For well over 30 years, Mavis Mulitalo ‘aka’ Mavis Connery has been turning heads with her six-inch Cinderella glass heels, frizzy hair, and infectious personality. Mavis is an extrusive figure in the Samoan fa’afafine community. “There were times when the opportunity eluded me because I didn’t have a college education or socially accepted background, but it never held me back,” she said.
While Mavis never enjoyed the acclaim of fa’afafine notables in the likes of Cindy of Samoa or Dr. Vena Sele, her story all her own is the epitome of what makes a fa’afafine legend. I, Marion Malena, storyteller for UTOPIA Washington, am proud of the work we do with “Fofola le Fala ma Talanoa”. For providing a platform to highlight our unsung heroes/sheroes and cult figures whose stories for the most part have remained untold.
Mavis was born in 1970 in Samoa. At six years old her family moved to American Samoa and made it their home for the next nine years. When two of her aunties became Faletua (pastor’s wife) her family relocated to Apia to assist them with the ministry. For most of her life, Mavis grew up around the church scene. While her parents have always embraced Mavis, back in Apia she was raised primarily by her grandparents in a strict and traditional household.
“My grandfather was very dominant and stern,” Mavis recalls. “He was the kind of man that will only tell you something once, if he repeats, you will surely feel his wrath. I would never dare show my feminine side in his presence. At school, I’ll enjoy all the freedom I can. Once I’m home, I am but a statue. Any obvious sign of my fa’afafine being I will get a beating.”
Her grandmother, however, always came to her rescue. If he was beating her up, she would lay on top of Mavis to stop him. She found herself constantly running back in the safe space of her parents, but her dad’s only advice is that Mavis kept her focus on school. In later years her grandfather began to show signs of dementia and was unable to recognize faces anymore.
“We didn’t know what it was at the time,” she says “but I’d face him every day and he would ask who I was, who my parents were, where I’m from. So sometimes I would tell him a pretend female name and he would go along with it. He was never accepting of me when he was well, but those last moments with him brought us both some peace.”
After graduating from Samoa College in 1988, Mavis found several work opportunities around Apia working at a credit union, as a telephone operator, and as a court reporter. However, she realized the pay wasn’t enough for her to sustain a life. In 1990, she moved to find better opportunities in American Samoa. While waiting for the system to process her ID, Mavis found work under the table at a bustling bingo hall run by a well-known politician couple.
She was paid $250 a week but many folks who frequent bingo games would give her tips and she’d come home with $200 or more of nightly tips. The amount of money she made selling bingo packages according to Mavis was unequaled to anything she ever made. She wound up working there for 8 years. With the money she earned, she opened a small shop in Saluafata and another at the flea market in Apia. “I bought and shipped everything from Pago. So every two weeks I flew to Apia to replenish the items needed. With the bingo work, I was able to care for my family singlehandedly.”
In 1997, a plane en route from Pago to Apia crashed killing three passengers due to bad weather conditions. Only two survived. Mavis was booked to be on that flight. She recalls the circumstances in vivid detail.
“I was to be in Apia for a wedding that same day, but my dress wasn’t ready on time. By the time I got to the airport, I was too late and couldn’t board the flight. I was so mad I started cussing at the customer agent. He was able to schedule me on the next flight but while waiting at the airport news arrived that the plane, I was originally booked for had crashed. I was bewildered for days. I survived a flood, a car accident, and there were so many other instances I should not have survived. I’ve been given so many chances and I always go back to how devout I was in church from a young age even till now. There’s a reason for everything. Surely, it was God’s presence that was my saving grace.”
The fa’afafine experience in Samoa is heavily associated with drag pageantry. For the modern age fa’afafine, many have been involved in organizing or competing in a pageant. Since 1990, Mavis has been a fixture in fa’afafine pageants in Samoa and American Samoa and there’s no stopping her. After a decade of competition, she finally won Miss S.O.F.I.A.S. (Society of Fa’afafine in American Samoa) in 2002.
“I’ve competed in every pageant there was back then.” she said. “Now there’s just one but in those days, churches and even rugby teams had pageants. Some of the organizers tried to stop me, after doing it for so long they got tired of me. I really didn’t care about winning. It was adulation and thrill. I reveled in it all. If they allowed me to compete even after winning, I’d do it all over again. I’ll never get tired of it.”
As a seasoned queen do you feel fa’afafine pageants are better today than they were in the past? “It’s very different.” She spoke. “Then, we had over 10, sometimes 20 contestants competing. Now we barely make it to five. It’s very high standards and intimidating now. Back then everyone competed because we wanted to be celebrities. Now it’s politicized and serious. So much is expected. It’s expensive for most girls to live up to it. I miss the good old days.”
In American Samoa, Mavis’ role in the fa’afafine community has retired from pageant queen to an honorary advisor. “I’m one of few older fa’afafine who is still active in organizational work. I wish more of our elders would join but I understand they have lives of their own too. So many young fa’afafine are visible today. They need our guidance and support.”
Mavis has had her share of romantic relationships which she has always been open and public about. “I’m currently seeing someone” she shared. “We met on Facebook and he’s much younger. Every time I go to visit him his family treats me like a queen.
Mavis was employed with the tuna canning industry for over 20 years as a safety and security supervisor. The tuna factory workers are the pillars and lucrative force of American Samoa’s economy. But the soaring cost of living forced one of the two tuna factories to take their business out of the island in 2010. When that factory closed and transitioned into a new one, Mavis continued to work there until they closed as well.
One day she was surfing online to purchase a new phone and came across an advertisement for a safety and security job with ASTCA, a government-owned telephone company. She applied and was hired on the spot. “I’m grateful in my working career even if it’s a menial job, I never really struggled. I have been very blessed with opportunities. I know it has a lot to do with my personality. I’ve always been very friendly and gracious to people and that has always found its way back to me in blessings.”
As her birthplace, Apiaʻs economy continues to thrive in tourism and commodification as compared to Pago, though Mavis still prefers to live in American Samoa. “I’ve tried living in Hawaiʻi and New Zealand too, but it wasn’t for me. I built a life here and have everything here. Every time my mom visits, she is amazed that everywhere we go people young and old will say “Hi”, wave or honk their horns. If you treat people with kindness and respect it will be returned to you. My mom still lives in Apia and that is the reason I go back and forth. If I retire, I plan to stay here. Most of my life has been in Tutuila. This is my home now.”
Mavis, however, has no plans to retire soon. Her dream is to continue her pageant career which she is doing by planning a comeback for the Miss Samoa Fa’afafine Pageant in Apia, Samoa. It will make Mavis the longest running fa’afafine pageant competitor in history. “I wish to keep competing until I no longer can wear my glass heels. I’ll proudly say I’m 53 years old. I have no shame in my age. I embrace it all and not a lot of folks can say that. That makes me… Mavis.”