Auckland-raised Shimpal Lelisi is the only Niuean member of The Naked Samoans. Lelisi was born in Nuie's capital, Alofi. His family moved to New Zealand when he was four.
In 1998 Lelisi joined the newly formed theatre troupe alongside Oscar Kightley, David Fane and Mario Gaoa (Robbie Magasiva and Iaheto Ah Hi joined slightly later). The group of New Zealand-raised Pacific Islanders mined comedy from their experiences of growing up brown and misunderstood, in the world's largest Polynesian city. The Naked Samoans feature in this episode of Tagata Pasifika.
The Naked Samoans wrote and starred in a show at the NZ International Laugh Festival, before performing at the 2002 Edinburgh Fringe Festival (as seen in this Living Room episode). Later they formed the tight scrum of creative talent behind hit TV show bro'Town, and had major acting roles in 2006 movie Sione's Wedding.
Lelisi was performing long before Naked Samoans entered the picture. After acting in church and high school productions, he won a place at Wellington drama school Toi Whakaari in the early 1990s. Lelisi went on to act in plays in Wellington (at Māori theatre company Taki Rua) and Auckland (Pacific Theatre).
After making his screen debut in 1994 with a small role in TV show True Life Stories, Lelisi was invited by director Harry Sinclair to shoot some scenes for a bite-sized, semi-improvised TV show called Topless Women Talk about their Lives. Then Lelisi found himself heading back to Niue for the first time since childhood, for a movie based on the same characters. Lelisi was filming scenes where his character of Mike is set to marry Prue (Willa O'Neill). The wedding was shot in the village of Liku, outside the house he used to live in, with real life family members playing relatives. The movie won rave reviews and was invited to at least a dozen festivals; Lelisi was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the 1997 NZ Film and Television Awards.
As the 1990s headed to a close, a number of television roles went Lelisi's way. He played nurse Louie Iosefa on Shortland Street, and appeared in ensemble TV drama City Life and netball drama Matou Uma (1999), which was part of anthology series Tala Pasifika. Later he spent several years as one of the presenters on magazine show Tagata Pasifika, alongside fellow Naked Samoan Robbie Magasiva.
bro'Town launched in 2004. The animated comedy about five Polynesian kids in a poor Auckland suburb proved a sensation, spawning awards, spin-off merchandise, and overseas sales. Lelisi provided the voice of the girl-obsessed Valea, as well as Jesus, the Minister, Mulan, and Rex. Creating the show's sometimes boundary-pushing comedy was very much a collaborative effort. Working alongside Naked Samoans Oscar Kightley, Dave Fane and Mario Gaoa, plus producer Elizabeth Mitchell, Lelisi shared two NZ Screen Awards for scriptwriting.
Midway through bro'Town's run, Lelisi was nominated again — this time for acting in big screen comedy Sione's Wedding. The film centred around four male friends who are given a deadline to find a girlfriend. The lead male roles were all taken by Naked Samoans, and Lelisi auditioned for each part. He ended up playing Sefa. Lelisi describes the character as "an instant gratification person" who has made little effort to grow up. Sefa is the only one of the boys with a longterm girlfriend, but his endless late nights test the patience of his partner Leilani (Teulia Blakely).
Like bro'Town, Sione's Wedding was a breakthrough in terms of presenting Pasifika characters on-screen. It quickly became the most commercially-successful Kiwi comedy released in Aotearoa (until Boy in 2010). Sequel Sione's 2 - Unfinished Business was released in 2012. By now Sefa has two children, and a business that is falling apart. Alongside further appearances on-stage, most of the Naked Samoans featured in eclectic comedy series Rariradirah (2011). Lelisi played an android in the show's Star Trek parody 'Space Waltz'.
Profile updated on 10 June 2020
'Shimpal Lelisi' Auckland Actors website. Accessed 10 June 2020
'Shimpal Lelisi' (Interview) - The Press, 31 January 2009
Sione's Wedding press kit
Sione's 2: Unfinished Business press kit
Topless Women Talk about their Lives press kit