By Syed Shoaib Hasan
BBC News, Karachi
"Darling, you are sooo naughty," purrs an elegant sari-clad woman glowing out of primetime television.
Going by the name of Begum (Lady) Nawazish Ali, she hosts an eponymous talk show that has taken Pakistan by storm.
Flirting and skirting her way through politics, society gossip and plain old sexual chemistry, Begum has become the most popular icon to inundate Pakistani fantasy in a while.
How is this possible in Pakistan where what is acceptable behaviour from female actors is still largely determined conservative Islamic values?
The answer lies in the identity of the Begum - who is a woman in every sense except the biological one.
"I am God's child," says a smiling Begum Nawazish Ali, or Ali Saleem to give him his birth name, talking to the BBC in his "normal guise".
Clad in jeans and T-shirt, 27-year-old Ali talked passionately about his life and work.
"As long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a woman," he declares.
Twirling his shoulder length curly brown hair, Ali looks wistfully in the distance as he recounts how it was growing up in Pakistan for someone so unconventional.
"My father was in the army and we used to move around quite a bit," he says.
With his parents, he accepts there were problems, leading to his examination by a psychologist when he was 14-years-old.
The psychologist, however, allayed all fears, and "from that time on my parents were totally behind me".
That Ali was different from other boys was quite evident from his interests.
"I loved playing with dolls and dressing up with my female cousins to whom I have always been very close," he recounts.
In those days of innocence, he would often dream of becoming a woman.
"I wanted to be Sri Devi, Nazia Hasan, Benazir Bhutto... all the beautiful and powerful women in my world," explains Ali.
Gifted with a great voice and a natural sense of the theatrical, he delighted in displaying his talents.
That was in the early 1990s in Islamabad. Soon after, in 1995, Ali shifted with his family to Karachi.
Nawazish Ali is one of Pakistan's few openly transvestite people
This was "the worst period in my life", he confesses, with his parents going through a divorce.
It was during these depressing days that Ali met "Yasmin, who made everything possible".
Yasmin Ismail was one of Pakistani television's finest actresses, who died of cancer last year.
"She was the best thing that ever happened to me," says the screen star.
Ali explains how Ismail introduced him to theatre, groomed his natural histrionics and generally played the part of his mentor.
"She was my mother, father and best friend," says Ali wistfully, adding "I give her 100% credit for any success I have achieved."
Ismail was involved in a popular theatre group called Gripps, and that was where Ali started out.
"My first performance was in a play called 'Art ya Atta' (Art or Bread) in May 1998," Ali says. He did an impersonation of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in the play.
"When I spoke, there was pin drop silence and then the house came down," he exclaims.
The applause was thunderous and the show did record business.
The next six years were those of learning and growth. During these times, Ali expanded his repertoire with considerable success.
The actor loves being the darling of the audience
In March 2004, the idea for transvestite chat show hostess Begum Nawazish Ali first came up during a discussion with friends Nadeem Baig and Omar Adil, a national TV host, in Lahore.
"Omar said that he saw me as much more than the typical characters I was doing and we came up with the idea of this middle aged divorced socialite who knows everybody," gushes out Ali.
Initially, Ali promoted it with GEO, one of the largest TV channels. That deal failed to materialize and rival channel Aaj took up the challenge, quickly putting out a pilot.
"Nadeem was Director entertainment and he told me to bring it over," Ali explains. Aaj moved quickly, and a pilot was soon out.
"It was like nothing anybody had seen," says Azfar Ali, a local television producer. "The most amazing thing was the fact that he was able to deliver it all in a way that the masses could relate to it."
No sooner had the first programme finished than the show was the talk of the town.
From politicians to movie stars to sportsmen, all have had their turn on the show.
So popular has the show become that a sitting federal minister specially requested to be invited.
That may have been unnecessary, as Ali smiles and declares saucily, "I never refuse anyone anything".
The show is not without critics, who accuse it of trivialising politics in a country that has had more than its fill of dictators.
Ali denies this, saying "our politicians have been destroyed under a well thought campaign", adding "I want them to be popular again".
Furthermore, he says that the military - such a powerful influence in Pakistan - have been deliberately kept out of the show.
"I believe that democracy is the only option for us, and this is my contribution to the cause," Ali says determinedly.
He also wants to show what kind of country Pakistan really is, in contrast to the 'Terrorism Central' nation that it is often portrayed as.
"And I will do it," Begum exclaims and, smiling seductively, adds "after all who can resist me?"