Nina Arsenault isn't your average woman.
She flaunts a 36-26-40inch figure and underwent 60 cosmetic surgeries and procedures to transform her appearance from that of a man.
But Arsenault's Vancouver premiere of her one-woman show, The Silicone Diaries, Feb. 14 to 25 at The Cultch, promises to be much more than a freak show.
With seven personal monologues, Arsenault aims to take audiences on an intimate journey that includes spiritual moments, a tale of a plastic surgery specialist in Mexico who focuses on transsexuals and being picked up by rocker Tommy Lee.
"In a certain way it's about plastic surgery, and then on a totally other level it's not about plastic surgery at all," Arsenault said. "It's about love and inner beauty and harmony and intimacy, but in the most unusual and unexpected places-places like at an Internet porn site."
Arsenault, who spent her first six years in teensy Beamsville, Ont., was obsessed from a young age with being beautiful at any cost. She stripped, performed oral sex and worked on reality TV to earn the $200,000 needed to pay for her procedures.
She knows her appreciation of "fake" beauty and her drive to achieve it isn't something others easily understand, but Arsenault believes women appreciate that The Silicone Diaries doesn't feed them pat answers to complicated questions, and she notes that many, including elderly people, can relate to the feeling of being trapped inside a body that doesn't match their spirit.
The Silicone Diaries includes photos of Arsenault when she was Rodney and graphic images of her cosmetic procedures, edited poetically, she says, by R. Kelly Clipperton, the front man of Toronto band Kelly and the Kellygirls.
Arsenault, who'd studied theatre and acting, first gained attention when she wrote about transitioning in a column for Toronto's Fab Magazine. So turning the column into a play wasn't a stretch.
But still, she says, audience members seem surprised that she's smart, self-aware and not totally superficial and messed up.
"Even if you are a f***ed up woman, it's OK to be a f***ed up woman for a while," Arsenault said. "Being a f***ed up woman is an absolutely healthy response to living in this culture."
The performer behind a solo piece called I was Barbie, has always admired the brand of beauty exhibited by Lonni Anderson, Dolly Parton, geishas, Jessica Rabbit and Marilyn Monroe. She doesn't think that "plastic beauty" is pushed on women. Instead, she says, women face the tyranny of "natural beauty."
"It's like you're supposed to be that but if you do anything to get there, you're called superficial," Arsenault said. "What I'm saying is can we open up some other options because the system that's going now actually doesn't let you win unless you're blond, perfect and you're very young."
Arsenault had her first cosmetic procedure at age 25 in 1998, her last in 2006. She's not sure what she's going to do as she ages. "Once you're in the game you can't age naturally," she said.
But she feels "pretty good" about the way she looks now, noting she dons two different wigs every day, false eyelashes and piles of makeup.
"Underneath the wigs I have scars from the surgical procedures so my beauty is absolutely an illusion," Arsenault said. "But, at the same time, I'm so grateful that I've got to experience a life where I get to be glamorous, where I get to, in a certain way, live the life of a beautiful woman, but it all comes off, it's all fake- It's afforded me so many wonderful, wonderful experiences- It's complicated."
The Silicone Diaries includes post-show talkbacks Feb. 15, 16, 21 and 22. For more information, see thecultch.com.
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