Written by Mark Robins
(originally published at www.gayvancouver.net, TUESDAY, 07 FEBRUARY 2012)
Nina Arsenault says she is an open book and it’s difficult to argue that fact with someone who each night chronicles their transition from a self-described awkward man into a 36D-26-40 bombshell in Silicone Diaries, set to play The Cultch later this month.
Three questions into our interview, Arsenault proves that she is that open book as I dance around the one question about her 60-plus surgeries that I think (perhaps naively) everyone else is too polite to ask: does she still have her penis?
“I still have it,” she replied without hesitation. “I have considered it. I still consider it but I have had so many surgical procedures I don’t know if I could do another. I read once in the Toronto Star that I refuse to have a sex change but I haven’t refused to have a sex change, I just haven’t got there yet or I don’t know how I will deal with that yet”.
Besides, Arsenault says, the whole question of what remains ‘down there’ is really only important to two people: herself and her boyfriend.
Arsenault’s transition from Rodney to Nina began in earnest sometime around 1998 and has since included the over 60 surgeries with a price tag of $200,000. To fund her surgeries Arsenault took to the streets as a sex worker for eight years, a time in her life that she looks back at quite fondly. “I had a blast … I have nothing bad to say about being a sex worker.”
When asked if she would consider a return to that previous life, Arsenault says that while those days are behind her she proudly acknowledges that they were great training grounds for her current role as a performance artist.
“I always talk about how being a whore was the best acting training you can get … especially when you’re stripping. What makes him stay [to watch] is if he feels like he has real intimacy and authentic passion. That’s an incredible incentive to keep things vital at twenty dollars [every three minutes],” she laughed.
While describing stripping as some of the best acting training she has received, she also points to the endless number of fantasies that were demanded by clients in shaping her as a performer. “Not only did I have to keep it real, I had to read the guy and be the fantasy he wanted to be and bring it to life.”
Besides using the acting training she learned as a sex worker, Arsenault tells the story of her eight year transition through a variety of multi-media elements including actual video of her undergoing surgery, something she says was necessary for her to tell the full story.
“It is quite visceral to watch but quite artfully done and my intention is not to shock people with it,” she explained. “If you’re going to do a play about 60 cosmetic procedures, it is going to be about cutting. If I only presented the beautiful side of plastic surgery I would be glamorizing it, but my intention is to show it for all its sides.”
Sometimes characterized as having been obsessed with her transformation and surgeries, Arsenault prefers to look at them as “passions with a capital p”, something she hopes audiences will think about for themselves as they leave her show.
“Everyone has that thing they are passionate about whether it is partying, sex, alcohol, religion, violence or politics. Mine happens to be beauty,” she concluded. “I want people to leave [the show] knowing that the thing they are passionate about or obsessed with is part of what makes them great. We are all here to live big lives and live passionate existences. That means sometimes going the dark side of our personalities but we must do that so we can go back into the light and realize why we are here.”