Growing Up to Play Barbie

As a young boy, Nina Arsenault’s desire to be beautiful came from a “deep, deep place.”

Now a full-fledged woman with the face and body of a Vegas showgirl, Arsenault makes a living from talking about her life experiences.

Next Thursday at the Yukon Arts Centre, as part of the Nakai Theatre Pivot Festival, she’ll talk about the night she achieved a childhood dream – the night she became Mattel’s plastic icon of hyper-femininity, Barbie.

Even as a gender-conflicted boy in tiny Beamsville, Ontario, the Toronto-based writer and performer entertained thoughts of being Barbie.

“Definitely I thought that as a kid. But I would have thought of that as a dream, as something that wasn’t quite possible,” she says.

“That’s kind of what makes it so fantastical that I got to be Barbie for Mattel. It was so like a dream.”

Arsenault still can’t decide why Mattel, Inc. chose her to represent one of its major product lines, although she wasn’t about to turn down the toy manufacturer’s offer of a well-paid gig.

“To actually want to hire someone who’s known for having massive amounts of plastic surgery to represent a doll that’s accused of screwing up the body image of millions of little girls? I wasn’t sure if they knew what they were doing or not.”

That decision and the event itself is the subject of Arsenault’s latest one-woman show, Like a Barbie. It’s her second appearance at Pivot, following last year’s performance of her acclaimed monologue, Silicone Diaries.

The previous performance consisted of seven separate stories representing different parts of the artist’s life, including the 60 or so plastic surgeries she underwent to attain her current, admittedly exaggerated, appearance.

Like a Barbie, on the other hand, is a single story based on the occasion that Arsenault embodied what is arguably the world’s most famous doll.

“The night that I was Barbie it was her birthday party, but there was also a Barbie-inspired fashion show for real women, designed by David Dixon,” she explains.

“I’ve since talked to him and he’s told me behind-the-scenes stuff. I’m not going to say what it is yet. People are going to have to come and see the show.”

Arsenault’s performances were influenced by the work of the late Spalding Gray, who revitalized the stage monologue as an art form in the late 1980s. But her style, especially in Like a Barbie, is different from his.

“It’s not stand-up comedy, exactly. But it’s a lot funnier than Spalding Gray.”

Arsenault doesn’t pull her punches. She doesn’t shy away from subjects that might make some audience members uncomfortable.

“I don’t try to create controversy. I just try to do my work as honestly as I can. And usually, when you start speaking the truth, it’s provocative, just because you’re speaking the truth,” she says.

“I can’t stop doing that. That’s my job. I go onstage and talk to people, so I have to tell the truth. I take that pretty seriously.”

In a thoughtful, measured interview punctuated by frequent laughter, Arsenault speaks of new projects already in the works, including a film she’s creating, called Ophelia/Machine.

Like her two one-woman stage shows, it will touch on themes of beauty and her own experience, “sometimes in a really funny way and sometimes in a more serious way.”

As someone who faced enormous pain, expense and risk to create the physical image that is an essential element of her art, does Arsenault acknowledge her reputation as a perfectionist, perhaps even a control freak?

“Totally,” she admits with a big laugh. “I would say that’s absolutely correct. I need to be able to say what I’m wearing, the way I look, the way I’m framed, the way I’m lit. All those things are like super, super important.”

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