Explore the life story of the influential “Migrant Mother” photographer through her granddaughter’s eyes. Never-before-seen photos and film footage, family memories and new interviews reveal the artist who challenged America to know itself.
Explore the life story of the influential “Migrant Mother” photographer through her granddaughter’s eyes. Never-before-seen photos and film footage, family memories and new interviews reveal the artist who challenged America to know itself.
Original air date: Tues., Sept. 14, 2010
Momi Cazimero, one of Hawaii’s most accomplished and respected graphic artists, talks story with Leslie Wilcox about how she turned adversity into success when she opened Graphic House – the first woman-owned design firm in Hawaii.
I think there was enough of a—what I call a competitive spirit about me that sometimes I wanted to do it, just because somebody said I couldn’t. To some extent, I think I thrived on competition. And so if somebody said I couldn’t, that was a reason to do it.
Meet Momi Cazimero, creative spirit, pioneering business leader, and living proof that you can turn great adversity into great success. Next, on Long Story Short.
Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.
Aloha mai kakou; I’m Leslie Wilcox. May Momi Waihee Cazimero is of Hawaiian, Okinawan, and English ancestry. She spent her earliest years with her grandparents in Pepeekeo on the Big Island in a warm and loving household that included aunties, uncles, and cousins. After her dear grandfather died, life changed drastically. Momi was sent to live in her parents’ home, ruled by her father, Matsutaru Jitchaku, a mechanic. Her mother Lucy was a seamstress, and there were four other children. Momi would spend this chapter of her childhood hearing she was worthless, and being harshly punished. Instead of letting this defeat her, she developed a competitive fire that propelled her to success in the corporate world.
Being raised by grandparents … I’m not just talking about being spoiled, but somehow, you grow up with more of the relaxed part of their life, because they’ve already raised their children. But there are reinforcements in terms of values and support, and love, that is just so special about being a grandchild. The primary lessons I learned from my grandparents were all by example, which is why I think I remember those experiences more. For instance, if I would be struggling with something, and feeling like maybe I couldn’t, he would say, If you like, you can. And that’s the Pidgin version of, If you really want to, if you’re committed to this, you can.
So, at nine, you went to live with your mother and father in Hilo?
Right. And that was when I had the experience of living fulltime with a family that already had a pattern to their life. And my father, being pure Okinawan, my mother Hawaiian and English, it wasn’t a very common—let me say, it wasn’t a common union at that time. But my sister was raised in what I call a Japanese family tradition. By the time I moved there, I was nine; she was seven and a half. At seven and a half, she could cook. And I was not able to do any of the things that she could do.
And that’s your father’s side, saying—
—You’re a girl, you should cook.
Right. And not only that, because my mother had children so close, by the time she had my youngest brother, my sister, who was, what, probably about five, she was already helping my mother with my youngest brother. So she was a little mommy by the time I moved in with them. I was raised as a grandchild who was waited on. I didn’t have to do things. And it was awfully difficult for me to grow up in this—start life in a home with my family, where I was the one who was incompetent.
What about discipline in the house? Your grandparents were easygoing?
The incident I remember was when somebody cut the ulu tree. Now, cutting the ulu tree means cutting off a source of food. So I don’t remember being punished or scolded for things. But that, he lined up everybody. And he went down the line, and he asked every single person who cut the ulu tree. And nobody would admit. So then, he took out the guava. Stripped it … Who’s gonna tell me who cut that? And we each got it at—on our legs, you know, until somebody told the truth.
Who did it?
It was a cousin, my … a young man who did it. And but that was the only time I remember. There was another incident, where because I was a spoiled child and getting into mischief, I used to get a lot of whacks from my aunts. And he said, Nobody punishes this child. I feed her, I punish her. And so he really gave me a good spanking, and everybody watched it. And I was just stunned that he was punishing me that way. But that was his clear rules. You don’t feed this child; I feed her, I punish her. So in other words, they could not use me as a means of venting their own feelings.
And he was fair in when he—
—chose to discipline you.
Yes, yes. And in my father’s home, I was the one who was punished, because I was the one who was oldest, and I should know better, and I should be responsible for the other children.
So even if somebody else did something wrong, it was your fault?
Did they do a lot wrong?
I think, I wouldn’t say it was wrong, because they were children. But in my father’s eyes, anything that was out of place … was a problem. All the discipline was at my father’s hand. My mother talked to us. She was not one to discipline any other way, than to talk.
Momi Cazimero left home at age eleven to get away from physical and verbal abuse. On a work scholarship, she attended Kamehameha School in Honolulu. There, her beloved auntie and Kamehameha schoolteacher, Esther Waihee McClellan, was an inspiration to her, and Momi decided she too would become a teacher. Momi lived in the school dorms during the academic year, and spent summers in her auntie’s home. For the remainder of her years as a minor, Momi avoided returning to her father’s household. Even before that, a teacher’s encouragement had gone a long way with Momi.
I was in the fourth grade at Kapiolani Elementary. And the assignment was that we should select something that we thought was very unique and unusual. There was this upside-down hibiscus I used to see—by the way, we had to go to Japanese school too. So on the way to Japanese school, I walked past this home that had this beautiful hibiscus hedge. So I decided I would select that. So I drew it, and then I did some write-up on it, and I put a cover to it. I mean, this turned into a real elaborate project for me. I was only asked to describe this particular thing. And so when I took it to class, the teacher complimented two things. She said, You’re a very good artist. That’s the first time I heard I was a very good anything. She said, What I liked about what you did was that you didn’t give me the minimum, you gave me something more than I asked. I never forgot that. She set something in place for me that became part of the way I worked. And I think it got me ahead through life. That you just don’t do the minimum. It pointed me to a direction I thought at least I had an opportunity to be good at. And it’s interesting, because then when I went to Kamehameha, I got selected to do art projects. So if something comes easy to you, chances are you’re—you have the inclination to develop that. And the other thing is that, if your—others are recognizing, they help shape the direction you take. So from an external and internal perspective, you’re going to find a better solution to your goal, meaning, something that you’re going to be more capable of satisfying.
Did you set higher and higher goals for yourself?
Yes. This attachment I had to my grandfather; so when I was away from my family, and especially in boarding school, when things were just—I felt I couldn’t cope with it, I would just sit on the edge of my bed, and just say, Okay, Grandpa, I’m waiting for you. Thinking, well, he doesn’t want me to suffer. The next morning, I’d get up in bed, right, and he hadn’t rescued me. And I’d rationalize; he didn’t come, because it wasn’t that bad. Okay? Follow that story. After it happens enough times … so I got to the point when I said to myself, Okay, no more of this fairytale. What you have to remember is that you overcame all of these things. And once I could do that, it was like weaning myself away from being rescued by my grandfather. And I think that’s when the first step comes in. You’re capable of overcoming things on your own.
Did you fail at anything?
Oh, sure, I did. But then, I also rationalized that too.
It wasn’t worth fighting for, right?
While attending the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Momi Cazimero changed her career objective from teaching to graphic design. She earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Next, she aspired to start her own business, eventually founding Graphic House, the first woman-owned Hawaii design company.
My first job was with Stanley Stubenberg. He was referred to as a commercial artist, because there still was not graphic design. And the difference between commercial art and graphic design is that the commercial artist creates the piece of art that goes into an ad, as an example. So you either photograph something, or you illustrate something that depicts the subject matter. With graphic design, you’re developing the entire piece. You’re setting up the type, you’re setting up how it’s laid out, and you’re selecting the artist, or the photographer. So you have complete supervision over the piece that you’re working on. And because at the time, I was working with a small company, a single owner, I had to learn everything. My commitment was to go work for others, so that I could learn the business part of it, in order to one day have my own business. And I think, basically, I think I just wanted to be my own boss. When you’re working for someone else, you don’t control your own destiny, or how you’re going to accomplish what it is you want to accomplish. And because I was determined to have my own business, I was gonna be a woman boss, which was not considered popular those days, I really wanted to create an environment that people wanted to work in. So I was focused on … certainly, wanting to be a graphic designer, a businessperson, and a good boss.
And what about being native Hawaiian in a business that didn’t see very many native Hawaiians at that time?
It was not something—I was more focused on what it was I wanted to do. There were enough people telling me about why I couldn’t do something, all throughout my life. But, for everything that somebody said I couldn’t do, that I overcame, after a while, you don’t listen to all of those in a serious way.
You were in the workforce at a time when there were a lot more stereotypes of women going on, and women weren’t expected to say no. They were expected to go along. But that didn’t fit you, did it?
No. No, it didn’t. During the period that I was at the University, I was given an assignment. And that was to work on the yearbook. And that was really considered something special, if the professor selected you to do it. And I remember going to the particular print shop who was going to work on it at the time … and just being told some really awful things. Which I can’t repeat. This man called all the people who were there around this table … to tell them this, in my presence. And I just felt this is what I have to face in this profession. I’m not sure I’m that eager, because it was just so … it was humiliating, it was nasty, it was cheap, it was mean; it was everything. I left the print shop, and went back to the University and was talking with my professor. And he says to me, You get in my car right now. Now, this man was a very meek kind of person.
What’s his name?
Kenneth Kingrey. He had a very gentle manner about him. And he drove me to that print shop, and he marched me into that print shop, and he told all of them, starting with the boss, about how disappointed he was in them. He told them that they were working with someone who was a student, who was focused on a particular career, and instead of putting themselves in an encouraging position, they were doing everything they could to discourage and demean the profession. And in fact, they didn’t demean me, they demeaned themselves. And he finished his statement with saying to them, She will one day amount to more than you will ever be. I’ll never forget that, because you do not judge a person for courage based on who you think they are, but by their actions. And that courageous stand—and in my behalf to be made to feel that I was worthy of his support and his praise, both. But he taught me something about character that day, I forever kept. And I never once ever afterwards took an insult from anyone. I was decisive; and by the way, I even, in my posture and the way I walked … made certain it described who I was. And what I wanted to be was a decisive person. ‘Cause there’s nothing worse than to work with somebody who doesn’t know what they want.
Did working in a man’s world affect the way you presented yourself as a woman?
Yes. I decided that I would make myself look the most unfeminine I could. So the hair got pulled back and I wore things that were simple and tailored. And so, believe it or not, pulling my hair back had to do with the fact that this is before techie days. So you literally leaned over the drawing table. So that was the outward appearance. But beyond that, it was always to stay right on topic, stay right on subject. I’m not gonna tell you there weren’t instances when there was sexual harassment and all of that. But I just made sure they stayed on point, and on topic, and just avoided any way that they may interpret something otherwise. So there was this constant balancing. You don’t want to overdo it, you don’t want to under-do it. I appreciated the fact, too, though, that I had male mentors who were willing to give advice. They were all these individuals who were in business, who could help, you know, direct me to the appropriate parties to engage in my business. And that really makes a difference.
How would you describe your style as a graphic designer?
I did the logo design for the Kapiolani Medical Center. When you look at a logo, it should be implicitly implied what it represents. This was when they first combined the Children’s Hospital with the Women’s Hospital; so the children and the women had to be represented. So I chose to use a Hawaiian woman, but then the children were what I call hapa looking, so that you had this Asian influence and the haole influence working, and so that you were more like we are, cosmopolitan. And I put a lei on her, so that it would depict that she was from Hawaii. When you asked me the kind of designer I wanted to be, I wanted to create designs that were simple, that were timeless, that were elegant, and that were appropriate to the subject. And so, when they looked at that logo, as an example, they would immediately identify it with a hospital. And even if they didn’t know it was a hospital, there was something in its communication. The woman has her hand holding the child. You always … show caring and nurturing with hands. There’s an open end where her hand is, and what that does is, it brings you in. So you’re not a circle that excludes, you’re a circle that includes. So all of these things, Kenneth Kingrey taught us how to think very deeply, to get into the very essence of something. I felt that he taught us the basic concepts and principles of design, that we could create in Hawaii, the kinds of designs that will stand up to any other part of the world, but that would be truly who we were. Integrity and honesty, and true to the culture, is what I wanted to portray.
Momi took the name Cazimero in her first marriage. In addition to growing her business, she raised four children. At a surprisingly early age in early adulthood, Momi Cazimero knew she had to release her anger and bitterness against her father, for her own sake.
The man controlled his home, and quote, the woman was to do his bidding. And I think that might have also come as a result that my father, too, was abused by his father. And so eventually, he learned that that’s the way you discipline, and so when he had children, that’s what he also did. The difference was that I was his target. And actually, so was my mother. And that was the reason she wanted me out of the home.
And when you think of your dad today—he’s passed on, what do you take from what he gave you?
Well, in a negative way, what he gave me was the drive to prove him wrong. And my—
Because he said, you’re worthless, you’re wrong?
Yes; yes. He—well, first of all, he said I was stupid, I would never amount to anything, and that’s why he was not going to pay for my tuition to Kamehameha. So my mother took in laundry, she took in sewing, she took care of foster children. And that’s why I worked. She had no way of supporting the children. I was the oldest; she had all these other children to care for. Many women are caught in a bind like that.
So she was a realist and said—
—That’s where I am.
So she helped you to get away.
She helped me to get away. And both—I say both of us put me through school. I’ve learned along the way that the most important thing that I did was to forgive him. When I completed my senior year at Kamehameha—that’s a funny story I—well, it’s funny now. But the story about sitting on the edge of the bed, waiting for my grandfather to come and get me … I learned from that, that I was the one who was able to overcome those obstacles. So then I decided, okay, what do I do with this situation about my father? Because I was aware that in the time that I was at Kamehameha, I had a very difficult time in relationships.
With girls. I was in a boarding situation, and I didn’t even know how to interpret the clue, you can catch more flies with sugar than you can—with honey than you can with vinegar. Well, I think that was their way of saying that I had a chip on my shoulder.awaiiHawaHawaHH I was trying to prove that I was worthy, and that I was competent, I wasn’t stupid, all those things. I knew if I was going to survive, I had to do it alone. I could never go home again. And I wrote my father a letter, and I said, I’ve spent six years resenting—I didn’t say that, I said, hating you. But I’m going—I’m not going to continue doing that, because in a way, because I was trying to prove you wrong, I have now graduated, and I’m going to the University.
Did he respond to this letter?
He never did. But it didn’t matter, because what it did was, it got me to the point where I was going to simply do what I needed to do, without doing it out of resentment for some other person. But when I started my business, my father and I mended our relationship. If you can believe this, this is a man who never picked up a broom in his life. And when I started my business, I found this office, and he, on his hands and knees, scrubbed my entire floor. I recognized in everything that he was doing to help me do this, it was his way of saying he was sorry. He’s not—he’s not a man who ever says he’s sorry, but in his actions, he was showing that he was.
Did your father’s abuse affect your relationships with men?
I think it did because it … oh, what’s that word? You set up walls, you set up barriers. But I think I had enough of this loving relationship in my family. I talk about my grandfather, John Waihee—the next John Waihee was my uncle—and he was so unconditional in his love. I never had this black and white portrait of men, because they were men I loved and absolutely adored in my life, who were so good and so loving to me, I didn’t have just one picture, based on my father’s experience.
The important man now sharing Momi Cazimero’s life is her husband, Lester Nakasone. In addition to Momi’s trailblazing business accomplishments, she has volunteered countless hours of public service, having served on the State Judicial Selection Commission, the University Community Partnership, and as vice chair of the University of Hawaii Board of Regents. Mahalo piha, Momi Cazimero, for sharing your Long Story Short. And thank you, for watching and supporting PBS Hawaii. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.
For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.
And if there’s anything that annoys me, it is something that is shallow and superficial, and doesn’t even portray what it is it’s supposed to represent. When I was in the University, what I was aware of was that so much of what we were seeing in advertisements depicted the mainland. It was not about Hawaii. Things about Hawaii were supposed to look like the mainland. And I wanted to be sure that I preserved our identity. And I don’t mean just Hawaiian, Hawaiians. I mean who we are as local people. I respected Hawaii. I love where I’m from. And I wanted what I did to reflect that. And I felt that Kenneth Kingrey gave us the proper foundation to create design, and I wanted to be, by the way, competitive to the mainland. I didn’t want to be the mainland, but I wanted to be competitive with the mainland.
Original air date: Tues., Apr. 29, 2008
Award-Winning Singer, Songwriter and Kumu Hula
Robert Cazimero, award-winning singer, songwriter and kumu hula, joins Leslie Wilcox for a good-fun, talk story session in which the two share laughter, tears and touching stories of living and loving – including stories about The Brothers Cazimero (Robert and his brother Roland) who’ve led a resurgence of Hawaiian music, language, dance and culture since the 1970s.
In part two of a two-part, good-fun, talk story session. Robert shares stories about his hula halau, the all-male Halau Na Kamalei.
Aloha no and mahalo for joining me for another conversation on Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. Robert Cazimero is familiar to us in Hawaii as half of the Brothers Cazimero, the award-winning and highly successful musical duo. He’s well-known. But how well do you know him? When he speaks publicly, it’s almost always about an upcoming May Day concert, new recording, new DVD, a planned performance. Or he’s having a fundraiser for his all- male hula halau, Na Kamalei. Coming up next – we ask Robert to talk about the person, not public events. Part One of a delightful, two-part conversation with Robert Cazimero.
The Brothers Cazimero, Robert and Roland, were leaders in the 1970s resurgence of Hawaiian music and culture. More than 30 years later, they continue to record and they perform locally, on the Mainland, abroad. Robert is also kumu hula of the all-male Halau Na Kamalei.
I know you as a singer, a performer and a kumu hula; but where did all this start?
Well, I don’t know how far back you want to go, but I’ll start with being born.
Now, our parents, Roland and my parents were music people; they were entertainers. So we fell into that immediately because we were surrounded by it.
Did they perform in Waikiki?
Actually, not so much in Waikiki, although they did do that. Mostly for the military clubs and for private parties. And they played standards; the old mainland standards. So we learned to play that kind of music as well as Hawaiian music.
What’s an example of a mainland standard?
Well you know like, Our Love Is Here To Stay, for example, and Please Release Me, and stuff like that. So we do that, besides Kane‘ohe and Royal Hawaiian Hotel. And so it started there. And we thought everybody else did the same thing in all the houses that surrounded us there in Kalihi, until you know, we found out different. And then we went to high school, and we got more involved with that. In high school I met my kumu hula, Maiki Aiu Lake. And as she left the class that she had come to speak with, which was the class we were in, she told me; she says, You know, someday you’re gonna want to teach hula, and you know, You’ll want to take hula, she said; and I’m going to be that teacher. And I was like –
Did she know anything about you?
Well, I had just played the piano for her to sing the song that she had come to talk about. And so she – but no, she just told me that. And at the time, it didn’t really register, the depth of what she had said. So I said, Okay; and then went to lunch. You know, sort of like today, actually.
And then years later, I found myself at her door, of her school. So I went to the university, I took voice lessons when I was there. I would fight with my teacher every day. His name was Jerry Gordon, a really nice guy. I kept saying to him, There are a lot of people who sing your style, but not enough people who sing my style. So I’ll do what you want in class, and then I won’t do what you want –
What’s your style?
I think it’s more – at the time, I thought it was more laid back, island, floaty. You know, and what he wanted was something that was a bit more pronounced, more exact, full of history of a far-away land. I mean, Italy; when you’re from Kalihi, you don’t think so much about Italy. You know, so …
So it wasn’t just how you sang, but what he wanted you to sing about.
Yes. What he wanted me to sing about, and how it was presented. You know, because when I sang Hawaiian music, it was much more laid back and I would not say apologetic. But I mean, it was a step back. When I was taking voice lessons from him, it was definitely, you were out there. You know. So I was there with him for a few years, and then I left school because well, our careers started to take off with the Sunday Manoa, first, and then –
Well, now, what happened to the 60s and rock and roll? Were you part of that?
Of course. Yeah; yeah. Loved the rock and roll years. Yeah; I was definitely there. We thought that The Platters were cool. And Roland was a real big fan of Jimmy Hendrix; real big. And we got all into that. You know, I didn’t – we didn’t get so much into the drugs of it, as much as we did the music.
We really liked the music. And the fact that, you know, we’re the original Flower People, so we were like out there.
[chuckle] People talk freely about how you were instrumental in that Hawaiian renaissance; the music and language, and everything that came with it.
M-hm. You know, people do speak freely about the fact that we were there at the start of the renaissance, and leading the way. We had no idea. We had no idea we were leading the way for anybody, or to anything. We were just there, having a good time. We were just so happy to have people standing in line out there at Chuck’s Cellar in Waikiki, not to come for steaks, but to listen to us play music. You know, so we really had no time to think about this whole idea of the renaissance, until maybe like two or three years after we had already been in it, and someone brought it up and said, What was it like? And we were like, Oh well. You know, it was very interesting, and it was fun, and –
Well, when you would go out for gigs, did you and Roland think about, you know, your marketing plan, and who your audience was and how to tailor your music? Anything like that?
No. We were just as wild on stage as we were, you know, at home. We were doing what we were doing. Roland and I used to go to work in caftans and get on stage and change, and then on the breaks, we’d wear these caftans, walking around the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.
They’d never seen anything like that before.
Well, no. I would wake up in the morning, and cut my bedspread, and throw it on, and go to school at the university. ‘Cause it was the ‘60s, and you were supposed to wear your bedspread to school, or something like that. So yeah. It was never really planned out or strategically, or any kind of game plan, or –
But it was just who you were. You were doing what you were.
Yeah. And we were still kinda deciding what we were, and what we were doing. You know. And lots of experimentation in so many different facets. Lots of experimentation. So –
Did you do all kinds of music, or did you do just Hawaiian?
Well, at the time, with the Sunday Manoa, we kinda like felt like we should stay in this niche of Hawaiian music, you know. But the influences of like big things that were happening on the mainland became a part of what was entwined with the Hawaiian music. Yeah. So …
So Chuck’s Cellar was your Sunday Manoa time.
Was – yeah – was the very beginning, when we became known. Yeah. And I was 19 years old at the time.
Did you get all big-headed?
No, because we were change – you know, if you thought – there we go again. Just to make sure you knew you weren’t that important, we would change in the parking lot. There was no dressing room, you know, and you still got $15 for the whole gig. You know, so yeah. There was no way you could get big head. As the career got to be better and better, some people would say, You know, you folks are getting to be so Waikiki, so mainland. You know, you’re forgetting where you’re coming from. Well, let me just say, there is no way you can ever, ever forget that you’re from Kalihi, I don’t care what you try to do in your life, you know. And after a while, it gets to the point where it’s a time that is so beautiful, and so worth being a part of, that you never, ever want to forget. You know, I’m proud that I’m a Kalihi guy.
What part of Kalihi were you raised in?
We would say Waena. So it’d be like Kam IV Road, where you know, we were there before they built that monstrosity, the Kuhio Park Terrace. So in the old days, from the roof of our house, or the back porch actually, you could see the fireworks at the Ala Moana Shopping Center. You can’t anymore.
And you always lived in the same place as you were growing up?
M-hm. And I finally moved out, gee many, many years later. ‘Cause our mom had Alzheimer’s for something like 15 years. And I had come home one day, and she had washed all my silk clothes in Clorox. And I knew that it was time to go.
So I left, and I never looked back. [chuckle] Roland still has the house.
Both of the Brothers Cazimero, Robert and Roland, are masters of their craft and consummate performers. But you’d never mistake one for the other. Different lifestyles, different approaches; but as artists and businessmen, the same respect for each other.
I really learned how to talk, to be comfortable in front of a crowd through Loyal Garner – watching her perform. Really too, the Society of Seven, as far as flow is concerned, in a show. And our friend Gramps, who was very influential, and my kumu, Maiki; watching them. Of course, now, there are the other influences, like Crosby, Stills and Nash, and Kenny Rankin, who I would listen to for hours. I’d play his records, and I would listen to his style, and try to mimic it. And if he was gonna hold it for these many measures, I was gonna hold it for that many measures, and one more. You know.
And you always thought you would go into music professionally?
No; because getting back to this brother and sister thing. The brother above me, Rodney, was the one who we considered the voice in the family. So it was very difficult, after he went into the service, for me to start singing, and then to have to sing in front of him. So that was something we all had to learn about; how to handle things like that.
Just the whole respect thing; that he was the older one. And still is. And I still think that of all of us, he has the most beautiful voice.
And how much does he sing now?
Well, he’s working on a new CD, my brother Rodney is. So I’m very excited for it.
Well, Roland seems like chaos.
[chuckle] He’s uh –
He’s out there.
That’s a good way of putting it. You know, he’s really reeled himself in, within the last maybe ten years. But you’re right; he was out there to the max, and over the top, being Roland Cazimero. I mean, he was wild and wooly and the women were everywhere and the liquor and the drugs and the food; and that’s making me sound like I was a prude.
[chuckle] And he would probably be late, and you would be on time? Is that how it worked?
Oh, yeah. Oh, big fights about that; I tell you. And it was really some difficult times there. But he – yeah; he had a tendency to come to work when he was ready to come to work. Yeah.
How about musically; I sense there wasn’t –
There was not any kind of schism about that?
You know, the thing about Roland was that he would come with stuff, because of his life, where it was. It would be so far off of what I thought was Hawaiian but I liked it. You know. And so he would do stuff, and I was like, Okay, let’s put that in and tape. Mind you, another thing about that too is, we had been with the Sunday Manoa, and Peter Moon was the leader at the time. And Peter and Roland got along really well. Because as much as I was grounded in the Hawaiian thing, those two boys were out in the world, and they liked other music and would bring it to the table. After we left Peter, then I had to listen a little bit more to Roland, because he would be the orchestra. I was just gonna be the voice; he was gonna be the orchestra. And it worked out quite nicely, actually.
Sure has; and still going strong.
Still going strong. And you know what? I can say now that it’s much more fun than it’s ever been. I’ve learned to relax a lot ‘cause you know, I was the one on pins and needles, thinking that I had to like choke his neck to shut up so that I could do a show. And now it’s just to the point where like it really – it sounds like such a cliché, but it’s all really good when it’s me and Roland. ‘Cause we’re just having a really good time, and it’s terrific.
Let’s talk about Roland and you for a while.
I mean, you’ve had this long career with him.
Yes; very long. It’s a marriage, you know.
Long, and spectacular. And he’s your brother. I mean, did you folks grow up fighting with each other? Like –
All the time.
Like most siblings do?
Yeah; yeah. We fought all the time. But we got to a point – and I think – you know, we really started playing music professionally with our parents in the – well, I started in the latter part of the 60s, or middle 60s. Roland was already playing when he was eight years old. So when we went on our own, and by the time we got to like 1973 or 74, we had pretty much made up our minds that as much as this was show business, we were gonna concentrate more on the business part of it, than the show. I mean, the show would come along, so we knew that pretty much no matter what happened – believe me, dear, a lot has happened that we would stick it out. I mean, it’s not like we haven’t had full-out fights on stage, at the Waikiki Shell on May Day. I mean, not throwing blows, ‘cause people could see that; but I mean throwing words back and forth, and yeah. So it’s been a challenge, but it’s been great all the way.
Well, you two seem like such different personalities. I’m actually surprised that you are such an enduring and endearing duo.
I think because we embrace two different worlds that we bring everybody in from those different worlds and meld them into the Brothers Cazimero.
Well, how do the dynamics of the two of you work?
Well, okay; here it goes. We come from a family of twelve kids; eight boys and four girls. And it was understood thing as we were growing up that if our parents were there, the oldest child always was the one who we would listen to. I’m older than Roland by just one year. So …
Were you the oldest? No, right?
No, no, no; I’m number ten of the twelve, so there are nine above me. And so I would just tell them and they’d have to listen.
But you could only boss two other kids.
Yeah. Because if I said something, and my older brother or older sister said something over me I would say nothing after that –
But you could boss Roland.
I could boss Roland, and I could boss my sister, ‘cause she’s the twin to Roland. So although, I wouldn’t call it – Roland would call it bossing. [chuckle] But I wouldn’t.
You’re there in your nice aloha shirt and long pants, and he’s in green tights and a sweatshirt sometimes, crossing his legs on the stage.
It’s just – it’s so funny, and so beautiful.
He does wear some of those clothes. And I have to take credit for some of it, ‘cause I did buy him a few of those things to get him into it at first. And as I grew out of them he just more and more into them. And it causes a lot of trouble for me in other places, I’ll tell you.
But he knows who he is, and you know who he is, and you understand each other.
Yeah. So there’s no problem there. You know. And we’ll make fun of it, too. He’ll make fun of it; and it’s fine. I like him so much more now, and that’s why we get along so much better.
One year difference.
Yes; only one year. But I always felt like I was tons years different than he was. Difference, as far as age.
Did you always feel like you had to keep the duo together, because he was not disciplined?
You know, I don’t know that I felt that way, ‘cause I knew – we had already decided on the business part, so I knew that late or not or whatever indecision, we were still going to be together. But it didn’t mean it didn’t give me heartburn or heartbreak or whatever. Because I was on pins and needles.
How much does he surprise you on stage with his comments?
Oh, I never really know what my brother’s gonna say; I never do. And sometimes I will say something that will trigger, and I know that it’s triggering something in my mind, and I think to myself, You stupid, stupid –
Don’t make eye contact, right?
I shouldn’t have said that; and sure enough, he picks it up, and he goes, and I tell you, I can’t say anything, because the people are laughing so much, and it’s really so good, and I’m so pissed off.
But it’s so funny.
Yeah. One time, we were on stage at the Shell; it was Roland, myself, and Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole. I was between the two of them. And they started on this thing together, and I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. All I know is that the audience was dying outside, and I just said one thing, Leslie; I said just one thing, and I don’t remember what it was. Well I was smashed down like a bug, and I was like, Okay, I’m so staying out of this one.
Because Roland and Israel together they were amazing. They had a lot of fun, and a lot of history. So –
And that’s part of the fun of entertaining; the interactions, and you feed off each other, right?
And you become better than –
Especially when they’re –
– the sum of the parts.
– really good, talented people. You know. When you don’t have to say anything or explain anything. So it’s like you and I talking right now. You know, I’ll just say, Okay, you take it, and then you say, You take it, then we’ll both talk together, or finish each other’s sentences. Happens all the time. That’s why I said Roland and I have a relationship that is like, you know, we’ve been married longer than our parents were I think. You know how in Hawaii we tend to call people “Uncle” or “Auntie” as a sign of respect? Here’s a tip, Don’t do that to Robert. You’re about to find out why. And Robert also explains the feeling he’s had for some time, the one that drives him to sing every song like it’s the last time.
You know, in terms of experience and achievement, although I don’t know about in terms of age, you’re a kupuna. Are you treated as such?
Um some people try.
But you don’t let them? [chuckle]
No; I don’t.
What do you –
Another thing I –
– tell them? [chuckle]
I just – actually, you know what? I I’m very lucky that way. No one sees me as really being a kupuna. But –
And that’s a good thing for you.
And that’s a –
That’s a –
– really good thing.
You know, that is a mark of respect, too.
Yeah; yeah. I just I do have a rule, though, and it’s, Don’t call me Uncle. Which is my email address, don’t call me uncle.
Unless we’re actually related; and if we are related, you gotta mention some names in the family line that I have to recognize. Otherwise, just call me Robert. You know. And I’ve gone through the gamut of people calling me Bobby from when I was a kid; Bobby and Bob, and god, I hate that.
Neva Rego calls you Roberto.
Oh, well; yeah.
You don’t correct her. The voice coach you go to.
Oh, no; she can call me Roberto for the rest of my life. That’s fine. But the Bobby one makes me a little queasy. But then you know which part of my life they’re from. You know. And –
Do you tell people, Call me Robert? I mean, just –
Yes; I do.
– straight out?
Yeah. Hi, Uncle. No; just call me Robert. And you know, you know for Hawaiians, that’s a hard thing, because part of the respect is that you call each other Uncle and Auntie. But I just tell them, like, Don’t –
That’s because –
Don’t put any kind –
– you don’t see yourself as Uncle?
It’s because, you know, when you’re in the entertainment business, there is no such thing as age. Once you get out of high school, we’re all the same age. That’s what I say. So, don’t call me Uncle. And don’t call me Auntie, either.
[chuckle] What’s your middle name?
My middle name is Uluwehionapuaikawekiuokalani.
Which means the verdant – the abundance of flowers at the summit of the sky. And my mother was pregnant, and she didn’t know she was, and my aunt, my Auntie Mary Sing who lives in Kalaupapa – that’s a whole ‘nother story – she called my mom and said, You know you’re gonna, you’re pregnant. And my mother said, No, I’m not. And she said, You’re pregnant; and my mother said, No, I’m not. And she said, Just listen to me; you’re pregnant, here’s the name of the child. So she gave my mother my name.
And she’s calling from the Hansen’s Disease settlement at Kalaupapa.
Yes; she is. So my mother said, Okay. But because of the flowers in the name, o napua, she thought that I was gonna be a girl. Well, anyway; so but I got the name, anyway. And so yeah; sure enough, she was pregnant. She didn’t know it, but she found out from my aunt. And I’ve had that name ever since.
Do you think you live up to the name?
Oh, I hope so; I hope so. Because the funny thing is, as I graduated kids from my school to their own schools, they’ve taken parts of the name.
And they have it in their school. My niece is my namesake, and she has the same name. And then one of my dancers asked if he could name his son after me. And I said, Yeah; except take out the o napua, take the flowers part out. So this boy, Uluwehiikawekiokalani, is one of the newest members in halau now. He’s dancing in the school. That’s the kinda stuff just blows my mind. I’m just so glad I’m seeing it all happen. You know. It’s really cool.
Sometimes you look back at your life, and you go, Wow, if only this hadn’t happened, where would I be.
Was there any one of those moments for you?
Yeah. Would have been my seventh grade; if I didn’t go to Kamehameha, that would have been very different. I think that – because if not, I would have gone to Farrington. And for all I know, I could have ended up being a drag queen.
Just scary, you know. For me. Another thing is that you know, I constantly worry about my voice, and in December I have a tendency to catch colds, in December. So I try and be really careful about that. And one year, it got really bad, and I lost my voice. And we were doing three concerts with the Honolulu Symphony. And I did a concert every night, without a voice. I talked my way through the whole thing. And thank God that the people were receptive. Because it was one of the best concerts, ever. So, and then I have to tell you about one other time. Roland and I were performing at the Holiday Inn in San Francisco, near the business district. And we were doing the show; it was Christmastime, and the whole electricity, within like about eight, ten blocks, went out. And the management said, You know, we need to cancel the show. And the people said, No, don’t cancel the show. So they brought out this flashlight, a real big one, like this. And they stood at the back of the room, and they put the flashlight on, and we played the show. And we did like –what would you call that? Like well, unplugged concert. It was one of the most beautiful shows in my life; it was just great. So you know, glad we did something that at first we weren’t gonna do.
What do you see as the future of your singing career?
You know, it’s kind of difficult for me to think of a future, as far as I’m concerned. Because I just made – well, I’m telling everybody I’m 62, but I’m not. It’s just that they say to me, Wow, you look really good for 62.
So that by the time I get there they can say, Well. But I don’t see me being here that long, on this Earth, for this life. So what I really want to project is the fact that we just keep playing and doing the best in what we do. And if we can produce an album or a CD every year until the time of my demise, then I’ll be totally happy.
Okay; now, you’ve just shaken me up. You see yourself as having an untimely or early death?
Well, I thought – from when I was a kid, I always thought that I’d be dead by 21. I think it’s in a past life thing of mine. And the other thing was that if I stayed away from home longer than two months, that I would never return home. So that’s why my trips have always been short, and coming back in time. And then the longest one was maybe a little over two months, when Roland and I went with Maiki to Europe. But I always felt that after 21, all these years are real gifts for me. You know.
Do you think you, you live more fully every day, because have this –
– thought that you might not have a lot of time?
Absolutely. You know, when Roland and I were – I don’t know that I’ve ever said this on, you know, for television or anything. But when Roland and I were playing with Peter Moon – this was before 1975; we were working at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and we would get bomb threats in the room. And we would just be playing, and all of a sudden, all the lights would come on. And they would – we’d have to have everybody taken out, and we’d go out, and the cops would come in, or the bomb squad or whatever they were, and they would check the whole room, and then they would say, Okay, it’s okay. Now, this would happen sometimes three times a week. So but I’ll tell you; if you were in the audience after that bomb scare had been nilled, you found yourself at one of the most amazing, amazing shows. Because we sang like it was the last time. So ever since then, I try – I do that now. That whenever I do sing or perform, I do it like it’s my last time. Just in case; just in case.
You know, I really enjoy getting to know people on this program – especially people I did already know, like Robert. He’s got much more to share, including what it takes to get into his respected Halau Na Kamalei, why he expelled his much-loved brother Roland from the halau, and his favorite music lyrics. Please join me and Robert Cazimero for Part Two of a two-part LSS next week on PBS Hawaii. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.
I gotta ask you one more thing.
The local thing with the [clucks tongue].
Can you tell me about that?
[chuckle] We were at the Ala Moana Hotel; in those days, we were upstairs at the Summit, which is now called Aaron’s, I think. And I was singing a song, and there was a man in the audience who was looking at me weird, and then he would say he was just looking at me, and so I said I said, What? He says, You’re singing the wrong words. And I was like, Okay. Then he said, If you want, I’ll teach it to you here by the elevator. So we just sat there, and he taught me the words. The next time I sing it, I’m downstairs at the – we called it the Cave at the time.
The Kama‘aina Room. And there was a woman in the audience, but this time she added that. She’s going, like [clucks tongue]. And I was pissed off. So I said, What? And was like, You’re singing the wrong words. I said, No, I’m not. I learned this from a guy who lives in Keaukaha. And she said, My mother wrote the song.
So I sat with her, and I learned it.
Robert Cazimero: Part 2
Aloha no. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Mahalo for joining me for another LS S – another island program produced and broadcast by locally-owned, non-profit PBS Hawaii. When singer Robert Cazimero stopped by to talk with me, one on one, he wasn’t alone. He mentioned that his ancestors, all those who went before, were right behind him. And part of the reason he is driven to meet high standards is the heavy obligation he feels to make them proud. Coming up next – Part Two of a two-part conversation with musical artist Robert Cazimero.
Robert Cazimero is more than a successful singer and recording artist. He’s also a most-respected kumu hula – teacher of Hawaiian dance. His all-male hula school is called Halau Na Kamalei. The halau is the subject of a documentary being shown on PBS channels nationwide that explores expectations and stereotypes, following the halau as it prepares for competition. Produced and directed by Lisette Marie Flanary, N : M H shows us Robert Cazimero’s exacting and sometimes harsh teaching style and it reflects his deep devotion to his kumu, the late Maiki Aiu Lake.
I had a hard time with that, ‘cause they wanted me to tell stories about my kumu. And you know, outside of the family, we don’t tell stories, because it’s just so personal. You know. I didn’t want to tell stories. And then I said to Lisette, If this will help to show my respect for my teacher, then I’ll do it. Not realizing that it was really gonna show a lot more, and that it was okay. And that what I found out about my students is that they love me like how I love my teacher. [Whispers] Sorry.
How easy was it for you to control people’s lives? I mean, you know, kumu hula – That’s a really – – by definition is a –
– good question.
– control freak, right?
You know, it –
I’m not saying it very graciously, but –
No, no, no; it’s true, though. Yeah. And you have – there is such a power in being a kumu hula, you know, that is willingly given to you when the students come in. Because it’s what I did with mine. You know. If she told me to jump off a building, I would have asked, Which one, and how much higher do you want me to go? ‘Cause you just love them, you know. But I didn’t really know how to become a kumu. It’s like being a parent. You really don’t know how to be a mother or father until you have kids, and they teach you how to be that way. It was the same thing with being a teacher. When I started, my kids were like 15, 16 years old, and I was like 23, 24. And the only way I knew how to do it was to scare the well, to scare the –
And you used those –
– out of them.
– words too, right?
You would swear?
You’d call them names?
Yeah; I did. And they would say to me, You know, I don’t even let my parents talk to me this way. I was like, I’m not your parent; I’m your kumu. So you just better get over it, or there’s the door. And luckily, they stayed. Or luckily, they didn’t beat me up. And by definition, you have to keep order and discipline.
How did you decide how hard core you were gonna be as a disciplinarian, as somebody who punishes, or has control over –
I just played by –
– second chances, third chances?
Yeah. I played that by ear. I set really – you know, some really heavy duty rules on them. And if they broke it, then you know, there was no second chance.
What’s an example of a heavy duty rule?
Well, you know, I did not like drugs. I was never a drug person. I, well, sans liquor. Sometimes.
But yeah. So it’s like, you know, if I knew that you were coming to a performance, and if you were stoned then you’re out, from the performance and the halau, too. You had to be a certain look, you know. No one could – I still say it, although I’m much more lenient now. No student could dance if they were bigger than me. And back then I was almost 300 pounds when I first started. You know. So they all had to make sure that I the clothes, they looked good. Otherwise – ‘cause you know, people don’t really want to see guys dance in clothes; you gotta wear those malo things, and the lawalawas. And I never could wear
them, because well, ‘cause you know. But they had to. You know, ‘cause it was the look, and I wanted to make sure that people knew who we were.
Well, at that time, you had the only male halau.
Is it still the only male halau?
You know, I think it is. Because most people have both women and men dancing for them. But it was really Maiki’s dream that I teach only men. And I’ll tell you; like I said, I would have done anything she asked. So I had no problem saying, Okay; I’ll do it. The thing that you need to know about, if you’re gonna – Leslie, you’re ever gonna teach men? You want to –
– be a kumu hula. You’ll be not making any money. And –
As opposed to teaching women; you would make money?
Women, you can make money. People buy houses by teaching women. Teaching men, you will not make money.
They’re not gonna pay you to teach them how to dance hula. They’re – and there go – it goes back my kumu again, who said, If a man dances for you, then it is a privilege that you should have them. So I you know, when I was in halau, I was constantly on scholarship. And so that’s the way I’ve run my halau ever since; that it’s all scholarship.
You teach for free?
Yeah; yeah. And then when we need money, then we have a fundraiser. Or, if it needs supplementation, I have my career. And I swear, my kumu knew that too. ‘Cause I’m like her. She needs six of these things done, her daughter says, You can’t have the money; she’ll grab her money and do it herself. And I do the same thing. You know, it’s like, Well, no one tells me no when it comes to the halau. But if I want something, and they’re like, You know, we don’t have that much money we’re getting it. Yeah; we’re gonna just do it.
As successful as the halau has been, I’ve heard you say in the past that it’s not easy to get men to dance.
Yes; yeah. It gets harder and harder as the years go along. Although, a new revelation has come along for us; and that is that now, the sons of my students are dancing for me. And you know, I’ve graduated students as teachers. Four of them are teaching, even as we speak.
And that’s a legacy.
– really is. But as far as, for me, a real legacy and a continuation, so that I can actually see it myself; having the kids of my dancers with me. It makes me want to live longer. It really does. And it makes me want to be a better teacher, too.
How does someone get into your halau? Can any guy get into your halau?
Well, no. [chuckle] No, you can’t. You have to be invited.
And all of your dancers are part-Hawaiian?
No. No; and I don’t think that’s really important, either. And that comes from my kumu. You know. Because it’s more about the heart, I think, and the fact that once you become a member of my halau, then you are Hawaiian to me, because now you’re not just a member of the halau, but a member of the family.
Yeah. And so all my family, all my brothers and sisters, and my nieces and nephews; they all know these guys. And they all know my family. So several years ago, we had a, a family reunion in Kohala, and they said, You know, we’re all going. And I was like, No, you’re not. They was like, Oh, yeah; we are. ‘Cause sister Jean and sister Gerry told us, and cousin Momi, that we’re family. So they all came. We all went to Kohala together and –
What’s more important; heart or dancing ability?
Oh, right now, today, at this very moment with you and me; heart.
But tomorrow, dancing ability?
Tomorrow, if we have a show to do and it’s time to get on the stage; dancing ability. But for right now, heart. But it doesn’t mean I’ll get rid of you. You know. Where before, I would get rid of people much faster. Today, I’m much more lenient.
Among your students in your halau, you’ve admitted your brother.
Yes. Roland came to halau for a while; I think it was a little over a year. And I kicked him out of halau because he was given an assignment and he didn’t finish it.
What was the assignment?
He had to learn two chants. And we laugh about it today, because had he learned, especially one of them, we’d be – we do it all the time in our lives, you know; all the time now. But I give my brother a lot of credit. You know, we’re born as brothers in this lifetime, and then he goes and puts himself, again, in my life by being a student. That’s a difficult thing to do.
Well, you could give him a second chance.
Well, the second chance is that he’s no longer a student, but he is a kokua. So my brother is there all the time. And I think in being the kokua now, it’s better than being a student. ‘Cause you still get the lessons, but you don’t get too much of the same pressure that happened. And what’s happened is, I’ve learned from that lesson too, and because of him, I’ve learned to be able to give chances to others. Where before, I would have [SNAPS FINGERS] got rid of ‘em, like how I did him. You know.
And the other thing is, you can’t talk back to me.
You can’t talk back to me.
He would have to stop talking back to you.
You can’t talk back – no. And Roland would like – you know, you can’t talk to me. Not in front of my students; you can’t talk back to me. That’s just the way it is.
But he can as a kokua?
So he worked it out.
Yeah; he did. And I’m really glad he’s the kokua. And yeah. I love him; he’s a good guy. I’ve never said that before on camera, either. That took a bit.
[chuckle] He’s gonna want copies.
I think so too. He’ll be sending out to the family.
In birth order, Robert and Roland are number 10 and number 11 in a family of 12 children from Kalihi. The two men are family for life and highly successful musical partners for more than 30 years now. Appreciating family and health became more important than ever to Robert in 1990. That’s when he found out he has diabetes.
You were 300 pounds at one point?
Oh, yeah. Yeah. It was a long time ago, but still, it was a part of my life. I look at those pictures, and I go, Who is this monstrous person?
Had you always been heavy as a kid?
Yeah; yeah, I always was. And then in 1990, my doctor said to me; he says, You know, you gotta watch out, ‘cause you’re a diabetic now. And I was like, Oh; okay. So he said, You have to really think about this, and you know, you have to cut down, and you have to do this, and you have to exercise, and stuff. And I was like, Oh, jeez; what a bummer. And I started walking in 1990, and it’s been my companion for that long now, and it’s kept me down so that I’m now – I fluctuate between 197 to 204 pounds. And it helps with everything; you know, the heart, the blood, the breathing; stuff like that.
That’s right; breathing. I mean, you have to have good breath control, or you’ll lose your occupation.
And that’s why, you know, I never liked cigarettes. My father was real adamant about us smoking. You know. So I never liked that, ‘cause I thought, Okay; I’m gonna tell you another story.
When Peter, Roland and I were recording our second album called Guava Jam, no; sorry, Guava Jam was first, Crack Seed was second. I had just finished singing a song called The Queen’s Jubilee, from a family songbook of the Iaukea’s. And I was sitting in the studio, and Peter and Roland and the engineer were in that small room that they are over there, and Peter said, Okay, we’re gonna play this back to you. I was like, All right. So there were two big speakers here, and they started playing the song, and I’m singing along with it. Well, there was a mirror on the floor on the side over here, and I just happened to glance over it. And I was looking at myself in the mirror, and I thought, I found it very difficult to believe that the person I was looking at in the mirror was the owner of this voice that was coming through. Because I didn’t feel that person matched the beauty of the voice.
And that, for me, was – what’s that word; epiphany.
It was an epiphany for me, and I kind of realized that this voice was something special; and that’s when I decided that I’d better take care of it. So all these years, you know, losing the weight and keeping it down and exercising and watching what you eat …
And continuing to take voice lessons.
And continuing to take voice lessons with my dear kumu leo, Neva Rego, who I love to pieces. Both Roland and I went to Neva at a time where our voices were beginning to fade a bit. We weren’t aware of it. Well, maybe we were, and that’s why we went. But she added so much to what we needed to remember and do. And still does, you know. I don’t go as often as I used to, but she has spies. And they’ll come, and they’ll see us, and they’ll call her. And then she’ll call me and she’ll go, Roberto …
Can you come see Auntie Neva?
And it’s all about getting the best of your voice at any time in your life.
Yeah, and to keep it going. You know. My doctor, Kalani Brady, who is also a student of Neva’s – you know, we’re all kinda like intertwined. So there’s Neva and me, and there’s Kalani, and there’s Roland, and all of us, and stuff like this, and they always say to me, you know, This is something special; you have to take care of it; we’re gonna help you the best we can. So it’s an obligation too, you know.
You mentioned the beauty of your voice, which is so true. How do you look at that? Do you see that as a gift you take care of, or do you think uh, of something you created, or …
No; I think it was a gift. I really do. And I find that as I get older now, and as much as I love to sing, I think singing makes me beautiful. I also think that it’s one of the most honest and scariest things that I do in my life. Because when I’m on stage, or I’m at home, or at a cousin’s party, and if I’m singing, it is the most honest I could possibly be. I am as wide open as a book; and you can read all the chapters, ‘cause nothing [chuckle] nothing’s been blocked, or censored. It’s just honestly, blatantly there.
Well, funny you should say that. Because I was reviewing what’s been written about you over the years, but, you know, I didn’t really see a lot about who you are. Just what you do. Is that because you keep it close?
Yeah. You know, it’s not that I do that conscientiously; it’s just, I’ve always felt when we were talking to anybody, being interviewed, you know, that has a game plan. We’re talking about the CD, we’re talking about this May Day concert, we’re talking about entering Merrie Monarch and why we’re doing it. And so I did that. You know. Someday, someone will. And maybe it’ll happen; I’m not real sure.
I mean, well, you could do it now.
[chuckle] I would just like to know what drives you, what moves you, what …
I think, first of all, my family. And my kupuna, the ancestors, and the fact that I feel that the – my heaviest obligation is to make them proud. To not make them embarrassed. Because – and I’ve said this before, and I love this image. That even as I’m here speaking to you, there are thousands of people behind me right now. Some I know, and some I don’t.
From generations back? From generations before, from countries that I don’t even know about; they’re just here. And you don’t want them rolling your eyes.
Their eyes. [chuckle]
Yeah; uh-huh. Or this thing; [clucks tongue]. You know how local people do that [clucks tongue] thing. And that would just kill me. But they’re all here, and I feel an obligation towards them, and you, and our people and this land. And then I think if I’m gonna do that, then I have to have an obligation to my health. Even as last night, I’m at a restaurant eating stuff that maybe I shouldn’t have, you know. I didn’t have the dessert, but okay, I had the pasta. And then when it comes to the hula, I have an obligation to my teacher and to my students. And I just want to be good for them. I want to really be good for them. And if it means that my personal life – my personal life does not suffer from anything; it suffers from me, if I want it to suffer. Okay. But my personal is really the family. And it’s a real broad use of the word family, because it encompasses the ones that I’m related to by blood, and those that I’m related to by heart. And it just keeps getting bigger. Sometimes I feel like I have no control over this; and at the same time, maybe I’m not supposed to. So I live my life now in a – I love to say this; a perpetual state of gratitude. I wake up every morning, and I just say thank you to everybody, and everything. You know, we’re from Kohala, on the Big Island.
North Kohala. My mom is from Hawi, and my dad’s from Niulii. And my mother used to say, When you go to Hawaii Island, she says, you must say hello to everyone – the people, the rocks, the ocean, the trees; because they’re related to all of us. You know. It’s how I feel with uh, with everybody that we meet now, you know. That there is a purpose, and nothing is by accident; that I’m there to learn the lessons that are happening. And that I’m really, really grateful.
It’s been such a long haul for Hawaiians, who still populate our prisons and are represented on the poverty lists and many haven’t had access to Hawaiian homelands. I mean, how do you see the Hawaiian condition today?
Oh, I think it’s appalling. At the same time, though, I’m one of the lucky ones, you know, who Hawaiians will look at me and say well, sometimes they’ll say, you know, You sold out. I don’t – I’m not so sure how I did that; I was just working. But the other they say is, you know, I want to be like you. And I’m thinking, Oh, I don’t know whether you want to do that eit You know. But if I can help in any way I can and I think of Don Ho. ‘Cause he said to me one night when we were at you know, he used to go to McCully Chop Suey all the time.
M-hm; at 3:00 a.m. [chuckle]
Yeah, yeah; there you are. Okay; order all that food.
And Don said to me; he says, You know, when people ask for money, I give them money, our people. He said, Are you gonna do the same thing? I said, I don’t know that I can give them money, but I’m gonna give them what I can. You know. And if it’s the voice, or if it’s just being there then I’ll do it.
Do you what you can with what you have.
Yeah. Yeah. God, I can’t believe I said some of that stuff.
I forgot Don Ho used to go to McCully Chop Suey in the middle of the night. No, but it’s true; you’ve got to decide you know, how far you’re willing to go, and how much you’re willing to give.
Yeah. And you cannot just talk it; if you said something already, you know, people remember. They can go back now – especially with the internet; they can go back and see what I said 20 years ago. [chuckle]
Yeah. Well, that’s interesting. He was trying to get you to do the same thing he was doing.
Yeah. Yeah. And you know, Don was one of our greatest supporters.
Wow. He didn’t feel a competitive deal?
No. He just liked what we did. And his mother liked us. So you know, it’s a Hawaiian thing. You know.
You’re a local girl; you understand that.
You know, I used to always say I don’t know that I would go to war for the United States of America. I don’t know that I would kill someone for the United States of America. But if they’re threatening Hawaii I would stand out front. And years ago, we had this – there was a kue. there was a march of all Hawaiians. It started at the Aloha Tower, and it came up to the Palace. Several – Ala, myself. Mapuana, maybe Vicky; we were there at the front, and our job – Manu. We were to chant all these people as we came in, continuously; it was to be hours and hours of our chanting these people in. And just before they were gonna open the gate, someone had told us that there might be something happening. That would include, you know, guns and stuff like this. And Roland had told Ala; If anything happens, you grab my brother, and you folks go in here. And you can talk the talk but if you can’t walk the walk, then what’s the purpose of it? I said, You know, if anything is gonna happen, then it’s meant to happen, and I’m putting it out there right now. So if anything happens, I ain’t going; I’m staying right here. I think it’s how you – when you believe in something, whether it’s our world, or peace or just another person, we have to do what is best for ourselves, and hope that it’s best for everyone too.
You know, you mentioned that lyrics really speak to you in song. What are the most beautiful lyrics that you sing, and in what language are they?
Well, there’s – if I had to pick an English song it would be two. One would be David Gates from Bread – he wrote a song called If. And my favorite line in that song is, And when my life and when my love for life is running dry, you come and pour yourself on me. When I sing that line, it’s like, to me, the heavens open up, and I am just drenched with all this love from the people who know me. The other one is from Carousel, I think. If I loved you, da-da longing to tell you, but afraid and shy I let my golden chances pass me by. And I’ve let many a golden chance pass me by. But there’s no regret. You can’t have regrets; I refuse to have regrets.
What about in Hawaiian?
In Hawaiian, too many; too many. You know, for me, the most simplest things have the deepest meanings. So oh, gee; god, what’s the – there are so many. I can’t even think of – okay, there’s a song what was written by Lei Collins, and it’s called – they call it Kealoha. And it goes, [sings]. In the third verse, it says [sings]. That I become very relaxed and I am comfortable when the scent of my lover is present. I love that line. Because no one knows that scent, except you, you know. And whether they’re there with you or not, physically, that scent that you remember can put them right in front of you. And I think that’s powerful; that’s – you know. And then another one is from Pua Ahihi, written by Kawena, and it says [sings] No, no, no, no. There’s this one verse, and it talks about there’s a flower, okay, so it’s you know Lanihuli? Lanihuli is that mountain there at the Pali; when you’re standing at the Pali lookout, it’s the one on the left hand side. And what it says is that you’re – this person that you love is like a lehua flower up there, but it is pretty much unreachable. And the reason that person is unreachable is because you put that person there. That that’s how much your love is extended to the fact that you would take this person that you love, and put them so high out of reach that it’s worth the love. That’s what it means to me.
Beautiful lyrics, lovely sentiments. Speaking of sentiments, I’d like to thank our viewers who’ve sent kind thoughts and encouraging words as PBS Hawaii works to deliver quality, local programming that inspires, informs and entertains. Mahalo to you and to Robert Cazimero for sharing your time and joining me for this L S S . I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.
You know, we’ve lost some just treasures of Hawaiian music, and just recently too.
And of course, you know that you’ve earned a place in that vaulted place; I mean, you’re already there, where you’re a treasure. Do you ever think about how people will receive news sometime long from now, I hope, when you pass away? I think that’s why I work so hard when we do an album to make sure that it’s the best that it can be. Because really, it’s that music that’s immortal. It’s not this; it’s that music. So I try hard, and I wonder how they’ll receive it. You know, I wonder.
Original air date: Tues., Feb. 2, 2008
Fashion Designer of “Kimono Couture”
Anne Namba is the creator of a fashion line blending vintage Japanese fabrics and contemporary fashion, “kimono couture.” Her brand, Anne Namba Designs, is being picked up nationally by Nordstrom’s and is featured in other select Mainland stores. Anne graduated from Kalani High School and went on to the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. After stints in the garment industry in New York and L.A., Anne started her own business.
Aloha no, I’m Leslie Wilcox welcoming you to another episode of Long Story Short. This one is a little different. Usually I’m getting to know the guest at the same time you are. But this time, our guest is someone I happen to have grown up with. Used to hang out at her home with her family, saw her go through school, boyfriends, marriage, major career moves. So I already know her— and I also know she’s full of surprises. Anne Namba is the creator of a fashion line blending vintage Japanese fabrics and contemporary fashion, “kimono couture.” Her brand, Anne Namba Designs, is being picked up nationally by Nordstrom’s and is featured in other select Mainland stores. Anne graduated from Kalani High School and went on to the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. After stints in the garment industry in New York and L.A., Anne started her own business.
When I met you, you were in third grade; I was in fifth. And you showed up at Aina Haina Elementary School with your sister—wearing an—you were so exotic, because you were carrying your books in a bag and the strap was on your forehead. It was a woven tribal bag. And everyone took about five second looks, if you can do such a thing.
Yeah. Okay; exotic would not be the correct term. I was like nerd. I was like weirdo. That’s ‘cause we had just come back from living in Thailand. And those were like our little book bags. And they were actually these ethnic bags from Thailand. And my mother was like, These are perfect to carry your books in. So that’s how you carried ‘em, was on your head, so you didn’t get shoulder, you know, aches or anything. So we did that. Oh, my god.
I can’t remember the year, but we were young, and you and I took sewing classes together. Your first formal sewing class.
That’s right. Yeah; that was—I think it was yeah, it was soon after. I know I wanted to learn how to sew, and so Nodie came too.
My sister, Nodie, and you were there and Tammy Higa was there. And yeah, you guys were terrible; I remember that.
I don’t remember that part; not at all.
Oh, you were terrible.
Well, you were about twelve. And is that—did you discover that you were so much better than the rest of us?
Well, I just loved it. I loved it, and it came natural—you know, very natural—
Did you know before that, that you’d be good at it?
Well, I think my mom will be horrified by this story. But it’s true. Because I was the second daughter, I got all of my older sister’s hand-me-downs. And I never had my own clothes. So the only way to get my own clothes was to actually make them, which is why I wanted to learn how to sew. And so I remember my grandmother died, my Japanese grandmother died, and she had one of those really old fashioned sewing machines that you pumped the pedal and it would go. And so I just started fooling around. I found some fabric, and I made this little outfit, not knowing what I was doing. And my mother saw that, and she was like, Oh, maybe you need to take sewing lessons. I’m like, Oh, yeah, I’d love it. So that’s when I started doing it. And Nodie started wearing all of my clothes, so everyone thought that they were her clothes, and I was still wearing her hand-me-downs. So then I started renting them to her, which was my whole entrepreneurial start, so—
How much did you charge her?
I can’t remember, but it was in high school. ‘Cause I’m going, That’s not fair. I buy the fabric, I make the outfit, and then you wear it like it’s your clothes, and everyone just assumes that I’m wearing your old clothes.
Well, I remember at a certain point in that class, I was trying to follow the lines of my Simplicity pattern. And I looked over at you and you weren’t even using a pattern. You were just free-forming it.
Yeah; I remember you would pin everything, like every inch apart. I was like, Oh, my god.
And you would just be done. Like, what’s she still working on? And you would design your own clothes at that point.
Yeah; I started off by just like altering a pattern, or you know. And then I used to go to India Imports and buy the bedspreads there, and—you know, ‘cause that was the hippie days, and make, you know, our long sort of muumuu things. And then people started asking me to sew it for them, so that’s when I started doing that and charging money. So I started way back when.
Was that natural for you, the idea of the—you know, the creative part and the commerce part?
Oh, absolutely. I was like, I’m not doing this for free.
But tough, right? Because so many people asked you to do favors, and Anne could you help me with this.
Yeah. I still to this day have a hard time saying no.
Your family was very supportive of you in this business.
Yeah; yeah. They always—you know, when I announced that I wanted to be a fashion designer, it was like, oh. But they supported me all the way, and you know when I think back now, my parents, you know, they had to scrape together money to send me away to New York to go to school. And you know, back then, you just think, Well, that’s what I want to do, of course they’re gonna pay for it.
Because your father was a professor, he believed in higher ed.
Would he have liked you to have been a scientist like he is?
Oh, they knew that that was never a possibility. In fact, they saved some of my old reports cards. And my kids were shocked. They’re all like, Mom, you got Ds? It’s like, but look at Art; it’s A’s.
Picked the right job.
So you went away to New York, and was that like for you?
I remember um, when I first landed in New York—and nowadays, you know, parents take kids on college tours, and they set them up. I just got there, and got out of the train station with all my suitcases, and some man comes up and said, Do you need a cab? And I’m like, Yeah. And he picked up my bags and just took off through Madison Square Gardens. And I’m following him; he takes me to the curb, and he hails a cab for me. And I was like, Oh, I thought he was a cab driver. And then he asked me for a tip. And I was just like, Oh; what? And then the cab driver starts yelling at him for doing that, ‘cause he was scamming me. So the cab driver and this guy then start fist fighting on the street. And then I’m just watching in horror. And then he yells at me; he says, Get in the cab. So I get in the cab, and I’m just like going, I just want to go to FIT, you know, just to the school. I was in shock. I was like, Oh, my god, this is New York. And then I got there and decided I was gonna go—there was a bagel shop, and I wanted to get a sandwich. And everyone’s in there, shouting out their orders, and I’m politely standing, waiting and waiting. And finally, the bagel guy looks at me and he goes, You gonna order, or what? And I was like, Oh, I’m sorry. So that was my very first hour in New York City.
You realized, I’d better ratchet up my—
I was like, Oh, wow.
–confidence level here.
Well, by the time I visited you—and this was in the 80’s—you were working in the fashion industry, Radio City Music Hall. Right?
You were costuming the dancers
That’s right; that’s right.
I remember thinking, What’s happened to Anne? Because you walked—
Oh, I know.
–about five times faster than you ever had, and we were just walking. We weren’t going to any particular place.
I thought, Where are they?
You talked faster, and you were very proactive in dealing with people. You know, just combative, as a matter of fact, as I recall.
Yeah; back—oh, back then—well, especially in fashion, and in school too, it’s really a super competitive field. So you have to— you can be intimidated; you gotta just get out there and—
Did that come naturally for you?
No. I was shy. Remember? I was really shy as a kid. So yeah, I don’t know what happened along the way.
But was it hard, or do you just remember thinking, This is what I have to do, therefore it’s what I’ll do?
No; it was hard. I remember feeling like a country bumpkin when I first got up there, and not being sophisticated, not knowing anything, not being fashionable, not being able to buy the latest you know, fashion.
Did you think you were gonna cut it? Did you think you might not make it?
I never thought that I wasn’t gonna be a fashion designer; I always thought that’s—you know, I’m gonna work in fashion. But I never thought I would be where I am today. I didn’t have that in my fantasies.
What did you think you would do with your degree once you got out of this prestigious fashion school?
I thought I would just be probably designing for you know, companies in New York City. And that someday I might be able to, you know, design for, you know, one of the big—you know, Calvin Klein or something like that. And to me, that would have been like, wow. But then, you know, of course, I burnt out of the city and and left, so—
What did you think when you were leaving the city? Did you think—
Oh, you were glad to go?
I was like, Oh—
And what next?
Well, I moved to L.A. because I thought there’s a good fashion center there, so I moved to LA. And then at that point, I still did not want my own company. So I moved there, and I wanted to get into costuming again. But it’s so tough; that industry is really, really a hard industry to get into. And I fell back into the garment district, into the—actually producing overseas. So that started a whole ‘nother interest in overseas and producing over there. And then naively thought, you know, Oh, my bosses are a bunch of jokers, they don’t know what they’re doing. You know. I just thought, pff, I’m doing all the work here, I might as well open my own business and—you know, very naively. Because running a business and designing stuff is completely—it’s a lot more than just designing pretty clothes. And so I moved back to Honolulu, because I thought, Well, at least if it doesn’t work out, I have a roof over my head, and I know that my family will feed me. So I moved back to Hawaii, and worked here for about a year, just to sort of get the climate, figure out resources, and how it all works here, which is a lot slower.
Yeah; I noticed you started walking more slowly again. And talking more slowly.
And then I started my business. And it’s been great.
And you did literally start your business under your parents’ roof.
Yup. I got the old bedroom, and I updated the—my grandmother’s sewing machine, though. And just—I was a one-man show. I did everything myself.
Anne launched a boutique in 1989 and Anne Namba Designs was born. Despite being what she terms a “one man show” during those early days of the business, Anne credits family members for their unwavering support. More on that as our conversation continues.
Must be a thrill to hear when somebody is wearing an Anne Namba.
The first time I heard my name used in that way, like, Oh, I wore my Anne Namba, and I’m like, Wait, that’s me. What do you mean you wore my Anne Namba? You know. And now, you know, I’ll just say, Oh, I’m gonna wear an Anne Namba. And so I’m very used to it now.
I remember your dad liked to help you pick the models.
That is my dad’s main objective with all my shows.
And your mom is very long-suffering. Kind of rolls her eyes, and smiles.
No; all the models know that if my dad doesn’t like them they don’t get hired again. So they all make sure to say, Hello, Dr. Namba, whenever he comes to my shows.
You had to find a niche for yourself when you got back home.
How did how did Eurasian clothes get to you? How did that idea get planted?
Well I think a lot of it had to do with the influence of always traveling, seeing different cultures, seeing different fabrics which—I love Japanese fabric; love the kimono, the culture, the food, everything. And so I was very taken with the fabric and the kimono, but you can’t really wear a kimono, ‘cause either you look like you’re wearing a costume or a bathrobe. And so I decided, since I had the background of fashion and how do to, you know, Western contemporary style clothing and flattering lines, that I would incorporate the two. And it’s nothing new; people had been doing it before. But you know, I have a different sort of take on it than—you know, everyone has their own sort of individual take. You know, and then slowly got into doing my own prints, because I’m running out of kimonos.
I was gonna ask you; where did you get all the kimono that you used, and how was that taken in Japan? Are they wild about you cutting up kimonos?
Actually, they’re starting to do it now.
You see a lot more of it happening.
Were they doing that at the time you started?
No; no, not at all. In fact, they would be just like, Why are you using that old stuff? And they would not themselves buy it, because it’s almost looked upon, back then, as you couldn’t afford new clothes so you had to remake one of your old kimonos. Nowadays, though, again, you see a lot of the younger generation. I was shopping some of the stores the last time I was there, and you’re seeing Japanese labels, jeans with kimono pockets and patches on it. So things are changing. I have a lot of Chinese influence too, and some of my prints are Chinese inspired, as well as styles. I did one whole collection once for a showing that I did that was all based on Chinese different dynasties. And I researched it and did that whole thing.
That must be fun, the research. Historical research.
Oh, yeah. Yeah; yeah. It’s a lot of fun.
Now, you said you’re getting into prints too.
I’ve been doing prints for a long time, actually. If you have your own fabric, then you can mass produce the styles. So I started doing that, oh, gosh, quite a while ago. And right now, that’s my main wholesale collection.
Who designs your fabrics?
My nephew. He started—that’s Nodie’s son. And he started when he was like fifteen; he’s really talented artist, and so I started having him do some artwork for me. And nowadays, it’s all done on the computer. So you know, we’ll discuss ideas, and I’ll look at things, and you know, if I don’t like a color, you know, he presses a button, it’s, How’s that? It’s much different today.
And he designed the fabric you’re wearing now?
What are women most concerned about when they dress, in general?
Well, my mission statement is to make every women look taller, thinner, and I just added younger, now that I can relate.
How do you do that, though? Just the cut of the—
The cut, yeah. You know, you don’t want dowdy cuts. You know, you try to keep it modern, but wearable for people that don’t have the most—you know, the perfect body. And it’s funny that, you know, if you have a certain flattering style on people, and you know how to achieve it, then when they put on the garment, they’re like, I love it. And they don’t know particularly why, but they love the cut.
It must be frustrating, ‘cause sometimes you probably want to design for fashion model types who can wear anything. And you have to be realistic and design for people who are regular folks.
Actually, for me, I—mostly because I’m not built like a model, I always design with myself in mind. Like, what would I want to wear. And naturally, you know, I want to look taller, slimmer, younger, so I’ll do that. And when the models put it on, I just see that as like, you know, icing on the cake. It’s just like, oh, well, they’re just so tall and thin. So I don’t design for model figures at all, and I never have. And it’s just when they throw it on and it’s that much better, then you know, that’s great. But you know, I’ll have women that say, Well, of course it looks good on her, she’s six feet tall and size, you know, zero. But I’m like, No, it’s not true. If you put it on—it’s actually too big on her, but you know, that’s her job to make it look better. And put it on, ‘cause it’ll look good on you too. And I was just approached by another store for—to do plus sizes. So now I might expand into that.
Yeah. So is there a new area of the business you’re going to be moving into, or are you gonna be at this level for a while? How’s it working?
Well, at this point, for me to expand in my wholesale division, that’s the easiest, ‘cause I contract everything out. So the hard part is designing the fabric, designing the collection, and then getting it produced. Once I do that, I can up my numbers. And so I could say, Cut 50 of these, or cut 500. It’s just adding more numbers.
That could be an exponential move then.
Yeah; yeah. And it wouldn’t be that much more for us to do; it’s just upping the numbers when we order things. So we’re looking at that. Aother division of mine that is just going gangbusters is my bridal division. And that started out as you know, client coming in; Oh, my daughter’s getting married, why don’t you make a dress. And well, 500 people came to her wedding, and they all—you know, it was great advertising. So now we’re going gangbusters with our bridal.
What do women look for in bridal dresses when they come to you? What do they want?
They want the Asian, you know, influence look. A lot of the girls want to have that. Different fabric, something you know, some of ‘em, you know, it reflects their heritage. Just something—you know, a lot of times, they want something simple, but really different. And so when they come to us, then you know, that’s what they get. We custom make all of our gowns for our brides.
So I understand you’re gonna be appearing across the nation in a particular store. Something new is happening?
Yes; yes. I am, well, I’m participating in the new Nordstrom store, so we’re just going gangbusters getting all the collections ready for them. And of course that goes nationwide. So that’s big.
That’s huge. How much do you think that’ll add to your business in percentage?
Gosh; you know, like I said, I got a D in math, so I don’t know; that’s why I have my husband. Marriage is a business.
Another family member helping—
Yes; yes, yes.
–in the business and being a resource.
Yes; so we do and I’m using my daughter as a model now. So yeah. So we have lots of nepotism.
And it works for you.
What do your kids take away from your running a business and being a fashion designer, do you think?
Well, I hope that they don’t think that life is all about stress. That’s really what I hope they—you know, they don’t do. ‘Cause you know, I worry that—a lot of times, I’m like, Mom’s had a bad day, I’m really stressed. And I don’t want them to think that’s what running a business is about. So I try to watch that, but a lot of times, I know I’m, How was your day, Mom. It’s like, [GROWL]. I think I—well, I constantly remind them that it is a business, so it can go up and down. And in fact, I’ve tried to get—my daughter has done a little bit of her own business. And this is just—you know, I’m trying to get her to have an entrepreneurial spirit, and to realize that if you work hard, and you know, you try to use your head about things and you know, if you have a little bit of talent and you just figure out how to take advantage of it, you know, that you can make money. And so she’s been making money off of little things too. And so I think she’s gonna be able to—and she wants to go into fashion and into business, so I think she’s gotten that from the business, and she really enjoys that part of it. She’s a great salesperson too, so—
Were there times where you wanted to rethink the whole business, or when it was really difficult to decide where to go next with it?
No. Actually, once I started, I never thought—I mean, before I started, I thought, well, you know, no guts, no glory, right, and I can always get a job. So—why not? And started doing it, and I never once said, I want to give up, or this isn’t working, or I rather work for somebody. Never, ever. But then I’ve just been really lucky, and things have been going really well for me. So—
And you’ve seen other fashion businesses lose their way.
Yeah. Yeah; come and go. But you know, I’ve been able to sort of market my look, the image, and you know, create a good image. And just keep on top of things. Although my body’s starting to revolt.
Speaking of that, you’ve done triathlons.
I know; that was like, my daughter calls it my midlife crisis. So she just said, All of a sudden, Mom decided to do triathlons, so—
Well, was it all of a sudden? I mean, were you ready?
Yeah. Yeah; no, I just thought, Oh, I can do that, that sounds like fun. And so I did it. And of course, now I have arthritis in my knees and tendonitis in my arms and—
And now you don’t do those three events anymore?
No; I—yeah, I had to give up running. So then I started swimming and biking, and then now I can’t swim anymore, so today I’m gonna try and do a spinning class. And I walk in the mornings, and I used to make fun of people that walked for the exercise, and now that’s what I’m doing.
Several times now, I think you’ve paddled to Kalalau along the Na Pali Coastline of Kauai, which is rough, there are no lifeguards around to save you if you get into trouble. It’s about a 27-mile paddle from the beginning to the end.
Well, we’ve done that now every year for, oh my goodness, maybe five, six years. And it’s my spiritual renewal. And it’s where we go and we sleep on the beach, and we have to pump our own water, and we look and you know, bathe in the waterfall. But we hike every day, and for me, that is just getting back to nature and realizing that in this world, you are very small. And then all of a sudden, it just doesn’t really matter that the color was slightly, you know, too yellow—or you know.
And the main fashion garment is the pareau, right? Because you can wear it, you can towel off on it.
Yes. You sleep on it. You can—yeah. You can do everything with it.
The wilderness trips, the camping; that doesn’t jive with your image as this fashion designer who’s just perfect at your shows.
I know. I remember when one year we came back from Kalalau; and this was after being a week on the beach, right? And we came direct from the beach to the airport. And as I was checking in, the guy looks at my ID and he starts to laugh, and he goes, Hey, you have the same name as the fashion designer. I went like, Oh, yeah. And another time, I was up at a waterfall, and I don’t know how it got out, but this guy there that works for advertising found out that I was there. And he goes, Oh, Anne, I always to meet you, and so I was a little embarrassed of the way I looked. So I thought, I’m just gonna be cool, like I’m cool, you know, I’m in nature, and so what if I look like this. So I was like, Oh, yeah, and I was doing my whole, you know, I’m nature too, and all that. And then all of a sudden, I’m talking to him, and one of the lenses from my sunglasses popped out and fell on the ground. And then I completely lost it. And I was like, Don’t tell anyone you saw me here.
Do you think your position number two in a family of four kids—you know, they always talk about birth number being important somehow.
Yes. I think I was ignored as the middle child. Because—
Well, we know about the hand-me-downs.
Yes, Leslie. And you know, my older sister, she got all the new stuff, and she got to do things first. And then my younger brother was the baby, so he got babied. And the middle child always gets ignored.
But it seems to have worked out for you.
Yeah. I just like to use it.
The middle child has done very well for herself. I’ve overheard women saying with pride ‘I’m wearing an Anne Namba.’ Anne’s clientele has grown to include Elizabeth Taylor, Aretha Franklin, Hillary Clinton, Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi and many women throughout Hawaii. It was fun sharing stories with this successful Hawaii entrepreneur, creative force, and good friend – Anne Namba. But, as always, we have to keep this long story short. Mahalo for joining me. I’m Leslie Wilcox with PBS Hawaii. A hui hou kakou!
We lived in Thailand and Iran, and then just—
You lived in Iran when you were a kid.
Yes. That’s right.
What was it like?
You know, it was really fun back then ‘cause it was the Shah, and you know, we rode horses, and we went to a private little school and it was great fun; international school. And it was great back then.
Your dad was a professor from the University on sabbatical.
Right; and you know, he was basically, you know, looking for different experiences to do, and we went as a family. And so we all sort of got the travel bug and just curiosity in other cultures. I think it was just sort of you know, you grow up around it.
Original air date: Tues., Jun. 11, 2013
Finding the Light
Leslie Wilcox talks with fashion designer Ariyaphon Southiphong, formerly Andy South. In the first of two episodes, Ari talks about growing up in Waianae, Oahu, discovering fashion as a career choice and landing a spot on the fashion competition show, Project Runway. As Andy, he maintained keen focus on school projects and clothing design, with questions about gender identity lingering on the backburner. In 2012, Andy changed his name to Ari and now identifies as a transgendered female.
Original air date: Tues., July 9, 2013
A Life Redesigned
In the second of two episodes, fashion designer Ariyaphon Southiphong (formerly Andy South) talks about her transition to becoming a transgendered female through hormone replacement therapy. Ari elaborates on the challenges her transition has presented and the insight it has given her, both personally and professionally.
Part 1: Finding the Light
My name is Ariyaphon, Ari for short. And my mom renamed me. I asked her to, because it was very important for me to remain connected with my family, to remain connected with my mom. Ariyaphon means the blessing of radiant light, or the power of radiant light.
Which definition did you pick?
The meaning that she would have spelled it was, the blessing of radiant light. And the spelling that I chose translates Ariyaphon to the power of radiating light.
Honolulu fashion designer Ariyaphon Southipong, former the man known as Andy South, next on Long Story Short.
Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.
Aloha; I’m Leslie Wilcox. Ariyaphon Southiphong is one of Hawaii’s most recognized young fashion designers. Name doesn’t ring a bell? You may know her better as Andy South. In 2010, Andy South was a top-three finalist on Lifetime Television’s fashion reality show, Project Runway. In 2012, a year before our conversation, Andy changed his name to Ari and began his transition to becoming a female. A child of Laotian immigrants, Ari, then Andy, grew up far from the glamour of fashion and television. Born in Kailua on Oahu’s windward coast, Andy lived with his parents, his sister, half-sister, and two half-brothers. Andy’s parents had a tumultuous marriage. By the time Andy reached the third grade, his parents had split, his mother remarried, and the family moved to the other side of Oahu, to Waianae.
And what prompted the move to Waianae?
What kind of farming?
Catfish farming. Catfish, and sunfish which is —
It’s a fancy word for tilapia. But yeah, so freshwater sunfish, freshwater Chinese catfish. When we first started, we actually did an above-ground tank in our back yard in Kailua, and it leaked into the neighbor’s yard. It was a huge ordeal with us running into a lot of issues. It was also our test period, right, of trying to farm raise fish and see if it would be viable for us to actually do it as a business. We eventually moved out to Waianae, and I lived there most of my life, actually.
What brought your parents to Hawaii?
A better future, quintessential immigrant parents. But more so in my mom’s case, it was specifically … she had actually come here with her first husband, who is the father to my three eldest siblings, who are half siblings for me. But they came as college students, and it was also to escape Communism. My mother, youngest of five girls, daughter to a governor. So, when the whole government was overturned, they were actually warned to leave the country, or they would have eventually been killed if they were ever caught. So, that was their reason for leaving.
Is there an exciting escape story?
No. [CHUCKLE] College. [CHUCKLE] So, they didn’t have any —
Yeah; college visas. And at the time, they were actually coming back and forth to Hawaii for college at the University of Hawaii. And it just so happened that things with the government weren’t going well, and so, eventually, Mom based herself here and slowly, everybody was sent over, starting with the kids. So, all of my twenty-plus cousins have gone through my mom’s household, when they were in their teens going to high school, starting college. And then, their parents made their way over.
So, your mom was a privileged daughter of a governor, to struggling catfish farmer in Waianae.
Yeah; basically. My mom would talk a lot about her growing up in Laos, and a lot of things that she … I guess, throughout our lives, growing up as farmers, she would reminisce sometimes about the easier times when life wasn’t so hard, basically.
She had somebody tending to her all the time.
Exactly; yeah. But I love when people reminisce. I love old stories. I love speaking to older people. I just think that life is so interesting in the way that the stories are all different, and then you realize it’s how they have come out of situations, or how they turn situations o benefit from, and to turn them into blessings, as opposed to letting it kill them.
So, you’ve always kind of been attuned to coping skills?
Yes; I think so.
M-hm. And I learned that all from my mom. And my mom still is the hero that I have, which I think a lot of people can say that their mother is their hero, or their father is their hero. I think for every child, it’s very deep for different reasons. And for me, it’s because I’ve watched my mom be the strong woman that she is, and I’ve seen her in her weak moments. You know. But even in that, she had shown such great strength by not letting it show.
Growing up as the boy known then as Andy Southiphong, Andy found his mother’s lesson of resilience to be a valuable and recurring one, as childhood teasing led to bigger questions.
Do you remember some of the early things that you had to use resilience to overcome when you were a kid?
[CHUCKLE] A lot of teasing.
About what? What kind of teasing? Regular kind?
Yeah, well, a lot of regular teasing, which is kids being kids. I obviously wasn’t the popular kid growing up. I wasn’t athletic. I was actually a lot heavier when I was a child, so I was teased a lot for, one, my weight, for me being just naturally effeminate as a boy.
Did that bother you?
It did, but I never let it get me down. Because I think I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of mentors throughout my life, and they’ve been my teachers, a lot of my instructors.
What did the teachers say, or how did they let you know everything’s okay?
I guess it was the positive feedback that I was getting from them for my work, and for me being a good student. For them constantly telling me, You’re gonna go far. And even in elementary, that matters so much to the development of a child. Because had they not been that positive with me — and I don’t think they ever knew that I would get teased or that it bothered. I was never bullied, per se. I never was picked on, but you have other students in your class of how many really rowdy boys, and you don’t fit in with the boys. And then, if you play with the girls, that’s more reason for you to get teased, right?
Did you try to sound less effeminate?
Growing up, I did, throughout high school. It started to matter more as I grew older, and as I reached high school. Because that, I guess, is … you start to really decide who you are.
Or it’s decided for you?
Yeah; it’s decided for you based on the opinions of your peers. And I tried to; I took a weightlifting class as an elective. But I don’t think I’m the correct person to go to weightlifting.
And did you talk roughly? [CHUCKLE]
[CHUCKLE] I’m pretty sure. There were a lot of moments that I tried to. Locker room situations were awkward, because a lot of people just gathered and assumed that I was gay, and they would voice that. And so, from early on, that’s when I was like, Okay, maybe I am.
Did you know you were gay?
I did. Well, I knew that I wasn’t straight. That’s the thing. And the closest thing that I knew of to what I really am was being gay.
But you didn’t think that quite hit it?
No; never. And that’s the thing, and maybe that was the reason. That was probably the reason why I never fully accepted it. I didn’t come out to my mom ‘til I was twenty-one. Among my gay friends, my other gay male friends, I never felt like I … I still didn’t fit in. Something internally just wasn’t right. After high school, in college, I actually met more gay friends. Going out to the clubs more, meeting more of the community, that I started to meet transgender women and transgender men, drag queens or cross-dressers, that I started to realize that there’s much more to the community, than just being gay or straight, or bisexual or gay or straight. And it started to open my eyes, because then I started to get to know them. I started to get to know people for who they are. That’s never something that I allowed myself to do before, because I was so focused on school, focused on my career. And that’s how I am. When I was in college, everything was school-school-school. I was sewing all the time, I was doing extra projects, ‘cause that was my focus. And it could have been a distraction.
That’s what I was gonna ask you.
Do you think you did that as an escape from questions about identity, which are central to any young person. It’s who are you? What am I evolving into?
Who will I be, who am I now?
Well, ‘cause I knew that I had a talent that was received positively. So, I think that’s why I was always drawing, I was always creating. In high school, I always loved the big projects, the projects that every other kid hated. I loved building. We had to build these huge insects at one point, we had to make cell models. And I loved it. I spent all my money, all my allowance at craft supply stores. And on the weekends and on the school breaks, I would stay home and watch Home and Garden Television, and all these craft shows that I loved, and I started dabbling in quilting. And my mom taught me needlepoint when I was very young, so that’s where I got a lot of my initial sewing skills from. But that was my way of putting my best forward, because I knew that that was something that was very positive in me.
And were you consciously thinking, there’s other things I have to pursue, but I just can’t get to that right now?
I don’t know what it is, but something’s up with me.
Yeah; always. That’s always been in the back of my mind.
The former man known as Andy Southiphong set aside questions about identity and instead focused on finding a career that would play to his creative strength. During his senior year at Waianae High School, Andy fell in love with a career option he had not previously considered.
All those career days, and nobody mentioned fashion?
No; not at all, not in Waianae. And it wasn’t until I went to a State college fair at the Blaisdell that I found a connection with it being creative and seeing what you create being taken to a commercial sense, and being sold and being worn, and actually being utilized every day. For art to have a purpose; that was really, really interesting to me. To see something that you create become something functional in the real world. And so, after that college fair, I decided that I wanted to do fashion. That’s why I say it was serendipitous, because had I not gone to that career fair, I wouldn’t have realized that it was possible.
What were you looking for at the career fair? Did you have something in mind?
At the time, I was in culinary arts. And before that, it was architecture and mechanical drawing, and I had taken classes in both throughout high school as electives. And that’s because I loved being in the home, I loved to cook, I loved to do crafts with my mom. And so, I was trying to find something that was something that I loved. You’re told that you should do …
Build on what you know; right?
Yeah; build on what you know, choose to do something that you love, so that you’re happy.
Not long after that serendipitous discovery, Andy Southiphong branded himself as Andy South and enrolled in the fashion technology program at Honolulu Community College. He gained a reputation for designing edgy couture gowns. Several years after graduating, serendipity found Andy once more.
I think you were only twenty-three when you got yourself on Project Runway.
How did that happen?
I went through an audition process. I had gotten a call while I was at work, and it was the casting agent for Project Runway, who had gotten my number from someone else. And they said that, We called a few people locally in the area, and they all had you at the top of their list to contact to audition. So, they invited me to audition. And even then, it was maybe a week before the deadline, and I was like, I don’t know. I had already looked into the audition process, I looked at the deadlines.
Was it a lot to do? Did you have to make something?
[SIGH] It was a lot of prep. Because you have to submit a portfolio, a digital portfolio, and you have to do a three to five-minute audition video, fill out the application, which I believe was twenty-some-odd pages. A lot. And that was like, written pages. And then, there was another forty of what you had to read for the contract. So, it was a very daunting process that I was just kind of like, Ah — I kinda wrote it off as like, Oh, I’ll try next year. But by them calling me I said, You know, what’s the worst that can happen? I’ll just continue doing what I’m doing.
I’ll stay up late a few nights and get it done.
Yeah. So, a lot of things happened just in that instant, because I knew that I listened to what I was supposed to do. I could tell that God was telling me, You need to do this because you’re getting too comfortable. ‘Cause at the time, I was working for another company locally, another fashion brand, but she was more focused on manufacturing and selling. So, not as creative, I was doing a lot of office administration stuff and shipping orders, taking orders, but really learning the business. And that’s really where I learned a lot of what I need to put into practice now.
And by this time, you were out of Honolulu Community College’s fashion program.
M-hm. I was already talking to the owner of the company about taking over. Taking over the company so she can retire, and I would have been set. I would be running another company, but it wouldn’t be the company I’m running now. And so, the fact that I acted on that gut instinct that told me, Okay, you need to do this, you don’t know what’s gonna happen but you need to do it and just be open to the possibilities. And that was me listening what I was supposed to do. The things playing out the way that they did that told me, Okay, you’re about to embark on a really crazy ride and you better free yourself up, and be open to what’s gonna come.
And you acquitted yourself in the way your mom said you should, with strength of character.
Was that hard to do? I mean, it must have been tempting sometimes not to make a snarky comment, as everyone else seemed to do.
Right. That would have been the easy thing to do. But I think I kept in mind that you’re always on camera, you’re always on a microphone, so even if you said something in private, they would ask you about it later.
And it’ll exist on tape forever, or digital records.
Exactly. So, I always kept that in mind, which kept me from overreacting. But I think after I grew out of my childhood tantrums and as I matured, I grew calmer in my thoughts. My friends always told me that I have a really calm demeanor about myself, that even in the thick of stress, in the thick of chaotic situations, I’m able to think logically and to be levelheaded about my reactions. And there are times when I’m running around the studio, crazy, and I’m telling people to do ten things at one time and I’m yelling at people, but most times, I’m actually much more thoughtful about my actions, and that helped me. That and also making sure that I had … many people don’t know this, about how important my faith is to me. And the more I talk about it, I think you hear it, that it plays a huge role in my day-to-day, even though I don’t talk about it and I don’t make it an Evangelistical thing. But I kept my Bible with me, and I prayed every night, and I just wanted to keep myself centered, keep myself grounded, ‘cause I knew that I was entering a place that I wasn’t familiar with. And I didn’t want to be just caught off guard and lose myself, I didn’t want to lose myself in it.
Rather, Andy Southiphong aka Andy South, was finding himself. At the brink of his fashion design success in Hawaii and on Project Runway, Andy was beginning to resolve those questions about his identity, that he had long kept in the back of his mind.
When did you discover transgender living?
Well, my first time doing drag was probably years into going out in the gay scene. And it’s not one of those things that had tormented me my whole life. I just knew that something wasn’t completely there, but it was never pressing on my mind all the time. So, I decided to do drag one year in Portland.
Was that because you’re a fashion-conscious person, or because you thought maybe you’d like to be a woman?
I thought that that was actually my opportunity to see if that was something inside of me that needed to come out. And along the lines of being a drag queen and being a performer, you’ve got a huge gray area of being a transvestite or a cross-dresser, which is a man who dresses up in women’s clothing, and then, transsexuals and transgender people.
And there are some people who really don’t know. They’re somewhere in between.
And there’s every different level in between being a cross-dresser and a transgender individual. So, I think that’s why a lot of the confusion comes up with people in the public just not knowing a lot, or not knowing enough. So, a lot of times, being transgender gets mixed with being a cross-dresser, and you know, you’re gay.
It’s a big category.
Right; yeah. Because a cross-dresser technically usually consider himself gay, because they still like men, they like being a man, but they like dressing up as women just to perform for fun. So, I’ve been asked many times, So are you gay? And I don’t consider myself gay. But it kinda just opens up the topic of conversation for all this gray area that can get very exhausting. And there’s a lot of different levels, but I don’t think that we shouldn’t talk about it, because every person is different. And it really should be as the person identifies himself is what they are. Because gender, sexual orientation are completely different; completely different things.
Talk about that, ‘cause I don’t understand that.
Gender and sexual orientation are different. And I think it gets mixed up, because your gender is often called your birth sex or your sex. Right?
Meaning physically, what you have. And sexual orientation is whether you are homosexual and you like being a male who likes other men, or a female who likes other women. But gender identity has nothing to do with sex.
I see what you mean.
It has nothing to do with sexual lust, it has nothing to do with the taboo of a man having sex with what most people will call a tranny, which I find very offensive. I’ll joke around with my other sisters about it. When I talk to my sisters and referring to myself, I like to keep things light. And so, sometimes I’ll refer to myself as Trandy. [CHUCKLE] ‘Cause I’m Andy, and I’m transsexual. But even my family has had to learn a lot about, I don’t consider myself gay, I consider myself a woman who was born a male. Because I’m not attracted to other gay men. I thought I was when I was trying to live as a gay male. But I see myself with a straight man, I see myself having a real family, living as a woman, being completely that female role in society.
And yet, you’ve chosen not to have surgery. You’re doing hormones, right?
Is there a longer term plan?
There’s a longer term plan, and the first steps are to get onto your hormone replacement therapy. Because it takes time, and you have to equal it to a girl going through puberty for the first time.
So, as you’re building a business, you’re going through this transition. And that affects even what your name is.
You could have kept your name.
What made you decide not to? It’s the Andy South brand
And your name is?
My name is Ariyaphon, Ari for short. And my mom renamed me. I asked her to, because it was very important for me to remain connected with my family, to remain connected with my mom. And throughout the initial steps of my transition, I just wanted to be very sensitive to the fact that I wanted my mom to be as much a part of my life as she wants to be. Every mother wants to be a part of their child’s life.
Why did she choose that name? Does it mean something?
Yeah. Ariyaphon has the meaning in Sanskrit, which is the Buddhist language. She went to the temple to ask for two names; one of them being Ariyaphon. And the meaning of it, depending on the spelling, either means the blessing of radiant light, or the power of radiant light.
Which definition did you pick?
The meaning that she would have spelled it was, the blessing of radiant light. And the spelling that I chose translates Ariyaphon to the power of radiating light.
And so, this is a personal brand. So, you have to make that distinction between, this is me, and this is me. So, essentially, your transgenderism becomes a conversation in your business.
It’s the first thing out there, if you’re the spokesperson.
M-hm. It does. The true test was, I had done this after we had started working with Neiman Marcus, which is really great for a brand, being associated with a high end retailer like that.
Was that a factor for them, the fact that you’d chosen to go transgender?
No. I actually met with them about my second collection that they were purchasing, and I had gone as female. And at the time, I wearing a wig, and I was dressing in women’s clothing. But of course, in the beginning, I was very androgynous and maybe a little bit more detectable as not being a genetic female. And I conducted the first part of the meeting with just them, just their buyer and me, that’s it. And then, midway through, we got to catch up a little bit more, and then I told them, and I said also, I mean, I’m sure you guys know this by now by coming here, that I am now living my life as a woman and I have chosen to transition and act upon what makes me happy. I just wanted to make sure that the lines of communication were open. The main thing that I told them was, If you have any questions or concerns, or anything about what I’m going through, ask me. Don’t feel that you can’t ask me because we’re professional or we have a professional relationship. I want you folks to be open with me, and I want you to know that me doing this is not gonna affect my business. But this is my personal journey that I’m deciding to take.
What was the reaction?
They were supportive. And along with everybody, everybody was supportive. Because it goes back to what my mom first told me when I had come out to her as gay. It makes so much sense, because when you allow your professionalism, when you allow your character to speak before you do, there’s no denying that you’re one that should be respected. I think that was the main thing, that was my mom’s main concern with me living the living the life that I choose to live.
What a groundbreaking conversation you had with Neiman Marcus. How often do those conversations take place?
Probably not often, because you don’t hear a lot about transgender business owners or transgender women who are in the process of making that transition as they conduct business.
Usually, it’s before or after.
A lot of people would handle it a lot differently than you did. Because, you chose to just say, Here’s the deal.
Yeah. And I decided that because quite honestly, I knew that I wasn’t happy internally. And I guess what I always value above everything else is that I’m living a life that I feel fulfilled, and that I feel happy. Because if I’m not happy with the life that I’m living, there’s no way that I can do good for other people.
Ariyaphon Southiphong currently operates her clothing line, still branded Andy South, out of her workshop in Honolulu’s Chinatown. In a future episode of Long Story Short, we’ll talk more with Ari about her life as a transgender woman. For PBS Hawaii, and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.
For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.
I love fashion very much, but it’s not the only thing that I love. What I love most is actually creating opportunity. Seeing something good being done for the world, thinking that I’m gonna leave the world a better place that what it was is why I live every day. And I’m given the opportunity by having a company, by forming my company, by having the drive that I have, having the courage that I have to do it, make the choices that I’ve made, and to continue living my life, as well as living my life in a good way, and creating a lot of great things for the community and for society, and specifically with creating jobs, creating opportunity for young talent that’s coming out of Hawaii.
Part 2: A Life Redesigned
I’m hoping that me living my life in a public manner gives the opportunity for discussion and opens up the floor for people to realize that being transgender isn’t being a freak of nature.
Honolulu fashion designer Ariyaphon Southiphong, formerly the man known as Andy South, next on Long Story Short.
Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.
Aloha; I’m Leslie Wilcox. Honolulu fashion designer Andy South first gained national recognition in Season 8 of Lifetime Television’s reality competition show, Project Runway. In 2012, Andy announced that he was now a she, a transgendered female. Her mother renamed her Ariyaphon Southiphong, or Ari for short. Her clothing line continues to operate under the Andy South name. As of our conversation in 2013, Ari has not yet undergone gender reassignment surgery. Ari has been on hormone replacement therapy, biweekly injections of testosterone blockers and estrogen, which she plans to take for the rest of her life. When Ari, who had already built the Andy South brand, first told her mother about wanting to start hormone therapy, her mother had her concerns, based on a previous transition attempt.
Her first question was like, Why would you want to do this? Because she had gone through my first transition, which was right before Project Runway, and I stopped right before.
Were you not sure you wanted to?
I wasn’t sure.
Yeah. I wasn’t sure about my first transition, because it was so quick. My body took to the hormones so quickly, the changes were coming on too fast. And I felt like I had made the decision based on pressure, or encouragement from people who didn’t really know me as well as I, thought that that person or that influence should be coming from. And so, I took a step back and I actually had a lot of resentment toward being transgender. I didn’t go out anymore, I had stopped talking to a lot of people. Because had to deal with my own internal conflict of, What did you just do to your body? A lot of things caused me to hate myself.
That’s what you were feeling like right before you went on the TV show?
‘Cause you were still centered.
Yeah. That’s what I was feeling right before going on the TV show. But that first transition and then off of it, I took it as, well, it was probably a lesson learned. And then, when it came up again, this was after I came back from Project Runway, and a lot of great things were happening, again that same feeling of something is missing. I had already gotten a glimpse of who Ari was. Who I was as a female.
Did it come to you as a visual? ‘Cause you’re a visual person.
M-hm; it did.
You saw yourself as a woman?
Yeah, I started to see her more often. I saw myself as a woman much more often, because I had that first glimpse of my first, few months on transition. In the beginning, I used to always talk about the Andy South woman, and she was always on the show. A lot of people will recall and they all became fans of that warrior woman that I was designing for. I guess what I realized was that the imaginary person I was designing for was me.
So, that imaginary Andy South woman who was a warrior. Because I felt like I had to fight for whatever it is that I wanted to do. And especially at that stage, it was such a breaking moment of my career that I think a lot of the reason why my designs came out as very hard and very defensive was because I felt like I was constantly fighting. I was constantly competing to remain in the game. And then when I came home after that initial collection — I mean, the back story to my collections are always very extensive. Because it’s about the woman and what she’s going through. And after that first collection, at the end of my first fashion show actually, the last model came out with this huge costume that was ripped away. It was about a girl going through the seasons, transitioning through winter, and then at the end breaking into the first glimmer of spring with the ice melting away and her hard exterior melting away. The next collection was extremely feminine. But I think that they made sense with the Andy South brand completely, because even though it looked like light and dark, the story was like a next chapter to this girl, where a lot of it was silk hand-dyed ombre, beautiful colors, like the water. Because I imagined this girl now coming out of this melted snow, out of this debris, like everything was frozen over and that she was coming out of this muddy, murky water, renewed and was finding a new femininity in herself. And that was in the same collection that I decided to make my transition.
This time, Ariyaphon Southiphong was confident about transitioning to a female body. But that didn’t make the journey an easy one.
Do you spend any time saying, Why me?
Many times. Yeah; many times. I constantly ask, Why was I born this way? And after college, I actually transitioned from Buddhist, ‘cause I grew up Buddhist with my parents, and I became a Christian. But I understand a lot of the Buddhist teachings that my mom taught us. I constantly pray, and I constantly have conversations with God on a regular basis. And then, when I was dealing with the reality of my transition, and quite often the struggles. And a lot of people see me now, and they see me received very well in the general public. There’s a lot of things that I deal with internally that aren’t so … glamorous, they’re not positive, a lot of things that I question about myself.
Self doubts, you mean?
Self doubts; yeah. All the time. Because society is always telling you one thing, even though in your gut that you need to do the other. And especially in the beginning, I constantly prayed about, Is this right? That was my main prayer.
Did you have a mentor or counselor?
I mean, I did talk to my doctor about it, who diagnosed me with gender dysphoria, which allowed me to start my transition.
So, you have to say you’re mentally ill in order to begin something that you say is going to heal you.
Yeah. Because in the medical world, that’s the way it’s treated. You treat gender dysphoria by allowing yourself to live in the form, and attain that physical being that you identify with for your mental sake. Which when you think about it, it’s so … [SIGH] … it’s almost pitiful, when you think about it, of someone having to succumb to admitting to that, and admitting to them suffering from mental illness in order to be happy. Because I don’t think it’s a mental illness. I think that it’s just the life that I was born into. This is life. And my main conflict with God in the beginning was, like the main question was, Is this right?
Did you say, God, you know, You know I’m not your son, I’m your daughter?
Right. Yeah; exactly. I used to always ask, actually; I don’t ask anymore, because I know that for whatever the circumstances and whatever He has in front of me and before me, this is the path that He’s determined for me, and the journey that He’s already laid out, because He knows that I can handle it.
There are a lot of segments of the Christian church, and there are some elements which would say, Come on, that’s not right.
I know you’ve heard it, and what do you do say?
I think that everyone’s walk with God is different. And especially with being a Christian, there are so many different variations, I would say. Some being a little bit more by the Bible, being closer to Catholicism. But for me, religion has always been kind of not a big question, but I’ve always been one to ask questions. And the reason why I think I’m such a strong Christian is because I found Christianity and I found God on my own. I wasn’t brought up forced to go to church. I wasn’t brought up forced to do anything religious. But I knew He was calling me. A lot of thing that happened in my childhood and my life, just aside from me being transgender, have already told me that He has been calling me back to Him, to know Him, to live my life in a way that will affect the world in a really great way. In the beginning, I used to always ask, like, Well, am I really supposed to live this life? My fear was that I was doing something wrong. My fear was that I was being selfish and acting upon my own want to be a woman. Going back to people telling me it’s a choice. People telling me that this is a decision you make, you’re not born this way. But for me to live as a straight male does not make sense. For me, it doesn’t make sense.
And for you to live as a gay male doesn’t make sense.
It doesn’t. It doesn’t anymore. Because I mean, the first thing people ask with the hormone replacement therapy is, Well, how do you change, how do your thoughts change? And for me, I just make more sense internally. My thoughts make sense, things seem more balanced.
With balanced thoughts and a decidedly female perspective, Ari Southiphong says she has a greater understanding of how to design clothes for women.
My idea of designing for women has changed, because now I’m wearing the clothing. Of course, my body is different from, your genetic female body that you have to fit, but the same things apply as far as you know, wanting to cover certain things, or wanting to wear a bra, which in college, I never really cared about. Well, the girl can go bra-less, I don’t care. Being a man designing for a woman, I didn’t have that innate sense of fashion being completely functional. You know, I always wanted, the really fashion-forward pieces, and I always designed for the very fashion-forward woman.
This should expand your market, shouldn’t it?
M-hm; exactly. I mean, as the business grows, in our first two collections, I learned a lot about our clientele, real women who bought our clothing. And I think it’s very common for students and for young designers to design for a very petite frame, for a very thin model. But the majority of my clients and my customers are older women who are not, size zero to a four. And so my design sensibility has changed according to, one, my personal transition and now being so connected with the brand, that I am the brand, but also, on the business side, designing to maintain my customer and give my customers what they want.
Would you do men’s clothes?
I have started. And that’s something I started to do before my transition for myself to wear. But I recently started to do some menswear pieces, and starting with the basics. Because I think with the women’s wear, I’ve gotten a very good grasp on the fit and the styles that I love to design and my customers love, but with the menswear, I guess I’m more focused on the fit. So, I’m doing a lot of basics, a lot of basic button-downs, cargo shorts, just to get the fit right. Because for a brand, that’s the most important thing, is that the product fits the customer.
I always look at, say, Vogue, and there’s some hideous looking dress on the runway, and they say, Metallics are in. And you think, Who would ever wear that? So then, your job is to convert that into something people would want to wear, using the theme or the color, or the something.
Exactly. The magazines will list the trends. So that’s why I always say the magazines really the ones who run the show. Because whatever they say, whatever magazines say are the trends are what the consumer will look for.
And then, you adapt that sense of a trend. Because you know, so many things aren’t wearable.
Right. Well, ‘cause fashion is a creative industry. You run the gamut from being commercial, commercially and retail-conscious of running a company, and making sales, and making things affordable. And then, there’s the extreme creative side of it, with haute couture, and handmade garments that are much more like art pieces.
Where do you see yourself?
When I first started, I saw myself doing a lot more couture, because I love the creativity of it. And I still do. And I would love to do couture gowns all day, every day, and I would love to go to France and study under a real couture house. But the reality is, to run a business, that’s not gonna be possible. I have to form a brand that’s much more wearable. And actually, I prefer to design things and manufacture them, and create them for people who love them and actually wear them. There’s nothing more exciting than seeing one of your pieces in the street.
So, is your ideal customer somebody like you, or is it somebody else?
I think my ideal customer is someone who’s like me in the sense that they’re risk takers, that they know who they are. And that’s what I base the Andy South brand off of. ‘Cause my logo is —
And that’s your life struggle.
Being who you are.
Ari Southiphong, the former Andy South, is self-assured about who she is. But she’s also well aware of the challenges that transgender dating presents, especially someone who’s in the public eye.
If the future is a husband and a family, how does that get accomplished?
Finding the right person. It’s gonna take a really, really amazing man to be that person, to know himself well enough to know that falling in love with me, or being attracted to me isn’t being attracted to a man. And I’ve met some really great couples with some of my sisters who are who are now sex-changed. They’re post-op. But a lot of times, the ones that have a really strong relationship are the ones that first started dating not knowing that she was born a man, and they built a relationship just exactly like a straight couple. And then later down the line, she has to tell them, because she can’t hold the secret in. When they meet the family, then it gets complicated, so it has to come out.
Yeah; but I would think that that would put you at risk for a blown-up relationship, or even violence.
Because you didn’t tell.
Yeah; exactly. So, you never know how someone’s gonna react. And not that it’s a matter of deceit and trying to trick someone into thinking you’re a genetic female, and tricking them into fall in love with you. I see it more as because of the society we live in, to have it at the forefront complicates a lot of things with people. And letting it come out over time, I think allows the person to get to know the person for the real reasons. Get to know their character. And whether they fall in love, they fall in love with that person’s personality, their strengths, their humor their beauty from within, before they completely shut the door on the fact that this person is transgender, even post-op sex change.
So, a lot of it is context.
A lot of it is context. And the reason why girls are working the streets, and they’re becoming creatures of the night is what I would say —
Which really puts them in position for violence.
Yeah. The girls who have to work the streets at night, they put themselves in a lot of danger.
Now, why do they have to work the streets at night?
Employment opportunities for transgender individuals, especially mid-transition or very early on when they’re still very androgynous, they’re very difficult to find, and it’s very difficult with the current laws. One thing that I hear from many young girls is when they get a job, if they show them their ID card with their gender on it, then they’re required to use the male restroom, or the gender marker that’s on, say, their driver’s license.
Because they’ve basically told them, I’m male. But for someone who’s living their life as a woman, that’s difficult. And that’s like kicking them when they’re down making them go into use the male restroom, for people to see that they are male. You know, that they are transgender. No matter how passable they may be on the outside with their features, the fact that it’s lingering, that’s the risk we take for living this life. And a lot of transgender deaths and murders go unaccounted or unspoken about, uninvestigated. They get swept under the rug, because it’s … sad to say that it’s just not a priority. Being transgender heightens that risk of someone trying to pick a fight with you, especially men who see you as a man and see you as a freak. So, the danger level of living a public life as transgender, it’s very high especially if you’re in the wrong place. But thankfully, I’m in Hawaii.
Have you ruled in or ruled out surgery?
I haven’t ruled out surgery at all. And ideally, if I could get everything done and be perfectly healthy, and live a full, great life, long …
Surgery is a risk, I guess. I mean surgery is a risk, and that’s a big one.
Surgery is a huge risk, and I know that my life purpose is more than just making the complete transition to being completely physically female. Because like I said, gender is internal before it is physical. When I first transitioned, it was very young of me to think that I wanted to do everything as soon as possible. I wanted to do everything quickly, so I can get on with my life and I can live my life. But as I transition, I learned to really, really love myself for the first time. And even before that, loving myself as gay male and accepting myself, it’s not the same when you finally accept yourself for who you are. And whether or not the surgery and the final—you know, ‘cause that’s like a final step to achieving the closest possible likeness of living as a genetic woman, right now, it’s not that important to me, because what’s important is my career.
Ari Southiphong, formerly Andy South, is also passionate about advocating for the transgendered community. Her openness about her transition comes from a strong desire to educate.
So, the T in LGBT stands for, what?
So, not transsexual, it’s transgender.
Transgender and transsexual are pretty much the same.
But I’ve read, speaking of looking things up. I read that you don’t have to have hormonal treatment or surgery to identify as transgender.
You don’t. You don’t have to have any procedures done, you don’t have to be on hormones to identify yourself as transgender. Like I said, gender is internal before it is physical.
And you know, there all these categories where you could get stuck on side streets, instead of seeing the big street picture. Like, transvestite.
Where does that fit in?
Transvestite is a gay male — or not even, it doesn’t have to be a gay male. It could be a straight male, as well, that cross-dresses.
So, people have to learn what transgender is, because we have all these labels. We use names we don’t even know what we’re talking about.
Exactly. That’s what I always encourage people to learn. Not only for the sake of me being able to share with them, but also for them to be knowledgeable, and for them to not look a fool either. That’s probably really embarrassing when you’re talking to somebody who does know what they’re talking about, and you’re using terms in the wrong context and in the wrong form. And it’s disrespectful as well.
I think there are very few people having conversations like this. You know, you’re open, you’re explaining something to me that I don’t know very much about. What would you say to people who really don’t have a clue about what being transgender means, and they’d like to know, and they don’t know how to talk to people about it?
You can research. A lot of what I did before my transition was actually research online, mainly because I needed to find out for myself, kind of unclouded by the opinion of the person sharing with me what being transgender is. But then also talking to people who are. Talk to them, because chances are, you might even know somebody who is, and you may just not know. Like, talk to them regularly now.
But how do you bring it up? I mean, what if they’re not?
Well, I mean, don’t just go and ask any random person, like, Oh, so are you transgender? You’ve gotta be really sensitive about it.
Good way to start a conversation.
Yeah. You’ve got to be sensitive about the form that you speak about it. But I think if you know somebody who is, I think asking about it is much more of a welcome thing than people might think.
Than tiptoeing around it.
Than tiptoeing; yeah. It’s much easier. I have a much greater sense of relief when people ask me about it, because I like that people are interested in knowing what it is that I’m going through. And the fact that they’re open to learning, that’s the first step to educating more people, and it’s the first step to transgender individuals becoming more a part of society. I mean, we’re steps behind the gay community, because there are a lot of things that don’t protect us, because a lot of our issues aren’t brought up and aren’t dealt with. They’re just not discussed enough to determine things and laws to be in place that are appropriate for us, but also appropriate for the rest of the community as well.
But on the other hand, I think people are reticent, because it’s so personal. And yet, it’s central to you.
Right. And I think in my case, I’m very open about it, because I realize that my life is in the public eye, that I can’t disappear and come back as a woman and expect to have the same life. So, that’s kind of the cross I bear. Alongside of the business purpose that I serve and the career that I’m building and the opportunities it offers, I’m hoping that me living my life in a public manner gives the opportunity for discussion and opens up the floor for people to realize that being transgender isn’t being a freak of nature. And I really want people to realize that, yeah, I am transgender, and I run a business. Because you don’t see that often. This life can seem difficult, being transgender, and it is. This isn’t a life that I would wish on anyone, because it’s not easy.
Because that’s front and center, everybody reacts to that first; right?
And even among very well-meaning people, and I think so many people are well-meaning, you hear all the pronoun confusion.
He, she, he she.
And my mom does that too. She still sometimes slips and calls me, he. But I understand that she raised me as a son for twenty-five years, and so for me to expect her and my family and friends to automatically change overnight, that’s selfish on my part. Me allowing myself to live my life is not selfish. It’s the right thing for me.
With confidence, Ari Southiphong is looking ahead, and her Andy South business is the priority. Her high end clothing brand is seeing growth. She’s forging ahead in the challenging fashion industry, while navigating new dimensions in her personal life. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.
For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.
It’s much greater than just tolerating. You tolerate your crappy neighbor, you tolerate your husband’s snoring. But to really be accepted in a community, I think, is just such an uplifting feeling that probably I’m most thankful for, is for the support that I’ve been getting from fans and from community members who have thanked me for taking a stand, and for honestly just being me.