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Interview: Nina West’s Big Debut on the Small Screen

Grant Walters Grant Walters Interview: Nina West’s Big Debut on the Small Screen
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Columbus' own is set to sparkle as a contestant on season eleven of the VH1 reality series, "RuPaul's Drag Race"

After entertaining Columbus audiences for nearly two decades, Nina West is mere hours from being an international phenomenon.

Tonight, viewers around the world will watch her inaugural appearance on the 11th season of the award-winning VH1 reality series RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Casting for each season’s 14 competitors is an intensive process. West’s ninth audition proved to be the magic number.

Nine times?

“That is correct. Nine laborious times!” she confirms in our recent interview.

“It’s pretty extensive, but the audition process is actually fairly accessible to anybody who’s really curious about it,” she explains. “You actually download an application, and then you go through and submit a video of kind of all the things you’d see on the show, right? So, you’d see runway looks, and acting challenges, and you’d see the Snatch Game, which is pretty much the benchmark of the show.

You have to film a lot of things and really showcase all the things that are the criteria for ‘America’s next big drag superstar,’ which is creativity, uniqueness, nerve, and talent.”

Authenticity is a key undercurrent of Drag Race.

“It’s really important in your audition to really showcase you and still be authentically you,” West emphasizes. “I think that’s the biggest advice I can give to anybody who would audition: don’t try to be anything you’re not, because they’ll see right through that on camera.”

Nina West is the drag queen persona of Ohio native Andrew Levitt, who was raised in Greentown and studied theatre at Denison University. He moved to Columbus and began performing drag in 2001. Nina has since appeared in thousands of local, national, and international events, returning regularly to Axis Nightclub in the Short North as her home base. West has hosted the venue’s annual “Heels of Horror” Hallowe’en show for the past 11 years. She also hosts her own regular podcast, Dragcast.

In 2015, Levitt established The Nina West Foundation, which directs monies raised from Nina’s performances and appearances to programs that support underrepresented communities across Central Ohio – especially those that help young people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer. Since its inception, the foundation has raised over $2 million for organizations like the ALCU of Ohio, Dress for Success Columbus, Kaleidoscope Youth Center, Planned Parenthood, and Ronald McDonald House Charities.

But even as West’s star is certain to rise quickly after her Drag Race launch tonight, her loyalty to her hometown remains steadfast.

“Having this fabric of Columbus means a lot to me, and this community just gives so much of their time, their talent, and treasure,” she says with great affection. “They want to help each other, and they want to help each other out and see each other succeed. They want to connect people to the right people to get projects done. There’s no place like it. There’s no place like it anywhere in the world. And I’m really lucky to call it my home.”

You’ve established such a strong reputation and following over the past 18 years. What was the impetus for auditioning for Drag Race?

“I think that this represents the next level, you know? It represents the next challenge. I’ve really challenged myself here locally, and I kind of felt at a certain point I was hitting the ceiling. I wanted something that would challenge me and would make me feel like I could grow and launch my career in a bigger direction, hopefully – and then be able to bring that work and excitement back to Columbus.

There’s something about being a big fish in a little pond, if you know what I mean, and I’ve been really grateful to have been able to do that here. I love this city, and I love being from here and living here. I really want to spread my wings and grow so I can continue to grow here. That was really exciting and important to me.”

You’re clearly a born entertainer, and you have incredible instinct. When do you first remember thinking that performance was something you wanted to do?

“I don’t know – there are a couple of things I immediately thought of. I remember watching ¡Three Amigos! when I was a kid [laughs] with Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short. There’s this scene where there’s this singing bush that was just singing all these different things, and I started to mimic its voice and how goofy that was. I remember that. And then I saw Who Framed Roger Rabbit? And that was another kind of different change. And I thought, ‘God, I want to do that! I want to be a part of that.’ But I just remember from the time I was little wanting to be on stage, wanting to perform for people.

I would take rocks and I would take my mom’s nail polish, and I would paint faces on the rocks and do…oh, I thought a rock concert when I was a kid was rocks on stage! So, I’d paint faces on rocks and then have people like my mom and our neighbors sit in our backyard, and I’d hide behind trees and throw voices to sing for the rocks. I mean, I was really committed! [laughs]”

[laughs] That’s amazing.

“It’s so dumb, but I always knew I wanted to be an entertainer. I didn’t know anything else.”

You’ve talked about Nina very much being an extension and expression of your identities. How do those all intersect as you perform and share that persona to an audience?

“Yeah, Nina’s…it’s complicated, right? Because drag is an art form. It’s creative expression, and so much of Nina is Andrew, and so much of Andrew is Nina. It’s weird, because it’s not like it’s a play and I pick up a script and read the lines, and figure out who this character is or come up with a back story. You kind of do all of that intrinsically and organically, but, I’m not confined by 120 percent of a play, you know?

As I grow, the character grows. If I hurt, the character…it’s almost like painting. If I’m inspired by the happiness in my life, my performances for a big show might be really light. Or if I’ve gone through a break-up, the material or the writing around the performance is going to seem maybe angry, or depressed, or sad. They do influence one another. I am shameless for using my own personal life to siphon it into the performance.

I’ve done that for years, and I think that’s how I’ve made myself relatable to an audience, and I think it’s how I can connect with them. While there is artifice in drag, and I’m being super contrived in my appearance because my aesthetic tends to be campy, like the big classic old school of drag, I think what makes me relatable is the fact that I’m talking while I’m on the microphone about things that everyone else is dealing with. And I’m doing performances that are around themes that are not too far away from their own experiences.

So, I don’t know how else…I’ve been doing drag for years, and I don’t know how else to do it other than the way I do it. And I don’t know how actually to explain that. [laughs]”

I think you’ve done that rather well! Besides the character development aspect of drag, what do you believe people misunderstand most about it as an art form?

“I mean, I think there are a lot of things that people misunderstand about drag. I could probably go on for a while about that. One thing I would say is that maybe people should go to a drag show, or experience a drag show in a queer space or a gay bar to understand what the art form is about. But, I do think people misunderstand or misconstrue the idea of gender identity, sexuality, and how people identify when they do drag.

We, as Americans, are so quick to want to label one another so we feel more comfortable, rather than allowing someone to be comfortable in their own skin. We want to tell somebody else who they are. And because I do drag, it doesn’t mean I want to be a woman. My masculine and feminine identities are both actively…like any balanced human being, we have masculine and feminine. I get the ability as a drag queen to play them both.

However I define myself as a man, someone else wants to tell me who I am, and I think that’s where drag makes other people uncomfortable. And why it’s such a punk form of art. Even if I’m still doing a Connie Francis number, or me doing a Connie Francis vocal, or Barbra Streisand, or even Broadway, in its own right it’s punk because the audience member or the viewing eye wants to tell me something about myself because they’re trying to make themselves feel more comfortable. Which is so interesting about the art form.

There are so many layers to it, and there’s so much theory to it. You know what I mean? Like, if you really sat down and thought about it, I think, if you pardon my French, it’s a mindfuck. [laughs]”

Nina West is also a business entity, and you’ve been recognized over the past year by Columbus Business First as a member of their ’40 Under 40’ class of community entrepreneurs. How do you manage your career from that perspective?

“Well, ya know…so, before the show, I could manage it. I had quit my full-time job and decided to do this full-time. And, again, I’m somebody who really likes to have 18 things in the air and juggle all of it. I love that, because I don’t like to be slow or have idle time. I found it really easy to manage.

But now that you have a global phenomenon in this reality show that requires so much of you. You have to have business savvy, and you have to have…you know, drag queens are on our own anyway. Even in the smallest of venues and the local-est of bars, we have to be our own producers, writers, directors. We’re our own performers – we’re doing it all. Drag queens are really Jacks or Judys of all trades.

So, then to have this gigantic platform thrust upon you so quickly – yes, we’ve shot the show and we’re quiet about it for a certain period of time, but all of a sudden the entire world knows who you are and that you’re on this project. You go from zero to a 110 in, literally, a matter of 10 minutes. And it’s amazing, but it requires…I have a team, I have a personal assistant. It feels so excessive, but I couldn’t do it otherwise.”

I…can’t even imagine.

“It’s crazy. You want to plan for it, but there’s nothing you can plan for!”

I wanted to spend a few minutes talking about The Nina West Foundation. You’ve given a lot back to Columbus over the years. How did you develop your philanthropy, and what does it mean to you?

“The foundation and the charity component came about when I was in college, really. I went to Denison, which first and foremost has such a strong, active idea of community service and community involvement. That was just really instilled in me by the campus community, and my parents – we would do all these things when I was a kid, and I just didn’t understand the impact. But, then when I started to come out and feel really isolated and really alone in Granville, those were some really challenging times – and I got through it by really figuring out, ‘How can I not let someone feel this way?’

Fast forward to now, the charities I work with and raise money for are really focused on – not all of them, but for the most part – LGBTQIA youth who are coming to terms with who they are, or battling some kind of depression and/or sickness or disease like cancer. Or LGBTQIA youth of color, who are lost in the mix, or our transgender youth, and/or our homeless youth. They’re all really focused on these kids to make sure they have the right start, and that they don’t feel alone and isolated.

So, that’s what a lot of the foundation means to me, and it really is probably the most important work I’ll ever do – more so than any number in a show, or doing Drag Race. My charity is so important because it does have immediate, direct impact on people’s lives, and it does make them better. And, I’ll tell you that, hand-in-hand, getting the chance to do Drag Race and to be able to bring more attention to the things that matter to me and raise consciousness and change people’s minds about these issues that are so important, is really exciting. It means a lot to me.”

Season 11 of RuPaul’s Drag Race premieres tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern, 8 p.m. Central on VH1. Learn more about Nina West, her upcoming events, and her charity work by visiting her official website.

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