Blah blah blah

“This is my reality. Context matters,” fashion designer, artist and performer Lindah Lepou tells us, as she poetically shares the complex oceans she has navigated through her multidisciplinary art career.

Posted on
28.01.21

Content Warning: Sexual abuse, assault and suicide.

We’re collaborating with Creative New Zealand to bring you the groundbreaking Pacific Arts Legacy Project. Curated by Lana Lopesi as project Editor-in-Chief, it’s a foundational history of Pacific arts in Aotearoa as told from the perspective of the artists who were there.

Ona muamua Le VA. Blah blah blah blah blah… Soso‘o mai loa AITU. Blah blah blah blah blah… GAFA Sāmoa and Pālagi lineage. A family of multidimensional artists. Blah blah blah blah blah… Solo Sāmoan mother and absent Pālagi father. Blah blah blah blah blah... I was born in Wellington, New Zealand (1973). Blah blah blah blah blah… Transgender. I was an effeminate child named ‘Aaron Lepou’. Blah blah blah blah blah... Pālagi God upbringing and subtle conversion therapy begins. I was surrounded by physical violence, bullies and sexual predators (3 years old).

Blah blah blah blah blah... I was consistently visited by black shadow figures. Especially this ‘Pālagi man’ in a black trench coat, wearing a top hat that revealed an eye that kept blinking non-stop. I would just scream myself to sleep (6 years old).

Blah blah blah blah blah... I come home from school one day and (out of the blue) I’m being sent to Sāmoa to be raised by my grandparents (1983). I remember screaming inside the airport elevator as I was being separated from my mother. The doors were closing as I was reaching out for her. I blacked out. I woke up in Sāmoa (9 years old).

Huge cockroaches and centipedes with lots of bats in kapok trees.

Blah blah blah blah blah... My grandmother was a business entrepreneur. She was our ‘breadwinner’. Blah blah blah blah blah... Sāmoan village, Fagali‘i Uta. Royal Sāmoan Golf Course. Huge cockroaches and centipedes with lots of bats in kapok trees.

Blah blah blah blah blah... My grandfather warned me that if I was ever in a fight with another boy and I came home crying, he would drag me to that boy’s house and make me fight him again. If I didn’t win, I would get a hiding when we got home. Blah blah blah blah blah... I never asked him for help ever again (10 years old).

Blah blah blah blah blah... Sexual abuse, assault and harassment were rampant. Blah blah blah blah blah... I asked family for help. They invited the sexual predator over for dinner. I had to serve him. Blah blah blah blah blah... Depression worsens. I’m glazed over. I’m invisible. I don’t trust anyone. I don’t want to live anymore (11 years old).

I had to avoid ferocious dogs and fend off sexual predators sitting in the bushes

Blah blah blah blah blah... Sāmoan village, Se‘ese‘e. No electricity. Long-drop toilet. No running tap water. Blah blah blah blah blah... Fa‘afafine. I did both ‘male’ and ‘female’ chores. I cleaned the house. I fed the animals after school. I fetched buckets of water from the sliding rocks (or the river below), if our rainwater drums were empty. Blah blah blah blah blah... I was often sent to the store (an hour away) in pitch-black darkness. I had to avoid ferocious dogs and fend off sexual predators sitting in the bushes (13 years old). 

Blah blah blah blah blah... We lived in Telesa territory. Lots of scary Telesa stories told. Don’t whistle at night. Don’t sweep at night. Cover your mirrors at night. Blah blah blah blah blah... I am not afraid. I feel protected by Telesa. She comes through. 

Blah blah blah blah blah... Pālagi God upbringing continues to amplify. Regular church on Sundays, and four years of church college. Pālagi God conversion therapy increases, with constant religious condemnation by hypocritical leadership. Blah blah blah blah blah... Sexual abuse, assault and harassment increased, with church members, missionaries and the usual.

Blah blah blah blah blah... I am not afraid.

Blah blah blah blah blah... Strict ‘male’ and ‘female’ uniform dress codes, with lots of threats of violence and ridicule. Blah blah blah blah blah… I was called ‘faggot’ on a daily basis by the same homophobic guys who would secretly harass me for sex later on that night. Blah blah blah blah blah... If I was outnumbered, it was easier for me to ‘play dead’ to minimise the damage. Blah blah blah blah blah… Depression amplifies. I’m suicidal. I hate my life (15 years old).

Blah blah blah blah blah… BYU-Hawaii scholarship (1990). I travel to Hawai‘i alone. Total culture shock. Pālagi God university with lots of gay men in the closet and fa‘afafine in denial. I was a blatant Sāmoan fa‘afafine in a Pālagi God lion’s den. The perfect target. Blah blah blah blah blah... Pālagi God conversion therapy intensifies. Temple work to un-fa‘afafine me. Blah blah blah blah blah... Sexual abuse, assault and harassment intensifies. Communal boys’ showers with random men touching me for fun. Late at night, others would keep knocking on my door for sex. I’d deliberately stay off campus until everyone was asleep. Then I could sneak back into my dorm room (16 years old). 

Blah blah blah blah blah... Self-loathing intensifies. Intense migraines start. Doctors can’t help. Blah blah blah blah blah... I cannot focus on study. Depression and suicidal thoughts get darker. I began putting myself in dangerous situations to help me die sooner rather than later. I’m desperate for ‘relief’.

I was a blatant Sāmoan fa‘afafine in a Pālagi God lion’s den. The perfect target.

Blah blah blah blah blah… My Sāmoan great-grandmother. She was ‘Sāmoan-strict’. She was lethal. Blah blah blah blah blah... Her Pālagi God belief was dominant and she would discourage me from my fa‘afafine-ness. Blah blah blah blah blah… She came around in the end.

Blah blah blah blah blah... I create ‘Lindah Lepou’ with all the courage and qualities I urgently need. I wanted to kill myself. Blah blah blah blah blah... Performing Artist. I started dancing to express myself and build self-confidence. Janet Jackson and En Vogue were my obsession. Blah blah blah blah blah... I withdrew from my scholarship. The accusations and interrogation were unbearable. I returned to Sāmoa (1991). 

Blah blah blah blah blah... Performing Artist. I perform in Sāmoa. Blah blah blah blah blah... There is a fa‘afafine pageant, and the prize is a return airfare to New Zealand. Blah blah blah blah blah... Family are ashamed of me. I enter anyway, and I win. Blah blah blah blah blah... I return to New Zealand (1992). 

Blah blah blah blah blah... I stay with family in Wellington. Every day I cook, clean and look after all their children. Blah blah blah blah blah... A few months later, I am asked to leave, because they don’t want me to ‘touch their children’. Blah blah blah blah blah... I’m homeless. 

I create ‘Lindah Lepou’ with all the courage and qualities I urgently need.

Blah blah blah blah blah... I’m in shock, survival mode and my anxiety amplify. Nowhere to live. No idea what Social Welfare does, how to pay bills, or pay rent. Blah blah blah blah blah... Sexual abuse, assault and harassment has evolved. I am the perfect ‘Pālagi sissy’ stereotype. Rugby guys target me in packs. Blah blah blah blah blah... I’m in ‘kill or be killed’ mode (18 years old).

Blah blah blah blah blah... I enrol with the Bowerman School of Design to study fashion design (1992). The director of the school (an ex-cop) becomes critical support and protection. I feel safe. Blah blah blah blah blah... The biggest, baddest, Sāmoan-drag-queen-sister, who understands me, comes through, while avant-garde owner of Buoy Hairdressing gives me a secure roof over my head.

Blah blah blah blah blah... Fashion Designer. I create my own events. I support and collaborate with other local artists. Blah blah blah blah blah... I start building my own foundation. My Samoan GAFA is the anchor. My AITU are the protection. Blah blah blah blah blah... NEW beginning.

I feel safe. Blah blah blah blah blah... The biggest, baddest, Sāmoan-drag-queen-sister, who understands me, comes through,

Blah blah blah blah blah... Performing Artist. I choreograph multiple performances for other performers and events. Blah blah blah blah blah... I create Pure Funk (1993). This group includes other fa‘afafine, transgender and takataapui sisters who are talented performers in their own right. Blah blah blah blah blah... We are the perfect ‘support group’ for each other and others like us who have nowhere to go. 

Blah blah blah blah blah... Fashion Designer. I enter my Flax Tutu (1994) into the Benson & Hedges Awards. Blah blah blah blah blah... This becomes the catalyst for them to create their own Pacific and Māori fashion category to acknowledge its own value and commercial potential. Blah blah blah blah blah... Every other fashion award, thereafter, follows suit.

Blah blah blah blah blah... Performing Artist. Acting role in the Skitz series Semisi family (1995) and lots of film roles as a ‘prostitute’. Blah blah blah blah blah… Multiple arrests later (no charges). I am nicknamed Kill Bill. Blah blah blah blah blah... The last straw for me is when I am attacked by a huge Hurricanes prop, showing off in front of his friends, touching and following me around, calling me ‘faggot’ out loud in front of a crowd waiting to get into the Banana Court nightclub. Blah blah blah blah blah... I tell him to leave me alone and fuck off. He punches me in the throat. Blah blah blah blah blah... (In slow motion) he watches me gracefully hand my purse over to the person I am with, before throwing him in front of an oncoming taxi. He gets back up and runs full force to tackle me, but runs face first into my foot, smashing himself to the ground (again). Blah blah blah blah blah... I am now officially possessed by Telesa. Blah blah blah blah blah... I cannot speak English anymore. Blah blah blah blah blah... I drag him on the concrete in front of his friends who gather around him to create protection. Blah blah blah blah blah... As I ‘miki’ for a taxi, I see a little opening in their protection circle. I then visualise all my AITU, all the Gods, Jesus, Mary, Satan, and all the demons I can think of, entering my fist. Then I bury my fist as hard as I can into his face, already dripping with his own blood. Blah blah blah blah blah... I casually hop into the back seat of my waiting taxi. As I slam the taxi door, I sob. Blah blah blah blah blah... I am over it. No one did anything. Not even the ‘friend’ I was with. They all just stood there watching this guy attack me. No security. No police. I was done with this life. I needed to get out of there. I moved to Auckland (1996).

I then visualise all my AITU, all the Gods, Jesus, Mary, Satan, and all the demons I can think of, entering my fist.

Blah blah blah blah blah... Performing Artist. More performances and Staircase drag shows to choreograph. Another big black Sāmoan drag sister comes through. Fashion Designer. I create Pacific Couture to counter the New Zealand fashion industry’s stereotypical, kiwiana, watered-down, Pālagi interpretation of what ‘Pacific Fashion’ is. Blah blah blah blah blah... Miss World projects. Miss Universe pageants. Blah blah blah blah blah... Investment opportunities to launch my own fashion house. No industry support. Blah blah blah blah blah... Invitation to New York Fashion Week (2001). No financial support. Blah blah blah blah blah... Cocomono (2004), Wild Victorian (2005) and Le Tatau (2006). Supreme awards come through. 

Blah blah blah blah blah... Performing Artist. Singer/songwriter. Collaborating and supporting some of New Zealand’s legendary artists and pioneers. Blah blah blah blah blah... Pasifika Festival galore. Pacific Music Awards fail. Blah blah blah blah blah... Heavy depression amplifies and I’m on the edge. Tinky (my fur baby) comes through. He’s just in time. 

Blah blah blah blah blah... Lindah Lepou Limited (2009). Legal protection. Eco-Chic (2009), Fa‘afafine (2010) and Bushygaga (2011). More supreme awards come through. Fashion Designer. I create Siaposu‘isu‘i (2011) for the Unveiled exhibition with Te Papa and The Victoria and Albert Museum, alongside Christian Dior, Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano and many others who’ve inspired me. Blah blah blah blah blah... More Pacific Couture travels all over America, Russia, China and the UK on world tours.

SelfLOVE and my own personal wellbeing FIRST is the priority

Blah blah blah blah blah... Performing Artist. Acting role in Sinarella theatre production, Pacific Institute of Performing Arts (2012). Blah blah blah blah blah... Multimedia ArtistAITU Series: Homage to Spirit (2012). Blah blah blah blah blah... Performing Artist. Acting role in The Factory musical production by Kila Kokonut Krew (2013). Fashion Designer. Tautai Trust artist workshops begin (2013). Blah blah blah blah blah... Moved to Invercargill (2013).

Blah blah blah blah blah... Equinox Apparel Limited (2014). I create my own clothing factory that produces thousands of uniforms, and designer collections for New Zealand’s top designers. Blah blah blah blah blah... I create a unique internship that attracts designers from around the world to learn real-world industry skills. 

Blah blah blah blah blah... Costume Designer. Multiple film, TV and theatre projects. Multimedia Artist. Invitation to Pacific Artist Residency, with Massey University and Government House. AITU Series: Return to Spirit (2017). I burn my Pacific Couture collection 1.0 from the last 25 years. Blah blah blah blah blah... They return to their original form. Non-physical. Invisible. Intangible. Digital. New beginning.

Blah blah blah blah blah... SelfLOVE and my own personal wellbeing FIRST is the priority (2018). Blah blah blah blah blah... My grandmother dies (2020). Blah blah blah blah blah... Covid-19 hits. Blah blah blah blah blah... No more Pālagi god. More AITU support. 

*

This is the ocean I navigate. This is my reality. Context matters. 

*

Despite the mixed messages I get from the fashion industry saying, “You’re amazing, BUT you’re too art,” or the art world saying, “You’re so inspiring, BUT you’re too fashion,” and the business sector saying, “You’re innovative, BUT you’re too high risk.” 

FASHION (for me) ties together everything I love about my Pacific/Pālagi identity, fashion, art and business. Being fa‘afafine keeps me connected to AITU and, as a multidimensional artist, I can shape-shift.

With no shame or blame, I am proud of how I’ve managed to break through it all the negativity with more ALOFA than I started with. Considering that studies indicate I should’ve committed suicide ages ago. This is testament to my grandmother, who taught me (by example) to ‘make the most of what I have’. 

Being fa‘afafine keeps me connected to AITU.

She was the one that taught me resilience. 

She was the one that taught me to be tenacious and to stand on my own two feet. 

She taught me to keep going forward no matter how hard, how lonely or how dark it would get.

I can see her now, on the other side, cackling to herself, thinking, “That bloody kid! Created all this with a ‘Certificate’ in Fashion Design!” 

Just imagine what I (and anyone else like me) can do, with the proper support.

Support matters.

If you don’t have it, create it.

Creating something meaningful and supportive out of nothing is the actual miracle.

So, “Don’t cry for me Argentina.” 

Just imagine what I (and anyone else like me) can do, with the proper support.

Blah blah blah blah blah...

*

This piece is published in collaboration with Creative New Zealand as part of the Pacific Arts Legacy Project, an initiative under Creative New Zealand’s Pacific Arts Strategy. Lana Lopesi is Editor-in-Chief of the project.

Series design by Shaun Naufahu, Alt group.

Header photo by Pati Solomona Tyrell.