The crowning of Miss S.O.F.I.A.S Pearl To’omalatai in 2010 was an unlikely choice for a beauty queen at the time. Already in her 40s and by her own admission, not the “popular favorite”. Nonetheless, her victory defined the end of an old era and the beginning of a new one in the fa’afafine community of American Samoa.
It was a historical win in a year that saw the merging of two of the island’s most prominent organizations to establish S.O.F.I.A.S – Society of Fa’afafine in American Samoa. An evolution that would come to embody a symbol of fa’afafine power unique to the fa’afafine experience living on the islands as well as those living abroad.
With the passing of time, Pearl seemingly faded into obscurity. Its been a decade since her last public appearance in 2013. I visited American Samoa in 2017 and asked around for her. Rumors circulated at the time that she had de-transitioned, married a woman, and lived in Australia. However, there was never any proof to support these claims.
When the opportunity to write stories for Fofola le Fala was made possible in 2021, one of the people that were at the top of my list to feature was Pearl. But tracking her was more difficult than I thought.
None of the people I asked had any direct contact with her, so I turned to Facebook and found numerous profiles connected to her name. I sent each one a personal message but failed to receive a reply. It seemed the profiles had long been inactive, and again I had reached a dead end.
As the years past, it seemed as though we would never get the chance to speak to Pearl. In January 2023, I received a Facebook friend request from someone I thought looked like Pearl but was unsure. I sent her a message. At last, certainly, it was the one and only.
In April, the Miss S.O.F.I.A.S pageant will mark its return after a brief hiatus due to COVID-19 restrictions in American Samoa. Indeed, it is a pleasure to finally have the chance to speak to the one and only. After three years of searching, this is her story.
Pearl was born in 1969 in Mata’utu in Apia, Samoa. She was the seventh of thirteen siblings, five of whom died during childbirth. Her mother, Faiilagi was a homemaker, and her father, Peni was the sole breadwinner of her family who supervised a plantation for a Church in Apia. At four years old Pearl realized she was fa’afafine. She would often spend time playing house and dress-up with village girls.
One day her father caught Pearl wearing a dress and he beat her. “He hated that I was fa’afafine” she remembers, “The beatings became a constant part of my childhood. He did everything in his will to try and change me. But I knew in my heart no matter what he did nothing will ever change who I am.” While her father was unwilling to accept her as a fa’afafine, Pearl found all the love and nurturing she needed in her mother.
When Pearl’s aunty, the well-known fa’afafine Icon, Tanya To’omalatai moved back to Samoa in the 70s after a relationship with an American soldier, Pearl and her fa’afafine cousin Julie found inspiration in her. Tanya gave them makeovers and allowed them to wear her dresses and bras. As the beatings from Pearl’s father continued throughout her adolescent years, Tanya interrupted one day, “What’s the use of beating her for?” She said, “There’s nothing you can do about it. Your son is a woman.”
Her family for most of her childhood struggled with poverty but the rejection, however, did not daunt Pearl from also sympathizing with her father who was the only working body in their home. At 13, she made a choice to quit school and secure a job to help care for her family.
She found work as a custodian in Jerome’s Cove, a bar owned by the popular Samoan musician, Jerome Grey. She made $70 Tala a week and with tips, up to $100. Even while financially supporting her family, she continued to conflict with her father at home. Pearl was now almost an adult and living entirely as a woman. Rebelling against him, she began drinking and smoking.
Pearl’s father was unable to come to terms with her transition and she moved to American Samoa to stay with an uncle. She lived a bohemian lifestyle drifting back and forth between Apia and Pago Pago in the 80s and 90s. She later found herself living with a kind-hearted woman named Diana whose home overlooked the Pago harbor. Diana’s parents were pastors of an Assembly of God church, while the pastor himself was a stern traditionalist, it astounded Pearl how the pastor’s wife Malaea was accepting of her.
“She and her husband were total opposites” she remembers. “Malaea embraced me and treated me like a member of the family. Every time she traveled off island she came with a care package for me filled with the latest style clothing, makeup, and shoes. She was truly a beautiful human being, and her daughter Diana personified her mom’s nature equally. May they both rest peacefully.”
When a cousin began operating a business with her husband, she employed Pearl as one of her workers. Krystal’s Burger was a well-known eatery with several locations in American Samoa during the 90s and Pearl worked as the company’s chauffeur for six years.
In 1997, Pearl’s father became gravely ill. She flew to Apia to see him. A reunion that would be their last. “The moment I walked in the hospital room he began crying” Pearl reflected. “I remained strong for him. He turned to me and said “Out of all my kids you’re the only one who is constantly caring for mom and I. You’re a hard worker and you never say no when we ask you for money. Please forgive me for all the years I was unkind to you.” I never wanted or asked for forgiveness, I told my Dad; I only hoped for your blessing. “My child, you have my blessing.” Three weeks later after visiting him, Pearl’s father passed away.
In Samoa, there are seldom avenues for fa’afafine to express themselves through art and entertainment. This void was filled with the creation of fa’afafine beauty pageants. It was common practice in the day that many fa’afafine women also were involved in pageants as contestants or committee members and Pearl became one of them. Her first competition was in 1990, she placed third runner-up. After an 18-year gap, she returned to competing and placed 1st runner-up in 2008. It all came full circle for her in 2010 when she finally won.
I learned during our interview that her moment of victory came at a price overshadowed by criticism, rejection, and feelings of self-doubt that wounded her. While it’s never easy to talk about a complicated history when reflecting on the past, we are living in a time when certain things that didn’t seem problematic before, are talked about now.
In her own words, Pearl recounts the evening she won Miss S.O.F.I.A.S. “I don’t know why or how I won honestly and frankly I knew that night I was not the favorite. The moment they crowned me all I could hear was shaming and booing from the audience. It was painful. The next day during the prize giving luncheon, I was prepared to step down and return the crown. But Isabella Lui, a good friend and one of my sponsors, she was the one who comforted me “this is your time” she said, you’ll probably never get this chance again in your lifetime.”
Pearl made the decision to continue with her reign yet even throughout there were moments she felt completely unwelcomed. “The whole experience was discouraging,” she said. “I couldn’t wait to step down from the title. When I finally did it felt like a burden was lifted.”
I had reached out to some of S.O.F.I.A.S current and past members who were there the evening Pearl won and they validated her statements. “It was beyond anyone’s control,” one said, “pageant supporters can be rowdy and disrespectful but of course, it’s easily forgotten when we are not the ones offended. We are deeply sorry to Pearl for any pain we caused her.”
For a time, Pearl worked as a bartender at a popular waterfront restaurant before moving to New Zealand to be close to her mother where she resides today. Pearl is a caretaker for her mom and in her spare time, she side hustles as an event decorator and floral arranger. “My mom is eighty now, she is my priority. She is able and doesn’t like being babied, so I just make her meals and watch her from the side. I began making arrangements for the church I go to here and decided to put some of my work on the marketplace. My clients have grown since. It has truly been a blessing.”
At the conclusion of our interview, I asked Pearl if there was anything we haven’t talked about that she would like to include. “Yes,” she said. “I want to offer an apology, and this is to the members of S.O.F.I.A.S. Fa’amagalo mai le nei tagata vaivai i na foi vaitami a’o ou tauavea le pale (forgive me and my weaknesses during my reign). I also want to dispel any rumors said about me. Yes, I am living comfortably but internally I will always be a woman. Regardless of my past experiences, I am honored to have been Miss S.O.F.I.A.S and will show my respect to the organization no matter what.”
“What advice would you give our younger generation of fa’afafine?” I asked Pearl. “Life is fleeting,” she said. When you set out to do something, do everything with love. Never ever forget where you come from and always treat your fa’afafine elders with respect.”
At the writing of Pearl’s story trying to find a decent photo from the year she won was also a difficult task. A product of a time when photography was sometimes grainy and unsteady as it transitioned into the early years of smart devices. Luckily, a video copy of the pageant still sits in my DVD collection. There, one can revisit that moment and relive when Pearl captured the crown… a lady of poise, confidence, and yes, to this day, full of grace.