It took Nina Arsenault eight years and 60 separate cosmetic surgeries to turn from an unmemorable man to an unforgettable woman.
That’s the story she’s telling in The Silicone Diaries, which opens at Buddies in Bad Times on Saturday.
Arsenault’s story has been front and centre for several years now in various magazine articles and television features, but she feels she has to tell her own story on the stage to get to the truth.
“Most of the time, I’m dealing with a team of people who are trying to manage my narrative and make it more palatable to middle-class audiences,” she says in a voice that may seem as breathy as Marilyn Monroe’s, but has reserves of steel underneath it.
“Believe me, I don’t have to add sensation to my story.”
She’s right. The sheer facts of the saga; its thousands of pills swallowed, hours of pain endured and everything from black market silicone to a Mexican castration doesn’t have to be enlivened for the stage.
“In fact, I spent an enormous amount of time getting back to the truth of the memories. My story has never been told in its simplicity before and that’s what I’m trying to do here.”
Arsenault credits her director, Brendan Healy (the newly appointed Artistic Director of Buddies) with helping her immeasurably by introducing her to the work of the late monologist Spalding Gray.
“I admire what he did so much,” she says. “He can look that camera in the eye and not waver, keeping that voice steady and true. I find now that when I’m working a moment too much or exaggerating it, I feel it right away and pull myself back to the truth.”
When asked what made her choose this particular journey in her life, Arsenault laughs with a bitter edge.
“I didn’t choose it. It chose me. These are my deepest obsessions – beauty, my body. I literally tore my body apart, but it gave me so many of the things I had wanted from life since I was a child.
“This is a deep, deep passion and I’m not going to apologize for it or let people pathologize me for it.”
Despite this deep connection with what she’s been through, Arsenault is able to step back and look coldly at the society she’s a part of.
“Beauty is such a provocative subject in our culture. We all love it and everybody responds to it. You’re lucky if you have it, but there’s a perception that it’s weak or morally wrong to strive for it too much.”
One of the key moments in Arsenault’s saga involves the night in 2006 when rocker and amateur porn star Tommy Lee came on to her in a Toronto club.
“Oh yes, that was a major moment in my life! I started transitioning in the 1990s when Pamela Anderson was the ultimate sex goddess of the era. But she was a caricature of a woman and I’m a f–king caricature of her. And there I was, sitting on the lap of her man. I thought, `This is where my quest for beauty took me. I’m sitting on the biggest d–k in the world.’”
Arsenault ultimately feels that what she’s done “is neither empowering nor oppressive” and if some young, sexually confused individual came to her wondering if he should do what she’s done, her answer has the sound of hard-earned knowledge.
“Go down whatever path you want to go down, but go down it with your eyes open.”