originally from: http://www.eyeweekly.com/arts/theatre/article/76691
Nina Arsenault has “fierce” down pat. Strangers stop her in the street to tell her she’s fierce. They email her and Facebook her with kudos on her fierceness. After 60 cosmetic surgeries and procedures, Arsenault’s physical appearance is as slickly engineered as a late-generation iPod, her high-gloss public persona buffed by her time as a nightclub hostess, TV personality and columnist. Described on her website as “Canada’s most celebrated transsexual,” Arsenault can come off as a pure, distilled image, tearing up feminist notions of what it is to be a woman as she poses with mannequins or impersonates Barbie. She has created herself as a fantasy woman though sheer will (and about $160,000). So it comes as something of a shock when, during an interview about her new play The Silicone Diaries, she claims she didn’t have much control over building Brand Nina.
“That public persona that got put together around me took on a life of its own,” says Arsenault, who, at 35, hasn’t had a surgical procedure for five years. “When it was being constructed, I didn’t know what I was doing. Sometimes I’d meet people and they’d have a very different idea of who I am than who I am. A lot of the media images I put out there — a lot of the time I consider them really ironic. Or I consider them a self-critique. But a lot of the time people take them on a literal level.”
Arsenault’s first obsession had always been theatre, but when she started transitioning in 1998, she found her ever-changing body couldn’t handle the physical rigours of the stage. Her time as a sex worker and party girl kept her busy. Those occupations are performative, too, but driven by ego and impenetrability (“I couldn’t expect compassion there”) rather than intimacy and authenticity. When Sky Gilbert was casting for his 2007 play Will the Real J.T. LeRoy Please Stand Up?, Arsenault decided to audition.
She didn’t get the part, but the two hit it off. Gilbert wrote the one-act Ladylike especially for her and she found that being on the stage was just like coming home. After seeing Ladylike, Stephen Tobias of the Saint John Theatre Company suggested she write her own one-woman show based on the columns she had written for fab magazine (a publication I edited after Arsenault had ended the column) about her adventures in body modification and sex work.
“When I was writing those columns, I would read them to my friend over the phone and I thought they worked really well as monologues,” says Arsenault. The Silicone Diaries’ 2008 debut in New Brunswick attracted the attention of Toronto’s Buddies In Bad Times. (Coincidentally, Brendan Healy, who directed her in Saint John, was already booked to direct her at Buddies when he was appointed artistic director of the company.) Stories like the time Mötley Crüe member Tommy Lee tried to pick her up remain cornerstones of the theatrical tell-all, but Arsenault had brought more structure and heart to the script and tried to answer questions about why she went to the lengths she did with plastic surgery. If her identity is less fierce than it used to be, so be it.
“Theatre requires being vulnerable,” says Arsenault. “When you’re a marginalized person, just getting up on stage and saying what happened to you is a political action.”