The scent of the blooming moso’oi tree signifies the harvesting of the palolo season. A delicacy in the Samoan islands. In American Samoa, festivities of art and culture are held for an entire month to culminate the occasion. It was in the midst of such a celebration one evening in late October at the Goat Island Cafe, which was once the site of the iconic Pacific Rainmaker Hotel that I sat awaiting Jaiyah Saelua.
The night was drizzly with rainfall and gusty winds, but Jaiyah arrived unblemished wearing a stunning ombre sun dress, with her beautiful golden hair, and a yellow sei (flower) in her hair. She was radiant. The most beautiful glow I’ve ever seen on her. For the past nine years, she has been on a rapid journey to fame. From London to Paris, New York to Tokyo. To the cover of magazines, and Hollywood premieres. Attending high-end parties and television interviews, she was everywhere.
In August, during an invitation to the Women’s World Cup Finals in Sydney, Jaiyah was made a FIFA legend in a special presentation by President Gianni Infantino. “The recognition from FIFA is really an honor you know,” said Jaiyah. “It’s the first time I know of someone awarded a legend status because of a social issue bringing to the forefront the LGBTQ+ movement. It’s usually given to decorated coaches or successful players.”
In addition to the FIFA honor, she was also chosen as one of Out 100ʻs Groundbreakers, a prestigious compilation of Out Magazine’s most impactful and influential LGBTQ+ people of the year. A week prior to our conversation, Jaiyah had just returned from doing press tours for the anticipated film version of the documentary, “Next Goal Wins” which made her a celebrity. I have known Jaiyah since her college years and we shared many great memories together, but I sat there in awe that I was also in the presence of a celebrated icon and international history maker.
“Did you ever imagine all of this for yourself?” I asked her. “Not in my wildest imagination,” she replied. In fact, there was a break in her journey for six and a half years after the documentary came out when Jaiyah chose to care for her mentally challenged uncle; she became his hands and feet following a stroke. When he passed away, Jaiyah automatically knew it was her turn to care for her grandmother, as everyone in her family had to work.
“At a council meeting, some of the village chiefs made congratulatory remarks to my dad about my journey,” Jaiyah reflected. “He responded to them in Samoan, ‘ua tali manuia a Jaiyah i lona tausi matua’ (Jaiyah is receiving her blessings from caring for her elders). I would hear that phrase often during that period. In my mind, I wasn’t doing it for manuia (blessings); I did it because I had to. It was a responsibility. Now that I am experiencing it, and because of the timing of it all, the Samoan belief is true, and I am a testament and example of that. I find my cup constantly overflowing, and the stars aligning just when I need it the most.”
Jaiyah grew up in Leone, American Samoa, a village rich in old traditions and pride. She was raised in a household that according to her was “somewhat conservative.” Her dad was a traditionalist Sāmoan father who believed that family lineage is everything, and that having male children was a trophy in itself. Jaiyah has a young fa’afafine sister, Mikaela, who exhibited feminine mannerisms at a young age. In retrospect, she was more of a tomboy who enjoyed playing football with her male cousins.
Jaiyah acknowledges that she identified as a boy at that age and understood the expectations associated with it. She attended a small private elementary school and, at nine years old, realized she was attracted to boys. “I did have fa’afafine aunties Tisha, Karisa, and Michelle Eneliko, who were well-known throughout Leone. Her name still comes up in conversations,” said Jaiyah. “Yet, I feel I wasn’t exposed enough to the identity of a fa’afafine at a young age to where I would understand and accept that I was a fa’afafine.”
During the summers, Jaiyah and Mikaela would spend it with their uncle on Aunu’u Island. There she met her first fa’afafine friends, Jake, and Victoria. For the most part, her entire childhood was spent in the small environment of home and school.
At the age of 11, Jaiyah began playing soccer when the Football Association was introduced to private schools. The games are now separated between boys and girls’ teams, but at that time, it was co-ed. “I didn’t know what the word ‘inclusive’ meant then,” said Jaiyah. “But I knew the feeling, and that is exactly how I felt.” That year, her team from Fatu ma Futi SPACC school won the island-wide championship title. When she was announced MVP in the private school league, Jaiyah was shocked and unaware that there were individual awards.
She credits her coach Nicky Salapu (who later was featured in the documentary film with her) as one of her biggest inspirations. “That was the birth of my relationship with Nicky” she said. “He has been a consistent figure in my football career. My inspiration to keep playing football comes from him. He was one of the longest-serving national players on American Samoa’s team. He might even come back next year. Seeing him so adamant about representing his country lit something in me and I carry that always.”
High school age was the first time Jaiyah recalled being around many fa’afafines. Her friends Mia, Hawley, and Belinda were outspoken and flamboyant. She began shaving her legs and plucking her eyebrows. By sophomore year she was out in some spaces which she says her parents might have known but was one of those situations where it was never talked about.
“They didn’t create an environment where they refused to accept me. It was my own insecurities of letting them down. It motivated me to do well in school to distract from that fact. I was a good kid throughout high school and very involved with sports and church. Keeping myself busy was my way of escaping from the challenges I had within myself.” Jaiyah reflected.
While attending the local community college, Jaiyah came to self-realization. As comfortable as she was being an androgynous fa’afafine, the idea that she could transition permanently dawned on her. The age of social media was beginning to take over the internet changing how people connected and information was presented. That is how Jaiyah was introduced to the trans-identity. “I saw my friend Miah Fualaau’s transition, she looked beautiful. I wanted that. At home I was still trying to hide but, in my mind, I couldn’t wait to leave off island. I wanted that freedom to figure things out for myself.”
Jaiyah had reached out to her friends Del and Inga who had already established themselves attending college in Hawaiʻi. She moved there in 2009 when they found an off-campus apartment and were able to share rent with a couple of friends. Inga introduced Jaiyah to hormone therapy. But the passion to play soccer never left her. One of the first things she did at the University of Hilo was look for a soccer team. She found a flyer and went to the tryouts eagerly excited and confident enough in her abilities to play.
Jaiyah recalls that during warm-ups she was approached by one of the assistant coaches. He said, “Thank you for coming but we have our roster set already.” “It was an open call tryout, and this was only a warmup? It didn’t make sense to me.” an emotional Jaiyah reflected. “I didn’t argue but somewhere in my mind, I knew it was because I was transgender. It was one of my first experiences with discrimination. It was heartbreaking because it made me not want to play soccer anymore. It had a downhill ripple effect. I started to step back from transition, cutting classes and playing video games all day. The power of discrimination can put you in a situation where you don’t want to do anything anymore.”
It was around this time she received an email from Tavita Taumua requesting her to return to American Samoa to play for the national team who were preparing for the Pacific games in New Caledonia. The local American Samoa committee aimed to reunite their most talented players, regardless of their employment status or family commitments. Additionally, individuals of Samoan descent with connections to American Samoa were also extended invitations. “Leaving without a reason and not finishing school would be a huge disappointment to my parents.” said Jaiyah “But that one decision brought me to where I am now. That is how impactful soccer is to me. It’s like a drug.”
During training sessions in American Samoa, the team was told a four-man filming crew from London would be shooting footage. The intent was to document why American Samoa as a FIFA member and one of the worst teams in the world continues to introduce teams on the international stage. Steve Jamison one of the directors told Jaiyah years after the success of the film that while shooting they began conversing in their hotel rooms. During the interviews, a light bulb went on when they realized there was a story there. That was when the decision to make it into a documentary transpired.
Suddenly real life became a film set. Microphones and cameras were hooked up as it morphed into something completely different within a matter of days. When the crew left after the Pacific games, Tavita Taumua informed them they had another tournament. A bigger one, this was the FIFA World Cup qualifier for Oceania. The filmmakers flew back to Samoa with an even larger crew.
In feature films, the filming is based on a script, but for a documentary, filmmakers shoot to get as much footage as they can. “I never fathom the extent this documentary will take us.” spoke Jaiyah. “I only really thought it would be something that will be shown only in Great Britain. We won that match after many losing streaks. What a timing. It’s as if the universe had everything lined up.”
Jaiyah was living in Honolulu in a two-bedroom apartment on Kaheka Street with a group of friends when she received an invite to attend a closed screening of the completed documentary “Next Goal Wins” in Los Angeles. “I remember crying my eyes out seeing it for the first time” Jaiyah remembers. “All the little technical film magic details I never saw it that way. I didn’t even cry when we scored but the film made me cry, they captured everything so beautifully. I realize how powerful and impactful the film could be.”
Jaiyah was invited everywhere the documentary was shown and traveled across the globe to help promote the film. The only exception was at the Abu Dhabi film festival after she was advised not to attend. Dubai had harsh anti-LGBTQ laws and the filmmakers knew they didn’t have the power to protect her. Her mentor, Nicky Salapu went instead.
Jaiyah stated for the most part, her experiences have been pleasant, and the hosts have been very accommodating. However, she recalls one alarming incident when she decided to venture on her own while in Paris. As Jaiyah recalls, “There were these French trans women at the bar. From the moment I stepped in they were bumping, touching my hair, spilling drinks on me, very mean girl attitude. My saviors that night were two trans women of color, they came over grabbed my arm, and lead me away from the situation. One was Cambodian and the other was Brazilian. They didn’t know each other but saved me. I wasn’t myself that night. Iʻll fight someone when I’m being bullied but I was in a different country, and I was scared and I didn’t know anyone there. Those girls are back in their respective countries but I’m still friends with them today and connect with each other on Facebook.”
When the film tour ended the platform had been created. Jaiyah continued to be invited to give talks, sit on panels, and attend sessions where policy was changed for sports.
When Taika Waititi was given a copy of the documentary by a friend telling him it was a must-see, by 2016 he was sitting with the directors Mike Brett and Steve Jamison with Jaiyah in a restaurant in Kaimuki, Hawaiʻi to discuss the possibility of a movie. “I didn’t know who he was at the time, I’m oblivious about anything Hollywood.” said Jaiyah. “I was asked to be a consultant but still at that point, I was unaware that it was going to be a big-budget Disney film.
When filming began in 2019, Jaiyah just happened to be in Hawaiʻi. Her friend Poe Sataraka who appears in the film invited her to the launch party. “I walked on set and no one knew who I was.” Jaiyah recalls. “But when Taika saw me, he was completely flabbergasted, his face lit up, and yelled out my name. Everyone swarmed around to greet me like bees to honey. We had a karaoke party afterward and the very handsome Michael Fassbender kissed my hand and sang to me. It was wonderful.”
At the writing of this story, an ongoing strike of the Actors union has rocked the Hollywood industry. Most working actors were in protest. The film version of Next Goal Wins was released nationwide in theaters on November 17th. This has opened the doors once again for Jaiyah to be invited to many promotional and press tours.
Jaiyah stepped away from playing on the national team for the upcoming 2023 Pacific Games to bask in the glory of her blessings. She stated that she had tried to include some of her real-life teammates who inspired the film, but the invitations were completely out of her control. She had asked Nicky Salapu and Daru Taumua to the film premiere and they all could share a room together, but both were uninterested in anything having to do with the movie.
When Jaiyah was asked to consult some of the scenes regarding the portrayal of trans women in the movie, she had an issue with a particular scene. “Kaimana (who plays Jaiyah in the film) drops her voice in an undignified manner. I told them we don’t do that. That scene was cut out. They were really worried about the cringy and uncomfortable real-life experiences. I told them to keep those in because it happened to me. I want audiences around the world to feel uncomfortable when they see those parts.”
“The junkets are whole-day events. Interview after interview and a 30-minute lunch break. Afterward, there are photoshoots where everything is set up and back to the hotel. If I’m overwhelmed, can you imagine what these celebrities have to go through on a daily basis?” said Jaiyah.
Dealing with media that has an agenda or a narrative has been the most difficult aspect of her journey, according to Jaiyah. “The question that I dislike answering and try to avoid is, ‘How do you feel about trans women in women’s sports?'” she said. “I don’t dislike it because I don’t support it, but it’s not my experience. I don’t have the right to talk about it. I can’t be the voice for that demographic when I don’t have a similar experience whatsoever. They are always trying to fish and take my words out of context. I have more control over conversations now, which, unlike before, felt like walking on eggshells. I’m not even nervous about it anymore.”
When FIFA president, Gianni Infantino arrived in American Samoa for a special visit in July of this year. Jaiyah’s village of Leone hosted a corporate dinner in his honor. The president personally knew who she was. “My parents have always been supportive but since that visit it changed their perspective. Now instead of just supporting they’re pushing me to keep going.”
Of all the travels I did for the film, the Toronto festival was the first time my family members were able to join me. All I have when I come home is stories to tell, at least now they can say they have experienced it with me. For the most part I am by myself on these trips, I try to get acquaintances who live out there to join me but to no avail. It would be beautiful to have someone to share it with.”
The most fulfilling moments of her journey have been the countless letters from everyone including school children, to a woman in Alaska riding her bike out on a snowy mountain with a Jaiyah jersey, and the bulk of messages from the old, young, trans, gay and straight who convey their gratitude on how much she inspires them.
“I will always testify that I am the way I am, confident, comfortable, and proud because of my culture, community, and home. Fa’afafine are privileged and I truly believe that. Yes, there are instances where we don’t feel enough but we live harmoniously in American Samoa compared to the rest of the world. It’s humbling. Someone like me from a small community that is literally one of the least-known countries in the world. To have your story reach places I’ve never been fills my soul. It makes me feel good that I have lived a life that has somehow touched others around the world.”
– Jaiyah Saelua.