She described her family as belonging to the Arunthatiyar caste in Andhra Pradesh, migrating to Chennai several generations ago. Her mother, a Dalit woman, worked as a street cleaner, in addition to domestic work. As a child, she described herself as being “a woman in my heart…even as I was being given male privilege.…I was mistaken to be male and couldn’t yet articulate that I was a girl and so I was educated much more than my sisters.” In a 2013 interview, Smiley traces the roots of her public art and activism to her realization that “since all women get oppressed under patriarchy, and trans women and dalit women through the combined might of patriarchy with casteism and transphobia, I might as well have a loud mouth and be assertive than take everything silently – to be a strong but silent woman was not enough.”
Vidya holds a master’s degree from Tanjavur Tamil University in applied linguistics. In an 2014 interview, she said “while doing my post-graduation at university, I spent most of the time in the Theater Department rather than my Linguistics Department…So I was able to do a couple of plays.”
After she moved away from Thanjavur, she begged for a living. After gender-reassignment surgery, she settled in Tamil Nadu, where she began her career working for two years at a rural bank in Madurai, and got involved with theatre.