For the past seventeen years, in American Samoa, the terms “Hollywood,” “Glamour” and “Couture Fashion” have been synonymous with a single name, Shiki. In the past, while the community has had its share of talented hairstylists, the islands were never fortunate to have a go-to makeup artist, especially one who could paint a face beyond the basics of makeup. In local print advertisements or on a live stage show, the girls wore subtle makeup and used their own hair. At the time, local stores did not carry the necessities for theatrical glamour and much of that world was nonexistent in Samoa.
Back then, businesses would fly makeup artists from the mainland to host paid professional photoshoots for locals. When Shiki learned the craft while attending school in Honolulu, she brought that world with her to Samoa. All the glamour techniques like mug, contouring, whipped, and highlighting were all in reference to Shiki. Nowadays, thanks to online tutorials and shows like Rupaul’s Drag Race, those terms have become mainstream. Almost 20 years ago, Shiki was the only person on the island who could “beat a mug” as the saying goes. She was the first freelance hair & makeup artist who branded herself to the general public. Her work became sought after – to have Shiki paint you was the closest feeling to looking like a movie star.
She defined an era and set the trend for all local makeup gurus who came after her. But while others prefer to leave their craft to just work, Shiki lives and breathes her craft. In humid heat or pouring rain, you will still catch Shiki in high fashion and a full face of makeup. “How do you keep up with it?” I asked her. “I want to look my best at all times.” She said. “I don’t want to meet people in public and they go, wow you look different in person. That’s a no-no for me.” In the fa’afafine community and the local fashion and glam circles, Shiki is the epitome. When she walks into a room everyone knows who she is and what she represents.
Shiki Leaupepe was born in 1980, second to the youngest of five siblings. Her father, Amosa was a taxi driver, and her mom, Finagalo, worked at the bank. She grew up in Atu’u, a tiny cliff-side village bustling with factory workers, fishing vessels, and a Chinatown nightlife. Raised, mainly by her grandmonther since birth, she maintained a strong bond with her throughout her life. When Shiki was three years old, her grandmother took her and her brother, George to live in Carson, California. She recalls the first time she knew she was a fa’afafine was when her grandmother gifted a mini radio with Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” cassette album that she would play repeatedly. “I memorized the lyrics to the entire album. Everytime Grandma wanted to be entertained, I put on a show for her. She had a huge smile on her face. My grandma was my protector and number one supporter.” Shiki remembers. When her cousin, David Niko who had a promising football career got into a fatal car accident, Shiki’s grandma was deeply affected by his death and decided to relocate them back to American Samoa.
Moving back to the islands meant that she was no longer in the safe space of her grandmother’s care and had to face the reality of not always feeling accepted. When Shiki’s older brother Andy caught wind of her Madonna impersonations, he smashed Shiki’s mini radio to pieces. She also saw how her mom was un-affectionate to her the way her grandmother was. However, Shiki found comfort in her dad. She fondly remembers bursting into tears when she would get out of school and he was not waiting for her. A trip in his taxi cab to grab ice cream would brighten their day.
When Shiki was six years old, her father, Amosa passed away at a young age. “I was so close to my grandma that at that age I didn’t know how I felt.” She reflected. “I knew he got sick and died but it didn’t affect me then. Now looking back, I realize how my dad was such a good man. Being that he was from Upolu he immersed himself in village and church affairs and provided for us the best he could. My dad’s brothers and family who lived in Tutuila always looked out for us even when my dad had long passed away. Every time they would see me or my siblings, they would give us money. The experience that I had with them is the reason why I’m such a giver and I carry that tradition with me always.”
Shiki’s mother briefly remarried afterward but became the sole breadwinner for her family when she would become a widow again. Shiki recalls village people talking down on her mother for having to raise her kids by herself. “She would sit us down and lecture us. Those people can say all they want about me but you will never go hungry because I can take care all of you by myself.” Shiki reflected on her mom. “If I compare the salary we have now to what my mom made then, all I could think of was that she was superwoman. She managed to take care all of us by herself.”
The first time Shiki was drawn to fashion was during her trips with her mom to the local sewing shops. She remembers flipping through the pages of display catalog books with the latest fashion and was fascinated. As a kid, to fulfill her desire to wear beautiful clothing, Shiki would select her mom’s outfit each day for work right down to her shoes and her sei (flower) she would pick from their neighbor’s garden. Every time someone complimented her look, Shiki imagined it was her.
In her pre-teens, Shiki slowly began living in her truth. She met Taiches, Tasha, and Jacee in school who would become her lifelong fa’afafine friends. Taiches was talented in designing and carried around a sketchbook of her work. Shiki found inspiration in her skills. They all became daughters to Sheena T. Willis (Ipi Ieli) the self-proclaimed Brooke Shields of Samoa known for her statuesque height and long silky hair. When the movie “Don’t be a Menace” came out in 1996, Shiki adopted her name from the character in the film named “Dashiki”. Later in life, she would drop the “Da” from her name.
While her mom never discouraged Shiki from living authentically, she wasn’t encouraging her lifestyle either. She told Shiki “If you want to be a woman, then be successful and learn to become self-sufficient.” These words motivated Shiki to further pursue education. After graduating from Fagaitua High School in 1998, Shiki attended American Samoa Community College and graduated with her associateʻs degree in 2000. By that time several of her friends were attending Chaminade University in Honolulu. One of them was Athena Mauga who convinced Shiki to join them. Shiki’s mom put her through college and paid for her rent while finishing school.
It was while attending Chaminade that Shiki started hormone therapy and began frequenting the Honolulu trans and drag show bars. Her friend Shawntay Sio was a showgirl at Venus Nightclub and they spent their weekends watching her. Fascinated by the glamourous world of illusions, Shiki soon found herself on that stage as a guest performer. Her circle of friends including Jacee Yuhashi and Jovannalyn Timo also joined the show and those guest spots drew a large Samoan crowd from colleagues attending school in Hawaiʻi.
During the shows, Shiki discovered how the art of illusion could completely transform a person. “I would observe the girls backstage and emulate how they painted their faces and created their hair.” She said, “Over time, I learned on my own and received tips from legendary trans illusionists such Jennifer Maemackie and Wendi Miyake.” The sorority of fa’afafine attending school in Hawaiʻi and the lifestyle it glamorized began attracting more fa’afafine from the islands. Shiki became a Queen Mother mentoring and fostering some of those young queens from Samoa naming her house “Haus of Lopez” after the superstar Jennifer Lopez. Many of whom maintain a bond with her today.
In 2002, Shiki graduated with her bachelor’s degree in History and Political Science with a minor in Philosophy and later earned her master’s in Business Administration in 2005. At the urgency of her mom, she returned home later that year. “It was never a question about it.” she said. “My mom had my sister Lalovi who cared for her, but she needed my help financially, so I had already set my mind on Samoa long ago.” Shiki was hired by the Department of Education as a teacher in the fall of 2005.
On the day of orientation, she felt singled out when the principal emphasized the dress code. There were only two other fa’afafine faculty members and did not identify as transgender. Shiki was the only one dressed in female attire. She addressed her concern to the Principal “First things first” Shiki said “I’m not the same as the other fa’afafine workers. If I can’t wear a puletasi (female attire) here, then I think it was a mistake for placing me in the wrong school.” The Principal said, “You know Shiki, you look very presentable and if this how you present yourself personally and professionally then I don’t have an issue with it.” “That was it, it was never an issue again,” she said. Later in her career that same Principal, Dr. Ruth Matagi gave Shiki her first promotion.
During the very first week of work, Shiki realized teaching was her calling. She turned down other positions that were offered and focused on her teaching career. As a business teacher, Shiki conducted countless first-time projects, one of which included hosting fashion shows for students to learn managing and organizing skills. It was Shiki who pioneered the establishment of the first FBLA (Future Business Leaders of America) in American Samoa and helped introduce the chapters to other local public high schools. It became a part of a national organization for students that continues to this day.
By the end of her teaching career, Shiki taught at four out of the six American Samoa public high schools and even taught a semester at the Community College before being promoted to a Grant Manager in 2019 with the Department of Education. Currently, she is a Program Director for Business in secondary education. “Do you have a proud moment during your career as a classroom teacher?” I asked. “I am most proud of my students,” she says. “I have a handful who return from school and thank me for inspiring them. That is truly humbling to me. One of my students, Ariel who was like a son said the reason he pursued business was because of me. He recently graduated with his master’s degree from my Alma mater, Chaminade University.”
In 2006, after designing costumes and doing makeup for her best friend, Taiches at the Miss Island Queen Pageant, Shiki realized she could do a pageant and potentially win on her own. Later that summer she competed for Miss American Sevens, today’s S.O.F.I.A.S pageant and she took home the crown by storm. This was the beginning of the era of Shiki glamour and couture. From fa’afafine, to students and photo shoots, to weddings and proms. Everything she touched was magic. There was a time during the annual Miss S.O.F.I.A.S pageant when year after year, the winning streak of contestants was sponsored by Shiki.
For well over 10 years, Shiki dominated the fa’afafine scene with her fashion and glamour. Indeed, American Samoa had other well-known local designers but most were focused on elei style and measina (samoan treasures). Shiki infused runway-inspired fashion with classic island designs in high couture, which was her signature look. But while most designers focused mainly on clothing, Shiki was the full package. She did it all, hair, makeup, and design.
In 2020, she was able to showcase her fashion line for the first time in a runway show organized by the Miss American Samoa Incorporation and again in 2021 for S.O.F.I.A.S fa’afafine fashion show. That same year Shiki was invited to bring her designs to England during London Fashion Week but was unable to attend due to local COVID-19 restrictions.
In recent years, there has been a growing demand for local fashion, especially for Samoans residing off-island, however committing to working on fashion design full-time was never a choice for Shiki. “A fashion career in Samoa is a hit or miss means of occupation.” She said. “I didn’t want to invest money and end up losing everything. I enjoy doing it exclusively as a hobby, but I rather focus on my career.”
The surge of up-and-coming makeup artists and designers have also shifted Shiki’s energy towards her own personal growth. “Because of how exposed the generation is nowadays the work now comes at the demand of clients who are very specific.” Says Shiki. I still get people asking to do things for them but I just don’t have the time to deal with it all. I have my sister Ammon Fepuleai who’s multi-talented and does just about everything, she’s passionate about her work and can handle the stress.”
As most of her career was lived out in public so has been the love affairs of her life. While she had been highly favored in the company of many lovers (as she puts it) Shiki opened up about only one that was real enough to be the greatest love of her life. “We were very intimate and public, and everyone knew we were together.” She remembers. “Many didn’t approve of our relationship at first. His family and in church. I put him in college, and he earned his degree. We both helped care for his family as well, so eventually, they came around to accepting us. We were together for 5 years. Being a fa’afafine in a relationship in Samoa is difficult. There’s so much animosity you have to put up with. After we ended our relationship, I didn’t hear from him for some time. When my mom passed, he called to say words of comfort and that was the last time we spoke.”
“Do you see yourself in a relationship today?” I asked. “I’m content with being me right now. Being a fa’afafine, our own people will never see us as a female,” she said. “Itʻs hard for us to equal those relationships no matter how beautiful you are. There’s still that mentality. But that’s just my story. To other girls just open your heart to love no matter what.”
Today, Shiki commits her time mostly to her work, her family, and as a Sunday School teacher. In 2006 she lost her grandmother and her mom in 2019 after a lengthy battle with kidney disease. “I live alone in the house my mom built.” She said. “My mom didn’t smother me the way my grandma did. She was all tough love. Now that my mom is gone it is as if she prepared me to live alone and learn to be by myself. Even with her passing I still feel the blessings from her. Everything from my career to who I am has lined up for me. Aua nei galo le alofa (never forget the love given to you). She would often say and I carry that always. My brother George who lives here on island with me is not a church person, so I carry that torch for him. My mom instilled in me to always be devoted to church and family even now going to church, when people look at me, they see my mom.”
In 2018, Shiki discovered she was diabetic and spent some time in the hospital after battling a health crisis related to diabetes. After that experience, she was determined to fight the disease and take back control of her life. She lost over 80 pounds and began eating right. Her diabetes has since subsided, and she no longer takes medication, but she also recently discovered she has high blood pressure. “The doctors have always told me I needed to lose weight or otherwise it will cause health problems for me.” She said. “I was never in denial but just busy with living life that I neglected my health. That’s a wake-up call for all of us Samoans with health problems. My focus now is on my health to live longer. I’m not getting any younger and the men are getting younger” she said with a laugh.
“You’ve always been someone who is bold and fierce and carried yourself with such confidence even with your weight. Are you still that person today?” I asked. “I’ve always been confident in my skin.” She say, “But now in the age we live, in so many girls are coming back to the islands with cosmetic surgeries. I too want that look.”
What is the future hope for Shiki? “Right now, I am at a place where I’m content where I’m at and I have some goals in mind hopefully you’ll get to read about it in the near future.”
In closing, what would say to our young dreamers reading your story?
“Never limit yourself to anything. When you really want something just go for it. You know when we were growing up, we were told education was the key to success, but now things have evolved. Just focus on you and what you wish to succeed in life. Your drive is what fuels your destiny.” – Shiki Leaupepe