To say it’s been a wild ride for Nina West post-RuPaul’s Drag Race is putting it mildly.
Since her turn on the world’s most acclaimed runway, West has been a recording artist and is now a newly minted author with her new book "The You Kind of Kind." In between hitting stages nationally as Divine in the national tour of Hairspray and portraying Divine in the new biopic on '80s icon Weird Al Yankovic, West sat down to chat about her new ventures, pinch-me moments like performing alongside The Muppets, and being “blessed by the angel that is Dolly Parton.”
Michael Cook: We haven’t chatted since you were cast as Edna Turnblad in the national production of Hairspray, which is a truly iconic role. What has it been like to be cast in a role that is so truly steeped in legend?
Nina West: Truthfully, I gotta get all the bullshit out of the way. I gotta get the stuff out of my own way and I had gotten in my own way. This is big; Harvey Fierstein, Divine, Paul Vogt, John Pinette, John Travolta, Michael McKeon, and a lot of legends have been in these shoes. I won’t lie to you, the first part of my rehearsal process was just coming to terms with “am I worthy enough?” I had a heart-to-heart with Jack O’Brien and Jerry Mitchell and they were like “you just have to tell the story in your way.” It was an important conversation that shifted everything for me. I’m going to be honest with you, it was really hard at first. I didn’t want to let Harvey down in any way, and feel like 20 years later, this is the best they could do. I just didn’t know how to deal with those thoughts in my own way. Harvey hasn’t seen it yet, but he has been very hands-on with me and he will talk me off the ledge at times, reminding me of the truth of everything and that has been really valuable. One of the greatest aspects of this whole journey has been that friendship.
MC: The fact that you can even say that you and a musical theater legend like Harvey Fierstein and you are actually friends must be beyond surreal for you.
NW: Yes, are you kidding me (laughs)?! I am 44 now and I grew up in a world with Harvey in Mrs. Doubtfire, I think that was my first introduction to Harvey. I have two older sisters and my older sister brought home Hairspray and that is how I was introduced to John Waters movies. My exposure was too Divine and not knowing it was a man and being introduced to Ricki Lake who went on to China Beach, that is what I remember, she became famous from this. Then I had my own love affair with John Waters as a queer artist and a queer voice as a gay man coming out; it was a right of passage to watch Pink Flamingos and things like Female Trouble. Then we fast forward to 2001 and I was a server and took all my money from my job in July of 2002 to see the show on Broadway and see Harvey Fierstein and see Marc Shaiman pacing in front of the theater and see this big phenomenon that has just opened on Broadway that was coming from Seattle. I knew how important Harvey’s queer voice was because at that point, I had read Torch Song Trilogy. It has never been lost on me or for me how big these voices are specifically to the LGBT community and now I get to add my own sauce to it and I think that is so special. On the 20th anniversary tour, I get to carry this banner and this torch. I’m not gonna lie, when my time is done with this, it is going to be hard for me to leave. I love this world, this character, this show, and I love the people that created it. And I love that get to leave my legacy with it; but come to the end of June, it is going to be very hard to leave it.
MC: Your voice is now added to the legacy of the role, and you are also using your voice to reach out to younger people. What has it been like to create art for children and get this kind of reaction?
NW: It didn’t seem like the most logical progression of any career, I have been doing this for twenty-two years. People may think it’s interesting, but if you know me and you followed my career prior to Drag Race, then you know that this was a logical step and it made sense for me. My career is impacted and influenced by a specific time. Marriage equality came to pass in 2016 when I was really at the height of my local drag career. I am helping lead conversations, charity fundraisers, and activating agency and around fighting for marriage equality, which included lots of conversations about adoption, protecting spouses' rights to be in the hospital, shared hospital, and so many other aspects to this. With marriage equality came a very big concept of family and I saw a lot of my friends, queer people, wanting to have kids, their own or adopt. Conversations with so many of them were about how they would provide content and a world that we wanted our kids to grow up in. I kept hearing that and finally it was like “I am that person, I am the person that can fill this niche.” In our own LGBT community, duality can exist. I can go to a show in a nightclub that is 18+ and then I can go to a story time or an album for kids and not have this be this big crisis of conscience. I think we as a community have to do better in shaping the conversation in what are the expectations of our drag community, as well as how our community reacts to and treats queer families who also desperately deserve a seat at the table. I am fighting for that access. I may be a single man with no kids, but I am deeply impacted and profoundly moved by my friends, be they trans, gay men, or lesbians who have children and want to have the ability to share their community with their kids, I think that should be granted, understood and given. That doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice pride festivals the way that we know them, it doesn’t mean we have to negotiate an identity for our community. It does mean we extend expand and become everything that we deserve to be as a queer community The conversation starts with us solidifying and fortifying ourselves to the outside world that is so readily willing to beat us up.
MC: With so much going on in your career, you still managed to find the time to write your new book "The You Kind of Kind." Tell me about this very important project.
NW: I wrote this book during COVID, so I had plenty of time during COVID; I was begging for projects (laughs)! This happened in June of 2019 when a booking agent who is now my book agent came to me and said that there was interest in me writing a children’s book. I had just released Drag is Magic, and of course I was interested. It took a long time for us to get our footing, I think the climate we are in is even more charged, making it more relevant and important now than it was three years ago when the offer to do the book came to me; and we couldn’t have known that. We couldn’t have known that Proud Boys and Oath Keepers would be storming story times and invading public library spaces. Or states like Idaho would be trying to ban drag performances. Or places where the "Don’t Say Gay" law would be happening in Florida. Or that Texas would be enacting these laws that penalize parents for affirming their child’s gender identity; we knew none of this. Those are only big news stories, we’re not tailing about what is happening at local levels in municipalities and cities all over the country that are being further supported by public legislation which is super problematic. That is why I think this book matters, and it is simply a book about kindness. This is simply a book about how we exist in the world, how we go out in the world, and how we talk to one and treat one another. And how we in turn, deserve to give our own kindness to ourselves. We each have our own special brand of who we are and that is what this is about. It might be a simple 32-page illustrated book, but I think it is part of a larger movement of trying to foster community and conversation that we really need and we should really be paying attention to right now.
MC: You have even gotten recognition from someone like Dolly Parton who has made children reading and literacy a passion of her own. How surreal and wild was getting that kind of recognition?
NW: The whole journey has been wild. Four years ago when I went to do Drag Race, I was very wide-eyed and very hopeful that I would just have the opportunity to leave my mark on people. Little did I know that four years later, I would still be benefiting from my time on the show and still have the opportunity to talk about these things, and at the same time, be able to become friends with Dolly Parton! Honey, I am winning!
MC: Dolly Parton has made kindness part of her brand, and what you are putting out is what people like Parton are gravitating towards. You have had opportunities to perform with The Muppets and perform with stars of a show that people like you and I watched every week as children. If there was ever the quintessential Disney kid, it would be you.
NW: Everything that I ever dreamed for myself as a kid when I was in North Canton, Ohio, sitting around our table talking about where we wanted to be, I wanted to be a Muppet. I wanted to be friends with Dolly Parton. I wanted to live in a world that was bright and technicolor. I never imagined this, and the best part about it is that I get to share it with everyone and really honestly enact and effect change that will make everyone's lives better. Me doing something with The Muppets only furthers the point that we can live in a world that we want to see. Dolly Parton saying something about a drag queen's book is huge. In the mass of all of this noise happening, this is a major moment happening fur us all to step back and say “wait what is here”? Dolly Parton is a legend and she doesn’t suffer fools gladly, she is a woman who has stood in her truth and in her career she has made moves only to make a better impact on people and inspire them to lead a better life, and that is what I want to do. That is the kind of career that want to have.
MC: Dolly Parton is also famously apolitical, so speaking so positively about the book, she is almost saying how she feels without saying how she feels, you know what I mean?
NW: That is a really powerful statement also because she is famously apolitical. And when I say that she doesn’t suffer fools gladly, she is not going to be challenged on what she believes. She is someone who definitely does, when she puts a flag in the ground, we know who she is. She did an interview with Oprah Winfrey many years ago where she said “some men do me better than I do me.” She is famously known for sneaking into drag bars and watching Dolly nights in Tennessee and watching the queen impersonate her. She is known for being not only an ally of our community but a fierce defender of our community. Like with the Moderna vaccine, with her supporting that effort, we know that she believes in science. So without her having to say it, she is saying it. We can all take a page from Dolly’s book, she puts her money where her mouth is and she supports the things that she believes in. I truly believe that I have been blessed by the angel that is Dolly Parton.
MC: Like Dolly, you have moved in front of the camera in the Weird: The Weird Al Yankovic Story playing Divine. This is very different than almost anything else that you have done is that fair to say?
NW: Oh this is one hundred percent different. This is scripted, these are major Hollywood players. You go from a child of the '80s, and Weird Al Yankovic is a cultural icon. And Daniel Radcliffe, a pop culture lightning rod who will forever be Harry Potter. Evan Rachel Wood also, and I can’t even tell you who else is in this movie, but when you see all of the cameos you are going to lose your mind and think “how is this possible that all of these comedy legends came together to celebrate Weird All” and this wonderful world of weirdness. All of these projects, everything that I have my hands in, they all have this through line, Hairspray, Your Kind of Kind, and now Weird Al project, they all celebrate joy and kindness in the world, how we receive it, and how it makes us all feel. And it couldn’t be more needed than right now. A show like Hairspray changes live, the two and a half hours you spend there and experience it, it lifts you out of your seat and sends you out into the world with a better attitude and more optimism. Your Kind of Kind, when you share it with your little ones it will hopefully inspire and lift. Weird Al Yankovic celebrates differences and diversity and wonderful wild weirdness just by existing and living the life that he lived. It gave us all permission to be our authentic selves. So what if people look at you and don’t get it; sometimes it’s not for everyone to get and that’s ok. That is what all of this is about, and the wonderful crossroads that I find myself in my career, which hopefully doesn’t stop here.
MC: When you did RuPaul’s Drag Race four years ago, and it truly feels like much longer, especially with the pandemic. Is it almost like looking at your high school yearbook at times?
NW: (laughs) I mean, in a way. It does feel like a time capsule, something that exists in a certain era. That is not the way people consume television anymore. People come to the show who have never seen Drag Race and will then watch Season 11 and say how good I was on the season, but I have changed a bit since then. My lived experience has changed and evolve me and all of the fans, it is like it’s happening in real-time.
MC: So much of what you did prior to Drag Race like your 2008 "Entertainer of the Year" dress has been paid homage to, with Sia even reinterpreting the garment you wore that literally came to life. What has that been like?
NW: It is so inspiring, it is really humbling too. Britney Spears replicates it in a very specific way in the “Til The World Ends” music video, Sia did it, Elvira did it at Knott’s Scary Farm in California the way that I did it. These are people that I love and it is humbling that my art has reached people. I was also inspired by different kinds of art to bring that iteration of that dress to life. It was either a French or Italian opera that inspired that, and an old Hollywood movie done with all of these fans and the pillar that inspired it. Art inspires art and that is where my inspiration came from.
MC: What is left that you want to accomplish in your career?
NW: I’m still holding out for Disney to make me a voice in an animated film. I’m still holding out for hopefully creating a role on Broadway of my own in a musical. I would love to do more film and television work and I would love to work more in books and tell these stories, whether through children’s books or a YA novel or even tell some of my own story in a memoir. I don’t know that I’m ready for all of that, specifically a memoir. I think one people know about me is that I am not shy to ask the universe to see me and I am not shy to work towards it. Some more magic is on the way. Every year seems more exciting than the last and a year and a half post-pandemic feels really good and I am just so excited for the world to see these projects and be impacted by them. We have a lot of work to do and I hope that people are willing to do that work, and be inspired by joy and kindness and give it to each other.
You can follow Nina West on her website and buy her book at ninawest.com.