2022 Arts Laureate award-winner Lindah Lepou has been a creative interdisciplinary force in NZ Arts since the early nineties, while mentoring and supporting other queer artists. Best known to many on Auckland’s gay scene for founding fa’afafine/takatāpui/trans girl group Pure Funk, which lit up stages and parties with their cutting-edge choreography, Lindah became renowned for her unique fashion designs, which coined the term Pacific Couture. She talks to Oliver Hall about her remarkable career, her Sāmoan upbringing and designing costumes for Auckland Arts Festival’s Aiga (opening tonight).

Where did you grow up, and how was growing up there for you?

NZ-born (Wellington), raised in Samoa. My upbringing was tough, violent and scary, to the power of a hundred. Being raised in Samoa forced me to adapt and taught me how to make the most of what I had. It also helped me understand the value and power of my cultural identity as a Samoan fa’afafine person and how to use it to anchor and protect myself as I moved through my unique reality, in and out of multiple environments, cultures, communities, institutions and abusive situations, under multiple extremes – and pressures – alone.


I have read that you returned to New Zealand after winning the one-way flight as a prize for coming first in a fa’afafine beauty pageant. Can you tell us a bit about that experience?

As a teen, I was desperate to get out of Samoa and study fashion back in NZ, but my nana couldn’t afford my fare. I felt trapped until a couple of fa’afafine friends were discussing a pageant. One of them asked me if I was entering the fa’afafine pageant. I said, “Wtf? When?! Where?! What’s the prize?!!” She said, “A trip to NZ.” I knew it was mine. I entered, I won and I’ve been based in NZ ever since.

How welcoming have you found New Zealand to be, living openly as an adult fa’afafine?

When I returned to NZ, I was like a duck to water, being able to express my creativity through fashion opportunities and performing all over the place for easy cash almost immediately. Personally speaking, though, it was a culture shock to now have to also find a job, to pay this thing called ‘rent,’ power bills, available overdraft, loans, taxes, etc…

These were things I never had to worry or think about in Samoa, having had our own land, rivers, ocean, plantation, etc., to live off, or just grab some fruit from the nearest tree to eat if I was ever hungry. Being homeless, violent group attacks, being rejected by employment opportunities – all happened in NZ. It didn’t feel like ‘the land of milk and honey,’ it felt like ‘the land of bills, taxes and debt!”

For me, the homophobia and violence was also on another level. The more dominant and visible I was in the mainstream community, the more blowback and violence would come my way. My being visible also challenged the stereotypes of the day, which were usually relegated to a white, narrow, religious and evil condemnation. Some in my Pacific communities who were still connected to the ancient fa’asamoa ways, both male and female, were naturally protective of me as a fa’afafine, while, shockingly, other Pacific folk, who were now Westernised with a new white god underpinning their Samoan identity, were the regular bystanders whenever they saw a bunch of rugby players target me in the streets with ridicule and hate.

NZ offered more opportunities for me as a regular NZ citizen. However, being a fa’afafine made those opportunities respond to me differently. I created Pure Funk as a safe space for me and others like me.

The first time I ever laid eyes on Lindah Lepou, you were performing as part of Pure Funk. Looking back, what do those days mean to you?

I have been a solo performance artist for as long as I can remember. Growing up in Samoa, there was no such thing as a gay club or a hip-hop club. There was only one club – for everyone! When I returned to NZ, I was confused as to why everyone was segregated. Even worse, everything that I loved was separated. I loved R&B hip hop, but the clubs had homophobes (who would mock me in public, but in private, were the first in line for sex), or I loved my LGBTQ+ community, but they played techno and Kylie – this super-white pop, which drove me nuts!

Drag artists at the time were also doing old-school numbers, like Patti LaBelle, Diana Ross and an irritating repetition of “I Will Survive” or “Dancing Queen,” played over and over again, making me not want to survive and just be a dancing corpse instead!

Before Pure Funk, I was already the only one doing En Vogue and Janet Jackson. But I wanted to create a group situation for me and other performing artists like me. Pure Funk became an urgent measure to provide a safe space and protection, be creative and earn money to keep a roof over my head. The alternative was prostitution, which I had no natural talent for, and I already knew I’d be a useless whore – even if I tried.

Pure Funk quickly became this unique and diverse ensemble of creative and entrepreneurial artists who were also fa’afafine, takatāpui and/or trans women. Our vibe was all about popular music, hip hop, supermodels, high fashion, editorial shoots, modelling, commercials, music videos, acting, lip-syncing, live singing and original songwriting.

First, I met Raphael Thompsen on my fashion course. She introduced me to her high school friend, Ramon Te Wake, before we had Phylesha Brown-Acton join us when we moved to Auckland. What I love is that everyone is still doing their own thing and still thriving on their own, using their own platforms to continue supporting and protecting many others in the LGBTQ+ and non-LGBTQ+ community on their creative and well-being journey.

In the last few years, we have seen a growing backlash against trans communities becoming more prominent in the public eye. What is your advice to trans people living in this climate?

Violence, homophobia and discrimination are everywhere. There is nothing you can do about that. Therefore, learn self-defence (and general fitness), but most importantly, focus on self-love and appreciate who you are – as you are. Gradually try to make peace with and let go of all the ignorant assholes in your life who have deliberately hurt and harmed you (including family) throughout your life – ASAP! – so that those who give a shit about you and will protect you can come into your life and enhance it. True friendships are not threatened by each other. They don’t poison you to everyone. They lift you up.

Lindah and Lusi working on Aiga.

Aiga (Sāmoan for family/whānau) is a groundbreaking disability-led, Pasifika-led work of theatre told through the lens of the real-life journey of Pacific Toa award-winner Lusi Faiva. Tell us about the experience of designing costumes for Aiga.

The Aiga project is a great story and a unique perspective of a life and reality that I’ve never experienced before. So, this is an exciting opportunity for me to experience and learn something new about life – and me – through Lusi Faiva’s eyes and experience. The costumes stay true to Lusi and hopefully enhance her spirit without distracting or taking away from her message. I’m loving the creative process, with an awesome cast and crew.

How different are these designs from the Pacific Couture you are renowned for designing?

Pacific Couture is a visual language that I started developing thirty years ago. It draws inspiration and narrative from my own Pacific (and Pakeha) gafa (whakapapa), using traditional techniques and materials – i.e. tapa cloth, coconut shell, flax, etc – in contemporary ways. As I evolve, my creative approach follows and adapts to the shifts and changes that happen around the world. This has evolved into using recycled materials and paper.

For Aiga, specifically, it is not about me or my fashion identity specifically. It is about Lusi and her intention. These designs draw from her story first, then I wait for the deeper connection between us before the designs can start flooding through effortlessly. My job, then, is to manage this flow of design ideas and edit them down to the right amount – within budget, without going too far outside the brief or intention. My unique Pacific Couture vibe naturally comes through everything I do. However, if it is someone else’s project, they are the centre of the design ideas that flow in. Anything else that doesn’t fit the intention or spirit of the project does not make it through. During my design processes, I’m like Gandalf (less hair, similar beard): “You shall not pass, bitch!”

After 25 years of producing impressive designs, you burned a lot of your collection. Tell us about what inspired this and what you believe this has done for your creativity.

I’ve been designing since 1992, however, from 1994 to 2024, I’ve been building my own foundation as a Samoan atelier while supporting many other indigenous and non-indigenous designers, musicians, artists and entrepreneurs behind the scenes.

Burning my collection in 2017 at the Government House was part of an ongoing Aitu (spirit) series I started developing in 2011. My first project was a solo exhibition at the Wellington City Gallery called “Homage to Aitu” (2012), and five years later I launched, “Return to Aitu” (2017), using a fire portal to send my remaining Pacific Couture pieces (physical) back ‘home’ (non-physical). Each piece came through for that moment in time, and it was time to go. Time for a new beginning. I’m currently developing the next stages of this series, alongside many other things.

What did winning the 2022 Arts Foundation Te Tumu Toi Laureate – Toi Kō Iriiri Queer Laureate Award mean to you?

Winning the 2022 Arts Laureate award was a wonderful surprise and honour to be the inaugural winner for an LGBTQA+ queer award for a key NZ institution. To be acknowledged by the Arts Foundation was a rare wee tap on the shoulder, saying, ‘We see you, Lindah! We know and appreciate what you have created through your own mahi, over three decades, and on your own back, with minimal funding support!” Me aside, this award was for all the other incredible queer NZ artists, designers and diverse individuals I know and admire who go unnoticed, ignored and exploited for their talents. This award sees them too.

The Arts Foundation made it very clear that they care about queer artists too and respect queer art from all walks of life. This award is about seeing us. All of us.

What is next for Linda Lepou, and what professional/creative goals do you still have?

I am 50 years old now. Personally speaking, more joy and chill, and professionally speaking, I’m going with the flow…

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?

Being alive.

Touch Compass’ AIGA plays on 20 – 24 March at Te Pou Theatre. Book at Te Pou Theatre. Presented with commissioning support from Te Ahurei Toi o Tāmaki Auckland Arts Festival.

Photo of Lindah & Lusi | Jinki Cambronero.

Photo of Lindah | David Shields.