Eteuati Ete is best known as one half of The Laughing Sāmoans, the popular comedy partnership he founded with Tofiga Fepulea’i. But in this interview with Dale, he talks mostly about overcoming the violence that nearly wrecked his family and why it’s important for him to tell that story.
Talofa, Ete. You’re a man who’s known for giving us all a lot of laughs, for many years now. But I understand that you might easily have followed in your dad’s footsteps and become a pastor.
Yeah, I guess that was my parents’ vision for me. Being the eldest son, I was groomed for that life, but things haven’t turned out that way — although, in some ways, I sort of continue to do the work they’ve done, which is all about standing in front of people, trying to be a good example, and telling stories in the hope that it will help others to live better lives.
You came to Wellington from Sāmoa as a 12-year-old. What were the circumstances then?
My parents brought us here when they became ministers in the Sāmoan Congregational Christian Church. Before that, I’d spent quite a bit of my life growing up in the Malua Theological College, which is on the main island on Upolu. And I also spent some years with my mother’s family in Vailima, and some time with my father’s parents in Salelologa on Savai’i. It was nice being surrounded by family and village and being brought up in that environment.
Still a man of faith?
Probably not a man of faith in the way my parents wanted but, all through my 57 years, I’ve been guided by Christian principles, like doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. And loving your neighbour. And respecting your parents.
Do you sometimes feel that there are Pasifika people who seem to have an over-reliance on Christianity?
Yes, I think at times we expect God to answer our prayers and provide for us rather than doing things for ourselves. That’s a trap we can fall into. But I believe that you make your own luck, and make your own way in life. God helps those who help themselves. Also, I think we tend to give a lot to our culture and the church, and sometimes that’s to the detriment of our families.
Do you have thoughts on how Christianity and Christian stories have superseded and overshadowed the richness of our own stories of creation, our own atua and the like?
Yeah, well, not that I know an awful lot about our own ancient atua, but I think our understanding of the world as one holistic being was something that enabled us to live sustainably as a people and not to take too much from all of the gods that we believed in.
Our gods were everywhere, so we treated each living thing, and even inanimate objects, with due respect. And I think that’s something that enabled us as a people to survive sustainably in the Pacific and in Aotearoa in pre-Christian times.
I suspect that, given your family’s role in the church — and your younger brother Igelese’s talents as a musician — you grew up in a musical household.
Yeah. There’s been that whole performing side of things in our family. My ability to speak publicly and hold an audience is something that I owe to my parents. My dad is one of the most charismatic preachers I know, and the sound of church choirs is something that resonates deeply within me. And my mum is a very funny woman, so I’ve been lucky to inherit her sense of humour as well. That’s allowed me to become the performer that I am.
How do you describe your work? Some may say you’re an actor. Others that you’re a comedian. Does that sit well with you?
I’d describe myself as a performer. When I went to drama school it was all about researching and getting to know characters. But the one character that I didn’t look into was my own, and it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve been on a journey of discovering my own story of family violence.
My wife, Mele, and I have been married for 25 years and the first four years were violent. It’s only been in recent years that I’ve been able to talk about that in the hope that it’ll help others come to terms with their own violence and deal with their trauma.
It was Mele’s best friend, Teresia Teaiwa, who’d told me for many years that I needed to share my story, so that other men could learn from it. And I would agree with her.
She’d say: “Ete, you’re a Laughing Sāmoan, and if you start telling your story of how you were violent and what you did to overcome that violence, that would be really awesome.”
I’d always say: “Yes. Yes. Yes.” And when the Laughing Sāmoans stopped performing in 2016, Teresia asked me: ”What are you going to do now?” She was like: “You know what you have to do now?” And I was like: “Yeah. Okay.”
That was the last time she ever visited our house. Teresia was the director of Pacific Studies at Victoria University and two months after that visit she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and six weeks later, she passed.
At a memorial service for her at Victoria University and also at her funeral, these young people stood and spoke about this wonderful woman who’d made them do these amazing things. One young woman stood up and said that she’d wanted to leave uni but Teresia convinced her to stay and now she was studying for a doctorate. And I sat there in the memorial service and the funeral, thinking how I’d made one promise to Teresia and then I didn’t keep that promise. So I decided that, if I was challenged again, I’d tell my story.
Two years ago, Mele was doing contract work for MSD helping them roll out the Ngā Vaka family violence awareness programme to seven Pacific Islands groups. And she came home one day and said the Tokelauan group couldn’t find a couple with lived experience to share their story, and she asked if we should share ours.
In the past, I’d shrunk from the shame of telling my story. I didn’t want to be seen as a monster. Or subhuman. And that shame had kept me quiet for 20 years. But this time, there was more shame in not having delivered on my promise to Teresia.
So I decided that I’d do this once, do it properly, and then I could say I’d kept my promise. But, as part of telling that story, I needed to find out why I was the angry person that I was. I’ve always played other characters and I guess I just hadn’t dug into my own character deep enough to understand myself.
Looking into my own childhood, I found a story that I’d always known and that my family had always known. It was no secret. It was that, when I was young, my parents went to Japan because my dad got a government scholarship, and they left me and my older sister Menime with my father’s parents.
I didn’t know how old I was. But one family Sunday, I got up the courage to ask my mum how old was I when she and my dad left us behind. She said I was two-and-half years old. So, for two years, I was away from my parents — two years at an age when my brain was starting to understand how the world worked, to understand being abandoned, to learn that the world is an unsafe place, that I’m not worthy of positive attention, and that I will ultimately be abandoned.
I also uncovered memories from when I was about six. We had a young man come and stay with us at the theological college and he and I slept in the room downstairs while my parents and my sister slept upstairs. There were disparate memories from that time. One of them was me in bed being smothered. Another was of me running upstairs and then down the halls crying to my parents that something horrible had happened to me downstairs. And another memory was of me having to sleep with my sisters upstairs. Then this guy’s name never being mentioned again. He just sort of disappeared. He was sent back home.
So I guess my anger can come from a two-and-a-half-year-old being triggered to ask “where are you?” and a six-year-old shouting “get off me!”
Also, being the oldest son of a minister, I was brought up to believe I had privileges as a male. I didn’t have to do housework or chores around the house — I had a lot of sisters and they did all of the house chores. I did do lawns and outdoor work, as boys were supposed to do.
Part of the reason I didn’t want to tell my story initially was because it wasn’t just my story. It also involved my parents and family and I didn’t want to come across as ungrateful or critical.
Being a church minister, my father was a strict disciplinarian, and like most fathers of his generation, he ruled the roost. And because I was a troubled and troublesome kid, he had to discipline me a lot. And he didn’t want to spare the rod and spoil the child.
So all of those experiences led me, I think, to a very unsafe space with some outdated beliefs.
In my first marriage, we had two children. After six years, my wife said we were going to Christchurch for Christmas to spend time with her family. Then, after a couple of weeks, she said I should go back to Wellington with the kids and she’d see us soon. But she never came back home.
Most men would’ve hopped on a plane and gone down there to fight for the marriage. But the two-year-old in me said this is how things go. You will ultimately be abandoned. So I brought up my two children on my own — and I carried the guilt I felt for them not having a mum.
I carried that guilt into my marriage with Mele, who I met a year or two later. Mele already had a child, but bringing up your own child and two others within that environment was very tough. And then we had our own child within two years — and, yeah, it was a volatile setting.
I’d lash out and, eventually, Mele had just had enough of the violence and she rang the police. I appeared in front of a judge and we went through a lot of counselling. That seemed to work, but later, I hit her again, and this time in court, the judge said: ”If I see you one more time, you’re going to jail.”
I stood in the dock and I thought: The only thing that has to change in this equation is me. I can’t change the past. I can’t change the trauma. I certainly can’t change the law. Mele isn’t going to change. And jail is the last place I want to be in if I’m going to sort myself out.
That’s when I decided that things needed to change. So now I tell my story to men in rehab classes. I tell them I was violent for four years and then we lived apart for nine years. And I tell them: “For however long you’ve been abusive, you need to be non-abusive for twice that length of time.”
When I first spoke to the Tokelauans, I was so scared. But, for me, the surprising thing was that they said: “Thank you so much for sharing your story. It’s just been the most amazing story and you sharing it makes us feel better. What you did with the Laughing Sāmoans made us forget about our problems. What you’re doing now by sharing your story is you’re dealing with our problems. Please don’t stop telling your story.”
As a consequence, a whole lot of the other island groups have asked Mele and me to share our story. It’s usually Mele and me. And that’s something that Mele and I have continued to do in the last year or two, and we’re now White Ribbon ambassadors. It’s a passion that I have, to tell my story, and share the lessons that we’ve learned. And hopefully that’ll help others.
Thank you, Ete, for sharing this with us. Through your career, as a performer starting as a student in Toi Whakaari, and then in various productions including Laughing Sāmoans you have a body of stage and TV work that you can be proud of. But perhaps you should be even more proud of the courage you’ve shown in delving deeper into your own life to help you understand your own story and to help others understand theirs.
Well, I’ve been able to forgive myself because I didn’t understand why I was such a troubled and troublesome child to my parents — and I’ve been able to understand and make peace with my parents, too.
My father turned 80 last year and I had all my siblings turn up from around the world for his birthday. We had about 150 for the birthday celebration. And a couple of days later, before my siblings all flew out again, Mele and I had them all over for dinner and, during a break in the conversation, I said: ”Dad, I just wanna apologise for being the troublesome son that I’ve been to you. But you need to know that there were things that happened to me as a child that were the cause of all of that.”
And then we all just started sharing deeply and it was a beautiful evening. Brought all of us closer together as a family.
It feels that turning now to talking about comedy and to your various acting roles after hearing all this honest and raw kōrero from you may sort of undermine what you’ve been saying. But your years of work as a performer have been an important contribution to our society in giving us the opportunities to laugh at ourselves. Māori and Pasifika.
When I started out, there was no one else apart from Nat Lees doing this. And it was Māori who helped me when I came out of Toi Whakaari, because there were no Pacific Islanders doing theatre at that time. It was Jim Moriarty and Rangimoana Taylor. So I owe a lot to Māori theatre practitioners.
As Māori and Pasifika, we’re natural-born performers. We grow up with White Sundays and with kapa haka and youth groups. Give us a stage and we’ll perform. Theatre is something that’s very close to our hearts and where we have a natural affinity.
It’s just a matter of transferring that on to the stage. Māori and Pasifika have made a huge contribution to theatre in New Zealand, working together cross-culturally and individually. And I’m very proud to have been a part of both of those worlds.
They are the double hull that I’ve been able to ride on. Both of my older children, Manaia and Moana, are part-Māori too — and Moana is now out of drama school and doing her own work too — so I have a real affinity with tangata whenua.
That’s why Tofiga and I would always incorporate a Māori bit in any of the shows, because Māori have been some of our biggest fans and, through comedy, we came to understand how much we have in common. And it was always such a joyful occasion each time we’d go to the East Coast and pack out a house there.
And one of the strengths of the Laughing Sāmoans was being prepared to look at the funny side of our own lives, even though they were sometimes challenging issues. Comedy has the advantage, doesn’t it, of being able to deal with kaupapa that you can’t handle in polite conversation or in mixed company. It’s a powerful tool for social commentary.
Yeah, comedy does come from truth, and the revelation of truth can be both funny and enlightening.
It’s been a wonderful conversation, Ete, not so much a catalogue of work, but an exposure of heart.
Actually, I’m a private person by nature, but the family violence issue is so disturbing. And being of service to our communities is something that my parents always did, so it feels comfortable to me to follow suit — although I’ve been standing in a different pulpit, in the hope of reaching a wider audience.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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