abuse in recent years, since the issue of gay marriage divided the Christian community in some countries. However, discrimination is rarely more than an anonymous letter published in the local newspaper; despite being a Christian society, many Samoans admire fa’afafine and the good works they do. 

So the next time you’re at Coconuts Beach Club on Samoa’s main island of ’Upolu, look out for Tara, the receptionist in the tight-fitting dress. Manning the desk by day, come the evening she leads the fiafia dance, her hair piled high on her head, her hands twirling gracefully. At the end, she thanks the audience and clutches a well-padded bosom. Not all guests realise that there’s more to Tara than meets the eye...

Paul Miles lived in the South Pacific for five years, working with WWF. He is now a writer and photographer