“Talofa! My name is Deborah Shontelle Schilid Victoria Patsy Cline, the one and only Princess Tiger, the most popular of Samoa, le lalelei o lo’o misa ai tama ma tamāloloa (the beauty that boys and men fight over). I am sixteen years old representing my beautiful sponsor.”
That entire introduction (made popular and infamous by Princess Tiger herself) always concluded with a ferocious tiger-like roar and feline claw motions from her hands as if she were a literal tiger. It has been an unforgettable staple introduction in our community for years. Three years ago, when Tiger’s friend Lesina Toomalatai began filming Tiger in various acts as her stage persona, the videos were put up on social media. It was then that the one and only Princess Tiger became a Samoan household name. The world may have only just discovered Princess Tiger after the social media climb, but she has been a vital figure and pillar in the fa’afafine community for decades. Tiger is known for fiercely embracing both her masculine and feminine sides. Now 59, she constantly reinvents herself: a pageant queen, a popular tenor singer, a champion boxer and a viral sensation, just to name a few.
“I am a happy go lucky person. I have always had a loving and clean heart and when asked, I will always help anyone who needs me”, she said during our video interview. Her flamboyant character and wicked sense of humor have skillfully masked the pain she endured in her lifetime. Tiger has seen and lived through hard times, but all the while never showing signs of internalizing any of those hardships. Tiger was very candid about her life and left nothing untold. “I lost my virginity when I was a teenager to a boy named Winston from my school” she said, “He left for Australia years ago, but even now, I still think of him after a night in the marina or while a man is swimming in my pool.” Realizing it was an off the wall sexual comment, I laughed so hard. I knew I was in for a fascinating and unforgettable ride with her story.
Princess Tiger was born Patrick Fruean Keil in 1963, to Frank Keil and Faletolu Vaigalelepa Fruean from Lotopā. At an early age, she was raised by her mom’s sister and brother-in-law Lilomaiava and Vaimalama Fruean of Apia. Tiger had a hard time learning in school and dropped out of Avele College after attending for just a year. She knew she was a fa’afafine from a young age and endured a difficult upbringing. “My brothers and sisters used to beat me up” she reflected, “They wanted to beat the fa’afafine out of me. For a long time, I was treated that way until one day it stopped because they realized that even with a beating, I was never going to change. This is me. I am the way I am because I was born this way.”
In 1977, after leaving school behind, Tiger stayed home to care for both of her parents. “E alu lua lo’u tausi matua ma lo’u pa’umumuku (I was caring for my parents while also being very promiscuous)” she said with a slight wink. She found refuge in the fa’afafafine/trans women in town, in bustling Apia. “The older girls of that time, Tanya To’omalātai, Neta and Angie Sia, they were like mother figures to me” she recalls, “Everything about living and surviving as a fa’afafine in Samoa, I learned from them. If I messed up or did anything displeasing, they beat the crap out of me. It was all tough love, but that same discipline kept me in a good place all these years.”
Tiger grew up during the era when the Government enforced the Crimes Ordinance Law, adapted from when Samoa was under New Zealand colonization. The law criminalized ‘the impersonation of a female’ by any male in Samoa. Many fa’afafine were persecuted, harmed, and jailed because of that law. “It was those same girls: Tanya, Neta, and Angie who fought with the police and demanded their rights as citizens” Tiger said, “I remember when I was approached by police for wearing heels and a dress in public. All I could say to say to them was ‘Why? What wrong have I done to you?’” Tiger was part of the first public protest by the fa’afafine community against the law. Those struggles and resistances were what led to the formation of the first fa’afafine organization in Samoa in 1983.
In 1980, Tiger dabbled in boxing and won a championship match in American Samoa, becoming the first known fa’afafine boxing champion. “I have cut my hair short and sometimes dress in men’s wear for church and other occasions” she said, “I did it to survive, but that doesn’t mean that I’m a man. I’m a woman and will always be a woman.” Tiger was an escort to Alaleula, granddaughter of the late Head of State Malietoa Malietoa Tanumafili II, who was married to the prince of Tonga. Tiger traveled with her and lived in Tonga for six months.
When Tiger entered her first pageant competition in 1991, Tanya gave her the name Princess Tiger and it stuck. She was known for her campy stage theatrics and sketches, with characters such as a weather girl, a television news reporter and a fire knife dancer. Tiger competed in many pageants over the years, but won her first and only title, Miss Candlelight in 1999. “Lita from Fagatogo, American Samoa, Fagalima Sophie and Ross Sumo from Apia; they were my inspiration.” she said, “It was the way they presented themselves, how they walked in heels, they were like supermodels and I imitated them. Any pageant I’ve ever competed in, I was never a nervous wreck because I learned and studied from the best.”
Tiger cared for her parents for most of her young life until both parents passed on. In 1999, she found her first job working for ANM Office Equipment Services Company. Tiger expressed her being involved in several romantic relationships with local men that ended bitterly and how her last love affair ended tragically. “My true love was a young man from Mālifa, we were deeply in love” Tiger reflected, “but his mother would not accept us because according to her, we were somehow related and she forced that upon him. It drove him crazy and he became suicidal and sadly he took his own life. In my life, I have endured many other relationships that ended because the family would not accept us or my boyfriend at the time would end up marrying a cisgender woman. It comes with the territory, pain and bitter memories. Today, I much rather prefer my single life. I’m content with a weekend lover instead of a long-term relationship.”
After leaving her last job with the Samoa Tourism Authority, Tiger self-retired at home. She continued to be very active and in the era of technology, found new fame as a social media phenomenon with those same characters that made her a staple in the fa’afafine community years ago. “I’ve always been a comedienne. People have always enjoyed my company because I made them laugh. I was called Lucy from ‘I Love Lucy” because they thought of me as the woman in that TV show. I am blessed to be able to bring joy to others. The only things I haven’t entertained are cats, ants and geckos.” she said with a laugh.
After years of protest by the fa’afafine community to repeal the Crimes Ordinance Law, finally in 2012, members of the Samoa Fa’afafine Association (SFA) brought an end to the law. SFA said in a statement that “the repeal of the law was a huge celebration for the Fa’afafine community and vindication for families who have lost fa’afafine members to acts of violence.” Tiger said “It was a momentous occasion, but also one that is sad as I reflect. A lot of those girls who were at the forefront from the start who fought for our place in society are all gone now. There are very few left, including Delilah and I, who were there and endured the pain of that struggle.”
I will never forget the first time I saw Princess Tiger. It was mid-afternoon in Pago Pago in tropical humidity, she had just gotten off the Salamasina boat, dragging her suitcase along the sidewalk with her tight-fitted cheetah print apparel and a matching hair scarf, turning heads as she made her way into town. Over more than twenty years later, she is still turning heads. “Always show respect to your elders.” she said, ” I want our younger generations to internalize that: show respect to your parents, elders and even the elders in our fa’afafine community as well. Our culture teaches us about respect because that is where our blessings come from. Love your body and take daily walks. I have always been healthy because I walk every day and we need to include healthy living in our lifestyle. But above all, smile and be kind to others. You’ll never know how much that will mean to someone.”
At the conclusion of our interview, Tiger showed her appreciation and gratitude by ending our conversation with her signature roar and cat claws… ICONIC! The one and only Princess Tiger, the popular of Samoa.