Lindah Lepou

by Nick Smith / 24 September, 2005
Fashion designer.

Lindah Lepou has many titles - Fa'afafine Extraordinaire, First Fa'afafine of Soul. She is also the supreme winner of the Style Pasifika Fashion Awards, a prize that recognises her body of work, rather than any one garment. Even if one of those garments is "Cocomono", an extraordinary flesh-revealing piece of exquisitely carved coconut-shell rings that combines Japanese and Samoan cultural references. The 31-year-old, who uses the stage name Lindah E for her parallel career as a singer-songwriter, has also been in the news after her 11th-hour dumping as an onstage presenter for the Pacific Island Music Awards.

When did you create the Lindah E character? I won a scholarship when I was 15 ... to Hawaii. It was the only way I could get out of Samoa. And I read an article about this supermodel [Linda Evangelista] who had power and influence. She stuck with who she was and didn't change for anybody. So, I said, "Okay, I need those qualities to come out of me." So I adopted this persona, which was feminine. And I changed my name by deed poll from Aaron Lepou to Lindah Aaron Lepou. I wasn't ashamed of Aaron. Aaron was still there, because he represented my masculinity.

You lasted only three months in Hawaii. My heart was set on coming back to New Zealand and studying fashion. And I thought, "Oh my God, Brigham Young University. I've got to go there for four years." It had nothing to do with fashion. The tutors were all 160 years old ... there was a strict dress code and I was always pulled up for everything. And then I was questioned about whether I was having sex with other men. And I couldn't believe this was happening. So I withdrew. I was 16.

Back to working in the family business in Upolu? My parents were furious, as they didn't have the means to get me, their child, to a better place. And I said, "I want to go to New Zealand", and my mother goes, "I can't afford it." Then I heard through the grapevine that there was this fa'afafine pageant and the winner was going to New Zealand and I knew that was my ticket. It did stir some family politics. [long pause] And when I won it, I won the whole thing.

You made an immediate impact on New Zealand fashion. I entered my first awards, the Benson & Hedges Awards, in 1994. And that was when I entered my flax tutu, which was inspired by English corsetry. They didn't know what category to put it in, so they put it into Avant Garde. And the following year, they released a pamphlet and it had a picture of my garment and a write-up saying that when this entry came through, they realised they needed to have a separate category for Pacific influence. And that is when they developed the Oceania category.

You've experienced discrimination here and in Samoa? Before I went to Samoa, I was in primary school here. My mother was an activist for the black women's movement. She armed me with the necessary skills to cope with derogatory terms, all sorts of discrimination. As far as I was concerned, this was just me. So, when somebody called me poofter or whatever in primary school, it just went over my head. Then I went to Samoa and I was being called fa'afafine, but it was being said in a derogatory way. So, I think fa'afafine who are raised in Samoa are a lot more hardened.

What about the music awards? Earlier this year, I got an invite to present one of the awards and I was blown away. I thought, "Yah, we are turning a corner, and they are finally acknowledging fa'afafine as part of the community." And I said, "Absolutely I'll do it" ... I was over the moon.

Then they wanted you to co-present with international artist Fiji Veikoso? It's just f---ing typical. Of all the presenters, it had to be me. And I went, "Fine, that's cool" - at least they haven't rejected me. Yet. So, I'm on side-stage, and I'm with Fiji. I have the envelope and trophy in my hand and there's a blackout. The stage manager just snatches it off me and says, "You've been cut", and the security guard who has been staring at me is coming to get me.

And while this was happening, they were announcing Lindah E as presenter? I did think, okay, that [people will think of the fa'afafine] stereotype: they're nothing but trouble, no-show, you know, trash. That kind of thing flashes into my mind. All of the hard work, all that I have built, has just been shattered in a matter of seconds. And this is in front of 15,000 people, on national radio and TV.

Your label, Dencium Compri. Polynesian couture best describes myself. And it is about balancing everything that is unique to us down here. I get bored with local designers - the same old shit as everyone else.

And that frock? I've always had a fascination with Japanese culture. I like the kimono ... so I merged that influence with my own culture - coconut rings - and called it Cocomono. This is the type of stuff that you would see on the Oscar awards red carpet. It's got to be able to compete on that level.

You also make bridal gowns. With civil union now legal, will you ever be wearing white to your own ceremony? [Laughs] I'm open to most things.

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