Nina West has been spreading a message of kindness since the world fell in love with her on RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 11, but this year she had quite a mission ahead of her. As a pandemic gripped our nation (and brought all performance to a standstill) West dove in perfectly coifed head first, and has come up with some of the most amazing entertainment we have seen come out of this pandemic. From recreating cult cinema classics to partnering up with The Vox Ensemble of Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus, West is making the most of the time away from the stage. We sat down for an extended chat to discuss what it’s been like being away from the stage for this long, how she has had to refocus on a different way of entertaining during quarantine, & why making sure that offering the art of drag to fans of all ages remains important to her.
Michael Cook: You have so much going on for the holidays & Quarantine Dream is the kind of holiday fantasy we need right now. How did the idea come to you?
Nina West: You know, I saw my entire calendar disappear in front of my eyes, and was like “what am I going to, where am I going to go”? Dan Lund has become a really great friend of mine and a creative sounding board and he said “let’s make a musical”! I said yes, even though I didn’t know where he was going. He’s watching from Zoom and filming on my iPhone. I knew that he was good, I just didn’t know what the magic of the process would look like at all. It was a no-brainer, I had to say yes.
MC: You mentioned that your calendar has disappeared before your eyes this season, and not touring and being able to perform has been crippling for the drag community for so many ways. For you personally, you emerged from Season 11 as a fan favorite and launched an album and were touring, and then the momentum stopped when the pandemic hit. What has it been like?
NW: It has been really challenging. I will say, that I think that my experience prior to Drag Race probably really assisted me in operating in a post-COVID world that we find ourselves in. I am a hustler, I am not afraid to get scrappy and will do anything that I have to do to make ends meet. This challenge forced me to say “what do I not know?” about things like YouTube, Zoom, or filming on a green screen and I had to learn quickly. The adjustment was very quick. I remember at the beginning of quarantine, the question was “how soon is too soon”? What are people going to be expecting and will we be back out there in a month? No one knew at the beginning, so you just didnt know and a lot has happened during this time period.
We had the election, a social uprising and a new social movement, we just had a lot go on. It’s no wonder there is so much anxiety and depression, and now here we are at the holidays and all of that is just so abundant; it is so tough, I was supposed to be doing big things and I find myself at home like everyone else. I am writing storytime scripts for the storytime shows that I do twice as week and I am writing music for projects that will hopefully be released next year and just doing a lot of writing, trying to be as introspective as possible and not be too worried about the here and now and just doing what I can do.
MC: Could a Nina West children’s book be seeing the light of day after all of this craziness is over?
NW: I can’t say anything about that (laughs) but I will say this. I like to think of myself as a very versatile artist who can serve up a couple different things. I hope that working in the children’s space is something that will happen more in 2021.
MC: Cha Cha Heels is an inventive and brilliant homage to John Waters and his career with a brilliant holiday twist. John Waters himself even publicly has said he loved it. What made you want to pay tribute to this legendary creative genius?
NW: As a queer person, John Waters was my first “safe” introduction to queer in a way that I had access to. I think I saw Hairspray when I was younger, and it didn’t resonate with at the time in any sort of queer way. Then I saw Pink Flamingos and it said “Director-John Waters” and I rationalized “that’s what gay is”. For me, he has been a pretty strong influence.
MC: You have truly managed to transition your passion for John Waters into a spectacular homage on screen with Cha Cha Heels!
NW: You know, when we wrote the song last summer, I wanted to really celebrate a different kind of Christmas, so that’s what the song does. The song is a celebration of Female Trouble one hundred percent. The scene with Dawn Davenport and even the lines in the second verse are all about Dawn. Unfortunately, we couldn’t do the video that I wanted to do to help support the song. Originally, we were going to do this huge video that was going to give the Hairspray-The Musical treatment to Female Trouble. Dawn and her best friends, dancing boys, just make it fabulous and wonderful. Then it came time to film the video & we were still in lockdown & COVID is still raging, we could not have more than ten people together safely and I can’t be with people who haven’t been in my bubble.
I worked with Brad Hammer who is a brilliant director and he suggested that we do a celebration of John Waters in general. We’ll start off with Female Trouble, we’ll go into Serial Mom and I can be Beverly Sutphin, and then we’ll go into Hairspray and I can be Tracy Turnblad. That mitigated us having a large cast with me playing three of the roles. The extras were my parents and “Link Larkin”, who were all people in my bubble that I’ve been working with up until that point in October. It was a really great pivot to pull off the video for that song.
MC: You love the bright colors and the big productions that are Disney. Have you always been one of those people who fell into the big production and the massive magic of it all? Everything Nina West is always bright magical and vibrant colors. Have you always been the person who wanted to make every production you were a part of something grand?
NW: Yes!-That’s a great observation. This time of year for my family is a big deal, the pomp and circumstance of the holiday season, It was ritualistic, it was nostalgic, it was tradition. Those are things that I love and I love playing with. If it can be big, bright colors, fun, campy or if I can make it subversive and change what people really thought of it or take a time honored tradition and make people think something else about it, that is my drag to a T. That is where Disney comes in.
MC: What do you say to the people who say that drag has been “Disney-fied” at times?
NW: I kind of kick back on people who say that this is the “Disney-fying” of drag is this thing I have been blamed for. That I am trying to make it too palpable to consume. It is an interesting line to walk. I am an entertainer that has been around for twenty years. I have been perverse, I have been filthy, my career has seen many different iterations. I think at this point I find myself at this point wanting to do something that really speaks really truly to the artist-that’s me. I find myself having to beat off critics who are from the religious right, the conservative right who use XYZ commentary that they always use towards LGBTQIA people, especially drag queens. I am beating them off and then on the other side, I am defending myself to a community that I am a part of. Drag is supposed to be “this”. I am of the mindset of, after doing it for so long and for doing so many different iterations of drag, that you truly cannot claim that drag is for everybody and then say that I am ruining drag because I am trying to make it palpable for families.
We are at a different crossroads; queer parents have children. Parents are coming to terms with the facts that they have queer children at younger and younger ages. There are people that are crying out for content and role models that don’t necessarily look like what they have historically seen. It just seems like a natural fit for me. It is important to me; truly through and through, it is speaking through me. I have always loved Disney; it doesn’t matter how far back you look at my career, I have done big sweeping giant Disney productions and spoofs of Disney songs. Patially it is the same thing with Christmas and this idea of this pomp and circumstance. It reminds me of my childhood, it reminds me of happier times, it reminds me of being safe. I know it does that for me, so I hope it does it for millions of other people. I remember walking into my grandmothers house on Christmas Eve, she always burned the same candle, had the same clove mixture, it is vivid to me. To me, that is part of the season. In this moment, it is what we have said during COVID; do whatever makes you feel comfortable and whatever you need to do.
MC: What has your hometown of Columbus been like for the LGBT community right now during pandemic?
NW: I think it is kind of a catch all. There are some shows, there are some venues that have closed because they can’t compete in this covid economy where there is no assistance or money. It’s challenging, it’s different. My risk aversions levels are different than many other people; I am not ready to step inside a bar to perform yet. Virginia (West) has had really tremendous success with her space District West, the bar is really great and has shows six nights a week. It’s really exciting to see and I hope that when this is over, I will be there performing with them and having a lot of fun. Right now, I am trying to see my parents when I can and be actively working. I just don’t want to get COVID and be one of of those people knocked out for four months or on a ventilator. I am not afraid of it, I am just very mindful. I have just heard these nightmares about COVID; mental nightmares and tremendous fatigue. My body is my business and it is how I work. I need every bit of it to continue to work for me so I am ready to go when this is over, and that can be really challenging when you see everyone else working and you really want to be out there and do this.
MC: You are one of the most celebrated performers around; what does Nina West celebrate about herself?
NW: I think I love the person that I am becoming. I think that is worth celebrating. I struggle like everybody else to figure it all out. I like that I am honest with myself, I celebrate the fact. That it is okay to ask for help, I think that’s a big one. I am not preaching kindness just to preach it; I am a nice person and I don’t think there’s anything weak about it. I think there are a lot of people to make uo this world and that there are a lot of people just like me and I think that’s okay. I think the biggest thing that I think I celebrate is I feel like I am becoming more of myself, I am finding that I know what my role is. I think I am here too celebrate other people and I am here to make other people feel good. I feel like I am here to put quality work into the world and make people smile and think and consider. I think that is what my job is. Some peoples jobs are to be mathematicians and be great with numbers, be scientists and cure pandemics, and some peoples jobs are to tell stories. To celebrate myself I think I need to celebrate other people; that is what makes me feel good.
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