Tiare has been interviewed by many publications and magazines through the years but always on some exploited story on fa’afafine life that took her views out of context. This is the first time she has been able to open up about her life and struggles. “I am now in my 50’s and if my journey could inspire others, then for the rest of my life I’ll be happy knowing that I touched someone else’s” she said with joy.
The first time I met Tiare I was starstruck. It was 1999, at Leroy Lutu’s fale-Samoa styled house in Fagatogo, the illustrious gathering place for fa’afafines in American Samoa. Leroy was one of the founding pioneers of the fa’afafine community and was a father figure to many. His home was known to town folks as “Beverly Hills”, and it became a haven to all fa’afafine. Tiare was living at Beverly Hills with her lover. She was at the height of her career as a performer, a pageant winner, entertaining for prominent dignitaries and was well known for her live singing, so much so that the community dubbed her the “Whitney Houston of Samoa”. By the late 1990’s, Tiare was evidently the star performer, most of the queens did group numbers, but Tiare was the only one given a solo spot. She not only sang live, she lip-synched and choreographed many of the numbers; most of which are now iconic routines synonymous with the fa’afafine community, such as: Daniel Rae Costello’s “Samba in the Night”, Gloria Estefan’s “Rhythm is Gonna get You” and the theme for the 1996 summer Olympics “Reach.”
Many of us young fa’afafine at the time we were fortunate to grow up in the era of television; performances at local events from the two fa’afafine organizations, ‘Island Queens’ and ‘Empresses of Samoa’ were broadcasted into our homes. However, we never watched them with our parents, we were usually hidden and peeking from the back. It was like watching an R-rated movie the way our parents made us feel, perhaps it was their way of not wanting us to be encouraged. Looking back, they were right, but it was in in a positive light that we were exposed, captivated and inspired by these performances. Those broadcasts were in many ways our magic mirror to all that glittered, and we longed to be a part of it all.
Tiare’s signature performance undoubtedly is Jennifer Holliday’s “And I am telling you I’m not going”. It was the first time many of us had ever heard the Broadway power ballad. When the movie Titanic came out on video, I vividly remember watching in admiration as Tiare, Tasha and Shevon cuddled with their partners enjoying the movie. Leroy Lutu sponsored many young athletic men from Upolu, bringing them over to help the village rugby team. And many of them eventually began romantic relationships with fa’afafines that lasted for years. The entire experience as a young fa’afafine living through that era, to bear witness to such times, was pure heaven. It was through those experiences that we were able to visualize what we wished for in our own lives.
Tiare has since relocated to Washington State where she has made her home for the past 15 years. She continues her work in community service. Currently, she works for PICA WA (Pacific Islander Community Association – Washington) where she does community work in everything from housing and health coverage to distribution of various funds made available to the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NHPI) community. Tiare is the perpetual host of the popular Miss UTOPIA International Pageant, where she has been the mistress of ceremony since its inception in 2010. The UTOPIA pageant was canceled last year along with many other events as the world battled the devastating covid-19 pandemic. The Miss UTOPIA International Pageant has been the social event for many fa’afafine living in the mainland and many have traveled year after year to celebrate with us.
It has been almost two years since Tiare and I had last seen each other. When I had contacted her if I could feature her in “Fofola le Fala”, we picked up right where we had left off and talked for almost three hours. I reminded her of when my dad caught me hanging out at the Beverly Hills house in Samoa and she had to lie for me. “My dad beat the daylights outta me that night” I told her and we both cracked up!! “Those were truly such magical times” she responded. “Now every time I visit Samoa and pass by ‘Beverly Hills’, it just feels like an echo of what was once was. Leroy is gone, mama Leilani is gone, Shevon is gone and so many others. I feel so blessed I was able to live in such a time that is now only reflected in memories. It makes me sad that today’s fa’afafine generation will never experience that magic but I shall carry their legacy with me always.”
Tiare grew up with her grandfather Lei’ataua Mulipola Feterika from Manono & Lotofaga (Aleipata) and grandmother Papali’i Sosefina Fidow Seiuli from Salelologa & Safotu in Saleufi, Samoa, a predominantly Catholic village. Her father was the village mayor and most of her childhood was spent around village and church affairs. When an aunt was visiting from New Zealand, Tiare found herself fixated over a pair of pantyhose and red lipstick she found in her aunt’s luggage and wore it to a church gathering. “All heads were turned; I caused a scene and I lived for the attention. My grandmother was a loving woman and was not bothered, but I was so scared to go home because I did not know how my grandfather would react” Tiare reflected. “When I got home, he just told me, if you wanna be a girl, ladies do all the cleaning and washing so make sure everything is clean. I felt that was my ticket, my papa had given me my acceptance and so my childhood in Samoa was a happy and wonderful one.”
In 1978 at age 9, Tiare moved to the U.S. to attend school. She stayed with her uncle who was a pastor in White Center, Washington. “I was so excited I was a huge fan of Donny & Marie Osmond on TV and I thought they were gonna be our next-door neighbors, but Washington was bitterly cold during the winters and nothing like the happy island surrounding I grew up in. I felt alone, homesick and depressed so I confined myself indoors most of the time. One day I decided to wear a dress to school because my heart told me so. I was bullied mercilessly and from that day I started fighting back. I was teased and called every name in the book and fighting was the only way I knew how to combat all the hate.” Tiare was pulled from one school to the other before she was asked to live with her mother in Portland, Oregon, with whom she had not had a relationship with. She attended a middle-class school and found inspiration in her gay drama teacher who pushed her to pursue performance arts and performing became her passion. She found comfort through her faith and her gift of singing; she was the lead singer at church for the worship team. When Martin Luther King Day became a national Holiday in 1986, a statewide audition was held to select a singer for the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” to celebrate the occasion. To her surprise Tiare was chosen among the many who auditioned. “That was truly a special moment not only for me but for our community. At the time there were not many Samoans living in Washington, so I felt honored to represent my people in a feat that was not accomplished before” She recalled. Upon reflection, Tiare said her dream was to move to New York and become a Broadway performer. “My biggest regret was not pursing that dream. I had all the mentors and right people I needed for guidance, but my mom put a stop to it, she told me I needed to find a real job and take care of our family… being the obedient child, I reluctantly sided with her.”
In 1995, Tiare moved to Hawaii. She began her transition through the beloved Dr. Rodwell, who was the go-to doctor for many of the trans girls living in Hawaii at the time. While attending Tahitian dance classes, her instructor complimented that she was as sweet and elegant as the tiare flower…and it was there Tiare was born. She lived in downtown Honolulu in the center of city happenings and befriended the hustlers and sex workers who frequented the area. Many of her friends sold drugs for a living and she found herself drawn to that easy-money lifestyle. “I did not want to be a prostitute because I didn’t want to die but I saw the drug business as a money-making opportunity”, she said. Tiare kept her day job and moonlighted as a dealer. She soon operated on her own and began selling from her apartment. “It wasn’t just cash; it was bundles of cash every day.
The kind of money that I made while selling gave me the kind of lifestyle I only imagined. . . but the things done in the dark will eventually come to light. After two years of selling, cops began to hound her. Her clientele however, never turned on her and she was never arrested. One morning while watching the news a man who had sold for her to support his family was reported as a victim of a murder in a drug deal gone wrong. It was a traumatizing turn of events for Tiare and took years before she was able to talk about it publicly. “The sight of his body being pulled out of the dumpster took me down a lonely and sad path. When UTOPIA held its first retreat in 2010, we were asked to speak about what was hurting us the most. I was able to open up about that incident and I felt a heavy burden being lifted from my spirit,” she reflected. “I made peace with his passing and I made peace with myself. I serve an awesome God and I’m thankful for my faith that carried me through.” Feeling a deep sense of soul searching, Tiare left Honolulu for American Samoa in 1997. She found that through her passion to perform again, she soon became the talk of town. Her name was everywhere as an entertainer, a master of ceremonies, and a choreographer; known simply as, Tiare.
One of the many major events she hosted one summer was an All-Stars concert headlined by the one and only, Fiji. A memory forever etched in her mind was watching Tiare perform the romantic Samoan love song “U’u lo’u lima”. I remember how mesmerized the audience became once she hit those moving lyrics “ou te tausi ia te oe se ia ou oti”, I will love you until the day I die. I was standing next to her lover and I will never forget the way he marveled at her. Tiare’s passionate and, at times, turbulent love affair with a rugby player was often the subject of town gossip. “Tusi taught me a lot I didn’t know about myself and he humbled me in many ways he never realized” Tiare reflected. “I was the star performer and he was the star rugby player and for a time it felt like we both were on top of the world. I spoke Samoan with a T and the girls would laugh but Tusi found that lady like and attractive, the little things he said and did made me feel special. I never knew what being in love was until I met him. I also never knew what rage and jealousy were until I met him. When I found out a woman working at Laufou was sending him money, it enraged me. I walked into her workplace and threatened to kill her. Yes, that’s what he made me do, hahaha all those feelings of love, joy, anger and hurt, I felt with Tusi. We were together for seven years and however way it ended, he brought out a woman in me that I never knew was there. My life with him, I bear no regrets”.
Fa’afafine have long been the quiet wind beneath the wings of many important occasions in Samoa. Whether for church, cultural ceremonial events, celebrations or beauty pageants, there is always one or several fa’afafine behind the scenes working diligently to put on the show. Monty Tupuola and Shevon Matai were the most sought after from locals for crafting and conjuring custom outfits and tuiga (traditional headpiece) and Tiare soon found herself on that high demand list. Tiare has dressed everyone from those of nobility to daughters of Samoan Chiefs, beauty pageant contestants to private family affairs, and the list goes on. She continued her work here in the U.S. and had also personally created winning traditional costumes for several pageants that I had won in Washington State. “It was all Shevon” she said, “She was an artist and was very keen with her work, so it took a while before she trusted me. Once we got comfortable, she started putting all the work on me. It was frustrating at first because I had better things to do haha but she kept pushing and eventually it grew on me. I still have the Tifa shell lave she gave me. I’ve worked on so many, but I always keep this one with me, I miss her.” I asked Tiare on her thoughts on the surge of traditional Samoan dressmakers in recent years. “It’s all about overdoing nowadays, she says. “Somehow people feel the bigger the Tuiga (headpiece) the more extravagant the ofu siva (dress wear), the better it is and that’s just wrong. Its offensive every time someone tries to make an academic statement on the proper way to wear a Tuiga and yet it looks nothing traditional anymore, so in my mind I’m like ‘oh really where did you get your masters degree on the “proper way”?’ I feel that sorta spectacle devalues the sacredness of our measina (heritage), we need to address that so we can learn to embrace the beauty of our culture if not in its truest than at least its most accurate form.”
In 2019, UTOPIA Washington honored Tiare with the Fa’afafine Power Award for her relentless dedication, not only to the fa’afafine community, but her service to the Pasifika community as a whole as well. I was invited by UTOPIA to pay tribute to Tiare and I chose to perform her signature performance “And I am telling you, I’m not going”, the one that she made popular so many years before. Indeed, the ballad is true of Tiare, she is still here.
Today she focuses much of her time to her work and family and is anxious to get back into her passion for dressing and making Samoan traditional attires. “I’m so comfortable in my skin now”, she says. “Ive accepted there are things that as a trans woman I could never experience things that a cisgender woman is naturally blessed with. I have come to also embrace Benjamin, my birth name, I could never take him out of my life entirely, he is part of my journey too. I am a spiritual person and my faith has kept me alive all these years. My father calls me Tiare and my mother calls me Benjamin and I am not bothered. I am content and happy, that is what we wish for most in life.”