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."

He knows he couldn't get away with being so combative and crass if he were a woman. But by dressing up like one, by living openly and talking about politics like no one has in this country, he represents the modern Pakistan — the Pakistan that parties in Karachi and enjoys art in Lahore.

"We still have not been able to evolve a Pakistani nationality," he said. "In Pakistan today we're still fragmentized. We're still Shias, or Sunnis, or Sindis or Punjabis. But you know nobody stands up and says, I'm a Pakistani first. If I can help evolve that Pakistani identity, I think I'll be doing my country a service."

Saleem is the most obvious beneficiary of a newly modernized Pakistani media. Five years ago the only channel on television was the appropriately named Pakistan Television, or PTV, which was good if you were looking for some state propaganda but not if you were looking for entertainment or independent news.

But in the last few years, dozens of private channels have filled the airwaves with news programs critical of the establishment and entertainment shows inspired by the West.

The airwaves began to open up in the late '90s and continued to expand under President Pervez Musharraf. But in November, after months of negative news cycles, he imposed a state of emergency and shut down the private channels.

Most of them were back on the air a few weeks later, a little bit more cautious in their attacks. But it took until early February for Geo TV to get back on the air, and that was only after management agreed to keep Hamid Mir, one of its most popular hosts, off the air.

"I am not on the air because I think Pervez Musharraf has planned on rigging the coming elections on Feb. 18 and I think he is aware of my rigging plans," Mir said during an interview from the set of what was once his weekly talk show, "Capital Talk."

He has interviewed Osama bin Laden, Condoleezza Rice, Tony Blair and Musharraf multiple times. But because he was critical of Musharraf, he is temporarily out of a job.

"The Pakistani private TV channels were projecting the reality on the ground. We were projecting the problems on the common man. And actually we were promoting a democratic culture. Musharraf is not behaving like a president, he is behaving like a gangster."

Saleem also says he's been censored. In his new show he actually plays himself, sort of.

"Name of the Show" is a pseudo reality show that follows him as he supposedly looks for a wife. In one scene, he laughs and canoodles with a few girlfriends. The government, he says, told him to edit the scene out.

"They said you're trying to corrupt our moral values. We're trying to give out wrong signals to people," Saleem said with a sigh. "I really think it's sad. My only hope is that these people sitting in the [ministry that controls television] will die one day. And I have great hope in the younger generations of Pakistan, in the youth of Pakistan, because I think they're much more forward thinking, I think they're much more progressive."

He is trying to help them become more progressive. And it seems to be working. In 2½ years of dressing up like a woman and talking openly about his sexuality, Saleem says he's never received a single threat.

"When I started my program many of my closest friends called me up. They were very concerned and they said, 'Ali, are you crazy? Do you realize you live in a country called Pakistan? These people won't let you live. You won't be able to step out of your house.'"

He decided to take his chances. "Because I believed in what I was doing. You know, my strength came from my Allah. And I knew what my intention was — to make people happy. To spread the message of loving, of understanding and tolerance, so that made me the most secure and strong person in the world."

Mullahs approach him in the airport to praise his show. Teenage girls call Begum Nawazish Ali a role model. For Saleem, he hopes to keep inspiring people and keep inspiring his country.

"I want to give some courage and confidence to others and help them realize that we are all Pakistanis," he said. "Let's all evolve as a nation, as Pakistanis, because whatever goes on affects each and every one of us."