Photo Essay: The Not-So-Secret Life of Ali Saleem - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Photo Essay: The Not-So-Secret Life of Ali Saleem

By Asim Hafeez


In a country where sexuality issues are taboo, a television hosts pushes the envelope.

He puts on glossy lipstick, fake eyelashes and face powder, and then, a sari: The man born Ali Saleem wants the world to know him by his alter-ego, Begum Nawazish Ali, host of an extremely popular late-night talk show. She’s been described as a “coquettish widow,” which may be the case. She’s also a defiant answer to Pakistan’s militancy and extremism. 

“As long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a woman,” Saleem told the BBC in the early days of his show. He got his big break after impersonating Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Today’s guests include politicians, religious leaders, actors and actresses, with a fair share of taboo topics covered. He’s prone to cat-walking, and sometimes he throws a sultry kiss to startled guests. He risks the Taliban’s wrath. Some believe he has signed his own death warrant.

I first saw him on television and was shocked to see a personality like his in a nation where homosexuality is banned under Sharia law. I knew I wanted to photograph him. It took more than a year to get access, but when he did let me in, I got up close to see what life is like day to day. Despite controversies, he’s become a superstar on the South Asian airwaves.


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