Her voice bespeaks lust. The pose is suggestive. She prefers silk saris topped with sleeveless, low-neck blouses. Most conveniently, she is rich and single – her “colonel” husband long dead and gone. She is Pakistan’s bitchiest queen. She is a “he”.
Say hello to Begum Nawazish Ali.
Every Saturday night millions of Pakistanis switch over to Aaj TV, a privately-owned television channel, to watch the Late Night Show with Begum Nawazish Ali –“the meanest chat show on TV”.
The drag queen lures willing hosts – ranging from Islamic leaders to Indian film stars – into her “living room”, grilling them with queries and razor-sharp comments that render her prey with no choice but to admit that she indeed is the queen.
Saleem by Day, Nawazish by Night
It’s not easy to be catty, especially when you feel like a woman born by mistake into a man’s body. To be 27-year-old Ali Saleem – by day a handsome dude and by night the middle-aged Begum Nawazish Ali – requires far more than a dab of rouge and stuffed bras. In a traditional Muslim country like Pakistan, you need dollops of brazen to flaunt the thought it’s perfectly okay, actually cool, for a man to celebrate himself as a woman.
Of course, there were a few family problems with Mom – a former civil servant – and his Dad as a retired polo-playing army officer. While growing up, the youngster infuriated Mom by dressing up in her saris or exchanging ladylike gossip with her friends. On many occasions the son tried to explain the familiar woman-in-a-man’s-body logic to Mom, but she could be difficult.
Even so, Mr. Saleem credits her as the strongest influence in his life. It could not have been otherwise – Begum Ali has a lot to thank her mother for learning impeccable lady-like tricks while Ali Saleem, the boy who wanted to be a girl, could not help but hate the same woman for not accepting him as he truly is.
Tracing the Journey to Stardom
Mr. Saleem idolized fellow sisters like Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana, and soon achieved drawing-room repute by perfectly impersonating Ms Benazir Bhutto – former prime minister and absolute goddess for every South Asian queer hankering to be a queen. The most memorable moment came when Mr. Saleem got the lifetime opportunity to perform his Benazir act for Benazir herself – at her personal request. Pakistan’s first and only female Prime Minister found him so funny that she chuckled aloud and congratulated Mr. Saleem for “making her day”.
His fame gradually spread from upper class salons, and with some prompting from an orthopedic surgeon, Mr. Saleem soon found himself as South Asia’s first cross-dressing television host.
Since then, the happy widow hasn’t stopped winking.
How Pakistan is Reacting
An Islamic society warming up to a transvestite? This has never happened before. A cross-dressing star would have been unthinkable, even suicidal, few years back. But the fascinated nation has responded warmly to the irrepressible queen who describes her role as “an expression of me as a woman.” The widow is “a socialite, very sweet yet bitchy.”
His stardom skyrocketed after got off after Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf liberated the broadcasting media in 2003. The numerous infotainment channels that followed after that exuded fresh air in a straight-laced society. Entertainment-starved viewers lapped up anything and everything – including Begum Nawazish Ali. Although his popularity hints at a certain churning in Pakistan, it would be unwise to read too much into the phenomenon. Only 35 percent of the nation receives cable and satellite television. Outside the cities, satellite reach is barely 27 percent.