Nina Arsenault enters the intimate theatre in a haze of dry ice, illuminated by gelatinous images of silicone looping on a large screen. She slowly, purposefully slinks to the stage and sits on the edge. With balletic grace she extends her slender arm, like a mermaid reaching towards shore. The room is silent, as if she has sucked the breath out of every single audience member and is using it to restore her own mannequin form to life. Once satiated, she rises and stands before us in perfectly proportioned, cyborg beauty.
I can’t tear my eyes away. She’s a life-sized image of the Mattel doll I used to play with. Same exaggerated hourglass figure, same voluptuous glossy hair, same tiny button nose, same lipstick lacquered mouth, same wide-eyed gaze, same smooth flawless complexion. I’m consumed by her plastic beauty, her meticulous symmetry. It’s difficult to believe she is real. It’s difficult to believe she once had a male body.
Nina Arsenault is a Canadian transsexual icon and performance artist who has undergone 60 cosmetic surgeries to sculpt her body into her own conception of beauty. Last week she was at ThéÃ¢tre la Chapelle for her most recent production, The Silicone Diaries. The Silicone Diaries is a piercing performance of addiction, obsession, desperation and necessity; of a relentless voracity to achieve nothing short of physical perfection. “We put it all on the line for who we had to be” she said during her two hour long performance, “and that meant what we had to look like.”
The Silicone Diaries is also an intelligent and humorous commentary on the construction of beauty and the instability of identity. Brendan Healy, the artistic director of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, explains that “â€¦Nina understands silicone. She has used this substance to raise the pursuit of the real fake to metaphysical levels. In doing so, she destabilizes the coherence and authenticity of identity.”
The performance starts with Nina describing the first time she laid eyes on a mannequin at 5 years old, and falling in love with its beauty. It chronicles her life from the early 1990’s to the present, and encapsulates her job as a web-cam girl, where she worked to earn money for her surgeries; the black market silicone injections she received out of a 7-Up bottle, the obsessive surgeries year after year and the task of “re-programing” herself to love herself.
Arsenault commands the attention of the audience and unapologetically describes her lust for silicone beauty. “Just make me plastic” she says, “Just make me beautiful.” She re-enacts her sexy encounter with Tommy Lee, sending the audience into hysterics with her dead-on impersonation, her “sparkling wine and Ativan confidence,” the “classy porn star” look she had perfected that night and the tumultuous moment when Tommy’s people realized she wasn’t a “natural” woman. Arsenault knows it was her artificial silicone sculpted appearance that attracted Tommy Lee and says bluntly, “I love what that means about my beauty.”
The tone of the performance changes and the intensity heightens when Arsenault grips onto her hair and slowly removes a wig, exposing her bald head. Silence blankets the audience. This single act of vulnerability has pierced everyone’s soul and we know that we are not so far removed from this silicone goddess in front of us. “I’m just looking at myself in the mirror” she says. “It’s so hard to know what’s really in the mirror.”
Arsenault describes how she has created a standard of beauty that takes two hours to achieve every morning. She describes the death of her close friend, who died under the knife in the quest for perfection. She describes her dissatisfaction with anything that is “aesthetically unpleasing” about her own appearance. Her body is a piece of art; sculpted, chiselled, painted and displayed.
When she exits the stage, her last words coil around the room, like the haze of dry ice that marked her entrance. They articulate her love/hate battle with silicon and a personal dissatisfaction with appearance that we can all relate to.
“It’s my privilege to live and to suffer with beauty.”
We are not so far removed from this silicone goddess.