It is often that indelible characters and names in fable and of history endure with the passing of time. Often those unforgettable figures are etched in history books, artwork, and media. In the Pacific Islands, written history rarely exists outside a larger scope. This is ever dire in subcultures of the fa’afafine community of Samoa where stories of its trailblazers, legendary figures, along with those known more infamously merely exist through oral history.
In recent years, the collective efforts of organizations such as UTOPIA Washington and the advancement of technology have helped chronicle names and faces that have long existed in oral stories of the fa’afafine realm.
One such name is that of “Delilah”. While most fa’afafine may have been known as influential figures, Delilah however was often synonymous with being notorious. Tales of her vicious demeanor and those frightening ”scissors in a handbag” were spoken. She petrified the young queens with those lines, “Ga kali gi ou fesili?” (Can you answer questions? Meaning, have you passed the test to dress openly as a woman) “E sele po’o lou ulu?” (You want me to shave your head bald?). This was all scary as a young fa’afafine. I always hoped and prayed that I would never encounter Delilah in my lifetime.
For years as a kid, I believed what was said about her was purely an urban legend. Until, I had a chance encounter. It was 2008 and I had entered the Miss Samoa Fa’afafine Pageant competition held in Apia, Samoa at the Tusitala Hotel. One of the contestants that night had a costume designer and sponsor who was also her backstage assistant. It was none other than Delilah.
After several categories, Delilah would lash out and nearly beat her contestant up. The contestant was always doing something wrong, and Delilah disapproved. Although it never got physical, all of us backstage were completely silent including the contestants. No one dared to interfere. It was obvious, Delilah was not someone to be messed with. I had witnessed firsthand the legend of the ferocious Delilah. Looking back in retrospect, it was perhaps for good reason because her contestant almost won the crown – she was 1st runner-up.
Prior to visiting Apia this past May, I had been hoping to meet Delilah and catch up with her and her life these days. I had reached out to my dear friend, Ms. Lesina To’omalatai if she could arrange a meeting with her. On the day of our interview, Delilah arrived in full fashion with palazzo dress pants, platform high heels, large blade sunglasses, and purple hair. “Please order something to eat,” I asked. She declined, and only accepted an afternoon cocktail.
Then without hesitation, I blurted what has lingered in fa’afafine folk tale for years. “The ʻscissorsʻ was it true?” I asked. “Yes, dear. I always carried a pair or two in my handbag in case someone might act a fool in my presence then chop goes the hair,” she responded laughingly.
Do you regret any of your past behavior? “No.” She says “I have no regrets. I lived a very hard life. You don’t know how easy you have it today.” “I was born at a time when you had to learn how to survive even if you had to fight. I fought everyone. Even some of the glorified figures in your stories because they looked down upon me.” “Take me on a journey,” I asked her. Help me visualize your past. Yet, how I had envisioned our conversation did not prepare me to grasp the roller coaster ride I was about to take. A life story that is swaddled in every thrill and chill of a Hollywood movie plot line.
Born in the village of Leonē, Upolu, Samoa. Delilah Sio was the fifth of twelve siblings. Her father was the sole provider of her family and by her own account, they grew up poor. He barely made enough income to support their large family and hardship was a constant struggle. Eventually, her father made her older siblings find work to make ends meet.
As far as she could remember Delilah knew she was a fa’afafine. While her mother accepted her with open arms, her relationship with her father was challenging. She found comfort and a companion, however, in her childhood friend, Patsy Pouesi who was also fa’afafine. In the fourth grade, she dropped out of school and devoted her life to helping care for and support her family.
“I enjoy cooking, cleaning, anything girly.” recalls Delilah “I use to do chores with my lavalava wrapped up all the way to the chest area as if I were a woman covering her breasts. My dad hated that. Surely, I would get a beating if he caught me. He forced me to be involved with church activities to try and fix me. It was hard going through my adolescent years; he was tough on me.”
In 1970, her father passed away. On the day of his funeral, she kept her entire family waiting. In true Delilah fashion, she showed up hours later in full makeup and a dress. “I was ready for my debut. I felt a burden being lifted. I was free. Finally.” Her name was adopted after watching the beautiful golden age actress Heidi Lamarr in the classic film Samson & Delilah. “Ain’t no fa’afafine have a name like that before,” she said.
That same year she discovered a haven at “Hollywood”. A tailoring shop in Saleufi that was operated by fa’afafine women. From the 60s until its closure in 1978, the shop was once an iconic business as well as a safe space for many of Upolu’s fa’afafine community of the time. Delilah learned the skill of sewing from one of the owners, Ms. Anita Schwenke.
By age 14, she was making clothes out of her home. Eventually, she moved into a shack behind her sister’s place and worked on her sewing from there. “I’m so thankful for the gift of sewing. I never completed school or had any kind of education. The sewing was a life saver to our family. It paid our bills and put food on the table.”
When the island nation of Samoa gained its independence in 1962, certain laws set in place during colonization by New Zealand were inherited. One such law criminalized the impersonation of a female by any assigned male at birth in Samoa. In those days, fa’afafine dressing as women became associated with prostitution. Delilah’s roommate and friend, Sophie was known for pushing the envelope and was subjected to continuous police and public scrutiny. Her physically feminine appearance and living bravely in her truth provoked several women to beat her to death in the 1970s.
She is often remembered as both a hero and martyr to the fa’afafine community. Sophie was highly influential to Delilah and her death deeply affected her. It was soon after, that fa’afafine sex workers were being accused of targeting outsiders with the intent to steal. Complaints were being addressed by visitors, and as a result, the police would intercede by enforcing the law. Many fa’afafine were harmed and jailed during this time.
It was such a negative impact that drove Delilah to become hostile toward her own community. She was verbally and physically violent towards any fa’afafine she saw being disrespectful or engaged in illegal activity. ” I didn’t beat them because I suddenly liked it.” She expressed. “They were giving us a bad name I wanted to teach them a lesson the only way I knew how.”
In 1978, she was convicted of battery for assaulting a fa’afafine and was sentenced to four months in jail. For the most part, she maintained a friendly relationship with the police through her impeccable street wisdom and humor, but it did not save her this time around. In prison she faced discrimination and initially, she was not allowed any rights as a fa’afafine woman. When she was told she could not wear make-up, she objected and fought the system until she was allowed to do so.
Behind bars, Delilah met a known drug lord who was serving time for murder, and they became lovers. But her lover was also plotting an escape plan. When Delilah completed her time, she became involved with aiding him. He managed to escape the prison walls with 10 other inmates while Delilah drove the getaway car. For two months they hid in a small building behind a grassy area and bushes.
Delilah was the only person coming in and out of the area to bring food. One early morning while walking to the hideout she realized they were about to be ambushed. The police have been watching her every move, soon a shootout ensued but the prisoners along with Delilah fled. They found themselves on the road and hitched a ride with a truck driver who took them to her lover’s village. There, they fled to the mountains.
An enraged commissioner of police at the time by his authority ordered the officers to shoot all the escapees if found. Delilah thinking quickly wrote a letter and had it hand-delivered to a personal friend to ask the head of state, Susuga Malietoa Tanumafili II for mercy. Their plea was granted, and they all stood trial. Delilah was convicted of aiding the escape of a prisoner and was given a three-year sentence. In prison, they didn’t task her with labor work but instead utilized her sewing talents for the prison workers and inmates. Her sentence was reduced to a year, and she was released early for good behavior.
In 1982, Delilah met Tanya To’omalatai who had relocated to Samoa after living in the U.S. for some years. Tanya was instrumental in the development of a fa’afafine organization in Apia, and Delilah’s course in life found its road to redemption. They jointly became involved in the ‘My Girls Club’ – an all fa’afafine netball team and helped coordinate fa’afafine based events. The following year the first fa’afafine pageant was held.
Delilah organized, played musical instruments, and sponsored contestants for many of the organization’s events throughout the years. Their pioneering efforts along with others revolutionized the fa’afafine movement in Samoa. It would lead to the establishment of S.F.A. the Samoa Fa’afafine Association and help bring an end to the female impersonation law which was abolished in 2013.
The ascendancy into organization and community work helped bring visibility to the struggles and successes of the fa’afafine community. Sadly, those of whom were at the early forefront of the movement have either passed on or retired to a private life. Delilah however has made no plans to retire.
She continues to sew from her home. Her tailoring and designs took her to American Samoa and the islands of Manu’a as well. Her home became a haven for many fa’afafine she took under her wing throughout the years. The only problem she faces with her work today is a sciatic pain that comes and goes on her foot developed from years of sewing. Her business took a hard hit during COVID-19, but thankfully her siblings residing in Australia and New Zealand stepped in to support her financially when work was slow.
At 67, Delilah still occasionally enjoys the nightlife of Apia. But her presence these days is entirely demure as opposed to the fierce woman to be reckoned as with most may remember her for. “Some of the things I’ve seen with our young fa’afafine generation today and probably I should stop there. But I must say they should consider themselves lucky Iʻm a changed person.” She said with a chuckle.
Would you have any words of wisdom for our younger fa’afafine siblings? “Be respectful always. People will show you the same in return by the way you speak and act. I have always shown respect to those who were older than me. Perhaps I’m old fashioned but that’s the way I was brought up.
Just as our conversation was wrapping up. Delilah pulls out her government card and shows it to me. “Look! Delilah is my name on my I.D. I earned that. Itʻs legal.” “Are you happy?” I asked her. “I am” she says. “I am thankful to God every day for his guidance and blessings upon me. All those years the good, the bad, the struggles, the blood and tears… all of it has its purpose. It was all worth it.”
Undoubtedly while many fa’afafine may identify with each other, not all have shared the same path in life. Delilah came from a generation that endured cutthroat hardship and was subjected to a level of mediocrity. She belongs to a vanishing breed of fa’afafine who through unyielding determination in tougher times was able to live her truth on her own terms. While her life lessons may have been gritty or brutal to some and would not fly in today’s age, surely, she meant well and all who experienced the wrath of Delilah either learned from it or became better. She is a survivor, a mover and shaker, and a fierce legend of a different kind all within her own right.