Plastic fantastic: Nina Arsenault’s one-woman play The Silicone Diaries deals with her pursuit of extreme beauty, a quest that has involved over 60 surgeries and has taken her from mere mortal to near cyborg
“My art is not created from a place where I’m trying to make the world a better place,” said transsexual writer and performer Nina Arsenault at Moses Znaimer’s ideaCity in Toronto earlier this year. “My art is not created from a place where I’m trying to ease the suffering of other women. In fact, my work complicates the world. My work complicates the suffering of other women.”
Arsenault, who was born in small-town Ontario, grew up in a trailer park and briefly taught at York University, was 24 when she began sexual reassignment surgery. She has said she pursued her operations “with a kind of athleticism”—an apt description, given that she would have up to six at a time, occasionally under extremely dodgy circumstances. In actualizing the hectic, extravagant femininity she calls her art, she has wilfully joined the ranks of women who have pursued beauty to an extreme degree.
She speaks frankly about these feminizing injections and surgeries in her play The Silicone Diaries, which opens in Montreal at la Chapelle this week and chronicles how she turned herself from an awkward man into a bombshell with measurements that seem almost supernatural: 36D-26-40. Many of the treatments she underwent—she’s endured over 60 operations in total—are illegal in North America. She travelled south to have them administered, occasionally in motel rooms, once, as she recounts, receiving silicone injections from a 7-Up bottle procured from a closet. These earthy, tumbledown anecdotes, which make up her one-woman play The Silicone Diaries, had critics floored during the run in Toronto and provide a dramatic contrast to their outcome: Arsenault’s quest for the feminine has taken her beyond mere mortal and into cyborg territory. “We don’t live natural lives,” she says. “We live in a modern technological society and that is where I will seek to empower myself and that is where I will seek to find pleasure. There is a white noise around beauty. People will reward you for it.” Arsenault represents a very contemporary beauty ideal—a must-have-it-all-to-get-it-all compilation of female signifiers: her breasts are taut and unsinkable, her lips GMO succulent, her nose a filbert-sized ski slope, her eyes wide as a doe’s, her skin creaseless and tawny. “But I’m not contemporary,” she says with serene resignation. “I’m already outdated. This look peaked in the early 2000s.”
The “look” to which she refers can be summed up in a portmanteau: Pornywood. Jenna Jameson and Pamela Anderson would be two women who have also sculpted themselves to similar effect. Arsenault says she was aware of the fact—that her choices and the technologies she used to satisfy them would soon be outdated—the moment she began her surgeries in pursuit of irreproachable beauty. That some day, as she says, science would enable women to attain larger breasts through stem cell technology and that implants would become antiquated and, yes, repugnant objects of curiosity.
“Look at her,” says Arsenault, imagining the conversations orbiting her in coming years. “She’s one of those old silicone queens. Back in the day, doctors cut her open and put things inside of her.” She knows about these things because her entire life has been dedicated to beauty and how it can be achieved artificially. Arsenault knew from a very young age that she wanted to be a woman and her early surgeries were aimed at this goal. It was only later that she began the ones that have made her so iconic.
Many of us are in similar pursuit—“The Hunt” as Arsenault calls it—but Arsenault uses herself, to both stunning and ruthless effect, as a canvas. To maintain the quality of her creation, she has become an expert on methodologies past, present and future. She feels great affinity to those who have also taken up painstaking artifice as a spiritual quest, all the while knowing the results may be devastating.
“I understand Geisha cross-culturally and perhaps I am exotifying them,” she states. “But I experience them as extraordinarily beautiful.”
To some, this may seem an improbable correlation. Arsenault’s history as a sex worker, which she touches on keenly in Diaries, would put her in the class of courtesan. Look a little deeper, though, and you will see the connection. Geisha dedicate their lives to their form—early Geisha were even left ravaged by the effects of their lead-based make-up—knowing that what they do puts them in a category that alienates and is revered in equal measures. “Our culture is really schizophrenic when it comes to beauty,” says Arsenault.
The woman that Arsenault chose to exemplify has already had her heyday. Now ahead of her is the not so simple task of living with this choice (one that involves a beauty designed to engender envy and awe) with unfaltering self-acceptance.
NATURE, DNA, SPALDING GRAY
One might say that Arsenault’s presentation of female beauty is one that has obvious overtones of oppressive male desire and that she chose as her target audience the most fickle and cruel critics. Who is the woman Arsenault embodies inside, the one who has created this exterior that leaves her so vulnerable to such misogynistic whims?
In the ’90s, French performance artist ORLAN had a series of plastic surgeries to transform herself into various beauty ideals throughout the ages. Her goal was to acquire flawless beauty as envisioned by male artists; she later described the work as a “struggle against the innate, the inexorable, the programmed, Nature, DNA (which is our direct rival as far as artists of representation are concerned)”.
Arsenault is following a similar path and these same themes are explored in Diaries. The women Arsenault describes in the play are also seeking improbable beauty, but theirs is done for pure self-pleasure rather than cultural or scholarly exploration. In recounting her own journey wrestling with the innate, the programmed and DNA, Arsenault looks to late American monologist Spalding Gray.
Gray was skilled at the art of the red herring confessional, of the “what you are seeing is really me, but it is also not really me.” This is also Arsenault’s greatest talent, as suggested by the title of the show itself.
“He had such incredible precision, dignity and calmness,” she says of Gray. “He suffered from intense anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder and to get on stage and be grounded and tell his story was a task of dedication and bravery on his part.
“I had a lot of things about my experiences that I wanted to express, but I knew that they were provocative and I knew there would be people who would contest them. So to be able to stand onstage, moment by moment and not shrink from the real life experience of it, to not apologize for it or make it palatable to everyone, to speak my own truth from a place of grounded-ness, for me Spalding Gray was mesmerizing in that way. He took the form of storytelling to such a high art form.”
“I am not a normal ‘woman trapped inside a man’s body,’’’ Arsenault has said. “This cultural soundbite does not begin to encompass the complexity of my experience.”
9 décembre 2010
by Philippe Couture
Regardez bien ce visage. C’est celui de Nina Arsenault, née homme mais devenue cette femme-Barbie après 60 chirurgies plastiques. Un parcours “hautement spirituel” qu’elle raconte dans son spectacle solo The Silicone Diaries.
Devant ce visage de chair et de silicone, indéniablement plastique malgré sa profonde humanité, Freud aurait sans doute parlé d’”inquiétante étrangeté”. La Torontoise Nina Arsenault, dans sa quête éperdue de beauté, a choisi d’aller au bout des possibilités de la chirurgie et de faire de son corps et de son visage une oeuvre presque totalement plastique, se fabriquant une beauté de poupée Barbie dont elle revendique fièrement l’unicité.
“Au départ, dit-elle, je n’étais qu’un jeune homme désirant être une femme. Mais plus les chirurgies avançaient, plus je me rendais compte qu’il est difficile d’éliminer complètement les traces de masculinité. Il y avait deux options: soit je me contentais d’un corps transgenre, soit j’éliminais la majorité des attributs mâles et je devenais presque entièrement plastique. J’ai choisi la deuxième option parce que je savais que, personnellement, j’y trouverais la beauté que je cherchais.” Continue reading
The raging feminine. Incredible fury combined with brilliance and light.
by Allan Gould
Dec 7, 2010
When major theatre critics across the city give a one-person show rave reviews, one’s ears should perk up.
When the subject is intriguing, if not downright irresistible, it is time to book some tickets.
And that is definitely the case with The Silicone Diaries, playing at Buddies in Bad Times until Dec. 11.
The Silicone Diaries relates the story of a man who longs to change to the sex he always felt he should have been (hardly a new or even rare happening and always at risk of being prurient or clichéd).
What creator/performer Nina Arsenault does is astounding — literally acting eight years and 60 surgical procedures, describing in intimate detail her quest to not only become a woman, but to become the woman.
To quote from the play: “Pamela [Anderson] is a caricature of a woman,and I am a caricature of her.” Certainly, our response to body image has given birth to endless changes over history.
But based on the evidence, The Silicone Diaries is sure to be a captivating production.
When I first heard about the production more than a year ago, I suspected it might be a dreary victim’s manifesto; an I-will-survive, woe-is-me tale of marginalization and hardship. It’s nothing of the sort. It’s Arsenault’s life story, a personal journey from boy to girl to living work-of-art mannequin. It’s gritty, fascinating, sexy and funny. Arsenault’s intelligence, sense of humour, grit and ego really shine through. It’s truly entertaining.
Xtra writer Chris Dupuis did a cover story on Silicone Diaries for Xtra Toronto last year when the show first premiered. Check it out here. And Xtra writer Cate Simpson reviewed the show. See her account here.
Since then Arsenault has toured the show extensively and earned some great press and strong reviews. I saw the show most recently on this engagement’s opening night, Nov 25. In the year since I’d seen it previously, Arsenault has polished her presentation and the pace of the story, creating a well-refined production.
Check her out at Idea City.
I can’t resist recounting this: on the 25th, some poor, unfortunate soul in the audience was taken ill about 15 minutes into Arsenault’s monologue. The sicky fled the theatre, but not without first dramatically disgorging a good portion of the contents of her stomach in that little pool of light directly between the stage and the audience. Can you imagine blowing chunks in front of a room full of people? It is surely one of life’s most embarrassing moments. She must have been mortified, the poor thing. But if you’re going to lose your lunch in a crowd, you might as well do it in front of your community.
Arsenault, who was then in the middle of describing the injection of raw silicone gel into her hips, handled it like a pro. After the retching and splattering sounds subsided, she waited a few beats before telling the audience simply, “It’s intense.” The show went on, and I’m told the scene-stealing pukester recovered quickly.
That’s the thing about Buddies: you never know what’s going to happen.
Nov 30, 2010
Nina’s Stage Alchemy
Last night I attended the dress rehearsal preview of The Silicone Diaries re-mount at Buddies and Bad Times Theatre. I had the privilege to witness an exquisite live stage alchemy. Alchemist of by gone times worked with base inanimate elements that they believed were very much alive. The artist takes silicone and finds an essential life force within something perceived as static. Silicone serves as a base element for her philosopher’s stone-her body, her work.
Nina Arsenault one woman show delivered concentric circles of layered meaning and sensations. Watching her delve into her extraordinary surgically assisted journey was like peering through a kaleidoscope of spiralling spiritual fractals. The movement contained within her tightly poised, breath-focused presence riveted from start to finish. Her creative aperture narrowed and widened, shooting out narratives of precise body language. The script lines lazered over the audience They didn’t read as lines at all. I felt enfolded in an intensely private revelation of personal truth.
A beautiful thread of tension ran through the entire experience. You have a confessional-style, idiosyncratic delivery of the script interwoven with a highly aestheticized, reductive set and lighting design. (Hats off to Michelle Ramsy and Richard Fern, responsible for lighting and sound, respectively) This textural weave of her unique voice and structural stage elements seamlessly connect to her body via multi-media installation. Images float to an appropriately sparse sound-scape. The background video along with the score contextualized the entire experience with a sort of free flowing psychic dream frame.
The brilliance emerges from slowing down, compressing a lifetime of experience so that the audience was able to find space in which to house the meaning of trauma. Chaos being distilled. The myriad of artistic influences range from Buthoh (a Japanese art form emerging from the bombing of Hiroshima) to performance phenomena, the late Spalding Gray. These references create additional pathways into the work. Get into the spell, check out Nina’s captivating stage Alchemy at Buddies and Bad Times Theatre.
*The Silicone Diaries runs from Nov 25Th to December 11th at Buddies and Bad Times Theatre 12 Alexander Street (416-975-8555)
There are many solo shows about intimate journeys, and then there is Nina Arsenault’s The Silicone Diaries. It’s been a long time since I was so moved by a theatre production on a deeply personal level.
Arsenault is a living Barbie doll. After 60 cosmetic surgeries and numerous silicone injections, Arsenault transformed herself from a man called Rodney into a seductive beauty called Nina.
The, at times, harrowing and disturbing show is about her obsession, not just to become the woman who was living inside a man’s body, but her quest to create a perfect woman, the quintessence of feminine beauty.
A video shows us the various stages of Arsenault’s life, from smiling little boy to sultry siren, but it is Arsenault’s words and performance that remain fixed in the mind. Her brutal honesty and raw emotion transfix the audience.
This is the show’s second coming, and is a run don’t walk.
I went to see The Silicone Diaries at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre yesterday. It’s an extraordinary show in every sense of the word. It played to sell-out audiences last year, and so Buddies in Bad Times has brought it back before it goes on tour. It runs here to December 12,
Nina Arsenault has been described as Canada’s foremost transsexual. The Silicone Diaries is her story; how she went from an awkward man to a blonde bombshell, and just kept on going. Famous for sixty plastic surgeries costing over $200,000, financed by adventures in the sex trade, she’s quick to point out that not all of those surgeries were related to gender reassignment. The bulk of the procedures had more to do with the universal yearning for beauty. That search for ultimate beauty is essentially the theme of the show.
She’s an artist, and her body of work is her body.
Nina is also a gifted story-teller. She’s alone on the stage except for a stool, a side-table and a bottle of water. She is mesmerizing. Part monologue, part performance piece, this show holds your attention for all of its one hour and forty-five minutes. Production values are first rate. The lighting is atmospheric and edgy throughout. So is the inventive soundscape by Richard Feren which adds much to the spoken word, as do video projections, which I should add at times are not for the squeamish.
Nina’s search for beauty – ultimate beauty – is a provocative topic. I heard smooth-talking hipster Jian Ghomeshi ask her on CBC Radio a few days ago if she had gone too far. She’s feisty, particularly on this one. No, she said, I’m just trying to be special, like Pamela Anderson is special. (Curiously, Jian replied that he would like to be like Pamela Anderson too.)
You can hear that interview here btw. Click on the November 30 broadcast.
In any event, the pursuit of beauty gives Nina a big story to tell. How she tells it is a true tour de force, full of stellar moments. Early on she talks about her hours on end doing “she-male” porn, jerking off before a webcam. She parlayed her 60-words a minute typing skills in to the ability to keep eight assorted chats going on at once, and she made a lot of money. It’s a funny story. (Read her Fab magazine account of her career in porn here.)
The tale of her silicone injections, not just in her breasts and face but in her thighs and buttocks, is funny too. She’s in Mexico at this point, where black-market silicone injections are cheap. Afterwards, she’s told that the silicone needs to set, so she must lie on her stomach for twenty-four hours. She must pee standing up, or the impression of a toilet seat will be displayed on her buttocks for ever.
Later in her story, she tells of meeting “the biggest dicked rocker in the world”, Tommy Lee, he of the Pamela Anderson sex tapes fame, in LA. The story of how she was picked out of a crowd of big-haired female beauties to kneel before him, and his reaction when he was told “she’s a man” is priceless.
The show – in all its funny, sad, scary and uplifting glory – is brilliantly directed by Brendan Healy.
My rating? I won’t argue with the multitude of critics who’ve given The Silicone Diaries their highest rating. Four thumbs up out of four from me too, Nina.
And Nina, you’re beautiful.
I’ve never seen as many people leave the theatre during a performance as I did at the re-opening of The Silicone Diaries. (The show, a hit in Buddies in Bad Times’ cabaret room last season, is back for a run in the main space.) Their discomfort was, I’m fairly sure, physical rather than aesthetic, since the performance itself is a remarkable one. It’s a transsexual’s detailed account of her journey from a male body to a female one, and it includes extensive film footage of plastic surgery, both bodily and facial, as well as extensive verbal descriptions. The protagonist’s trajectory was, in a sense, reversed by those in the audience who took early retirement: in the show’s first half, the evacuees were women, in the second, as the story threatened to cut closer to home so to speak, they were men.
Nina Arsenault, who lived the story and is now telling it, was very understanding. “It’s intense,” she said sympathetically, in the wake of one especially distressed patron who was actually throwing up as she exited. I confess to averting my own eyes from some of the procedures on the screen. The procedure on the stage is another matter. This is a show about self-fashioning that’s also an example of it.
Over the years Arsenault has turned herself not only into a woman but into a very accomplished performer. With sympathetic direction by Brendan Healy, she plays with great physical grace, never more so than in a late and very amusing section when, delicate feet furiously turning, she mimes her progress on an exercise bike. Her petite pedal extremities (thank you, Fats Waller) round off a tall body, sheathed in a strapless, see-through dress, possibly made out of latex. Vocally, she has only one tone but great command of phrasing. She has written herself some long twisting sentences, which she navigates with extreme elegance and unfailing wit.
First she takes us back to the formative experience of her life when, as a five-year-old boy from an Ontario trailer park, she was entranced by the sight of a mannequin in a chain store. (This may be the only time, in art or in life, in which the words “a Zellers employee” have been uttered in tones of rapt enchantment.) Her life becomes a quest to look, to be, that beautiful, that immune. With a brain that gets her through college and into a teaching assistantship, she moonlights in a porn parlour, still physically a man but communicating online as a woman; so she did have early practice as a performer, if of a rather specialized kind. She’s very good at it; a couple of grateful long-distance clients stake her to her first trip to the U.S, for the first of many, many additions and subtractions. She becomes a passive virtuoso of the operating table, and she meets others similarly dedicated, including one who eventually becomes a cosmetic martyr.
The show’s serio-comic highlight is Arsenault’s account of an evening at a Toronto nightclub where she sets her sights on Tommy Lee. As a six-foot expansively (not to say expensively) sculpted blond, she naturally attracts his attention. And he compels hers, not just by being a rock star trailing hundreds of reputed conquests, but as the ex-husband of Pamela Anderson, who seems to be Arsenault’s role model; though of course Anderson started off with more advantages, or at least fewer handicaps. It all goes very well until Lee’s entourage clue him in that all is not quite what it seems, though both parties manage to retire with their dignities at least outwardly intact.
Arsenault’s Pamela Anderson project, though, raises questions, with which the play’s last scene attempts, not altogether successfully, to grapple. On the one hand, we seem meant to admire her as someone who has, to an extraordinary degree, taken control of her own destiny. On the other, we’re always being told how pernicious it is that women should be pressured to buy into a commercial ideal of beauty, and this seems to be what Arsenault has done, in spades; the fact that she started on the other side of the fence gets her all kinds of added marks for effort but doesn’t really alter the equation. In fact it illustrates it, in starkest relief. So it’s unclear whether it’s tragic or ironic that Arsenault, who’s treated her body as an ongoing work of art, should turn out, inevitably, to have been working in a perishable medium.
There’s a stunning moment at which she takes off her wig and turns out to have realized her ambition; she looks, in that second, as much like a mannequin as anyone ever could. But of course she also wants to be a person, and still wants to be a beautiful one, though she starts talking about inner beauty and takes more conventional steps (thus, the exercise bike) to preserve the outer kind. Well, we all grow old, and the air of special pleading, not to say self-piety, that overtakes the play at the end doesn’t feel earned. The applause, however, does. The production has stylish visuals, designed by Trevor Schwellnus, and sound by the ubiquitous Richard Feren which, if anyone else had done it, would be exceptional.
(from the Dec 1st issue of Eye Weekly)
(photos by Matthew Barnes)
The It girl of Toronto transsexuals, Nina Arsenault is an actress, writer, sex worker and star of her autobiographical play, The Silicone Diaries, which runs until December 11 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Though our gift guide’s hot hostess was born “Rodney” in Beamsville, Ontario, Nina was most definitely made in Toronto.
You’re very open about the plastic surgeries you’ve had. Which parts of you were made in Toronto?
Dr. William Middleton did my nose. I love my nose. He’s also doing my skin rejuvenation; he’s just great with skin. I get my face, neck and hands done.
What else about your look was made here?
The dress that I wear in The Silicone Diaries is from Northbound Leather. My false eyelashes are from [made-in-Toronto makeup company] MAC. My hair extensions are from Cosmetic World on Yonge Street. Avec Plaisir in Yorkville is where my underwear is from. My fishnet stockings are from Seduction on Yonge Street.
What kinds of gifts would you like to buy your friends?
I would buy all my friends exercise equipment because working out changed my life; it changed my entire mindset about being a more positive person and setting goals and achieving them. And I think everyone should own sex toys. Probably I would go to Seduction. I’d buy them butt plugs. Small ones, though.
What stores in Toronto would you like to get a gift from?
Holt’s. David’s on Bloor Street. My favourite thing to do is to go by the Fashion Crimes window on Queen Street West and look at how they have a mannequin done and just get everything. I never think that [about most stores] — I’m so particular, but I love their stuff.
Your show The Silicone Diaries is about inner and outer beauty. Who in Toronto embodies that?
Shinan Govani, George Stroumboulopoulos and Belinda Stronach. They have passion, exuberance, intelligence, groundedness.
I’m assuming tickets to The Silicone Diaries would be a great early holiday gift?
I think what you get from my show, you can’t get anywhere else. A big part of the show is that all human beings, no matter what we’re obsessed with, are spiritual beings, no matter how flawed we are or how superficial we might be.