Rajindra Narinesingh: From "Elephant Woman" to Soap Opera Star
In a room festooned with zebra-print wallpaper, a purple curtain, and a bed with neon throw pillows, a tall brunette sits at a makeup table. Gazing into the mirror, she tells her pretty, pigtailed, 11-year-old daughter that she's not thin enough. "Look at yourself... oooh, you look so pudgy," Mom whines in a thick Brooklyn accent. "If you don't spruce yourself up, you're going to wind up with a big, fat, smelly husband who works for the garbage company. That's what happened to your Aunt Norma."
"I love Aunt Norma," the girl protests.
"Well, you better pray you don't end up looking like her."
Then Aunt Norma enters, towering over everything in the room. The girl runs into her embrace and is nearly buried under two enormous breasts. Norma's face is similarly proportioned: inflated cheeks, a swollen upper lip, and a plump, jutting chin. She speaks in a deep, drawling voice. "Come on, sweetie, I'll tuck you in for bed."
Norma is, plainly put, a transsexual. But that doesn't make her unique here: The entire cast of the yet-to-be-aired soap opera Bella Maddo — even the girl — is transgender. Rajindra "Rajee" Narinesingh, who plays Aunt Norma, is unique, though, because of her mangled appearance; she's the best-known local victim of Oneal Ron Morris, AKA Duchess, AKA the Fix-a-Flat butt doctor — who was recently charged with injecting patients with dangerous substances.
After the botched backroom surgery left Narinesingh with painful nodules in her bloated face, she retreated into shame and isolation. But then she took her story public and the world started staring. From Dr. Phil to Howard Stern to German television to one of England's most popular newspapers, the trauma of her botched surgery and its effect on her life has played out in grueling detail for millions of readers and viewers. The soap opera role is just the coup de grâce of her recovery.
The media blitz "allowed me to stop being a victim," she says. "People are going to see me anyway. Before, they were laughing. Now, they say, 'Oh, that's the girl from TV.' "
Narinesingh grew up in Philadelphia a mixed-race boy of East Indian and Creole descent with effeminate tendencies. A hard-drinking father, who died in 2006, tried to encourage young Rajindra to take up boyish pursuits. But when given a basketball, he snuck it to his room, stuffed it under his shirt, and pretended to give birth. "And GI Joe, he was never going to war; he was always coming home to me and I was cooking for him," Narinesingh recalls.
Old photographs show a gradual progression from childhood to effeminacy to androgyny. Narinesingh's mother, Sandra, who still lives in Philadelphia, says, "Strangers would take pictures with him. They thought he looked kind of like an Indian movie star."
The androgynous boy was, in fact, quite attractive. But around age 20, Narinesingh identified as a trans woman, and at age 27, began hormone therapy (though she does not plan to have genital surgery). She started talking to other trans girls about the popular practice of getting "pumped," or receiving silicone injections to appear more feminine. It was often done underground — in houses or apartments.
When Narinesingh arrived on the doorstep of an apartment near the Dade-Broward border in 2005, Duchess, a trans woman with a cosmic booty, exclaimed, "Girl, we gotta get the man out of your face."
She began a series of injections into Narinesingh's face, breasts, and buttocks. Though Duchess said the silicone was medical-grade, it turns out she was using a concoction of cement, Fix-a-Flat, and mineral oil.
Seven months later, Narinesingh's body began to protest. "The whole left side of my face felt like a boil," she recalls. Little nodules had grown, and they were hard as rocks. Panicked, Narinesingh called Duchess. No answer. The so-called doctor had left town.
"I felt like the elephant woman," Narinesingh says. Soon, she was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and agoraphobia — fear of crowds. She couldn't go to the mall.
Though a Boca Raton plastic surgeon took her case as charity and gave her injections to soften the nodules and bulges, her look changed little. Then, last fall, six years after she began the procedures, she saw a CBS 4 news segment that stated Duchess had been arrested. The reporter urged other victims to come forward with their stories.
Narinesingh emailed a few local TV stations over the weekend. On Monday morning, a reporter and cameraman from CBS 4 came to her house. She was on the 11 o'clock evening news. On Tuesday, she began receiving phone calls from around the world. "On Wednesday, I was getting on a plane to New York for the Anderson Cooper show," she says. "On Friday, I got back, and on Sunday, I was packing my bags to go to California for Dr. Phil."
Backstage in Hollywood, she met Shaquanda Brown, another victim who had reacted badly to implants in her butt and nearly died. While waiting, Narinesingh told the story of how midway through the injections, Duchess stopped and, with tears in her eyes, allegedly said, "Girl, please, if anything ever happens to me, be careful who you go to, because people can make concoctions and pass it off as silicone."
When Narinesingh finished the story, Brown was astonished. Duchess had delivered the same crying routine during her procedure.
"My hands were sweating, and I thought, Oh my God, what are you doing here?" Narinesingh says. But, comforted by producers and makeup stylists, she stepped out in front of the bright lights.
She glanced at some of the audience members and knew they would judge her. But she told herself to stay calm, that she "had integrity" and was there to educate people. She kept her composure, even when Brown began a shouting match with the man who had helped Duchess with some of the procedures. Later, on the Spanish talk show Cristina, Narinesingh, smiling awkwardly, was caught in the middle as the two tried to fight, Jerry Springer-style.
But Narinesingh never argued or became angry. She stared into the camera and told her story. "It's almost like you're taking control of the situation."
The Germans struck Narinesingh as more attentive to her biography. She thought Cristina was even-handed as well. The Brits went in for tabloid glory: "Shocking new before-and-after pictures reveal horrific damage," read a Daily Mail headline.
One day, some trans friends forwarded an email: A production company in Miami was holding auditions for a new TV pilot with an all-trans cast. She decided to try out.
The producer, Janice Danielle, an actress from California, had recently been fired from a leading role on a mainstream show when the director found out she was transgender. She decided to stage a one-of-a-kind production, a soap opera about a rich mother who favors vanity over her kids, in which every actor — men, women, children — was transgender. Danielle played the role of Bella, the bitchy, narcissistic mom.
Danielle liked Narinesingh from the beginning. "I saw in her appearance that the exterior did not match the interior," she says. "Inside, she was really sweet." Danielle tweaked a role just for her: the ugly-duckling aunt with a heart of gold.
Danielle also discovered "Miss Jazz," the 11-year-old girl, through a support group for trans kids and their parents. Jazz, a Broward County native, expressed a desire to cut off her penis at the age of 5. Her parents are supportive but protective, Danielle says. The real controversy will start in a year or two, when Jazz either hits male puberty or begins taking hormones to fight it.
The show has wrapped filming for now, with about ten hours of footage. No network has bought the rights, but a pilot episode has been shown on the short-film circuit, including screenings at Outfest in Los Angeles and the Bel Air Film Festival.
Today, Narinesingh lives in a small cottage, hidden behind a rental house in Hollywood near I-95. She keeps the blinds drawn, and fans circulate air that is thick with incense.
She has collected small payments from her TV appearances but still depends on her mother, now 70, for both emotional and financial support as she continues to receive softening injections from her plastic surgeon. Another of Duchess' victims, Shatarka Nuby, died from a bad reaction in July. Duchess faces manslaughter charges.
With face, breast, and butt injections of her own, Narinesingh feels a little like a time bomb. But she has made the most of her fame, playing it for laughs when she isn't warning people of the dangers. She's been making YouTube videos under the name "rajindramiami." In April, as a joke, she produced a video announcing a run for U.S. president.
"The president has to be someone strong," she says in the video, her heavy, outsize breasts swinging. "You know, tough as stone. And who better than me?... I mean, I have cement in my face, chest, hips, and buttocks. I'm pretty sturdy."
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