How creative artist Moe Laga turns pain into performance

Photography Ralph Brown

The way love goes

She is a femme fatale sex bomb one moment and humble Samoan daughter the next. Now Moe Laga is debuting an autobiographical show that mixes personal pain, creativity and an inspiring sprinkle of Janet Jackson.

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 M¯angere 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 house in  Ōtara, 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.”

Moe Laga’s show, Neon Bootleg, runs from 21-25 November at Basement Theatre.