“Go big. Be kind. Go West.”
Those are the words Nina West left the world with on season 11 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” in 2019. And since then, the later-crowned “Miss Congeniality” of that season has more than met her own charge — no small feat during a global pandemic.
With the “kind” in her message a given for this infamously kind queen, Nina certainly met the “go big” portion head-on, earning both national criticism and acclaim when she partnered with Nickelodeon’s “Blues Clues and You” Pride campaign in 2021. Through it all, West has stuck to her message, choosing to give grace to herself and others.
“We’re so hard on ourselves, we are so difficult to ourselves,” she says. “We don’t give ourselves enough credit to love the body that we’re in and love the decisions that we made that day or be easy on ourselves when we are going [through] a difficult time.”
And the “go West” part? Touring has taken care of that directive, geographically — and being authentically Nina West, of course, has filled in the rest. Currently, fans can look forward to seeing West as Edna Turnblad in the touring company of “Hairspray,” read her newly debuted book “The You Kind of Kind,” and catch her headline Royal Oak Pride on Friday, Aug. 12. Amidst a packed schedule, West (the alter ego of Andrew Levitt) spared a few moments to talk through what makes her tick and why she’s actually a “Michigander-lite.”
I know we’re not your home state of Ohio, but does doing a show in Michigan feel like a homecoming to the Midwest?
Yeah, I was actually born in Detroit, so kind of is like a homecoming in a way. I have a lot of friends there that have made it very comfortable for me over the years. I was born in Royal Oak and grew up in Farmington Hills for the first five years of my life, which makes it super special and super fun. But there is something, of course, to Midwestern identity and Midwestern queer identity and how that relates to drag or performance art and really to our communities as a whole and what that looks like. And I’m really excited and honored to be coming back to Detroit again. The last time I was there was for “Hairspray” in the winter, so I’m really excited to make a return before I go back.
Welcome back! I guess I can consider you a Michigander, then.
I’m a Michigander, kind of. Michigander-lite.
Speaking of the Midwest, the stereotype is that we’re incredibly nice, and you’re a queen who has definitely earned that reputation. However, I think you go a step further and could be described as kind as well, particularly since you partner your way of being with activism.
I think kindness and niceness are two very different things. It’s not that I’m nice; it’s just that I do rest in kindness, and I do live my life day-to-day on a plane of kindness where I really do treat people the way that I want to be treated. And also, part of my own queer upbringing and queer understanding was that I never wanted anyone else to feel the way that I felt when I was at my most isolated and most alone in coming to terms with who I was and my own identity.
But I want to be really clear: I think people really view kindness as some kind of weakness, but I do think it really does relate back to how I demand to be treated. And I demand to be treated with a code of ethics and with some kind of moral compass when engaging with me. I offer that to others, and once that’s broken, I think that there’s some kind of new negotiation that I must make with myself and with another person if I’m going to engage with them any longer.
So kindness is not to be confused with niceness. I don’t want anyone to confuse me with, “Oh, I’m just a nice person and I’ll tolerate or accept anything.” No, actually I’m a kind person that will only go so far to allow myself to be treated in any specific way that’s not healthy for me.
At the start of your career you wanted to go to New York City, but 9/11 derailed those plans and you ended up staying in the midwest. Do you think you would have been the same queen if you had gone?
Wow, I’ve never thought about that. I don’t know because my lived experience is what it is. I’m not sure if it would have changed me or made me a different kind of queen, but I think what I found was a career ahead of me that was not a direct route. And within my community of Columbus, Ohio, I found my own path of hardships and joy and challenges and successes that I think would have been different, but would have maybe been consistently the same.
I don’t know if New York hardens a person or if a person hardens because of their own experiences throughout their life. I do know that in my 21-year drag career, I’ve had the privilege, really, of making mistakes in a community that corrected me. And I’ve had the privilege of learning how to be a leader. And I’ve had the challenges of being faced with complicated and difficult conversations and situations that made me a better person. I think those would have found me anywhere. I just know that, through my own experience, I’m really grateful that that happened in Ohio.
What are some of the changes in drag you’ve noticed throughout your career?
When I started, there was no “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” so drag was never seen as a viable option to a 14-year-old kid or even just a potential hobby. It just wasn’t seen that way because it was relegated to nightlife, and it was relegated to underground bars and clubs and adult venues 18 and over. Now, drag is everywhere, and it’s so much because of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
The definition of the art form has changed so much in such a short period of time that I think the possibilities of it all are very different. Again, I’m not sure what younger me would have thought; I just know how my career has gone, and it has been fraught with challenges. We’re still dealing with the AIDS crisis in our LGBTQI+ community, amongst many other things. And now, with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, things are very, very challenging for LGBTQI+ people and are only going to get harder over the next several years. So, I’m not sure. [Laughs.]
I only know the life I’ve lived rather than what could have been, but drag has dramatically changed over this last decade. Specifically, that has redefined and reshaped how people see the art form. When you have 12-year-old kids who want to do drag, that’s very different from the world that I grew up in. I didn’t come to drag until I was about 19 or 20.
What convinced you to do drag?
After I graduated college in May of 2001 I went and did a drag contest in June, and I won the contest. And once I understood that I could make money from it, I started to take it seriously. It was like, “Oh, right, I could actually do this. I’m not bad!” It was a couple of years later that I was going to take it seriously as a career, but I’ve always had, until I got on “Drag Race,” a full-time job. I was always trying to justify that I needed to be a [laughs] serious adult, when the work that I do in drag is far more complicated and more serious than anything I’ve ever done. It’s more time-consuming, it’s more challenging to me. But it’s also more rewarding. It’s exactly what I think I was put on this Earth to do, both to be a performer and to reach this audience of this LGBTQI+ community that I’m in love with and fight for on a day-to-day basis. I think drag has only allowed me the opportunity to do that. So, it’s been incredible.
You famously auditioned nine times for the show, but you noted that the last one was authentically you and that’s what sold it, right?
[Laughs.] The “Drag Race” auditioning, that process was not easy. And it’s even rumored that RuPaul said, watching that last tape, “She’s either on this season, or we’re never gonna put her on.” And I know now I’m one of the more auditioned queens who has auditioned for the show, but now I would assume that there’s probably more queens, given that they’re going into season 15, who have auditioned more than I have. But really the lesson is to never give up on yourself. The lesson is to keep going. Keep doing it. Keep putting it out there. Keep knocking on that door, because they’re going to answer, and they’re going to tell you yes or they’re going to tell you no. The lesson I learned was that I have to keep going and that I want to change and I want to evolve and become a better version of myself to be able to be ready for what they’re asking me to do.
You’re also an accomplished author. What inspired you to write “The You Kind of Kind”?
Right after my season, I was approached by several different publishers to write a children’s book, and I’m really glad that I’m partnering with Princeton Architectural Press. This has been a three-year process that has taken me quite some time, and, thankfully, this was one of the great things that came from my time during the pandemic. This is a children’s book about finding kindness in the wild. It’s beautifully illustrated by Hayden Evans, who is a brilliant artist, and I think the book came at the right time for me.
As we find ourselves in this great debate of drag being accessible to families and children, I think it’s a really important conversation to have, and I’m really glad to be a part of that specific conversation, leading the way and the charge. I fully believe that when my LGBTQI+ friends started to have kids after marriage equality came down through the Supreme Court, I really leaned into wanting to support my friends who were wanting to have kids. And then the conversation has only evolved further as “cis straight friends” who were on their own gender identity journey and journey of self-identification. I want to provide them support in this quest to find content and entertainment that matched the desires of their families. So this kids book is a huge passion project that has evolved into now a published book, and it’s just so exciting to think that it’s not just a dream.
And bringing a true sense of kindness to the world that so desperately needs it right now. And if it happens to be Midwestern, that’s awesome, but I think it’s something we can all strive to be better at and better to one another and better to ourselves. My continued mission on this planet is to be good to myself and others. And not every day is perfect, but I’m definitely working on it.