Pivot Festival brings up transexualized beauty

Nina Arsenault is Barbie-doll hot. She's got giant lips, big breasts, high cheek bones - and a penis. But the queer artist doesn't want to talk about the latter.

Nina Arsenault is Barbie-doll hot.

She’s got giant lips, big breasts, high cheek bones – and a penis.

But the queer artist doesn’t want to talk about the latter.

“Quite frankly, I just don’t know how that applies,” she said, from her Toronto home on Monday.

“Anytime a transsexual does a work of art, we’re always asked about our genitals.”

Arsenault’s show, TheSilicone Diaries, is coming to Whitehorse as part of the Pivot Festival this week. Genitals have nothing to do with it, she said.

In the promo shot, a nearly naked Arsenault stands sandwiched between two mannequins and, for just a minute, it’s hard to tell the three models apart.

All of them are tanned, busty, have tiny waists, coiffured wigs and immaculate skin.

“I know the choices I made have hyper-sexualized me,” said Arsenault.

But in her own defence, she didn’t have a lot to work with.

Going into plastic surgery with a lanky, masculine build, Arsenault embarked on a cosmetic journey that would cost her more than $150,000.

Although she knew she was a woman by the time she was five, it wasn’t until she was in her early 20s that she started the physical transformation.

“No one experienced me as a woman,” she said. “I looked very masculine.”

A decade later, the makeover is remarkable.

Arsenault chose big breasts out of necessity, to offset her wide shoulders, she said. “In order to get rid of my masculine features I had to super-feminize some.”

And to pay for it all, Arsenault entered the sex trade.

Starting off with webcam shows, she graduated to stripping and eventually prostitution.

But it was the stripping, not the prostitution, that was scariest, she said.

“To get up in front of a room full of people and take your clothes off is terrifying – the first time I did it, I was shaking,” she said.

“As transsexuals we have a lot of conflicted feelings about our own bodies and I had a tumultuous history with mine. So to take your clothes off and have your body judged and compared to the girl that came before me, because guys are going to decide who they’re going to take to private dances and who they’re going to give their money to, that was quite daunting.”

The prostitution was a lot easier. The guys coming over to Arsenault’s apartment were often more interested in intimacy and passion than the mechanical act of sex.

“And 95 per cent of the time, they were embarrassed about taking their clothes off in front of me,” she said.

Arsenault would open the door and her clients, taken aback, would say, “Oh, my God, if I knew you were this beautiful, I would never have come to see you.”

It’s these notions of beauty that Arsenault explores in The Silicone Diaries.

“When you have plastic surgery, you learn a lot about beauty and the importance it plays in your life,” she said.

Arsenault once was a very good-looking man, until surgeons began sculpting her body. Then she became an ugly man, before slowly evolving through an ugly woman stage to her subsequent unnatural beauty.

“Some parts of me just look plastic,” said Arsenault. “There’s nothing I can do about it.” And at first, she felt people staring at her.

But in the last five years, as more and more women opt to surgically modify everything from their lips and hips to their labias, Arsenault has started to fit in.

“The power of beauty in the context of modern society is pervasive,” she said.

“But when it’s given serious intellectual thought, people talk about how oppressive and disempowering it is, particularly to women.

“And this is true.

“But my experience with beauty has been much more complicated.”

Last year, Barbie turned 50, and Mattel hired Arsenault to play the skinny, busty plastic role model.

“It was a very unusual choice, because I’m someone who’s had mass amounts of plastic surgery being asked to represent a doll that’s accused of screwing up the body image of hundreds of millions of little girls,” she said.

“I mean, what the hell is going on in their PR department?”

When she’s not performing various productions, including the Toronto hit, I Was Barbie, Arsenault lectures on transexuality, sexuality and art at York University, and writes for various national publications. To get a peek of Arsenault, half-naked with mussed up hair and fishnets, head to www.ninaarsenault.com.

Performing as part of the Pivot Festival this week in Whitehorse, The Silicone Diaries is at the Old Fire Hall from Thursday through Saturday.

From Britain, Theatre Rotozaza’s Etiquette is at Baked all week from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Truly intimate theatre, it engages audience members who walk into the cafe and sit at tables where curious props await along with two sets of headphones. Sitting across from a friend or stranger, participants follow the instructions streaming into their ears to create a short series of scenes.

The Pivot Festival is also featuring Canadian comedian Ron James and three Whitehorse-based shows by Brian Fidler, Amber Walker and Vancouver performance artist Hazel Venzon, who’s work is centred on the local Filipino community.

For a complete schedule go to www.nakaitheatre.wordpress.com.

Contact Genesee Keevil at