The first time I saw Shalimar, I was in our living room watching the live broadcast of the 1994 Miss American Samoa pageant. The spotlight gleamed and the cameras zoomed in as the reigning Miss Island Queen was introduced. There, in a swift moment, in the midst of all her glory, was the one and only Shalimar Seiuli. I was just eight years old then, but I was definitely captivated.
For many young fa’afafine, finding inspiration in movie stars and celebrities was a form of escapism. The saying “We make a life by what we get. We make a living by what we give” is abundant in Samoa, but living on an island can also feel isolating; this is especially true for a fa’afafine. Television and Film filled a gap for us, between a remote home and fantasizing about living a life being rich and famous. In a time before Trans women figures were visible in mainstream media, we did not have role models like Lavern Cox or Janet Mock or shows like “Pose” or “La Veneno” growing up.
When Shalimar’s face appeared on magazine covers and her name became a fixture on national TV, it did not matter what took her there. She symbolized that “celebrity” figure and lifestyle for us. The fact that she was Samoan and a fa’afafine made her essence all the more endearing to so many of us. She became a constant topic of conversation with the young fa’afafine community; “Oh, this is how she looked doing this”, “this is what she wore during that” we’d say. Shalimar epitomized what we all wished to look like in our prime. Every photo I discovered was a treasure, every magazine cover she was on was a collectible, and the folks that were a part of her life were whispered about in our stories. She was one of the reasons I wanted to become Miss Island Queen, just to feel the glory of being enthroned in a title that was once hers. I did, in 2005.
That unique name. . . “I named myself after the perfume. It’s so sweet”, she once told the National Enquirer and that face, forever young, was encapsulated in time during an era that defined us. Shalimar left an enduring imprint on the lives of many, even to those who never met her. When we think of the word ‘legend’, we think of people like Marilyn Monroe. Shalimar was our Monroe; her life and untimely passing continues to fascinate people long after.
Growing up Mormon
Born and named Saoaumaga Atisone Seiuli on July 8th, 1976 in American Samoa, her family called her Sao. Shalimar was the oldest of four siblings; brothers David and Joseph and the youngest sister Rosita. Her mother Lucy worked at a restaurant in the town area and her father Suisala Faimasasa did gigs for and with many local musicians. Shalimar grew up in the Mormon faith in a predominantly Mormon neighborhood in the village of Mesepa, on the west side of the island.
“She navigated being a fa’afafine all week long, but on Sundays, she wore her ‘ie faitaga (men’s formal lavalava) and went to church as Sao. I never thought about how that might have affected her; I honestly never asked. It was just expected and I had a great respect for her for doing that. But now that I have kids of my own who are growing up in such a unique era, I wonder if it bothered her” remembers her best friend, Lini Peters Anderson. Shalimar’s friend, Dakota Sofa, said about fa’afafine in the Mormon church that “Most of us (fa’afafine) in the 90’s lived in a time of caution and reservation as high school students. A lot of us did not have the license to live as we do today. This was specifically true for LDS fa’afafine at the time. Both of us were strong LDS and very active within the church. Most of us dared not to push the buttons of conservatism as we stayed with short hair and subtly halted our ‘ie faitaga (men’s formal lavalava) at the top of our knees.”
With Mormon principles being orthodox and conventional, according to many, Shalimar’s parents were supportive of Shalimar and her identity as a fa’afafine. ”Her mom always knew she was different and she was very loving of her as a fa’afafine. Her dad never really bothered with her transition either” recalls her first cousin, Ebony Pan. “Our grandfather was a traditionalist and a very strict man and Sao got a lot of heat from him for being who she was, but her parents remained loving of her regardless of our grandfather’s approval.”
By the time she was a teenager, Shalimar was living in her truth and she lived it large. She was active in performance, dancing and doing lip-syncs in various community and school activities. She was captain of the cheerleading team and a popular student, not only in high school at Leone High, but among almost all of American Samoa’s teenage youth in the early 90’s. Shalimar was also a talented designer, she carried around a sketch book that had drawings of the designs she worked on for her family and friends. “We were neighbors. I moved to Samoa my junior year and felt like an outsider. Shalimar made me feel less alone. She was beautiful and bigger than life. I loved her sassy way of being. She had the most incredible legs!” said her best friend, Lini Peters Anderson.
Shalimar would often sleep alongside her mother as she worked overnight at Te’o’s Kitchen located in the village of Fagatogo. Fagatogo was a tropical metropolis bustling with shoppers, pseudo-Samoan eateries, colorful townsfolk and a vibrant night life. Folks who also grew up in Fagatogo, knew Leroy Lutu’s home, affectionately called “Beverly Hills”, as it was the gathering place for the fa’afafine community on island. Historic events of the fa’afafine movement leading up to the establishment of the first fa’afafine organization took place there. It was not long before Shalimar became a part of these gatherings as the organization began to host the Miss Island Queen pageant (now Miss S.O.F.I.A.S). Shalimar was still in high school when she entered the competition in 1993. She was only 17 years old when she won.
“Back then we didn’t have age requirements to compete. We celebrated and welcomed all fa’afafine. Shalimar was young, energetic and was knowledgeable of the stage world demonstrating current trends of the 90’s everywhere in school and public gatherings.” remembers Tasha Atio’o, Miss Island Queen (S.O.F.I.A.S) 1987 and the organization’s longest serving member. “She had the most beautiful body, all-natural curves and legs to die for. But she was also smart too with no reservation when stating she was a proud fa’afafine.” Shalimar toured Apia and Savai’i and presented gifts on behalf of the organization to convalescent homes for both Samoan islands during her 1993 – 1994 reign. Her reign is indelibly enduring as the organization’s most popular televised performance, done to the soundtrack of the movie “Sarafina!” Those live images of Shalimar as the star performer are burned into the memory of many Samoa residents due to its constant re-airing on local television, even to today.
In 1996, Shalimar moved to California with aspirations of becoming a fashion designer. For a time, she was enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Design in downtown Los Angeles. At that time, she was living full time as Shalimar and began hormone replacement therapy. She was also the star entertainer at Club 7969 and Egyptian Arena in West Hollywood, where she was known as Seychelle.
On May 2nd 1997, police officers followed Shalimar after she was picked up by a Toyota Land Cruiser and arrested her for violating a previous conviction. The vehicle was driven by actor/comedian Eddie Murphy, who was not charged with committing a crime. By sunrise, Shalimar’s encounter with Murphy and subsequent arrest was sensationalized in national headlines. A media firestorm ensued and the press and paparazzi hounded her while she was being transported from jail to her court hearings. Murphy quickly tried to defuse the incident by charming the media insisting he was being a good Samaritan and that he had, for years, helped those he saw in need.
It only resulted in dozens of Trans women coming forward with stories of encounters with Murphy. Murphy brought million-dollar lawsuits against The Globe, The National Enquirer and New York Times on stories they published claiming that they were selling false statements about him. The suits were later dropped in an out of court settlement. The incident with Shalimar occurred when Murphy’s career was making a comeback after a series of box office failures. Lawyers from some of the tabloids believed his move to drop the suits was due to his worry that the magazines would have more women lined up to testify against him, realizing the lawsuits he brought forth were harming him more than helping him. His high-profile lawyer, Marty Singer, hired a private investigator to track down the women and offer them payouts to recant their claims. The then known celebrity P.I., Paul Barresi, helped Singer’s firm by obtaining signed affidavits and videotaped recantations claiming the statements they (the Trans women who originally came forward) made were false. The highest check that the firm paid out, according to IRS documents, was $15,000.
Since the original incident, Shalimar spoke to the press only once in an interview with the National Enquirer from jail; the money she received was used to post her bail. Shalimar maintained that Eddie Murphy’s claims were untrue and that he had other intentions when picking her up. For one, the area he picked her up at on Santa Monica Blvd was known for its frequency of Trans women sex workers. The entire encounter was videotaped by a paparazzi who followed Murphy’s vehicle. At the end of the clip, it shows police officers shaking hands with Murphy before walking away, while Shalimar was arrested. “It’s unfair I went to jail while Eddie Murphy walked away scot-free” she told the Enquirer.
That Tragic Day
On the morning of April 22nd, 1998, a neighbor walking her dog stumbled upon a body outside of her apartment building on San Berendo Street in Koreatown, Los Angeles. It was Shalimar. Paramedics pronounced her deceased from her injuries. Shalimar’s brother David, who was also living in L.A. at the time, claimed her body. (I will not emphasize the details of her demise in respect to her family.) However, an autopsy found no drugs or alcohol in her system and the coroner ruled her death via an accidental fall.
Friends and family found the scenario the detectives had painted for them hard to believe. Viva, a drag friend, told a reporter of the Village Voice “Unfortunately, the cops don’t want to investigate. . . to them, it’s just another hooker.” “It was too strange,” says Vicky, who worked with Shalimar at club 7969. “Someone who has survived being raped at gunpoint and threatened with a knife just doesn’t slip and fall by accident. Why haven’t the cops looked into these things?” she told the LA weekly.
Many girls who worked alongside Shalimar stated that she received threats since her encounter with Murphy, warnings that she “keep her mouth shut.” Her brother David told Globe Magazine in an interview that Shalimar became paranoid and feared a hit man was following her. She would grow hysterical at the mere mention of Eddie Murphy’s name, so much so that she often traveled to get away from it all. Despite their assertions, the police claimed they found no evidence that proved her death was a murder and no further investigation was conducted. “I am 100 percent sure it was an accident” says detective Andy Cicoria, who investigated her death. Shalimar’s remains were flown back to American Samoa where she was laid to rest near her childhood home in the village of Mesepa.
17 years after her death, a filmmaker based in Los Angeles was developing a documentary on Shalimar and was looking to interview those who knew her. He contacted me in 2015 for photos I had collected, and what he told me in our phone conversation shook me. According to the filmmaker, he was filming the apartment where Shalimar had lived in 1998 and discovered a woman who was a tenant in the building for years. The woman told him that on the night Shalimar died, she heard a scream, she walked out her door and witnessed a man in all black walking out from her apartment. I felt a chill run through my spine as I have never read or heard about that information before. The only public mention close to that was the coroner’s report stating that someone heard a scream at 5 o’clock in the morning. In the years following her death, talk of conspiracy theories and cover ups shrouded in mystery have lingered around Shalimar’s death, til today.
Reclaiming Her Narrative
It is unknown when Shalimar became involved in sex work, but one thing I made clear when writing her story is to shift the focus from her choice of work. Too often are Trans women exploited for what we do with our bodies. The entire media circus around her incident with Murphy scandalized Shalimar in a way that made her seem like some freak of nature and not a human being. Derogatory references to her identity, impudent remarks on her lifestyle and the offensive use of wrong pro-nouns were continually splashed over headlines by the media and press to define her. It is important when we reference the past to understand how Trans women were being exploited by the media and the attitude of society towards us in general. Today, movements such as “Me Too” “Free Britney” and “Reclaiming our Stories” speak about how women were mistreated and vilified. 20 years ago, when Shalimar’s reputation was being tarnished there was no nation-wide visibility and platform for women like us. Let me be the first to say that it is time to reclaim Shalimar’s name!
Eddie Murphy always claimed in his statements that he was a “good Samaritan” who gave away money to those in need. However, in a 1997 interview with People magazine he uncongenially mentioned how he scrubbed the car clean after Shalimar was taken away by police. “I’m obsessive-compulsive with cleanliness,” he said. “After I got home, I wiped off the door handle and the stuff that person had touched.” (Not your typical comment made by a big-hearted humanitarian as he claims.) The press repeatedly mentioned that Shalimar was arrested for violating a conviction for failing to take an HIV test. But they never mentioned that her prior arrest was made by an undercover cop who was targeting her. Late-night hosts and 90’s sitcoms such as “Smart Guy” made Shalimar a running joke of their punchlines.
When Murphy’s lawyer was paying out Trans women to retract their statements about him, Shalimar wanted no part of it. “She refused to have anything to do with Murphy or his money and simply wanted to move on with her life” according to acquaintance Candace Watkins (who had phoned her personally). New York personality Linda Simpson wrote that she had met Shalimar at a party in Los Angeles in 1998 and Shalimar said she had not made any money off the scandal and only resented being called a drag queen by the press.
A large percentage of trans women, particularly trans women of color, are forced into sex work after facing the harsh reality of discrimination and disadvantages in the work place. The dangers of being constantly at risk of danger and prejudice is prevalent in the trans community. There have been many fa’afafine from Samoa who moved to the states in search of financial stability, only to have to resort to sex work as a means of survival. ”Sex work was never an ideal occupation for me, it was a means of survival” says Vanessa Simanu Ta’amu, Miss S.O.F.I.A.S 2019. “For so long, society has pushed us into this line of work because of discrimination and the discomfort of being around people like me, people who are Trans. They have made dreams come true, they have built empires and most of all, they kept a little island Trans girl from living off of the street when she was about to lose everything.”
December 17th is International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. That is the day that the UTOPIA Washington organization is planning to honor Shalimar’s name and bring awareness to the violence that she went through. Many sex workers, particularly black and brown Trans women, continue to endure. UTOPIA will be rolling out the first phase of the “Shalimar Sex Worker Toolkit” that is comprised of resources aimed at helping sex workers navigate the sex work industry safely and efficiently. ”The toolkit has long been a dream of UTOPIA” says Program Director Tepa Vaina in a statement, “As we continue to see how sex workers are ignored, left out of resources, pushed out of spaces and have to depend on their own resiliency and support from each other to survive. It is our hope that this toolkit helps sex workers to be able to find resources consistent with their needs, as well as safety resources and tips related to health, beauty and finance.”
Remembering Her Family
Years after her death, Shalimar’s story took on a life of its own. Plays, films and stories have been written about her life, mostly without the consent of her family. I had reached out to two of her siblings during the writing of this story to no avail. I must reason and respect their privacy. For so long Shalimar’s life has been made into profit by those who never knew her. I can only imagine how her family must feel reliving the pain of her death on public display.
Her parents divorced and both later remarried. Her father, Sasa, passed away in 2008. Her siblings have since had families of their own. Her sister Rosita posts yearly celebrations of Shalimar’s birthday on Facebook with her kids blowing her candles, she keeps her memory alive through her children. Her best friend, Lini Peters Anderson, said “I think about Shalimar often, my heart is so full and broken at the same time. I tell all my daughters our stories together.”
“It’s been 23 years since she passed” remembers her friend, Dakota Sofa. “And since then, whenever her name is brought up, the first thing that comes to my mind is her golden smile and glistening eyes that consumed any space or room — with an anticipating thrill of dreams, and a personality that glowed and mirrored in everyone she impacted.”
In 2014, Shalimar’s mom Lucy (who was living in Utah at the time with her husband) contacted me on Facebook. She passed through photos of Shalimar that I collected and was hoping to see more of. “I miss Sao every day, there will always be a hole in me until my time comes” she said in a Facebook message. We kept in contact for some years, but her profile has since been deactivated. At home or when she travels, Lucy will post about a black bird that follows her. She believes it is Sao watching over her. “My guardian angel. I love you. O mom” she says.
I realized as I reflected on years of memories I savored of Shalimar, that at the heart of her story is a mother who is still grieving the loss of her child. In Samoa, when a loved one dies, we often say “’e le galo ‘oe” which translates to “you will never be forgotten”.
In closing, with my deepest affection… Shalimar, ‘e le galo ‘oe.