Searching for Nafanua: The story of beauty queen Janice Baice

At the turn of the new millennium, the name and face of Nafanua became one of the consequential figures synonymous with that era. She was not the Samoan mythical Goddess of the same name, but thee glamourous beauty queen who set her own footprints in fa’afafine history. Nafanua was the stage name of the winning queen of the Miss Millennium Pageant held in Apia, Samoa in 1999. Nafanua’s real identity was not known to many of us at the time. American Samoa did not have private filming production companies like Samoa, and so the pageant tapes that circulated the Islands at that time came all the way from Apia. Nafanua took our breaths away the very first time we saw her in one of those pageant tapes. Most pacific islands, including Samoa, have no transgender-informed healthcare systems; there are no resources or doctors that specifically caters to transgender patients. For us, witnessing a fa’afafine transgender woman like Nafanua, who physically appeared feminine and passable, embodied our living dream. 

That crowning moment of glory did not end there for her, one day our nanny, Litea, brought a magazine article to show me photos of Tongan leitīs from her homeland. It took me a moment to realize that I was staring at a familiar face… it was Nafanua, who had been crowned the winner of the Miss Galaxy Pageant in Tonga.  Yet again, her beauty had captivated an entire nation. However, like the famous faces of the past who fade out of public view, so did Nafanua. Before the age of Wi-Fi and social media, finding someone was not as easy as a Google and/or Facebook search. For years I always wondered who the real Nafanua was and what became of her; her very private life only aided her mystique.  

One evening, about three years ago, while enjoying a night of bonding with my fa’afafine sisters, Nafanua was brought up in our conversations and a friend mentioned that she believed that her real name was Janice and that she was on Facebook. I looked up her profile, and as if finding a lost treasure, there she was, that captivating beauty that had been forever etched in to memory. Nafanua’s real name is Janice Fruean-Zimmerman Baice and by then we had been Facebook friends; never realizing that she was the same person. In this edition of Fofola le Fala, we feature Miss Janice in her first intimate interview opening up about her life and career after leaving the pageant world over twenty years ago. We are so honored to share her story.  
 
Born in Samoa in 1979, Janice was the youngest of a large family consisting of twenty-three siblings (fifteen girls and eight boys). Four of her siblings had passed before she was born; twins at birth in 1951, a brother at a year old in 1973, and another brother in 1978 at the young age of twenty years old. She grew up with her brothers and sisters in her mother’s village of Faleula. Her mother Maryann (Piuli) Baice, née Fruean, was a housewife while her father Poasa Baice worked as a farmer on their 139-acres family plantation in the village of Tapatapaō, about a fifteen mins drive from the capital of Apia. Janice’s older brothers were brought up from a young age as her father’s right hand(s) on their plantation in Tapatapaō.

Her parents Poasa and Maryann Baice

“Even though we came from a huge family, we never struggled financially” said Janice, “my older siblings, who were already working by the time I was born, helped our parents by supporting us younger siblings with school and other necessities. Our parents set a great example for us by introducing family meetings every month. We still practice that family tradition today. They help us greatly in many ways – – in dealing with and dissolving family and personal issues or challenges, to financially supporting the family and providing spiritual uplifting, just to name a few. Growing up in Samoa was a blessing.”  
 
Most of Janice’s older siblings had left Samoa to go to Aotearoa (New Zealand) for school and career opportunities. By the late 1980’s, she was one of four siblings remaining back home. Janice experienced one of those rare, but not entirely unheard of, upbringings in Samoa where her parents, including her siblings, were fully accepting and supportive of her Fa’afafine identity. “My grandmother taught me how to dance siva Samoa when I was about 5 years old” she reflected, “ Whenever my dad’s friends would come to hang out at our house, my dad would always be showing off by asking me to dance. I would run to the room to sulu (tie/put on) my lavalava (sarong) before making my entrance, without any music of course.”  

Family Photo

From the age of five, Janice preferred dressing in girl’s clothing, but because of her school’s uniform policy, she would have to wear boy clothes when she was attending school. “I’d cry if someone told me to take off whatever dress I was wearing” Janice remembers, “My mom and Dad always came to my defense and I remember how they would scold people who told me any less. My mother was a very social person, many of her friends were fa’afafine. I remember being surrounded by mom and dad’s fa’afafine friends: Hazey, Jessie and Delilah, they were aunties to me. They’d come over to our house and give me makeovers and dress me up like a Barbie doll.”  
 
In 1988, Janice left Samoa with her sister and parents for New Zealand, leaving two older siblings to take care of their family property back in Samoa. In 1993, Janice’s father passed away from lung cancer, his last wish was to be buried in Samoa. “His reasons for his decision was for his children and grandchildren to always remember our homeland and our identity” said Janice, “In his own words: ‘ia avea lo’u lagomau i Samoa ma mea tou te asiasi mai ai ma manatua ai pea lou atunu’u moni na e fanau ai.” Translated to English, “May my resting place/grave be the reason for you to visit Samoa, your birthplace.” 

Janice with her nephew the famous Samoan boxer Joseph Parker her sister Salavao’s son. Joseph calls her mum, she raised him when he was a kid
With Joseph Parker, her sister (Joseph’s mother) and former prime Minister of Samoa Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi

Most of Janice’s primary and intermediate education was in Aotearoa (New Zealand). “It was a whole new world to me; I was teased a lot in primary school. Though, I had already made fast friends with some of the girls in school so I remained unbothered because of their support”, she said. Janice graduated high school in 1996 from Aorere College in Papatoetoe, Auckland NZ. As a member of the Mormon faith, she also graduated from Seminary / Bible Studies within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). After high school, she pursued higher education through Manukau Institute of Technology in Auckland – studying computing pathways; but by the third month of school, her mother had become gravely ill. Janice’s mother stayed back in Samoa after her dad’s burial and refused to go back to Aotearoa. However, due to her deteriorating and debilitating health, her children convinced her to return to Aotearoa in 1995.  

With her siblings and a few members of her family

“My last years of high school were the most challenging years of my life” said Janice, “I had to balance school and care for our mom full-time, and by then she was no longer able to care for herself. It was strenuous, but I was the only person she trusted to take care of her, given I was the only single one left of all my siblings.” Janice’s mother lost her battle with diabetes, and she passed away peacefully at their Papatoetoe home in 1997. Like her father, her mother too expressed the same wish after her passing– for her body to be taken to Samoa for burial next to their father. “I remember one of our family meetings towards the end of 1992, my mother explained to our whole family why she accepted me as a fa’afafine, ‘I know you’ll all get married and have children’ she said ‘therefore, you won’t have the same amount of devotion to us when we grow old and become frail. However, my baby James (Janice) will never get married and have children – thus, my baby will be able to devote all her time to looking after us.’”  

With ladies of the her family

In 1997, Janice moved to Sydney, Australia and stayed with a cousin, taking up a job as an admin trainee and receptionist. “It was hard at first, I had only just met this cousin of mine for the first time” she said, “Nevertheless, I was soon accustomed to her extremely social and wild party life. It took me a couple of years before I finally gave in to the temptation of alcohol. I guess my upbringing within my LDS faith helped me stay away from smoking and other drugs.” In May of that same year, Janice entered her first drag beauty pageant held at the ‘Le Penina Club’ in Auckland and she placed 2nd runner up to Phylesha Brown-Acton. In June of 1998, she received a call that her grandmother had passed away. She resigned from her job and left for Samoa to be at her grandmother’s funeral and ended up staying back in Samoa for 2 months. Less than two weeks before flying back to Sydney, Janice’s sister’s friend, who worked for the 2AP radio, came over to her house in Faleula for a visit. After being introduced, she asked Janice if she wanted to compete at the Miss SCOPA Beauty Queen Pageant to be held within a week from that day. “At first I was reluctant because it was less than 7 days before the actual pageant took place. However, my sister persuaded me to enter and subsequently, I took the chance.  And what a journey it was being crowned that first time I competed; it was a very memorable moment!”  
 
Returning to Sydney shortly after, Janice was approached by Vicky Adar – a well-known fa’afafine fashion designer in the Samoan community of the area. Vicky asked Janice if she could sponsor Janice for the Miss Aloha Australia Queen Pageant. One condition of the pageant was that the winner would represent Australia at the Miss Galaxy Pageant, to be held in Tonga later that year. Twelve contestants competed: five from the Philippines, three from Tonga, two Samoans, one Fijian and one Cook Island/Niuean. Janice went on to win that pageant as well! One of the prizes was a return ticket to an island in the pacific of her choice; Janice chose Samoa. 

Janice in her 20s 

In August of 1999, Janice traveled to Samoa for the Teuila Festival. Unaware to her at the time, there was a Miss Samoa New Millennium Queen Pageant in less than a week. “My sister picked me up from the Faleolo airport and we drove straight to Mama Delilah’s house” Janice recalled, “I was oblivious as to why we went there. Not until Delilah told me ‘you’ll be entering this Millennium pageant’ and that she had to start taking my measurements, baffled and confused I just tagged along. Later that day, the owner and chairman of the freelance Samoa Video Production named Sierra/Sarah and her husband Nu’u arrived at Mama Delilah’s house. They were introduced to me as my new sponsors for this pageant. There were fifteen of us sisters/contestants vying for the crown and to my amazement and surprise, I won. I never thought I would be crowned that night, but it just happened to be that way.”  

During her pageant career in the late 90’s 
Performing a hi-energy hula to a remix version of “Aloha oe” at the 1999 Miss Millennium pageant in Apia, Samoa

In November later that year, Janice went on to fulfill the stipulation of her previous win and participated in the Miss Galaxy Queen Pageant in Tonga, representing Australia and Samoa. The pageant always attracts a large contestant list and a member of the Tongan royal family is usually in attendance. In keeping with its tradition, Miss Galaxy is held through three consecutive nights (Thursday to Saturday). That year there were twenty-six contestants, each night they competed in two different categories and the top ten were picked on Friday night to compete in the last two categories held on Saturday night. “In all honesty, I was hoping and praying that I would make it to the top ten” Janice remembers, “never in my wildest dream did I think I’d be crowned, given the many beautiful and talented sisters vying for the same moment. Even after I was picked for the top ten, I was praying that even if I get a runner-up spot in the competition, I’d be more than happy. Against all the odds, I was announced the newly crowned Miss Galaxy that night. I was very emotional because both my parents, who supported me my whole life, were not there to celebrate that moment with me; the same feelings I felt when I won the other three previous pageants. My heart was full of gratitude to God, praising His Holy Name for His blessings upon me and my life. WHAT A JOURNEY IT WAS!” 

During evening gown competition of Miss Aloha Australia 1999
With some of the members of the Australia

While living and spending her adulthood in Sydney, Janice experienced love for the first time with a Samoan man who was bisexual. She met him at a friend’s party in 1997. “I was so in love with him that I was willing to do anything to have him” she said, “sadly, he was more into men than women.” During her visit to Samoa for her grandmother’s funeral in back in 1998, Janice had a passionate relationship with a local Samoan man she had met at her cousin’s place. He was three years younger than her; their relationship fell apart after Janice returned to Australia due to the long distance. In May of 2003, at the age of 23, Janice had her full sex reassignment surgery in Thailand. She recalled that the thought for a full transition only came to mind about eleven months prior. 

At her wedding her veil was 7 meters long, each meter representing the chapters she accomplished in life
Wedding day 2006
On her wedding day her brother gave her away

In 2004, Janice began a relationship with a man she met at an institute she was studying in. He was four years younger than her, born in Iran, but immigrated to Sydney when he was just nine years old. Less than six months after dating, he proposed to Janice on top of the Barrenjoey Lighthouse. After their engagement, they moved in to an apartment and lived together for a year and half before getting married in December 2006, in front of five hundred and two guests; majority of whom were Janice’s family members. “Like many fairytale stories, there’s always an end to the story book”, she said. In 2014, they separated and finally divorced in January 2015. “We’re still friends and we keep in contact with each other every now and then. We’ve both moved on with our lives” Janice says, “Believe it or not… he has no idea about my previous life. I never told him anything about my past. I thought I would let him find out himself, but I am glad he never did. He never wanted kids when we were together. Even till now. . . I’m lucky” she added.

On her wedding day 2006
She had 12 bridesmaids including her matron of honour, 5 flower girls plus 1 page boy. All representing her date and month of birth
Doing her Samoan taualuga, her wedding cake had 27 tiers, her age at the time

n 2000, Janice went back to the academic world – to finish where she had left off after caring for her mother. She studied part-time towards her Diploma in Business Administration while working several jobs, soon after securing a full-time position with the University Admission Centre (UAC) as an Admin Officer. Janice received her diploma in business administration in 2003 and went on to earn a second Diploma in Business (Management) in 2004. In October of that year, after less than one year of employment with UAC, she landed a higher paying job with the NSW Police Force; where she is at currently. In 2007, Janice was accepted to a bridging course – studying towards her post graduate degree through Charles Stuart University (CSU) and received her Graduate Diploma in Business (Management-Professional Practice) in 2009. Throughout her eighteen years of employment with the NSW Police Force, Janice has held several roles in different departments, as follows:  
 
2004 – Current: National Criminal Records Release Officer – Identification Services Branch (ISB) – Forensic & Evidence Technical Services (FETS) – NSW Police Force.  
 
2014–2015: Subpoena and Insurance Service Officer – Information Access Unit (IAU) Public Affairs, NSW Police Force,  
 
2010-2011:  National Criminal Identification Database Officer (NCID) – NSW Police Force, Forensic & Evidence Technical Services (FETS), Crime Scene Services Branch (CSSB)  
 
2008-2009: Performance Analyst -Accreditation & Compliance Unit (ACU) – Forensic & Evidence Technical Services (FETS) – NSW Police Force  
 
2005-2006: Executive Assistant – Forensic & Evidence Technical Services (FETS) Director (Assistant Commissioner) – NSW Police Force  

She was elected to the ‘La’u Samoa Council Inc. – NSW’ committee from 2014-2017 as an ‘Advisor.’

In February of 2022, a newly established group, ‘Pacific Officers Law Enforcement Network’ (POLEN), was launched and made up entirely of Pacific Islander staff in the NSW Police Force. The notion for the establishment of this special task force was to help combat the crime rates of young Pacific Islander people within the state. There were close to sixty Pacific Islander officers from across the NSW state who attended the launching, including dignitaries, church ministers and other VIP guests. After the launching, votes were cast for the six committee members and Janice was elected to the committee as Community Liaison Officer. “Our vision is to reduce crime rates in our community and our mission is to engage with our people, providing the appropriate support that is needed” she said, “Our first public workshop will be in June of this year at the Samoa Day celebration, God willing.” 

She was elected to the Australian Fa’afafine Association president under the umbrella of the La’u Samoa Council Inc. for 1 year (2015-2016)

Given her accomplished career, Janice has just a few personal goals she wishes to fulfill. “It’s been almost thirteen years since I stopped studying” she said, “I still want to go back (someday very soon) to finish my master’s degree in business. I’d also love to travel to various countries in the world to do charity and missionary work.” I asked her: As a fa’afafine woman what has sustained you in trials and triumphs throughout your life and career? “Faith without works is dead [James 2:26] – and vice-versa” she answered, “when we put God first in everything we do, He will bless our efforts. Also, honor your parents and serve them with all your heart. They are the key that will unlock the countless blessings in our lives.”  

Janice in her lovely elei dress, 2016
Janice with members of La’uSamoa Council Inc.  During their Mr & Miss Senior Night 2017

Lastly, I asked, what is a day like in the life of Janice today? She responded, “Since my new spiritual journey began over two years ago, I’ve decided to stay single until I die. It has also been over two years since I was sexually active” Janice said, “My life today is all about my close relationship with God. He has guided me through thick and thin and has blessed me with all that I have ever achieved in life. Being a fa’afafine means a lot to me. I know God created me as I am for His purpose and to be at His service.” 

3 thoughts on “Searching for Nafanua: The story of beauty queen Janice Baice

  1. Aww Janice you’ve always been my inspiration from the first night of your crowning moment in Apia, seeing such moment moved me and kept me going to have a taste of such victory. Thank you Janice for this beautiful testimony and the last line of this article touches my heart and soul. What a blessing
    Thank you UTOPIA for this article
    Janice has always been a role model to me

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