Tribute to Katya Saunders - a Maltese LGBTQ+ icon
Updated: Feb 20, 2019
We are saddened to hear about the passing of Katya at the age of 61, better known as 'Kaka' by her friends and loved ones.
She was an iconic performer in the 70s with her cabaret sensual moves in clubs around Malta and London.
Katya is also recognised as trailblazer and icon for the LGBTQ+ movement in Malta as she dared crossing very dangerous waters in a time where the Island was still very conservative.
We would like to invite friends and loved ones who knew Katya, to send us more memories of her so may dedicate a page in her honour and to keep her alive as one of Malta's historic LGBTQ icons. Email us here
From the Times of Malta:
Katya, who died aged 61, was well known as a cabaret performer in clubs around Malta and London in the 1970s, and appeared as a model for Vogue magazine and several international agencies.
“Katie was a good soul who battled her demons by living the life of a star, well as well as she could, anyway,” close friend Anthony Sultana told Times of Malta, recalling a glamorous youth that included modelling with Karl Lagerfeld and partying with David Bowie and Mick Jagger.
But Mr Sultana also recalled his friend’s kindness and generosity: “I personally will be forever grateful to dear Katya for taking me in when I had no place to stay,” he said.
“She was, for a while, the Mother Teresa to a group of us homeless, young, gay men.
“She was also very witty, forever quoting lines from Bette Davis Gloria Swanson and Joan Crawford movies, like she studied the parts and played them herself.
“I will always remember her as the beautiful woman who brought a smile wherever she sashayed.”
The model was hailed by those who knew her as an inspiration and a source of strength even for the current generation of gay activisits.
James Mifsud, one of her closest friends, describes how she “metaphorically laid down the red carpet for today’s LGBTQ scene to be able to safely come out and live their lives”.
The two met by chance in the 1990s, at the City of London bar, a favourite hangout of both.
“I had already spotted her a couple of times before actually meeting her. I couldn’t help wonder who this glamorous woman, who looked like a James Bond star, was,” he reminisced.
After that first meeting, the two became firm friends and would hang out together.
“Her stories were something else. She had left Malta aged 17, simply so that she could be herself. And, in London, she managed. She modelled, she hung out with stars, she lived a fabulous life,” Mr Mifsud says.
Katya was, in fact, known for having starred on Vogue and a number of other international magazines in the 1980s, as well as for the star-studded company she kept.
“She’d hang out with David Bowie, Mick Jagger... the stories I’ve heard are amazing.”
Eventually, Katya returned to Malta, where she is widely credited with starting the LGBTQ scene.
“This was back in the days where there wasn’t a gay scene in Malta. It was before the days of Gay Pride. I remember, once, we dressed up in costumes and paraded through Paceville, with Katya leading the défilé . We wanted to tell everyone that we are here, we exist.”
But, beyond the flamboyance and eccentricity, Mr Mifsud also remembers Katya’s “heart of gold”. “She never gave up on anything. She was always smiling, and she always looked impeccable, no matter her mood. Her style was very Alexander McQueen. Though, sometimes, she’d also bring to mind Audrey Hepburn, with her classic taste and perfect grooming, especially walking down Republic Street in Valletta, with those big sunglasses of hers.”
His parting words are poignant as they are heartfelt.
“She was the foundation of the LGBTQ community in Malta. She is their queen, without even knowing.”
Words that are echoed by Keith St John, one of the regular DJs at Lollipop parties, possibly the biggest recurring event on the local gay scene.
He describes how he had “heard the stories” about her before even meeting her, which had always made him wonder why everyone spoke so highly of her.
“When I met her, it all made sense. The woman had a strong presence and energy. Yet, she was so kind, not to mention witty. Kaka, as we knew her, is one of those people we should be grateful for, because she was a warrior during a more conservative time,” he says.
The camera never stopped loving her, as a recent series of portraits by Maltese photographer Kris Micallef reveals.
Mr Micallef recalls seeing her for the first time back when he was a little boy.
“I was struck by her aura. Who was she? I wanted to know her. When we were introduced, our connection was beautiful and I’m going to miss our impromptu photo-shoots,” he says.
A combination of kindness and charm earned Katya the respect of everyone she met, from fashion designers like Charles & Ron – whose creations she wore with pride, and who will be launching a collection in her honour later this month in New York – to television personalities like Peter Carbonaro, who describes how “she would walk into a room and everyone would stop and look at her”.
Mr Carbonaro recounts how, though Katya’s was not an easy life, “from a young age she knew what she wanted and went for it”, adding that she had to overcome “hundreds of obstacles” to be what she wanted to be.
She was also responsible for creating fashion designer Joseph Grima’s brand name – to date, everyone knows him by the simple name ‘Mugi’.
A friend and neighbour, he says that Katya was to have a strong influence on his designs and that he always sought her advice on fashion-related matters.
“I doubt I will ever meet a human being so complex, so elegant, so stylish,” he reminisces.
The rest of the fashion world certainly seems to agree. Meantime, a wake held at her beloved City of London bar, in St Julian’s, was every bit as glamorous as Kaka would have wished.
Charles van Maarschalkerweerd Borg - Designer for Charles & Ron
"Katya was very special and unique an icon to the LGBTQ community. She had the courage to be herself way back when it was still very difficult and dangerous to do so. Her sense of style and elegance was unparalleled and she was our muse for several years and always of great inspiration until today and always will be. As a friend we had enormous amounts of fun as her wit and sense of humour were also one of kind. She was one of the first to believe in us in our early days and we will dedicate our next collection that we are launching in NY (her favourite city) on 9th February in her honour."
Yvan Chircop Bruno: Close friend of Katia
I have many memories of Katia, she gave me the courage to come out to my family, and she was there for me and I was there for her; we became family. She was very special to me and I always would try to visit her whenever I would visit Malta after I moved to Sydney 16 years ago, she would always tell me “I should move to Sydney with you.” My fondest memories of her would be whenever she would come up with a crazy and flamboyant outfit for a night out, one time she made an outfit with white ostrich feathers and ribbons and a sailor’s hat. She looked amazing and beautiful, like some kind of Bond girl from the 1970’s.
Apart from her beauty and style, Katia had a very witty and funny character. One time she had asked me to hang some paintings for her, so I took some of my father’s tools, and after a day’s work of hanging frames and fixing things here and there I somehow managed to lose my father’s hammer. I panicked but she calmed me down with a smile and told me “don’t worry darling it will come out on day.” Several months later on my birthday she gave me this huge box with an equally huge box and a card saying “to my dearest Ivan Happy Birthday from your auntie Katia. PS here is a present that you have been wanting!” I opened the box and behold my father’s hammer… bless her.
Maria Moller (Owner of Fly the Fly Vintage)
"There is so much so tell about Katya, you could write a whole book about her life. She went through so much to be herself. So many battles inside of her but also so many beautiful stories. She was such a warm hearted person, she was loud, she was extravagant, full of flair and playful."
"My heart is broken. Kaka, the last thing you said to me was, 'Maria don’t forget I love you, even if you are more crazy than me.'"
"I will miss all our talks about life, love, sex and sorrows.
I will miss how much we were teasing each other and who forced hug each other first. Today I have your letter close to me. Bye, dearest Katya."
Albert Buhagiar (Chunky)
A few years ago I thought of writing the word Katia in the google search bar hoping something would come up about the fabulous life this woman lived. Sadly nothing did but a link took me to a website were 2 of this posters were for sale. I bought them right away and couldn’t be happier to own a bit of this pop culture history. She IS the definition of faqa What an iconic woman! What a grand life! What a poignant story!!!
May your fabulosity continue to shine on the rest of us who knew you, dearest Katia xxx
Credits: IRINA TENNANT
Katya was part of my family ( I was related by marriage) we spent many times together both in Malta and London. Here are some pictures I took of her in London. I was shocked to learn of her sudden passing
Colette Farrugia Bennett - Coordinator Malta LGBT+ Rights Movement
"22 years ago, in my first summer job looking very young and green, I had the opportunity to be challenged by an exchange with stranger. I lacked knowledge on gender diversity and the reality of trans* persons. I learnt that the Gender binary was a myth and the exchange with this stranger instilled an interest to learn and experience gender and sexual diversity.
Today, I heard about the sad news that the person who was then a stranger, and later an acquaintance and member of my same community, has passed away... Thank you Katia for giving me the opportunity and the challenge to learn. You might not know it, but you changed my life by being yourself.... The glamorous and unique Katia."
Karly Naudi - Local LGBTQ+ Hero
Today the local LGBTIQ family lost a fellow sister and an ICON who had the courage to be her true self in a dangerous time for anyone within the LGBTIQ Spectrum.
Even though we only met a couple of times, I want to thank you for helping me understand who I truly am and inspiring me with your style, poise and incredible strength. Your light will continue to shine upon us all and I will continue to push boundaries for our fellow transgender brothers and sisters like you did. I’m sure heaven became much more glamorous the second you stepped in. Be at Peace SISTER 💖
As a young boy I didn't understand what being different was, till I met Katya.
I watched this proud woman walking towards my mother and i ,she had the longest legs I had ever seen ,wearing the shortest of shorts , her face covered by huge sunglasses , smoking her cigarette she called me darling and kept walking, her walk was unlike anyone I had seen before , it felt like everyone watched her.
I asked my mother who that woman was , she just said " oh thats Katya, everyone knows Katya " I was lucky to have gotten to know when I grew up better to understand her. I had many hilarious moments of her washing my hair at my hairdresser as her dog sat on my lap, her taking so much interest in my life.
I find it so hard to believe just a few weeks ago we were all chatting, she spoke like a true fighter of life , how she always stood her grown. Many people had different ways of looking at her , myself - i think she was a true legend who stood for what she believed in , she fought hard, and i will never forget her. Thanks to her, so many people chose to be true to themselves .
May she rest in peace x
Kris Micallef - Photographer
Every time Katia and I were in the same room, it was like magic. She loved the camera and the camera loved her! I still remember the very first time I saw her in a coffee shop, I was a little boy and I was struck by her elegance, her style, her aura. Who is she? I want to know her!
It was only a couple of few years ago that I was introduced to her and the connection was beautiful.
I'm going to miss our impromptu shoots. What an icon! Thank you for everything x
RIP Katia Saunders 🖤
She came to my flat in Sliema back in the 90s and rearranged my living room. She had an eye for decor!
And another time, at Misfits bar, I was drunk and puking my guts out in the loo, she came in slapped my face, threw cold water & bought me a drink!
I’ll never forget her. - Emel
I have to say something about this amazing and colourful character who was known to most of us as Kaka or Katya. She was a lovely soul, kind, flamboyant, fashionable and a pure entertainer. I remember being in Stanmore Middlesex one day waiting on a tube train and i hear this loud voice speaking in Maltese and I immediately recognised it as Katya's I went up to her and hugged her it was such a wonderful nostalgia to hear Maltese and more so because it was the unforgettable Katya! RIP lovely person you are much loved...
"Kaka, a one in a million legend whose legacy will live on. Not only was she a true friend, she was also so multi faceted. On the one hand, a simple and deep person at heart with whom you could discuss anything at any time. She was always there to grab a quick coffee in Sliema , to listen and give advice and on the other she was the quintessential diva , the life and soul of so many a party who added vibrant colour to all those around her. Having inspired countless people, her memory will remain in our hearts.."- Marco Brown
I took these photos of Kaka the last time we had a drink together in May 2017. During our evening I asked her whether she would agree to let me write her memoirs, to which she replied, "Jamais! I will take them to my grave!" Rest In Peace, darling diva.
"Where do I start with Katia? Literally, no words can describe her character. She was just amazing. I only wish I’d gotten to know her a lot sooner! Attached is the ONLY picture we have together as a group, tequila shots. That’s how we first got to know each other, haha. - Please don’t post this picture, it’s not the best picture but I don’t have another one.
I know every body has these amazing stories of her and how much of an icon she was. Mine is nothing like that. To me, Katia was a friend. I never knew her during her icon days nor did I grow up in Malta so I didn’t know anything about her past until I got to know her as a person.
I’ll always remember her calling me ‘darling’ and just being the sweetest person ever. Sticking up for me when someone said something in a drunken stupor. Talking about her life over some wine. I just wish that I got to talk more with her.
The last time we saw her was the beginning of December. I was rushing to my staff Christmas party and she stopped me to just say hello and give me a compliment. If I’d known that was the last time I’d see her, I would have made time to stay and appreciate that time more.
Every week since, my friends and I ask each other ‘Where is she?!’ Because we hadn’t seen her. Then last night, we heard the awful news."- Karl Dixon
"The one and only KAKA. I remember when I used to meet you at Natasha’s , Surfside, Ciry and Axis- always impeccably dressed . I remember our chats about fashion and music and life. Your stories, your funny lines and your amazing persona. You paved the way to so many people . An icon. We will never forget you Kaka. ❤️" - Peter Carbonaro
David & Jason Attard Bajada - Owners of Michelangelo Club Lounge
Found this photo
What fun it was dear Katia at Michelangelo
we love you babes And we’re missing you You where an absolute darling Rest in piece our friend
As a child growing up in Malta in the 70’s I remember her well from Reef Club days. Sunbathing topless (in the process of her transitioning), and in those days known as “Roberta” - she caused quite a stir and livened things up considerably for us kids! We were fascinated by this weird and wonderful creature! For her part she was well aware of the effect she had on people and purposely played up to it. I think she thought “well if they’re going to stare let’s give them something to really talk about!”.
Looking back on it, I realise she must have faced serious challenges living as a transgender person on a tiny insular island like Malta in the 70’s. The fact however that Katya did so with such courage, warmth and unique flamboyance ensures she’ll continue to inspire and be remembered with love and respect..”Madame we salute you!”
Chantal Ellul (London)