Transvestite TV Anchor Pakistan's Surpise Hit

When Ali Saleem looks in the mirror, he doesn't see a 29-year-old with a hangover, stubble covering his cheeks, coffee pressed to his lips and a small gut peaking out of his T-shirt.

He sees Begum Nawazish Ali, a sassy, salty and sultry woman dressed in a sari who has perfect posture and endless elegance.

It may take a wig, a padded bra and two hours of makeup for the rest of us to see Saleem become a woman for his weekly TV talk show, one of the most popular in Pakistan, but he sees her when he wakes up in the morning and falls asleep at night.

"Begum Nawazish Ali stands for a liberated Pakistan," Saleem said in his dressing room, his long nails flashing against the florescent lights. "She herself is a liberated woman who can flirt outrageously, who can say whatever she wants to say without any hesitation, without having to be politically correct or mindful of anything in life."

It is not a time in which many Pakistanis would normally be unmindful. Suicide bombs explode at 10 times the rate they did in 2006. Politicians have never been less popular. Massive flour shortages compounded with high inflation have created the worst economic conditions for the lower and middle class in years.

But Saleem doesn't see the blemishes when he looks at Pakistan. He sees a country that is modernizing and that is having fun. He sees a country dying to evolve.

"I think in many ways, a lot of Pakistanis relate to her and see her as a groundbreaking, courageous woman," Saleem said of his alter ego, who is popular with everyone from models to mullahs in this conservative, Islamic country.

"I think they all support Begum Nawazish Ali because in many ways by supporting her they feel she may set the people of Pakistan free. She gives them strength. And she gives them hope."

If there is an antidote to the constant bad news in this country, it is for many this intrepid cross-dressing talk show host who has managed to challenge every stereotype there is about the image of a country dubbed "the most dangerous on Earth."

If there is an antidote to the apathy that runs rampant in a country where participation in next week's election is not expected to eclipse 30 percent, it is a man unafraid to spill his secrets.

He is John Stewart meets RuPaul.

"When I was younger I tried to fit myself in a little box," he said. "I realized I wasn't homosexual, but I did have tendencies. And I realized that I wasn't completely heterosexual, but I did have tendencies. And then I realized, maybe I'm bisexual, but then I thought, why limit it to that. So I'm a trisexual. And that's T-R-Y — try. I try anything that's sexual, darling!" he said with a laugh, beginning to let his character take over his voice.

"We have to rise above these biases, these prejudices!" he said, his voice rising in both pitch and volume. "We just have to set ourselves free. Come on! Explore the unexplored dimensions of life!"

He curls his hair and looks into his interviewer's eyes. "Am I allowed to flirt with you?"

Saleem is not afraid to have fun and he's not afraid to make his audience laugh. On his weekly talk show "Late Night With Begum Nawazish Ali," his character asks an actress whether she's seen "Brokeback Mountain" because "I believe you've got it right at home."

Begum asks a stately politician to "tell me about the women in your life" because "I want to tell you about the men in my life."

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