Bob the Drag Queen, Bianca Del Rio, Katya Zamolodchikova. Many iconic comedy queens have become household names after performing on RuPaul’s Drag Race and this season Nina West is set to be the next big comedy icon in the world of drag.
Before competing on Drag Race, West won Entertainer of the Year in 2008. She also started the Nina West Fund which raises money for charities through drag performances. The foundation has contributed to the Ronald McDonald House, Equitas Health, Planned Parenthood, Family Pride Network, the ACLU, and the Columbus-based Kaleidoscope Youth Center.
West uses drag to make audiences laugh, talk politics, and support her local LGBTQ community in Columbus, OH. Laughspin’s Rosa Escandon talked with West about her newfound celebrity, the comedy in drag, and how local queens are the real heroes.
You just appeared on the premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 11. How has the response been?
Excellent. I’ve seen a lot of really ridiculously funny memes. I thought, “Oh well, I’ll never be a meme,” but oh my god. They have just gone crazy. The response has been great and for the most part, I think you get out of it what you want to and so I’m living my best life. I auditioned nine times and I’m finally here, so I’m not looking for the bad. I’m really celebrating the opportunity and celebrating all the good that people seem to be giving me.
Nine times. You mentioned that on the episode, too. How was it to audition that many times? Was it hard to deal with the rejection?
I will be honest with you: I remember around the fifth audition getting the email that I that didn’t get cast. I was like, “I’m done. I don’t know what they’re looking for. I don’t know what I can give them that I haven’t done already in the first five auditions.” And then I talked with Detox [Drag Race alum from Season 5 and All Stars Season 2] and she said, “Girl, let me see your tapes.” And she goes, “Who the fuck is this person?” She’s like, “That is not you. That’s not who you are. Why are you submitting these tapes? They’re terrible. And they’re overproduced and they don’t feel authentic.” You just gotta be yourself. The next several audition tapes, I really honed in and tried to figure out what that meant. How do I just be myself on camera? Which is a trick, right? It finally worked out.
How would you describe that ‘authentic self’ as a performer?
Both as a person and a performer, I’m really campy and really colorful and really larger than life. My background is in theater and acting. I really love the ability to kind of grab onto a character within lipsync performances. It’s just really adapting and adjusting to a character. But I’m also a really compassionate, empathetic person and I’m highly emotional and so that comes out in my drag too.
Your drag is really funny and many would call you a comedy queen. Do you consider yourself a comedian?
Well, can I tell you this? I think in the drag community, sometimes, ‘comedian’ is a bad word. I think a lot of queens look down on comedy and camp. I’m not relying on pretty. Can I be pretty? Ask my mom. She’ll say I’m pretty every time, but pretty is something I’ve never been able to rely on because I’ve always been the bigger dude. I’m the dude in a dress. I’m the John Goodman of drag. My assets are really great comedic timing, really funny concepts, and theatrical delivery. For me, being called a comedian is an honor. My role models are comedians—and they are not just drag queens. When I was growing, up my favorite movie was—and still is—The Three Amigos with Steve Martin, Martin Short, Chevy Chase. One of the best things to ever be put on film. To be a comedian, you have to be smart. You have to be empathetic. There are so many traits, as a person, you have to have to be a comedian. Maybe a little broken—I’m just kidding. Or maybe I’m not.
Have you ever thought of performing not in drag or is drag really your medium?
That’s a great question because I think drag is the medium that is working for me right now. I wouldn’t be where I’m at without my drag. Drag is my medium. But I also want to be able to do things out of drag and develop and cultivate things out of drag. I think that that is what’s so great about the art of drag: that I can do this or I can do that. I can be a really colorful, over-the-top “woman” or show up and work as Andrew [Levitt]. Either way, I’m going to really cultivate and use my set of skills.
So, how’d you start doing drag?
I didn’t ever really set out to do drag. Drag kind of found me in a series of really happy accidents. I was president of my LGBT student organization in college. My senior year, I was dared to do our senior drag show—so I did. I thought it would be a one-off. I graduated in May of 2001. I live in Ohio but I was making plans to move to New York City in October 2001 to pursue acting. After 9/11, everything kind of shifted. For me, I realized I was not ready to move to New York. I thought maybe down the road, I’ll consider it. But that never really happened because I was trying to audition for theater here in Columbus and I was getting the door shut in my face left and right. My friend Chris, who’s now my drag mother, Virginia, said “Just try drag. You can make some side money, have some fun.” And that was 2001 and now fast forward: here we are in 2019 and I’m still doing drag.
So you’ve been doing drag for nearly 20 years!
I’m an old man.
No! It’s so impressive. In that time, has drag changed?
Drag has changed tremendously with the inception of Drag Race. It has grown and it has been absorbed into the pop culture. Drag was and still is, but really WAS, fundamentally a subcultural art form. Now, it still is that, but also so many other things. It’s prevalent everywhere. I mean, it’s everywhere. You can’t turn on your TV without seeing a drag queen. Drag Me Down the Aisle premieres this month. Shangela is in A Star is Born—so is Willam [Belli]. These days, girls learn how to do their make-up via YouTube. I had to learn how to do my make-up by sitting next to a drag queen and saying, “Okay. What do you do?” As the world has evolved, drag has evolved too. Kids are coming out younger. There are younger queens.
And has Drag Race specifically changed anything about doing drag in the last 10 years?
Some people’s only exposure to drag is Drag Race and they don’t have anything else to compare it to. So when they see someone in their local community who does drag and it’s not like what they see on Drag Race, they have to learn how to adjust to all styles of drag. I think Drag Race does a really great job in trying to showcase all kinds of drag, but it’s impossible to show off every kind of drag. You should expose yourself to the art form and a variety of different ways—and that includes Drag Race.
I really do believe drag queens are the best self-promoters. Queens have their own merch stores; they travel across the country and sometimes the world with their drag. Before you were on TV, how were you getting people to see your work?
Whether it was paid or not, you have to be willing to hit the pavement running and you have to be willing to make sacrifices. That is in any form of entertainment, right? You can’t just wait for something to come find you. You have to knock on every door. You also have to be willing to listen to critique and you’ll have to be willing to take the critique and see how it applies. Taking critiques well can be a make or break moment. The other thing is: make contacts. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. My advice: make contacts, be humble, be kind, be nice. It sounds so simple, but every gig that I’ve ever done, I show up on time or early. Be early and be nice. People don’t want to work with a jerk. And that’s probably true about stand-up comedians too. There is probably notorious stories about who’s really great to work with and who is not. I’m a nice person and I am a kind person and those are not attributes that make me weak. They make me strong.
I wanted to ask you about two projects you were working on before Drag Race. Would you mind telling me a little about your podcast, DragCast, with Patricia Taylor?
We are going into our fourth year of the podcast. It’s just me and my best friend Patricia sitting in my living room talking about pretty much anything we want to talk about. We always do a RuPaul’s Drag Race recap—we have for years. We haven’t done it yet for this season, but we are recording tonight and I have to like talk about me doing the show, which is really weird and bizarre. The podcast has been kind of a labor of love. It has given me time to sit with the person that I love the most in the world and we just basically record conversations we would have off air. It’s really pop culture-based with a lot of conversations about politics. And I think it gives a laugh or two.
The other project I wanted to ask about is the Nina West Fund. How did you start that?
One of the things I consciously did at the beginning of my career was to really make a decision to give back to my community. I have raised money at almost every show that I’ve ever done. Maybe that seems calculating or that seems weird, but I went to a university where service and giving back and volunteering was a really big deal. It was also a big deal in my family, so it just made sense to me. If we all gave a dollar in a room full of 200 people, that’s $200. And then someone matches for another $200. Then it became $2,000, matching $5,000. I’m lucky enough to drive donations, but the Columbus community has been so giving and it’s so tremendous to see how this really incredible little blue dot in a red state gives to LGBTQ causes. The people here are so brilliant and so kind and so generous. So I started The Nina West Fund in 2015 to legitimize my giving. So now, people know if they write a check to the foundation, they would know the exact organizations it would be benefiting—and it’d be tax deductible.
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You mentioned how the community is in Columbus. How is it performing in a small city vs. the national attention you are now getting?
Well, Columbus isn’t that small of a city. It is the 13th-largest city in America. Tremendous industry. Abercrombie and Fitch is based here and Victoria’s Secret. White Castle, if you like fast food, is based here. Wendy’s. Nationwide Insurance. We are a really booming metropolis, but people just think it is a cow town. It’s a pretty progressive city which has influenced my drag to be pretty political at times. It’s made me want to use my platform and use my voice for speaking up for trans rights and women’s rights and rights for people of color and rights for the LGBTQ community, the homeless, and senior citizens. And I could go on. HIV issues, the lack of funding to Planned Parenthood, which then does affect transgender clients who need Planned Parenthood for services. I just think you become a lot more savvy and aware when you are in a community that is all fighting together because you’re in a red state.
And I love Ohio. I was born and raised here. I love this state, but it definitely has influenced my drag on how to raise points about what is messed up in our society and what is wrong while still being sassy and funny on stage. Being political on stage or fundraising through drag shows makes the audience feel immediately connected to the issue. Donating is great if they have that ability, and if they don’t have that ability, then we talk about giving their time or their talent.
Do you think it’s important to support local performers? I know you’re kind of blowing up right now on TV, but do you think audiences should look for opportunities to see drag in their local communities?
Short answer: Yeah. Long answer: Every girl that’s ever walked into that workroom on RuPaul’s Drag Race is a local entertainer who has basically been given a global passport to entertain and do what they did locally on a much more elevated and refined scale. I am a local queen through and through. I’m probably the definition of it. My heart bleeds and runs for my city. I cannot see any other way that I would be where I’m at right now if it were not for Columbus, Ohio. It is so important for other people to go expose themselves to drag that is happening in their cities. Drag Race is not the end goal [for everyone] and a lot of entertainers don’t even want to be on Drag Race. For me, getting on is a big deal because I want to be able to continue on in the entertainment industry and build an even stronger career. Does that mean I’m going to leave Columbus? No. It means I want to bring it back to Columbus and work on projects here in Columbus.
I’m a talker. I will talk all day. I hate the phrase “local queen” because the “local queens” are the ones who were holding it down for a girl like me, who is still a local queen, to be able to go somewhere like Seattle and work at that bar. I have an ability to go to a show in a gay bar in Seattle because there’s somebody there who is running a show every night of the week keeping that place open. Drag queens are the gay community’s celebrities. In every town, the drag queen in that gay community is the local Oprah, their local Madonna, their local Britney.
You can catch Nina West on the new season of RuPaul’s Drag Race Thursdays at 9:00 p.m. EST on VH1.