On a Thursday night in Apia, Samoa the traffic and bustle of town dwindles down at dusk. It’s seemingly quiet, but a dive into the local eateries and bars, and the ambiance is alive with nightlife and entertainment. We arrive at the Taumeasina Island Resort, a swanky hotel located on an islet in the harbor district of Apia. The entertainment room is packed, a mix of locals and tourists anticipating the show. The main attraction? Cindy of Samoa.
The cabaret opens with a variety of live performances from the classic “Somewhere Out There” where Cindy performs both the male and female portions, to a fresh take on the popular Jerome Grey protest song “Eleni”. In between her numbers, an all-male dance crew brings in the Samoan flavor of performances. Cindy’s wit and charm are vigorous as fans and audience members interact. Some even get up to dance with her.
As the show ended, the room was almost entirely empty. Most of the audience was there to see Cindy. This was, after all THE Cindy of Samoa. The word “celebrity” is overused but for Cindy, she is a star. She has done it all. Pageantry, modeling, music, movies, and television. Her prolific and enduring career is that of the ultimate superstar. “It’s so easy to make people sad,” said Cindy, “But if you can make someone smile, that’s both a gift and a blessing.”
In 2019, Cindy was booked to entertain for a New Year’s show at Taumeasina but then the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the world in 2020, and for nearly a year, flights out of Samoa were canceled. Her New Year’s booking ended up becoming a residency. “I’ve learned never to make plans.” she said “Just go with the flow. I believe it was meant for me to live back home and get to do what I love to do. It’s a blessing for me.”
Cindy has spent most of her career performing in showrooms and nightclubs across the world, but it may come as a surprise to some that she is not a party girl. “I’m not a drinker, a smoker, or an outing person either. I had a strict upbringing partly as well because of my religion as a Seventh-day Adventist. I’m the kind the person who just does my work and leaves. I think that kind of mentality is what sustained me in show business all these years.”
For a celebrity who has lived all the highs and glamour of local and international stages, Cindy does not come off as egotistical or self-absorbed and still has that island girl aura about her. “I know myself.” She said “I know where I’m from and where I’m eventually going to end up at. You can never change that.”
Cindy Filo was born the fourth of six siblings in a household ran by a dominant grandmother. As a child, she was told her uncle (mom’s brother) was her father. “I was coming of age, and I began to realize things didn’t make sense. How could my uncle be my father? In those days you never questioned authority, especially someone like my grandma. The only thing you’ll get is a beating.”
In later years, she found out that her biological father was someone her uncle knew, and her mother had a secret relationship that led to her birth. Her uncle introduced her father to her mother, but he was already married with children. When Cindy’s mother became pregnant, her grandmother confronted her father and demanded that he stay away forever.
“Grandma was a force to be reckoned with. The whole village knew that.” Said Cindy. “She even fought with the Faifeau (preacher). Grandma was scared of no one. If I had gotten into a fight and came home crying, she would take me back to fight that person. “If you’re not winning this fight I will beat you up,” she said. I am the tough cookie I am today because of her.”
While Cindy’s grandmother was the boss, her own mother was kind, calm, and loving according to Cindy. Her mother was a baker and worked as a seller at the marketplace selling homemade food. Cindy also found a second mom with her mother’s boss at work.
Does it haunt you that you didn’t have a father figure growing up? I asked her. “That was the way things were then. But in today’s society, you have to tell your kids, and the reason why you don’t acknowledge the mother or father. They will love you no matter what. Your child will always go looking for the truth and you don’t want the truth to come and hit you in the face.”
From an early age, Cindy knew she was a fa’afafine. Assuming she was going through a phase, her family’s attitude changed when they realized her truth was becoming very real. One night she overheard them plotting to cut her hair while she was asleep. She ran away from home and found shelter underneath a neighbor’s mango tree with their pet pigs.
“I did that a lot to escape. I learned to survive on my own very young,” said Cindy. “The cinema and movie stars were my refuge. I idolized Sheena Queen of the Jungle. I imagined I was her and it made all my problems disappear.”
Across the road from Cindy’s childhood home in Lalovaea was the popular establishment, Mt. Vaea, which was considered the number one nightclub at the time. Crowds of people jammed the place in the evening as lively music filled the air. Cindy attended the Seventh-day Adventist school next door to the club and was entranced by the music she heard. She had imagined herself one day singing with the band.
At 15, Cindy found her first job there as a cleaner. She went to school during the day and worked at the nightclub at night. One day, the son of the owner asked if she wanted to try singing with the band and once Cindy got ahold of the microphone there was no stopping her. She adopted the stage name Cindy inspired by both Cyndi Lauper and Cindy Crawford and became the first female vocalist of the iconic Mt. Vaea band. Cindy not only sang but included drag performances in her act.
After hours, she hung out with friends at Aggie Grey’s, and every hotel guest Cindy met there she invited to her shows. Soon word of mouth spread, and tourists became the core audience at Mt. Vaea.
In 1989, Cindy fell in love with a man named Andreas from Switzerland while working at the nightclub. While vacationing on the island of Savai’i her family discovered her love affair and threatened to kill her. Cindy credits her mom’s brother-in-law, a professor at the local university, for advising her family and saving her life.
She made the decision to leave with Andreas for Australia. On the day she left, her mom threw herself on her suitcase and begged her not to go.
“I left with no money just a suitcase and a man who promised me the world. I had this grand life I planned in my head, but it was not all what I had thought. Andreas lived in a flat with other roommates and they were all potheads. Slowly I saw another side of him too. I felt alone and homesick most of the time. So, like I did when I was young, I ran away. He was planning to deport me, but again with no money in my pocket, I took a plane ride back home, so I beat him to it. I left but I was smart after that. I knew how to look after myself.”
Soon after arriving in Samoa, Cindy found herself in another live-in relationship with a palagi (white) doctor. He was married with three kids but had been separated. When his wife was kicked out of her place, Cindy was entangled in an unordinary living arrangement with her lover, his wife, and his kids. She found herself becoming both a friend and a counselor to his wife.
The weekly paycheck from her gigs allowed Cindy to help care for her family. Gradually she saw her family’s acceptance of her.
“You know some Samoan families are not affectionate people,” said Cindy. ” I grew up in a family where there were no hugs and kisses and I love you. But, one day my mom came home from town and pulled out a dress. “Lea, lou ofu lea” (Here’s your dress), she said. It was her gift to me. Actions speak louder than words they say and that was her gesture of finally accepting me. Oh, how I wish I kept that dress.”
Cindy’s mom died unexpectedly soon after. “The way our mom raised us has helped me survive in this life.” Cindy reflected “I couldn’t imagine what it was like to budget every cent you had. She never bought anything for herself. It was always about her children. We didn’t know how hard life was and how hard it was being a single parent raising us. We took everything for granted. My mom was working every day to make sure we survived and there was food on the table. How she did that in Samoa those days? I wouldn’t know. She is and will always be my hero.”
Cindy found herself becoming the mom for her two younger brothers. She put them through school and cared for them until the day they got married.
“I thought it was a hard life, but now looking back I feel it was all programmed. If it’s true what they say in the bible that God knows your future and your ending, then my life has been planned out by someone. Everything I went through I was meant to go through it. It shaped who I am.”
Cindy left Mt. Vaea in 1990 and was hired with another top venue, the Tusitala Hotel. The hotel’s band was made up of brothers led by La’auli Polataivao currently a leading politician in Samoa. “They were very Christian, and they hated my guts,” Cindy remembers. “But the hotel hired me as their main attraction, so they had no choice but to share the stage with me. Work is work. Sometimes you work with people who don’t like you but that’s show business.”
In 1996, Cindy was hired by Magrey Ta’s Beer Garden, a nightclub on Beach Road in Apia to establish a drag performance group to entertain at the Pacific Festival in New Zealand and Australia. Upon returning home, Magrey Ta’s made Cindy their headliner. Her production-style shows became a popular must-see event in town for several years drawing thousands of tourists each month. Cindy’s show toured across the Pacific and the USA.
The local Australian commissioner’s office was one of the major sponsors for her show. That union would introduce Cindy to a young man who worked there named Peter. When the Australian commissioner learned that Cindy was living with Peter on company premises, she told Peter to tell her she was not welcome there.
“I went straight to the head of state and told him you know I’m not going to allow a white man to tell me I’m not welcome here. Their fucking office is in our country, on our land. I’m not going to accept an authority to come here and tell me I’m not welcome.”
The uproar made it back to Australia and Peter was paid hush money after he had resigned from office. Their torrid and tumultuous romantic relationship was documented in the film “Paradise Bent”. The film broke new grounds that both dramatized and exploited fa’afafine lives into the mainstream and is often the subject of debate and controversy.
“I don’t look back and regret anything. Everyone grows and they see it differently. What I said then was valid for that time. The way these outsiders and how they document us has a lot to do with fantasy, and I don’t appreciate it when people get influenced by palagi (white people) theories. I am fa’afafine Samoa first and foremost and nothing will ever change that.”
Cindy relocated with Peter to Australia in 2001 and became a stay-at-home girlfriend for the time being. Peter could not control his drinking and Cindy learned he had a fling with a woman at his office. On the day they were to fly out for vacation in Samoa, Cindy decided not to go with him.
“I left him at the airport and never went back” Cindy reflected. “He was trying hard to make things work for us, but I was so unhappy. I had to be realistic about life, so I had to let him go.”
Cindy began a new chapter of her life in New Zealand with a new lover. The relationship was short-lived as she puts it, “he had small man’s syndrome and I found it difficult to put up with him.” Her change of scenery, however, resurrected her career, achieving far beyond anything she ever imagined.
In 2008, Cindy appeared on the television talent show “Stars in Their Eyes” impersonating her legendary act, Tina Turner. She won her round and became one of the show’s finalists. Following her success on the show, Cindy scouted talent agents to help guide her in the industry and secure more career opportunities.
In the decade that followed, Cindy’s fame skyrocketed. She entertained numerous corporate events and was booked across the Pasifika making appearances in New Zealand-based television series and movie roles as well. In 2018, SkyCity Casino in Auckland made Cindy their star performer. Images of her became the face of the Casino in advertisements throughout the country.
The success of the shows led to several concerts headlined by Cindy that played to sold-out crowds. “I was the first ever Samoan and fa’afafine to accomplish such feat,” said Cindy. “But I was never too boastful about it. Fame is fleeting and eventually all of it will go away.”
At the pinnacle of her career as an entertainer, Cindy chose to make an unplanned move to Samoa three years ago leaving fans and supporters a bit shocked. “My life has always been this way from the beginning.” She expressed. “I’ll leave here, start a new life there and do it all over again. All I need is my suitcase of costumes and I could build a whole new life anywhere.”
Was it hard to leave such a fulfilling life behind? I asked. “No. I was always aiming to move back home,” she said. “What if I die? What are the people there gonna do with me? I didn’t want to die as a celebrity.”
Cindy’s philosophy on death evolved after dealing with the death of her mom, grandmother, and her foster mom at a young age. “I see death differently. When someone dies, to me it’s another part of life you just gotta accept it. The reason why we take death hard is because we didn’t talk or learn about it in school.”
For most of her life, Cindy has been known to care for many street and at-risk kids. Taking care of them financially and even putting some through school. Most have grown up now and are living fine lives of their own. They have all expressed their love and appreciation for Cindy in many ways throughout the years.
Since moving home to Samoa, Cindy has continued this nature of hers. “I became a mother to my younger brothers after my mom died. So that motherly instinct in me never goes away. I am instantly drawn to them.”
You’ve done it all, is there anything you feel you haven’t yet accomplished in your career? I asked. “As a performer and an artist, you must give back to your community. I feel like I’m not doing enough but sometimes I feel I misjudge myself. You want to leave this world with a good legacy.”
A woman who had always been in the company of men and the public about her past romantic relationships, Cindy enjoys the subtle life these days. “Not that I am not looking for Mr. Perfect,” she says “But I’ve learned to be on my own all these years. People should learn to enjoy loneliness and living on their own. There’s a lot of misguidance in life from too much influence.”
In the entertainment industry of Samoa, Cindy is a woman for all seasons. There is no other Samoan/fa’afafine entertainer straight out of Samoa with an accomplished career in show business like Cindy. She is the epitome for all others to follow. The hair, the sequins, and her microphone have withstood the test of time; her very presence continues to dazzle leaving the audience with her gift of joy and inspiration.
“Don’t make any decisions” she says. “Don’t make any changes either. There’s wisdom that comes with growth. The knowledge you receive now will be your guiding principles in life as you get older. Have no regrets and live your life as you dreamed it be.”