11 Apr Cindy of Samoa – her story.
Born and raised in Samoa, the legendary Cindy has toured the Pacific, New Zealand, Australia and the US as a singer and dancer, and her performances of Whitney Houston and Tina Turner are true diva material. Her revue show at Margreyta’s ‘back in the day’ was an essential part of Samoa’s nightlife experience and a must for every visitor. In 2008 Cindy was a finalist in the Television New Zealand talent show Stars in their eyes, performing as Tina Turner. Today she is in constant demand throughout New Zealand and the Pacific, and a celebrity guest on many television shows and headlines at various community events.
Cindy is also mum to many once- ‘street kids’ who found refuge and support in her care. She has been a fierce advocate for many disadvantaged youth, helping them to find employment, go back to school and generally find their way.
Cindy was in Samoa last week with a film crew from Japan who are doing a documentary about her life, and we were fortunate to be able to catch up with her for an interview.
Being Cindy was a big challenge when I was growing up. Some people moan about their lives but when I think about my life, it wasn’t bad. Yes I’ve had challenges but it was just part of growing up and that’s how you learn. You’ve just go to take it in and steer your boat ahead.
My family was strict Seventh Day Adventist (SDA). Being fa’afafine was a strict no-no. It was very hard but something in me didn’t care.
My confidence and strength came from growing up with my grandmother. There were 6 of us. Our mum was a single mum. I have 5 brothers and we all have different fathers and the reason is because of my grandma. She beats them up and chases them away. Our fathers never end up with our mother because grandma beats them and chases them away.
She was so tough. Every little thing and you would get a hiding for hours. If we got into a fight with another kid and if we lose then grandma would beat the shit out of you. Then she would take you to that kid’s house and call out for them to come out and then she would tell us – now you fight and you win. And we would cry and still be fighting. Then grandma takes you home. If you lose, grandma would beat you again.
A star is born.
I was at the SDA school right next door to Mt Vaea nightclub and they would have their band practise and I could hear them. That was my favorite time of the day. I would take out my exercise book where I had written all the words to their songs, and sing along with the band. The teacher would catch me and beat me but it didn’t stop me.
I made friends with the family who owned the club. They invited me to the club one night. I was 15. I wasn’t used to any of that nightlife because we were not allowed to dance or drink. All I did the first night was sit there and watch. They tried to pull me up to dance but no.
The second night I got up to dance and then I never got off the dance floor.
Another day I was at band rehearsal and I had a go and it started from there. I was only 15 and still in school and I was performing.
I got sent to Pesega, the Mormon school. All these faafafines there were in the closet and I arrived! Then they all came out. The school tried to expel me and I would refuse to leave. I would stand outside the Principal’s office and say “I’m not leaving. My mother paid my school fees. You’re a thief!”
My family didn’t like me working at Mt Vaea. They would come and pull me from the stage by my hair and take me outside and beat me. But I still went back. They couldn’t stop me. I was so drawn to performing.
When I want something I don’t give up. I’m very focused. When I want something I give it my all.
Cindy the mum.
Mum died when I was 21 and left me with 2 younger brothers who were still in primary school. I became the mum. I was working at Mt Vaea night club so I was also financially supporting the boys. When I eventually moved to New Zealand, the boys stayed here with my foster mother and I was supporting them, putting them through school.
In Auckland I met the first street kid that I took in. I first knew him when he was 6years old in Samoa. But he remembered me. He was at the lights, this kid ran up to me and he asked if he could come stay with me. I went to pick up his stuff and he was climbing out the back of the building, that’s when I found out he was a street kid. He brought all his friends eventually and they all stayed with me.
I’ve since taken in many young kids who needed help. Most of the kids I get have been abused, or disowned for being gay. People judge them and then they go in the wrong direction. They keep the abuse to themselves. Some were selling themselves for sex to survive. Some of them take drugs so they can be able to do that work. They’re beautiful kids, beautiful people. Its just life and what they had to do to survive.
They see other kids on the side of the road and they bring them home and they say, “It reminds us of when you found us, can we bring him home?” We all put in 5 dollars for those new kids to help them until they get a job.
Sometimes my house is chocka-block. Even if they sleep on the floor, at least they are not on the streets. One mother said to me “We used to worry about him every day and now he’s a whole different person”.
I don’t push them into anything. I get to know them and see what their talents are and what their goals are and then I help them to pursue that. Some of them are really smart and I put them back in school and battle my way to get them into the university. Some are managers for hotels now, or flying for Quantas.
One of my kids was from South Africa. He’s gay and his parents kicked him out. I asked him what do you like to do? He said he loves to perform. I took him to Unitec and sent him inside to apply to Performing Arts School. He auditioned and came out so excited to tell me, “Mum I’m in!” Now he travels on a cruise ship performing.
I try and connect them with their family again because it completes their lives. I tell them you have to fix the past with your family and then you can go anywhere in the world.
They’re all doing well now. We have mini family reunions, book out a restaurant for dinner with their families.
The best way to teach young people is by being the example. If the room isn’t clean then I start doing it and then they say, ‘No mum I’ll do it!’ And they jump up and start cleaning. They know we’re all a family and everyone has a part to play. They all listen to me. We have a saying, ‘You’re going to get the jandal!’ But they know I don’t fasi them.
I encourage parents whose kids hate school. I tell them – get your kids out of there. Don’t force them to go if they don’t like it. We islanders we push our kids to school but it’s not for everyone. Take me for example, I was really good at school but it didn’t do anything for me. It was my talent that got me where I am. Not everything is for everybody.
I tell those parents, “Just wait. Just listen to your child. When they find what they want to do then you support them and put your money on the right thing.”
Our children will go where they are loved. Where they feel love and acceptance. Just love them and they will always come home, they will be alright.
Being a public figure…handling negativity…
How do I handle criticism? I don’t care. It’s only words. It comes in and goes out the other side. What doesn’t hurt you makes you stronger. I don’t care what people say. I also don’t read reviews. I’m not that kind of person who goes and reads the reviews of my performances. When I did the Stars in their Eyes show, I stayed away from reviews. I won’t read negativity. When you’re a public figure, the most stupid thing you can do is read the negativity. People can say what they like, they’re entitled to their opinions but you don’t have to read it.
As an entertainer I have a lot of acceptance. We can get away with more but still, it’s not easy. When I think about how I started, I was way ahead of the others. When Daniel Rae Costello came to Samoa and did his concert, I did the opening. We started with Cook Island dance and that was fine. But then I did Flash dance. I wore tights, a leotard and oka the whole place was quiet. It was like I was doing something X-rated. Now it’s normal, everyone walks around in tights. But that night, as soon as I danced in tights, the whole place went dead quiet and many people were angry with me.
You’ve got to be tough, be strong to make it.
I don’t believe in using those words LGBTQI. Those are palagi labels. Why can’t we say people are people? We’re just people. Even fa’afafines. We’re just people. Everything has become complicated because they’ve put a label on people. Even overseas when they ask me if I’m transgender – I don’t believe in trans this and that, people are people. I much prefer ‘third gender’ than to say ‘trans’. When trying to explain fa’afafine to people overseas, third gender is a good term to use.
In Samoa there was only one word in those days – fa’afafine. Whether you dress up or don’t dress up, you’re fa’afafine. Now, if you don’t dress up, they say, “Oh you must be gay”. And if you have the change, then they say you’re this or that. So many different things!
Fa’afafine should be happy to be fa’afafine and proud to use that word. It’s a beautiful word.
Fa’afatama is always taboo, very quiet. Fa’afatama they keep to themselves, like everyday people and that’s how it should be with us fa’afafine, but we run around and make a lot of noise (laughter). Fa’afafine are right in front of your face!
I’m just me. I’m not a man, I’m not a woman. I’m a fa’afafine and I’m proud to be fa’afafine. A lot of people relate to me as a woman but that’s because they got to know me as a woman.
The world would be so much easier if we just accepted people as people. When you’re comfortable with yourself and accept yourself as who you are, then your confidence can shine and it doesn’t matter what people say or think. Nobody can touch you or hurt you. That’s why Im a good performer. I’m comfortable with myself, more so today than before and that shows in my performance. They can see I’m just me.
Advice for youth?
You can’t go anywhere or achieve anything, when you don’t know what you really want. You have to know what you want and know yourself. That’s the key to give you direction in life. I’ve known from a very young age that I wanted to be a performer. I was good at school but none of that mattered when I started performing.
Grandma pushed me, in her own way. At church I would sit in the front row and grandma would sit in the back. If she couldn’t hear my voice singing from where she was in the back? Then she would beat me after church. I joined the choir, then later they kicked me out because they said I was too loud.
But I knew even then, I wasn’t born to sing with a group. I was born to be alone on that stage. The star. (laughs)
When I went to school at Pesega they tried to make me learn how to play an instrument in the Band. But I told them, I wasn’t born to be behind an instrument. I was born to be at the front!
I don’t party or smoke or drink. I’m there to work, to perform. I think if I didn’t grow up in a strict Christian family, I probably would have ended up with those party type people who are too busy partying to get anything done. You have to be willing to work hard. I’ve never once had to ask for a job. Every job was offered to me. I’m very blessed. But it’s also because I work hard.