Alex Casey chats to Leilani Tominiko, aka Candy Lee, about raising trans awareness from the wrestling ring.
If Candy Lee offers you a Gobstopper, don’t take it. It doesn’t mean what you think it means. One of her signature wrestling moves, it involves one heavy black boot, one swift kick to the side of the head, and a little more pain than your average toothache. Quite frankly, you don’t even want to know what her version of a Candy Crush is.
Known out of the ring as Leilani Tominiko and online as Lei Barbie, Candy Lee is New Zealand’s first transgender professional wrestler – one of only a handful in the world, she reckons. “It’s funny because my intention with wrestling was just to learn and have fun and not make my trans identity a big thing,” she says. “Turns out being open about it is one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
Moving to New Zealand from Samoa at the age of five, it was here that she discovered WWE’s Royal Rumble on TV. “I didn’t really know what wrestling was, but I was hooked straight away. I used to watch it with my cousins and play wrestle with them, it became a big part of my childhood.” Even back then, she remembers her gender often being questioned by others. “People would always ask if I was a boy or a girl, even if I had short hair and was wearing boy clothes.”
It was only when Tominiko started school in West Auckland that she started feeling distinctly different to the other kids. “When I was growing up in Samoa, I always felt that me being an effeminate was normal – it was only when I moved here that I saw being feminine as a boy was kind of weird to other people.” At primary school, she took dolls to class and played with the girls. “I didn’t care at all, until I started to get a little bit older and started seeing the gender divides and how a boy should really be.”
She became more introverted as the pressure to conform became stronger. “I was really quiet at school – I read a lot and I never talked to anyone. I had long hair though and I still got picked on just because because I looked feminine.”
When she got to high school she realised the truth: she was a girl born into the wrong body.
“I didn’t even know what a transgender person was until I met other trans people at high school and read about it on the internet – everything stemmed from there.” Starting hormone therapy at age 16, while still attending a strict Catholic all-boys school, proved difficult. “It was really hard for me,” she says, “I knew I couldn’t handle being there.” She walked out of class one day in Year 12 and never went back.
With the new name Leilani, she took a couple of alternative education courses and started working in retail at a jewellery store. “I had taken a break from watching wrestling because I was trying to discover who I was,” she remembers. “After a couple of years of transitioning I felt like I found my identity, and I got hard out back into it again.”
During one quiet night behind the counter, she typed “how to be a wrestler in new zealand” into Google. She emailed Impact Promoters, the first result, expecting nothing back. “Things all started from there. My manager emailed me back straight away and I went into training for about a year.”
“I knew I’d have to let them know that I was trans as soon as I joined,” she says. “I talked to one of trainers about it for ages and he told me that I’d fit in straight away.” He was right. “I realised pretty quickly that you’ve got to be a bit of a freak and an outsider to want to start wrestling anyway. We’re all just total nerds, this big circus of guys and girls who fake fight each other.”
Her first match was in early 2016 – not that she felt ready for it. “My debut was really scary, I had absolutely no faith in myself but everyone else had so much faith in me.” She remembers a couple of audience members who tried to further shake her confidence. “There were these really fragile guys sitting there who were yelling out ignorant stuff and saying really mean comments about me.
“My trainer had to remind me: they are the ones who paid money to watch me, so I’m already winning.”
If she was already winning then, her streak continued. She became the Auckland women’s champion within a year. Since then, three years ago, she’s had countless people reach out to tell her about their own struggles. “I wish I had more people like me around when I was growing up. It’s still rare to have LGBT people involved in wrestling at all, so I figured I might as well use my platform to raise awareness.”
A large part of that platform is on Twitter, where you can frequently find her engaged in debate. “People always tell me that I should ignore the haters, but I think it’s much easier for people to say that when they’ve never been oppressed or marginalised,” she says. “My thing with Twitter is that if you come for me, I’ll put you on blast. If you’ve got time to throw hate and ignorance at me, you have time to defend yourself.”
Feminism is also important to Tominiko, but she struggles with people who don’t include people like her in their own definition of the word. “To me, feminism isn’t about having a superior gender – it’s all about equality, not empowering cis women over trans women. I don’t think you can call yourself a feminist if you don’t include trans women as a part of your feminism. It’s just weird to me.”
Some might be surprised to hear a professional wrestler chatting about intersectional feminism, but Candy is determined to keep using her platform to bodyslam the big issues. “I still want to wrestle as much as I can, but I also feel like I have chance to really raise awareness about trans people and the LGBT community.” With overseas interest growing, she’s set her sights on the biggest wrestling stage of all. “I really want to go to America because WWE is my big dream,” she says.
“I really hope I make it.”
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.