Real Life

Smashing stereotypes in style

Award-winning fakaleiti entertainer and advocate Amanaki Prescott-Faletau tells how she became the role model she never had

Cabaret performer Amanaki Prescott-Faletau has many strings to her boa.

When she’s not acting on screen in productions like The Breaker Upperers and The Panthers, the multi-talented Tongan-New Zealander helps run the dance company she co-founded, Fine Fatale. The collective’s cabaret film Fever premieres at Auckland’s Civic Theatre on 17 September and 24 before they embark on a nationwide live tour.

  • Amanaki’s bringing the Fever to Kiwi venues.

Fine Fatale’s mission is to put queer and MVPFAFF/LGBTQIA voices centre stage – a cause that is a driving force for Amanaki, both in her work and in her personal life.

“MVPFAFF is an acronym covering the brown Pacific third genders – we’re everywhere,” smiles the 33-year-old, who identifies as fakaleiti, a Tongan gender identity similar to the Western identity of being a trans woman.

Growing up in Auckland’s Mt Roskill with her parents and 13 siblings, Amanaki realised early that how she felt inside didn’t match the gender she’d been assigned at birth.

“My family never made me feel different – it was other people, especially at church,˝ tells Amanaki, who remembers congregants trying to change the way she would walk or speak to be more “masculine”.

“When I first heard the term fakaleiti, it was always derogatory,” recalls the award-winning dancer and play-wright. “As I got older, I started researching all the third genders in the Pacific (such as fa’afafine in Samoa). I discovered we’ve always been around in Pacific cultures, going back long before Westernised religion came along. Finding out that who I am has always been, since the beginning of time, helped me embrace it.”

Home was always somewhere Amanaki felt supported and safe being herself, but high school was a different story.

“Those were the most traumatising years of my life,” she shares. “I got a lot of hateful racist remarks. It was the first time I got jumped or heard the term f****t. I started experiencing suicidal thoughts.”

To make matters worse, Amanaki felt completely alone in her struggle, with no gender-expansive role models to be found either in her life or in popular culture.

“I didn’t have anyone to look up to. The one thing that carried me through school was my talent,” says Amanaki, who found respect and popularity through her incredible ability to dance.

Performing in her school fashion show helped Amanaki realise creative environments could not only be a safe space for her, but somewhere she could thrive and uplift others. Her recent win of a FAME Mid-Career Award for her contribution to the performing arts in Aotearoa is further confirmation of Amanaki’s mission. “Winning was reassuring for me that what I’m doing is what I’m meant to be doing – and reassuring for my parents as well!” smiles Amanaki. “Being recognised at that level as a trans Pacific woman is huge for me, as well as my community.”

Being a role model is something Amanaki doesn’t take lightly. “I get a lot of messages from young girls like me – it’s emotional,” she shares. “It’s nice to hear those words of affirmation, but also it’s a reminder that I can’t stop now.

“The work I do now, my nine-to-five, is working for F’ine Pasifika Aotearoa, figuring out how to create safe spaces for rainbow kids in schools, Amanaki continues.

“Nowadays, a lot of these kids are dropping out because school’s not safe for them, but school is a safe haven for some of the kids who can’t be themselves at home. It’s so important that students have support at school, for them to be surrounded with kids that are going through similar stuff, so they don’t feel alone. I wish I’d had that.”

Amanaki knows first-hand how much representation can help and she’s thrilled popular culture is becoming more gender inclusive, though there’s still a long way to go.

“It’s lovely to see all these new rainbow stories, educating the world that every trans woman’s experience is different,” she says.

“There are so many successful trans women out here – CEOs running their own businesses or who are married and have kids. I get that the traumatic coming out or transition stories need to be told, but we’re also more than just our trauma.”

Knowing all to well what it’s like to feel different, the performer is paving the way for rainbow youth. “I can’t stop now,” she insists.

As if she didn’t have enough to keep her busy, these days Amanaki has her sights set on a new goal.

Since March, she has been taking classes and studying at night, and begins police college in November.

“I’ve never come across any trans police officers and I feel it’s important our police represent the community they serve,” tells Amanaki.

“I’m the first brown trans girl to go through the process, so it’s a little bit daunting, but I like f***ing up the idea that trans girls can’t do it. I like to break the stereotype.

“I also love that my brothers tried to get in and couldn’t!” she grins.

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