by Richard Burnett in Hour (with permission)
It is pure synchronicity that I am blabbing with Nina Arsenault - the most celebrated transsexual in Canada - on international Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day set aside each Nov. 20 to memorialize those murdered because of anti-transgender hatred or prejudice.
Nina, star of her critically-hailed, autobiographical one-transwoman show, The Silicone Diaries, is very aware of this too.
"The hardest part of my transformation was when I was living as a woman but still looked very masculine and people would make fun of me on the street," Nina says. "They'd yell things out of their car. I realized there is a double standard for transsexuals, because if you're a beautiful transsexual, people will accept you more easily. If you 'pass' you will be more accepted. You may not even be noticed. But if you don't pass... That's what really hurt me - people don't see you as human."
Truth is, after 60 cosmetic surgeries over eight long years, Nina doesn't look very human.
Similarly, last winter when I asked famed NYC tranny (and photographer Dave LaChappelle's muse) Amanda Lepore what she thinks she looks like, Lepore replied, "There is something alien about my face - there is something spacey about me. If I dressed like Lady Gaga, [my face] would get lost. But because I dress retro, vamp and classic, the [alien] qualities come out more."
Nina Arsenault is equally frank. "I look like a cyborg," she says, unafraid to showcase her eye-popping 36D-26-40 bombshell body in her first play, the aptlynamed I Was Barbie, which was a hit during Barbie's 50th anniversary at Toronto Fashion Week in June 2009.
The first scene in The Silicone Diaries is set in the Golden Horseshoe Trailer Park of Beamsville, Ontario, where Arsenault lived with her parents and brother until the age of six. In this scene, young Nina (then Rodney) and the local trailer park boys gather to look at a stack of Penthouse magazines. Today, 30 years later, it is Nina who looks like she could pose for Penthouse.
"My parents are generally supportive, though my mom thinks I'm too sexy," Nina admits. "She thinks I didn't need to get my breasts done so large and my lips so big. And she thinks I wear too much make-up. She's worried about my life being difficult but now that they've come to see my plays, they get a kick out of how audacious I am."
While Disney-style drag queens now entertain the masses (I felt gay life was neutered in the hugely-popular, Broadway-bound Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical I saw at Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre two weeks ago), trans is - as America's one-man gay-AP Rex Wockner told me last week - "the new way to terrorize the bourgeoisie. Gay is so passé."
Or as Nina says, "I don't differentiate between gay people and straight people anymore. I differentiate between queer people and normative people. Normative are those who buy into mainstream ideals of beauty, of where they should live and what is an acceptable lifestyle. Because gay people can now get married and adopt kids, a lot of gay people have become [conservative] too - and in some ways just as judgmental as straight people used to be. That's an unfortunate development in [today's] gay community. I just don't fit in."
Still, post-surgery Nina continued to make headlines as a hostess in Toronto nightclubs, then as a columnist for the Queen City's Fab magazine. She took it to the next level, selling out I Was Barbie at Toronto's We're Funny That Way comedy festival and Halifax's Queer Acts Festival, all the while keeping her name in the news with high-profile TV appearances (including on Fashion Television, OUT TV's The Locker Room and Kink on Showcase). Then came The Silicone Diaries in November 2009, Arsenault's tour de force retelling of her life, from the Golden Horseshoe Trailer Park to becoming a sex worker to pay for all of her surgeries (which so far have cost her $200,000).
Silicone Diaries' 90-minute monologue - which will be published in an upcoming anthology of queer plays by Borealis Press - also recreates Nina's infamous "Crying Game-style collision" with Pamela Anderson's ex-hubby, rocker Tommy Lee. "One night at Toronto's swanky Ultra Supper Club he was in the sectioned off VIP area and the place was packed with star fuckers, silicone-enhanced women with bad extensions. These wanna-be Pamela Andersons were intentionally trying to capture his eye. I just happened to be there and he picked me out of the pack to come over and sit on his lap." Needless to say, the meeting ended quickly.
"Was he polite?" Nina asks rhetorically. "I think he's a laidback guy who's seen it all. I had the sense that he's an adventurous guy with a wild sense of humour and a really big heart."
"Among other things," I crack.
Nina laughs. "Yeah, he's really cocksure!"
In another scene from The Silicone Diaries, Nina the former sex-worker slinks onstage in a transparent dress that pretty much reveals everything cocksucking did for her (Nina hasn't had the chop but is castrated). The way Nina has reshaped her body reminds me of Pete Burns of the 1980s Brit-pop band Dead or Alive, who says his body is an ever-changing piece of art.
"I feel the same way," Nina says. "And from my body, I spin off other arts, like photographs of my body, or this play about my body. The next phase of my work will document the signs of aging. I don't really see myself ever stopping. I've always taken pictures of every stage of my life and videotaped all of my surgical procedures."
When I ask Nina if she still goes for touch-ups every now and then, she laughs heartily. "Well, I didn't go for five years! I got really sick of it, [especially after] putting all those strange dicks in my mouth [to pay for it all]!" Nina laughs again. "So I took a break. People were beginning to think I was addicted to plastic surgery and I thought I looked as good as I could possibly look. But I don't think I could let my face age naturally at this point. Because I don't have a natural face. Once it starts dropping I won't look like an old woman. I'll look quite strange, I think. We always say, 'Once you've had this much work done, you're always in the game.'"
Just like Cher and Joan Rivers. "Yeah, they're in the game," Nina agrees. "Imagine if Joan Rivers let that face fall and those cheeks started sliding down? It wouldn't look right."
This transition is at the heart of The Silicone Diaries. It's not so much about a boy becoming a girl as it is about beauty. "My story has now become about a transition from being ugly to becoming beautiful, even if beautiful means looking plastic. At some point looking beautiful became more important than looking like a woman. It became more important than looking natural. And I don't think my transition will ever end because my body is always changing, always aging. Losing beauty, faded beauty - I don't think my transition will ever be over. Maybe one day I'll even decide to get my pussy."