Homosexuality may be illegal in Samoa, but the annual transgender beauty pageant is a mainstay of the island nation’s social calendar.
Miss Fa’afafine takes its name from the Samoan word for the society’s “third gender”, which literally translates to “in the style of” (fa’a) “woman” (fafine).
So’oalo Roger Stanley, who heads the fa’afafine organisation responsible for the September 2 pageant, said the event draws a big audience because contestants do not take themselves too seriously.
“There are a lot of other pageants — for women — but for us we try to make it unique,” she said.
“Ours is always popular because it’s entertaining; it’s fun, a lot of laughs.”
There is, however, a serious side.
The pageant will raise money for an elderly people’s home and several other causes, and a forum will be held in the days prior to discuss issues such as suicide and sexual health among fa’afafines.
In June, the national newspaper published a front-page image of a 20-year-old fa’afafine student hanging from a noose in a church hall.
The graphic publication prompted criticism from Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, but the silver lining was increased conversation about fa’afafine mental health.
Second-time contestant Celine Hunter said if she won, she would use the crown to encourage other young fa’afafines to be proud of who they were.
The 24-year-old lives in Brisbane and is in Samoa to see family and have another shot at the “fafafabulous” title.
“The thing that I’ve found is a struggle back at home [in Australia] is looking for a job,” she said.
“I don’t feel comfortable going on an interview dressing up like a guy, I really don’t. Luckily, I was able to find a job that would accept trans, as they call it back at home.
“But I think it’s more comfortable for me being a transgender here than being back at home.”
Percilla Mulinu’u Ulberg, who is also competing this year, does not harbour the dreams of migration that many young Samoans possess.
“In another 10 or 20 years I would still rather enjoy my life with my family, at home, sweet home,” Ms Ulberg said.
The 23-year-old sales assistant said competition was tough on the costume front, but she was looking forward to the talent portion of the pageant.
“I grew up in a choir, so I’m going to show my true talent and sing, showing what I would usually do in my choir at church every Sunday,” she said.
Samoa is a strongly-Christian country, with the Government’s motto stating it is “founded on God”.
Homosexual acts are still technically illegal, but most fa’afafines do not consider themselves gay.
“People say that fa’afafines are blessings, honestly,” Ms Ulberg said.
“We have that kind of talent that we can do boys’ chores and even the girls’.
“So if there’s no boys in the family, there’s always a fafa, or there’s no girl in the family, a fa’afafine can also do a girl’s part.”
Some sources suggest fa’afafines were traditionally assigned their role by their family for that purpose, but most Samoans nowadays say this is not the case.
Whatever the origins of their identity, So’oalo Roger Stanley agreed fa’afafines were good at getting the job done.
“Our association does not have any resources or any assets to our name, but we, the fa’afafines, are our own resources,” she said.
“So given the talent, the creativity, the charisma we have, I think it’s always good to bring it together every year for the pageant.”
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