The Islands of Samoa in its majestic beauty, ancient past and charming Polynesian smiles has enchanted people for over a century. The capital of Apia is the center of numerous historical events, major businesses, and the bustling atmosphere of town life. One such historic place located in Apia is the iconic Aggie Grey Hotel. In the 1950’s, an attraction only allured to this charm when a young Fa’afafine by the name of Tanya To’omalatai danced her way into the hearts of an island nation. Tanya, was the main attraction of Aggie Grey’s popular Polynesian revue show.
“She was the star of the show. She did something to the audience and people were fascinated with her.” recalled Tania Grey (granddaughter of Aggie Grey) in the 1999 documentary Paradise Bent.
On boat day when cruise ships arrived in Samoa, Tanya greeted tourists with her tantalizing sway to the beat of island drums from one end of the dock to the other. Aggie Grey’s was also well known for its famous guests. When Hollywood actor, Marlon Brando stayed at the hotel, he danced with a young Tanya, unaware that Tanya was a Fa’afafine. “Aggie demanded me to wear a bra that night because Marlon said so. Ua confuse le actor i keige (he was so confused about me)” recalled Tanya in a post.
Tanya began dancing for Aggie Grey’s when she was just seven years old. Many of the hotel’s entertainers were her cousins and family. Over the years, countless writers and filmmakers have documented Tanya in their work. While most are seen in today’s retrospect of marginalized communities fight for visibility and equality as exploiting the lives of Fa’afafine rather than truthfully telling their stories. One cannot deny while watching or reading these past works, that Tanya’s exuberance shines all the way through. She had an aura about her that captivated audiences, lovers, and admirers for generations.
Tanya was born on December 8th, 1947, the youngest of 15 children to Pitovaomanaia and To’omalatai Fa’aagi in Mata’utu. Both her parents were from prominent Samoan families, and her father was the Paramount Chief To’omalatai, and mayor of the village. But like many Samoan families who grew up in that era they weren’t wealthy.
“My dad would go fishing; I remember many days spent on the streets of Apia selling fish with him. A 1.25 for a large agae fish. Those days a loaf of bread was 5 cents and to us having bread is like today’s kids crave for McDonald’s. We had all these families that lived with us from the back villages and from Savai’i. My mom sat every day with a heated metal iron and ironed all our clothes for school. We walked to school with no shoes. Mom would make a big pot of ‘eleni (mackerel). Made with water, coconut cream, and rice with just one can of ‘eleni so you’d have to scoop through the pot to find some meat. My favorite day is Monday because there would so much left-over food from Sunday to’ana’i. Those were the days I’m glad we survived” recalled Tanya.
During a Ta’alolo ceremonial event when Tanya was 13 years old, her father chose Tanya to wear the traditional Tuiga and ofu siva to present gifts to honored guests, a task usually given to a Taupou or a young woman. It brought much disappointment to village families that a fa’afafine was chosen instead of their daughters. Tanya’s dad was unmoved with his decision and later fed the whole village to calm them. In 1961, the Samoa Government adapted the colonial era Crimes Ordinance law which criminalized ‘the impersonation of a female’ by any male in Samoa. The law was used to persecute fa’afafine with fines or imprisonment as the penalty. Tanya was jailed countless times until one day her father put an end to it using his matai status.
“I was the only fa’afafine back in my young days who went out wearing a dress. The only other fa’afafine in Apia was Angie Sia, she had long hair but didn’t dress as a woman. Days of the law where life of being a queen was hard when it comes to dress up in the eye of the public. I was lucky because of my father. He was my hero, he fought for me so that I can be who I am today. He was a faipule, so he fed the whole district because of me” recalled Tanya.
In her 30’s, Tanya found herself living in Hawai’i with a lover she had met while dancing at Aggie’s. “Samoan guys just hurt my back and mouth for sex but I get nothing out of it. You know, money talks bullshit walks. White men have always been attracted to me and they take care of me. No money no honey darling,” said Tanya. One of her lovers was a military officer stationed in Honolulu. Tanya lived on military base receiving benefits of a wife and attended the military balls as a couple.
“He payed for my breast implants and offered to pay for my change. I refused. I’ve known friends who’ve had their change and they end up being different people. So, I didn’t wanna be like them”, recalled Tanya.
She spent most of the 1970’s with several partners in the U.S. She was in a relationship with a weather reporter when she found out that he was growing marijuana out of their backyard. Fearing jail time, Tanya took a flight back home to Samoa. In the 1980’s, Tanya pioneered the Fa’afafine movement in Samoa. She organized pageants and cabaret shows for charity and raised funds for lawyer fees to repeal the “the female impersonation law.” The police stopped enforcing the law around that time. Then in 2012, when Samoa Fa’afafine Association (SFA) was incorporated, efforts by members helped bring an end to that law. The Samoa Fa’afafine Association (SFA) said the repeal of the law was ‘a huge celebration for the Fa’afafine community and vindication for families who have lost members to acts of violence’. Tanya’s early dedication to bring awareness and acceptance to the Fa’afafine community was not forgotten by SFA and she was made honorary advisor to the association, a triumphant moment that came upon the struggles of Tanya, and others who fought for their place in Samoan society.
Getting along with age, Tanya dedicated much of her later life to her church and family. She raised a son Malopule and was bestowed the High Chief title, Moefa’auouo from her mother’s family in Lufilufi. Tanya built a career as a self-made Florist. She created all her masterpieces at home from her garden and delivered them daily to her clients. She enjoyed Bingo and the surrounding of many young fa’afafines who call her mama and aunty. Well into her 70s, Tanya always dressed elegantly, her flaming red hair neatly styled and she never left the house without her signature blue eyeshadow.
“I now have things and money in my hands, but I no longer have my parents that I wish I could spoil”, Tanya reflected. “Perhaps my dedication to my pastor and family Chief brings comfort as if I’m caring for my mom and dad.”
In 2010, during a trip to visit her brother in the U.S., her family talked her into seeing a doctor. The doctor had warned Tanya that her lifelong smoking habit will eventually cause cancer 10 years down the road. In 2020, her health deteriorated, by August her cancer was terminal. “She counted the years the doctor said she would live”, says her niece Lesina Toomalatai. “When she knew she was dying she wanted to go to the beach. Every Sunday after church we had our to’ana’i on the beach with aunty and the girls. It made her happy. In her final days at the hospital, she only wished to come home, her garden was her joy. She was so sick but was gifting money envelopes to all the chiefs and pastors who visited her.”
Tanya passed away at home on September 11, 2020. “I dare anyone to come and tamure at Aggie Grey’s because I doubt there’s anyone that can beat Tanya”, Marina Grey eulogized. How a statement cuts deep. Indeed, there will never be another Tanya… the original showgirl, the pioneer, the icon, the Legendary Fa’afafine of Samoa who endured whatever she had to so that many fa’afafine’s of today’s generation didn’t have to. For this, much gratitude is owed, and much respect will always be given.
“I fought my way up to prove to people who I am. I’m a woman and I don’t care what people say. I’m glad that God made me this way.”Tanya To’omalatai