Nina West Talks Debut Children’s Book, Weird Al, & ‘Hairspray’

Image via Max Fleury

Ever since competing on Season 11 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Nina West has been taking the world by storm and disrupting the entertainment industry by bringing her brand of drag to the mainstream masses.

Last month, the Miss Congeniality winner released her debut children’s book The You Kind of Kind, which shares an empowering message of love, kindness, inclusion, and community. This book is the first of its kind for children by a drag performer and comes at a time where kindness needs to spread more than ever. The freedom for children to read and be who they want to be is currently being challenged by several unethical bills throughout the U.S.

The You Kind of Kind was even endorsed by the Queen of Kindness herself, Dolly Parton.

On top that, West is embarking on her second year touring the country in the Tony Award winning musical Hairspray as Edna Turnblad, and she can also be seen playing drag legend Divine in WEIRD: The Weird Al Yankovic Story, now streaming on ROKU.  

West took some time to talk more about the book and much more with Instinct.

Congratulations on the release of your debut children’s book, Nina!

Thank you so much! It’s been three years in the making, so I’m glad it’s finally here. It’s a dream come true.

"The You Kind of You" Cover Art

How did the concept for The You Kind of Kind come about, and what inspired you to write it?

I released a children’s album in 2019 right after I was eliminated from RuPaul’s Drag Race called Drag Is Magic, and it charted on the Billboard’s Top 10 for children’s music. It did very well, and then a book agent contacted me asking if I had any interest in doing a children’s book. I was eliminated from the show on May 14 or something like that, and I was getting this call not even three weeks later. Everything was moving very fast, but when they asked if I was interested, I was like, absolutely. Initially, we were going to do a picture book to one of the songs.

I had done music videos for Drag Is Magic, and they wanted the title track to become a book. I was like, the music video tells the story in a very colorful, fun way. I felt like I didn’t need to revisit that, so what if we shopped around a different idea? Princeton Architectural Press, which is an arm of Chronicle Books, was very interested in creating an original concept with me, and I’m very glad that they were willing to go on this adventure with me. We rooted it this “Go Big, Be Kind, Be You” philosophy, and I wrote a song called “Go Big, Be Kind, Be You,” so it was all about being yourself and giving kindness to the world.

The artwork in this book is absolutely beautiful. Can you talk a bit more about that?

Yes, it’s fantastic! My friend Hayden Evans did the artwork, and he is brilliant. Again, Drag Race is a great unifier here because Hayden slid into my DMs while I was on the show saying how much he loved me and did some fanart for me. I was like, this is incredible, and we really became friends organically.

As this project found its way closer and closer to me, I went to Hayden and said, how would you feel about working on this project with me? That was probably the fastest email response I’ve ever gotten (laughs). The manuscript was world building in and of itself, but then Hayden created this artwork that absolutely provides context in space and creates even more of a magical imagination for our audiences. It’s truly fantastic and I couldn’t have asked for a better collaborator. He’s so brilliant.

The book was even recommended and blessed by Dolly Parton. That’s quite the endorsement!

I know! She is the queen of kindness, and I hope that people will see her endorsement, embrace this book, and help me celebrate it.

What did you enjoy the most about working on this book?

Oh, that’s a good question. I really enjoyed having these very deep and sometimes meaningless conversations with my editor about different iterations of where we wanted to go with it and what the final product became because it allowed me to dream even bigger about what I hope for the world. This book is coming out during a tumultuous time in our country where everything is very divisive and divided, and we don’t know how to have conversations with one another.

I think this is a great example of how we can give kindness to one another, and in turn, learn how to talk to one another and engage with one another again. Of course, it’s a picture book for kids, so that’s a wonderful opportunity to teach them powerful lessons about how to make people feel seen in the world. Just by saying hello to somebody, that can make a whole day for them. It couldn’t be more pertinent and important for the book to come out now.

Did you learn anything about yourself throughout the process?

Oh, my gosh, I learned that I could be a little bit more patient (laughs). It’s taken a long time to get here, and a children’s book does not happen overnight. There are a lot of different iterations, and you have to make a lot of hard choices. From phrasing to representation of character, there was a lot of back and forth. Like, is this a drag character? Is this a little girl?

I came up with the decision that she’s a person who exists in this world, and that’s never addressed because we leave everything to the imagination and interpretation of the reader. As a queer artist with a queer voice, I wanted to provide an opportunity for queer parents and parents of queer children to have a space to feel accepted, seen, and celebrated.

Have you always had this passion for educating children?

Yeah, I think I have. I’ve always had this passion for wanting to be in these family spaces in one way or another, be it through drag or not. I like to think of myself as a big kid. I’m a big goofball who likes to play pranks, and the kind of art I connect with are things like The Muppets, Disney, Nickelodeon, Warner Brothers, and Looney Tunes cartoons. I was always doing voices when I was a kid, and it just felt like a natural progression for me to be in these spaces and help tell these stories. I firmly believe that people deserve the content where they see themselves, and I want to help create that.

In your opinion, why should kids be exposed to drag at an early age?

I believe that drag is a great unifier, and it’s a great tool where we can tell powerful stories and instill important pillars of kindness, love, celebration, and joy. Drag, in and of itself, is a very loud representation and celebration of self, and we need to remember that drag does exist in a lot of different contexts. There’s drag that happens in nightclubs, libraries, coffee shops, and on television.

How drag is seen in the world is vastly different, but I believe there can be a duality. I believe that when led by a voice that is rooted in kindness, generosity, education, and celebration, I think those things can be instilled in kids. Much like a clown or a giant purple dinosaur, drag queens can help impact and inform a younger generation on how to be their best authentic selves.

You also had the opportunity to promote the book over the summer at San Diego Comic-Con. How did it feel to attend for the first time and represent drag?

Oh, my gosh! That was so crazy! I’m a D23ers, but I fell in love with Comic-Con. The way I look at it, you have all these different fandoms coming together at Comic-Con. You’ve got DC, Marvel, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, Funko Pop hunters, whatever. It’s remarkable and wonderful that all these different people from all these different backgrounds, who love all these different things, can come together, and celebrate their uniqueness, nerdom, and fandom in a way that does not take away from anyone else. No one is saying, oh, you’re an idiot or you don’t belong here because your fandom is Lego or DuckTales. They all belong, have a space, and fit in. We all could learn a thing or two about FanCons and how they can be a better example of how we ought to treat one another outside of them.

So, can we expect more children’s books from you in the future?

I really hope so! Fingers crossed! I think we’re all waiting to see how this book does and how people gravitate towards it. My hope is, if people want to see this kind of content, they need to support this kind of content. Buy the book, celebrate the book, share the book, post about the book, record yourself doing story times with the book, but lift it up and celebrate the book. I think that will help not only myself, but artists like drag queens who want to be in this space. We must have successful stories to allow us to continue.

Another recent project of yours, you are featured in the new film WEIRD: The Weird Al Yankovic Story. Who do you play, and what did you take away from that experience?

I play Divine, which was a dream come true, and it was an honor to be a part of this massive project. This is a project that everyone’s been talking about now for almost a year and a half. People have been enraptured by it or hungry for more information about what’s in store for people, and my day on set was magical. I got to meet and spend time with Weird Al, Daniel Radcliffe, and a lot of other really incredible people.

I think one of the greatest things that we can learn about this specific thing is that Al Yankovic is a legendary original. He has lived life on his own terms, telling stories through his music and doing the kind of thing that he wants to do, and he found tremendous success in that. I think that’s what’s wonderful about WEIRD. We’re celebrating somebody who’s an original, and I think that gives people the courage and the bravery to be themselves.

And of course, I must ask you about Hairspray. How much fun has that been?

Ah! I’m going into my second year with Hairspray, and it’s been a joy to be able to travel around the country, tell this story of Tracy Turnblad and her family, and celebrate with communities who are all vastly different, but I think are wanting the same experience of jumping out of your seat at the end of the show, having unbridled joy, and reminding yourself about the importance of conversation and community.

Can you touch on how you’re bringing the role back to its drag queen origins?

This role was originated by Divine in the film adaptation, and then originated by Harvey Fierstein on Broadway, who was in fact a drag queen during his very successful career as an actor, writer, and producer. The role then went in very different directions once it was played by John Pinette, Bruce Vilanch, Paul Vogt, Michael McKean, and John Travolta, but I’m excited to bring back a queer sensibility to the role, which is like the subversion I think John Waters intended.

We’re not saying to the audience, oh, look, it’s a man in a dress. We’re saying that’s Tracy’s mom. What drag brings to it is the fact that I am cross dressing, but what the story tells, and I believe Devine said this in an interview with David Letterman, I am an actor and I believe that I’m Tracy’s mother. My job is to tell the story and tell the truth, and hopefully the audience believes me. So far, I’ve been having a lot of success with it!

Oftentimes, people can get lost in, oh, let’s get gimmicky. Enda Turnblad, you’re going to get to pull all these faces and do all these jokes, but maybe Edna doesn’t think she’s funny. There could be all these thoughts behind her, and rather than, oh, I’ve got an audience here who’s listening to my every word, so let’s really get a zinger in, that’s when we lose truth to the scene There’s a lot of layers that we have to peel back with Edna, and I’m grateful I get to be the actor who gets to do it in this 20th anniversary tour.

What are some future goals you hope to achieve with your career and platform?

Thank you for asking this. I hope to continue working on projects that I think inspire people, allow our queer community to feel seen, and to break down those barriers that provide space for us. I desperately want to be a voice for Disney. I keep saying that, speaking it into the universe, and working towards that goal, and hopefully, one day I will get that opportunity. I’d love to be a voice for an animated character in a giant Disney film. That would be amazing.

Also, maybe I could follow my sister Shea Couleé into the Marvel Universe. How awesome would that be? I’d love to work towards more television, and of course, write and do more books, telling those stories for our community. People outside of our community as well. We’re in desperate times, and we really need representation. I’m proud to do that, not only on a stage and actor level, but also as an activist and a voice for this community. I’m not always going to get it right, but I will try to do my best.

Before we wrap up, are there any other upcoming projects or anything else you would like to mention or plug?

These three that we’ve been talking about are the big ones, but I will also be going on tour with A Drag Queen Christmas for the month of December. I’ll be touring all over the country hosting that show!

Stay up-to-date and connect with West by following her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok, or visit her official website. The You Kind of Kind is available on Amazon and all other book retailers.


 

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