Moe Laga ex­plores her back story for a new per­for­mance.


It started with Janet Jack­son. Moe Laga was three years old when she first re­mem­bers hear­ing the singer’s melodic, syrupy tones in her Bal­moral home. “It’s all Janet’s fault,” she cack­les.“i wanted to be like Janet. I didn’t just want to hang out with the girls – I wanted to be one.” It was a feel­ing that never went away. When she heard Jack­son’s song ‘That’s the Way Love Goes’, she says her life was for­ever changed.

Laga’s story reads like a movie script. She is a femme fa­tale sex bomb one mo­ment and a hum­ble Samoan daugh­ter the next. She’s the youngest child in a large fam­ily. And she’s now a 26-year-old per­for­mance artist known as Mis­tress Supreme, an orig­i­nal mem­ber of the art col­lec­tive FAFSWAG, and mother of the house of Coven, a per­for­mance col­lec­tive in its sec­ond year that’s burst­ing with lo­cal tal­ent. “I treat the oth­ers how I want to be treated,” she says of the other Coven mem­bers. “They all come from such in­cred­i­ble fam­i­lies, I think that’s where they get their strength from.”

Laga has spent much of her life de­fy­ing fam­ily ex­pec­ta­tions, bat­tling to be what she wanted to be. She was adopted by a cousin of her fa­ther’s and grew up be­tween Bal­moral and Man­gereˉ Bridge. When she was seven, she wanted to learn jazz dance but wasn’t al­lowed to. Later, she was ac­cused of try­ing to es­cape the fam­ily when she shared her plans of study­ing drama in Welling­ton af­ter she fin­ished high school. Her fam­ily, she said, wanted her to “be a straight guy that worked at Air New Zealand so I could get dis­counts”.

Laga grad­u­ated five years ago with a Diploma in Per­form­ing Arts from the Pa­cific In­sti­tute of Per­form­ing Arts. Ini­tially, she had buck­led to fam­ily pres­sure af­ter her first year, opt­ing out of the course to get a job. Asked what she wanted as a 21st birth­day gift, Laga, still pre­sent­ing as a male at home, asked her mother if she could go back to school and fin­ish her per­form­ing arts course. Her mother agreed as long as she con­tin­ued to work part-time.

“My mum was slowly start­ing to be like, ‘son there’s a pule­tasi in there for you to wear, but don’t tell your sis­ter you got it from me or she will go crazy,’” Laga re­mem­bers. “My mum was com­ing around but my sis­ter couldn’t ac­cept my sex­u­al­ity. I used to babysit her kids all the time and then one day she told me that she didn’t want me to look af­ter them be­cause she thought I was gay. She asked if my rugby friend was gay too – she said if he was, she was go­ing to rip his poster down from her son’s wall.”

At her grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony from the Pa­cific In­sti­tute of Per­form­ing Arts, Laga looked out to the au­di­ence, search­ing in vain for the faces of fam­ily mem­bers. The re­al­i­sa­tion that none of them had ever come along to a sin­gle show was a turn­ing point. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing, she went on a two-week ben­der. Tired of liv­ing a dou­ble life – a woman by night and a suf­fer­ing son by day – Laga made a choice: “I packed my bags.”

She told her mother she’d only be away for the week­end. Her mother told her not to for­get church on Sun­day. And then: “I never went back. I haven’t seen my fam­ily in five years.”

She moved to a friend’s houseoˉ in tara, and was given the big­gest room up­stairs, away from the hus­tle and deals go­ing on down be­low. The lady of the house was con­vinced of her tal­ent. They had met at a party while Laga was hav­ing a “wah wah”, as she calls it, and the of­fer came to live rent-free and with­out rules. “She said, ‘you know what – you should just come move in with me! You’re re­ally tal­ented, I can see that.’”

Sur­rounded by gang­ster boys who vied for Laga’s at­ten­tion, ev­ery night was a wild party. Laga’s new­found con­fi­dence pro­pelled her into an arts de­gree at Manukau In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, where she quickly es­tab­lished her­self as a fac­ulty favourite with both staff and peers, later grad­u­at­ing with a Bach­e­lor of Cre­ative Arts in Per­form­ing Arts.

“It birthed me as an artist,” she says of her study. “I loved be­ing there be­cause I got to re­ally ex­plore and ex­per­i­ment with be­ing all the dif­fer­ent types of women that I wanted to be.” Even so, “I feel like I tran­si­tioned too late,” she says, “I mean, it’s never too late – but I don’t want things to be the same for trans girls now.”

These days Laga is sur­rounded by new whanau: her art friends Cat Ruka, Tanu Gago, Ralph Brown and Pati Solomona Tyrell. She’s also launch­ing a solo show, Neon Boot­leg, at Base­ment The­atre this month. The show is di­rected by Ruka, pro­duced by Gago and de­signed by Brown. De­scribed as an “unau­tho­rised au­to­bi­og­ra­phy”, Neon Boot­leg will ex­plore the space be­tween sex­u­al­ity and re­li­gion through the prism of Laga’s own life ex­pe­ri­ences. Au­di­ences will be treated to a mash-up of chore­og­ra­phy, rit­ual ac­ti­va­tion, spo­ken text and video, all with a sprin­kle of Janet Jack­son.

“I have the best peo­ple on board,” Laga says. “Those are the best peo­ple to have, es­pe­cially while I’m ex­plor­ing all this trau­matic stuff – the abuse, feel­ing iso­lated as a kid, lots of stuff. I’m cre­atively try­ing to ex­plore it all through per­for­mance art and ac­ti­va­tion and chan­nel­ing a lot of my younger self, and ask­ing ques­tions.”

This ex­plo­ration hasn’t come with­out pain. “I catch my­self cry­ing some­times, ran­domly, and Tanu will be there and he’ll ask me what’s wrong, and I’ll just tell him how much I miss my mum.”

It’s not all grey clouds. Laga lights up when she talks about her nieces and neph­ews reach­ing out to her on­line. “They’re like, ‘hey aunty! To­day we set up the pro­jec­tor and we put up all your art pho­tos and mum came into the lounge and we were like, hey look it’s aunty! And she kind of smiled.’”

The show, in a way, is a kind of ther­apy. “Hope­fully by the end of the show I’ll find a res­o­lu­tion for this pain,” she says. “To be hon­est, I haven’t been the same since I left home. I hope young trans girls come along to Neon Boot­leg and it en­cour­ages them to speak out about how they re­ally feel. We have so many lay­ers. For us trans girls – our guards are for­ever up.” ●

“It’s all Janet’s fault. I wanted to be like Janet. I didn’t just want to hang out with the girls – I wanted to be one.”

Right Moe Laga hopes young trans girls come along to her new show. “I don’t want things to be the same for trans girls now.”

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