Barber Peleti Oli-Alainu’uese has lost his brother to suicide and been a victim of physical and sexual abuse, but he’s now using his story to inspire others to tackle their own issues.
Content warning: This piece includes discussion of suicide and sexual abuse
“Barbering saved my life,” says Peleti Oli-Alainu’uese.
He might be Hastings’ first Pasifika city councillor, with his own TV series, but he assures me he’s just a normal guy from Flaxmere who likes to cut hair.
And he’s now joining forces with a South Auckland barbershop aiming to help others in his profession become better at supporting men with their relationship and mental health issues, just as he’s been helped by fellow barbers.
“There’s not a lot of safe places for men to be themselves, because you’ve got to be strong, you’ve got to be the provider, you can’t be weak,” he says. “But with the resurgence of barbering, it’s a place where men can have that banter, and when you get a room full of men who are waiting in line, and the conversation sparks, you feel really safe, and you can relate with each other.”
To equip other barbers to be able to support their clients, and each other, Oli-Alainu’uese arranged a get-together of more than 20 barbers from across Auckland, hosted by his mate “Fitz” at the twosevenfive barbershop in Māngere.
Fitz runs the shop and says it was a really special time for this group of men who so often bear their clients’ burdens but have nowhere to share their own struggles.
“I believe it was the first of its kind in Auckland for a barbershop to bring other barbers together, to talk about healthy relationships, mental health and what’s going on in their space. We already openly talk about feelings in our shop, but I know for many of the other barbers there, it was new ground.”
For Oli-Alainu’uese, his journey to become a campaigner for men’s mental health began after his own brother took his life.
“My brother had just turned 18 and he committed suicide,” he says. “The last time I saw my brother alive, I knew he was down, but I didn’t acknowledge him enough, because we weren’t given the tools growing up to ask each other how he was doing. I can’t get that moment back, so for anyone who sits in my chair, I will try my hardest to help them in a way that I wasn’t able to for my brother.”
Oli-Alainu’uese’s family moved to Flaxmere from Sāmoa in the mid-1980s to work in the orchards. It was a hard life, where Oli-Alainu’uese and his younger siblings joined their parents each morning from 4am to pick apples or a variety of different vegetables before going to school. His community was overrun with gangs, while his home life was marked by mental, physical and sexual abuse. He says becoming a barber has been his way of unravelling the trauma of his upbringing.
“I was surrounded by alcohol, as Dad always had parties because we had a pool table. A lot of these men who came over, when mum would drop them off home, I would get molested in the back seat — while Mum was driving. This was when I was four years old. I was molested again around six or seven by a relative who had moved in with us. But in Sāmoan culture you’re not allowed to talk about these topics at all – you’ll be shunned, or damned by the Sāmoan community, because you’re putting shame on the family name.”
However, while cutting the hair of well-known New Zealand rapper Sidney Diamond, known as Young Sid at the time, he heard about another barber in Christchurch who was helping men deal with their issues around abuse.
“I was cutting Young Sid’s hair, and he told me about this guy Matt Brown. I looked him up on YouTube and I stumbled across this video of him talking about how he was raped in his childhood, by his uncle who was a pastor. I was blown away by his strength, I was thinking, how does he get strength like that, as I had never told anyone about my trauma. So I moved down there for six months, and worked for him, and it was the best decision I made in my barbering career ever. I was able to learn a lot, and also untangle some of my crap. And a lot of my journey is based on what he’s doing.”
It was through Brown that Oli-Alainu’uese met Fitz. Fitz says seeing all the ways Oli-Alainu’uese is helping those in his own community through politics and the media has definitely inspired him with his own work and it’s opening other barbers up to the potential their jobs have for making a bigger difference.
“It’s a good eye-opener from seeing all the stuff he’s doing – and I know that’s inspired others to see that there’s more to the job than just being a barber and cutting hair.”
Being a city councillor and getting featured on Māori Television for two seasons of his show The Barber has brought Oli-Alainu’uese plenty of national recognition and questions about what his next political step might be, but he says his focus is still on his community of Flaxmere,
“There’s a lot of gang activity, a lot of poverty, a lot of child abuse. But what Flaxmere is really about is that we’ve gone through all this stuff, as a community — and hopefully the more we talk about these things that get swept under the rug, maybe we can identify where the problems are, and find some resolution.”
Where to get help
Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor
Lifeline – 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP)
Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Healthline – 0800 611 116
Samaritans – 0800 726 666
Rape Crisis – 0800 883 300 (for support after rape or sexual assault)
Shine – 0508 744 633 confidential domestic abuse helpline