"I've made my mess my message," said Rajee Narinesingh.
Narinesingh is an outspoken transgender activist, reality TV personality, author, actress, singer, spiritualist, and HIV advocate. She is probably best known for her sassy, fabulous presence sharing her cosmetic surgery misfortunes on the E! network show Botched, which shows stories of bungled cosmetic surgery procedures. Despite having been the victim of an unlicensed, non-professional fake doctor injecting her with a crazy concoction of cement, tire sealant, and mineral oil, her funny, warm personality charmed the doctors on the show and made her a fan favorite with audiences across the country and the world.
I met Narinesingh at the U.S. Conference on AIDS in September and caught up with her in a recent phone call. Born in Brooklyn, New York, raised in Philadelphia, and living now in Miami, Narinesingh stands almost 6 feet tall and possesses voluptuous curves (I don't think she'd mind me saying so). "But I'm not going to tell you how old I am," she giggled, "because you never ask a woman her age!"
Besides being on reality television, she's also appeared in movies and other television programs (including Anderson Cooper 360° and Dr. Phil), written and sung sick dance tracks ("Stumble," "Work It Out," and my favorite, "Shake My Cement Tits"), has a successful YouTube channel, and her memoir, Beyond Face Value: A Journey to True Beauty is available for purchase online, with a newly revised version poised to be released. The book, co-written by Alex Vaughn, tells about how Narinesingh survived the black-market cosmetic injections, her spirituality, and other survival tools that "got me to the other side."
"Shake My Cement Tits" by Rajee Narinesingh, Producer: David Liz
When Narinesingh was growing up, she realized that she wasn't quite like the other boys. "In those days, we didn't have computers, so you couldn't Google, like, 'What does it feel like when you're a boy and you feel like a girl?' You just relate to what you see in your little community, and so what I really connected to was when I saw gay people, and I saw feminine gay people, and I knew I was feminine, so I thought that was me," she said. "Then when I started going to clubs and saw trans people, and I thought, 'Wow! I think that's more me.' So it was a lot of revelation."
Those revelations also included a lot of shame. "Let me tell you, that is no joke. I think that gay men and especially transgender male to female grow up and live with a lot of shame." She continued, "There's something about being born a male in a quote-unquote man's world and not living up to the standards of what a quote-unquote man should be, or negating your maleness as we transgender women do, according to a lot of society, that people really get upset about." Narinesingh also blames the double standard that we all grow up with in America. "You know, you can see two little girls walking down the street holding hands, no one really bats an eye. But if you see two little boys walking holding hands, you'd best believe that people have one thing in their mind: They're questioning those little boys. I'm just saying, it starts from very young. The double standard and what you're supposed to live up to."
During Narinesingh's formative years, the AIDS crisis was also raging. As she was finding herself, she also saw the LGBTQ community being ravaged by the virus. "It was awful," she said. "I always say, people were dropping like flies. It was really a death sentence [to be diagnosed with HIV]." She reminisced about someone close to her who died from AIDS.
"One in particular was this guy Ronald Allen. Ronald Eric Allen. We grew up in the same neighborhood, and our families knew each other. When we got out of high school, I was about 18, Ronald went to the Philadelphia School of the Arts. He was this beautiful dancer."
Narinesingh and Allen had a back-and-forth flirtation that lasted a few years, but although they got close, they never consummated the relationship. When they were in their early 20s, Allen got sick. "I remember walking over on Thanksgiving morning to take him a pie. I walked up the stairs, and when I walked into the room, I almost lost it. Ronald was a skeleton. He was a skeleton." Narinesingh stayed with him for a while to talk. "When I left the house, I just cried all the way home." Allen died a few weeks later, on New Year's Day. "Talking to you about him all these years later, and I didn't realize how young he was. You know, he had so much life left to live. Something like that stays with you."
Narinesingh carries the memory of Allen with her to this day. "He lives through me," she said, "and the memory of him and all the other ones who died. We stand on their shoulders. They [people with HIV during the AIDS crisis] were the ones who took the experimental drugs to help get the medicines that the community has now. People living with HIV/AIDS today can live long and pretty productive lives as long as they are complying with meds and go to the doctor and stuff."
Narinesingh now works in Florida with several organizations. "I work for the Pride Center. I work with SunServe. I work with Arianna's Center. I work with the YES Institute. I work with TransSOCIAL. And I'm on three different boards."
"Whenever I speak on a panel about HIV/AIDS, I always say, a lot of people forget about the horror days, or maybe they weren't there for those things," she said, "but I'm here to remind you. Do not take it for granted, because it wasn't always like this."
Narinesingh has been able to take her reality television fame and use it to spread the messages about HIV prevention and living healthfully with HIV. "I call myself a world activist or a community activist. You know, because of my advocacy for the black-market injections took me global! No, it literally did! And now I hear from people in Uganda and Australia, honey. It's crazy! I mean, Pakistan! Wow, it's amazing."
"So that's one of the blessings," Narinesingh said. "I consider the whole situation with my black-market injections and all the suffering I went through -- I consider that a blessing, because it gave me a bigger platform to do my advocacy and my activism."
"You know," she said, "even before all the corrective surgery, I thought, 'Hey, this happened to me, and if I can share my story, educate people, and prevent this from happening to someone else, then I've made lemon meringue pie out of lemons.'"
You can find Rajee Narinesingh on YouTube, Facebook, or follow her on Instagram @rajee_actress_from_botched_tv.