After nine years of unsuccessful auditions, Nina West finally sashayed into the Drag Race werkoom earlier this year and provided a much-needed dose of old school comedy and camp to a platform that’s recently been inundated with Instagram queens and fashion powerhouses. Although the performer was – in her words – a “slow-burn” to begin with, she ultimately lived up to expectations; Nina won two challenges, was crowned Miss Congeniality, and became one of the most beloved queens in the show’s HERstory.
“I want to be everything that people want me to be and I want to be the expectation that people have of me,” Nina tells us over fish and chips in a Wimbledon studio (she insisted on the cod because she wanted to have an authentic British experience). “I’m learning that people want to be around me as my imperfect, goofy self. I went to Drag Race and thought, ‘They want a beautiful, statue-esque queen who can walk the runway.’ On my journey, I realised, ‘No, they just want the best you.’ And so I put all these pressures on myself, and post-Drag Race I’m doing the same thing. I want to be the best I can be.”
Nina has always been a beloved figure in the community. Before she appeared on the Emmy Award winning series, she was a prominent fixture in the drag scene, winning Entertainer of the Year after donning a sickening moving dress (which Sia later copied), and raising over millions of dollars for LGBTQ organisations with the Nina West Foundation. Now that she’s competed on Drag Race and shown the world what she has to offer, she’s using her platform to continue the on-going fight for diversity and equality. We spoke to the fan-favourite about she’s navigating her newfound fame, her critically-acclaimed children’s album, Drag Is Magic, and the potential resurgence of old school drag queens.
So, how has life been since you have appeared on Drag Race?
My life has changed completely. It’s been non-stop magical. You never anticipate what the show is going to do for you, and what’s going to happen and what’s not going to happen. You go in with all these expectations and I’m very grateful that I kind of went in with the idea that at least I get to go home, still do what I do, because I’ve had a great career. So to have this happen at this point in my career is pretty amazing.
What inspired you to audition for the show?
I wanted to be part of Drag Race because I wanted to be part of something that was queer and spoke to all sides of me. I’ve auditioned since season two and I wanted to showcase what I have to offer, more so now because people’s careers have exploded off the back of the show. Bianca Del Rio is in the West End doing Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Trixie Mattel has sold-out shows around the world, Shangela was just in A Star Is Born. It launches careers, and now every dream that I’ve ever had is at my fingertips. The show ended a month ago, but so much has happened and even more is going to happen. It’s hard to keep up!
You were eliminated in sixth place, which means you’re now in the company of other iconic contestants who have been labelled a ‘robbed queen’ like Katya, Manila, Ben – how does that feel?
As a fan of the show, it’s the best thing that has happened to me. As a contestant of the show, it’s hard to negotiate how I feel, wanting to have made it to the finals and have the opportunity to lip sync for my crown. You go into it wanting to win, and as a contestant, I really wanted to see how I would’ve fared, but the fan side of me is like, ‘Girl, you are okay, you did great.’ The best thing about the experience was the audience saw who I was and connected with me. They know who I am and what I stand for.
You have one major fan… RIHANNA. Can we please talk about that?
“Oh na na!” Are you kidding me? That was such a moment of sheer fuckery. I didn’t think it was real. I was on Twitter and somebody, I believe it was a BRIT, said, ‘Hey, Rihanna started following you.’ I checked Instagram and I saw ‘badgirlriri’ is following me and I thought, ‘WHAT THE HELL IS THIS? What kind of tomfoolery is this?’ Just for whatever reason, I went to my DM’s and I started typing ‘badgirlriri’ just to check if I had missed a message. As I’m looking, a message pops up that she had just sent me. What’s really great about that – and of course, Rihanna is everything – is someone like her, who has such a global platform, was taking the time out to say empowering and perfect things that remind me, and should remind of everybody that there is a right and a wrong side. Celebrating inclusivity and diversity is so important and that’s what she did! She’s notoriously quiet, so I just don’t know where that came from. It’s amazing. Since she followed me, she’s followed Vanjie and Yvie, so I guess she really likes us!
You were undeniably fan-favourite this season. Did you expect your character to resonate with fans this much?
No! I thought that I was going into it as the old queen, and people were going to be like, ‘Ugh, she’s so old!’ I don’t think of myself as old, and I don’t think of myself as past my prime or out to pasture, so I didn’t know how the fans were going to be. I don’t believe there is any such thing as an edit on Drag Race, what you see is what you get. There’s no, ‘Let’s blame it on the edit.’ I don’t believe that. The people that you see on the show are exactly what you get. Some of us have bad days and they caught it on film, some of us have bad days and they caught it on film. There’s also a lot of moments they didn’t show.
And was there anything they didn’t show that you would’ve loved audiences to see?
No, because I think they showed it all. They showed me at my best and at my worst, and they showed me having those moments of doubt and being really in my head, which is hard not to do when you’re in an environment like Drag Race, where cameras are on you 24/7 and the stakes are high. Even if the stakes aren’t high, you as a contestant put a lot of weight on it yourself. It’s a competition based show, so you’re being judged and critiqued, and when you’re not being critiqued by judges, you’re being judged by the other girls, and when the other girls aren’t judging you, you’re judging yourself. So I feel like the show was a perfect opportunity for me to grow and showcase who I was, and I’m thrilled that the audience caught on and allowed me to grow with them. I think I was a slow burn, I don’t think people initially connected to me.
But then you won two challenges!
I did! I know, I know, I won two big challenges! But my first episode was shit, it was really bad. It was that poor orange dress, the poor excuse for a garment. So after that episode, I thought, ‘Where am I going to go? How am I going to come off to the audience this season?’ Going back to your question about how the audience reacted to me, yeah I was surprised. If you watch my trajectory, it’s really slow. I’m good in episode two, but episode one I’m terrible. Three, I shined and I won. Then episode four, I thought I was great but I wasn’t really showcased in it. Then episode five was the Halloween challenge, which I thought I should’ve won… I knew I didn’t win that challenge coming off the show, but that’s when I think the tide started to turn for me. I think the fandom said, ‘Wait a minute, she had a face reveal, she did that really amazing Salem witch look, this doesn’t line up with what we saw.’ So I think that’s where the fandom starting to pay a lot more attention to me. The win on episode three helped, but that was also the six person lip sync, so it was really overshadowed, and I felt I had more work to do.
It feels like you debuted on the show at a perfect time. In recent seasons, we’ve seen the rise of Instagram and runway queens, but you represent the old generation of drag, which feels like a breath of fresh air especially in the era of Trump, Chechnya and Brunei…
I think you’re pretty correct. I represent something that’s not common in drag, it’s two-fold. I represent an old school style of drag, so my aesthetic is comedy, camp man. I’m a big man in a dress, right? I’m not Aquaria, who’s gorgeous and stunning and turning looks. My drag has never been about turning a look, it’s been about telling a story and giving a character. The look assists in the storytelling, rather than it being look first and then a story; the look is always considered an accessory to whatever I’m trying to accomplish on stage. To have that understanding of myself, first and foremost, and going into a competition, immediately put me in my head. I’m a big dude, I’m a broad shouldered, six foot three man, I’m a man, so when you put me in drag, there’s no illusion. The second half of that, specifically in the United States, we have a culture that is particularly, right now, very toxic. The rhetoric and the words that people use to communicate with one another are dangerous. I represent someone who is an activist, but also choosing to be kind and use my strength of trying to connect with people and create a conversation to the best of my ability. I believe that everything happens for a reason, and that I didn’t get on season two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and ten because there wasn’t a need for me. The universe has a funny way of working and I think that I’m lucky that it happened for me, and grateful that it happened now. I didn’t realise how powerful my story and my statement and me standing in my truth would be so impactful to so many people.
You also connected with people because you were authentically yourself and you opened up about a lot of issues right now – was it difficult baring your soul on a show with a platform this huge?
At the time, it was so organic and it happened naturally. The big story about Matthew Shepard and my bullying in college, I talked about one time. In my 20 year career, I talked about it once. I talked it about it very quietly and I was much more nuanced about it, because I was being calculating in how I was talking about it. So to have that happen on the show was really organic and humbling, but difficult. I knew what was happening and I started talking about it in my confessional, and then I stopped, I looked at the producer and said, ‘I’m not sure if I want to talk about this.’ My producer was so great, she said, ‘You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.’ I just started crying, and in that moment and I didn’t even know if the audience knew who Matthew Shepard is. I just went on, kept sobbing and talking. The power of telling that story was really important because I know that we as queer people, we do so many different things to make sure that we survive everyday. We sometimes mask who we are, we sometimes adjust to make other people comfortable, we almost always try to make concessions for ourselves to say that we’re not good enough in some way or another. And for some of us, we only ever feel comfortable when we’re around our tribe, our chosen people, whether it’s in a gay bar, which is a safe space, or in the privacy of someone’s home. Psychologically, that’s a lot to wear for people. I think it’s common for LGBTQ people. After the show, the really challenging thing that I’m learning how to navigate and negotiate is how impacted people are by the story, and how they feel connected to what I said and then in turn, connected to me. I was very unaware of that. DragCon is a great example. Everyone who came up to me had this really emotional story to share. I can do it, I can be there and I can listen, but the other side of it is, ‘Wow, this is a lot of emotional stuff that I’m trying to digest and help people through.’ I wanna be there, and sometimes I don’t know how to be.
It must be quite daunting, but also amazing to be a role model to these young queer people – how are you navigating your newfound fame?
I want to be everything that people want me to be and I want to be the expectation that people have of me. I’m learning that people want to be around me as my imperfect, goofy self. That’s how I felt on Drag Race, which is also how I felt when I started drag. I thought I had to be someone who was convincing, provided illusions because in the States that’s so important. Who provides an illusion? Who looks like a woman? Who is serving looks? Then I realised pretty quickly that I could be funny. Comedy is where it’s at and I can use my theatrical skills to be a character. Then I went to Drag Race and thought, ‘They want a beautiful, statue-esque queen who can walk the runway.’ On my journey, I realised, ‘No, they just want the best you.’ And so I put all these pressures on myself, and post-Drag Race I’m doing the same thing. I want to be the best I can be.
Do you think we’ll see a resurgence in popularity of old school queens?
I hope so! I hope that my presence on the show allows anybody to want to do drag. It’s hard in local bar scenes because talent doesn’t always win out over look. In terms of who’s got the best shows, it’s always the girl who knows how to talk on the microphone, who is theatrical, who has something to say other than just something to do. Stage performance is so important, so is being able to communicate and envelop yourself in your audience and allow yourself to be part of the audience. It’s such a lost technique. Girls don’t know how to walk around a bar anymore and just talk to people. I’ve hosted shows for years, and I know how to make people feel at ease and how to make them feel welcome. That’s a skill, I can read a room quicker than I can read a person, right? But as you saw on the show, I’m not good at reading! I’m funny and I can be witty, but I’m not good at being a cunt.
How does it feel being a drag queen in the United States right now?
I’m not going to speak for every queen, I’m speaking for a lot of my friends, but right now in America, being a drag queen is a really important time to use this platform and use your voice to encourage people to feel empowered, valued, feel their worth in their individuality, in their diversity. Also, in my opinion, first and foremost to reconnect my community. We’re so broken, and I think this is common in communities all over the world. There are factions of our community that believe you’re only in the community if you’re beautiful, if you’re well-built, if you’re superficially perfection. I’m trying to remind people that the community is made up of a variety of types of people and that in diversity, we find our strength. It is about our queer brothers and sisters of colour and our transgender community, it is about our non-binary brothers and sisters, it’s about our bisexual community, it’s about our lesbian sisters who are so often shoved aside because there’s so much misogyny in our community. It’s global, but it’s really problematic in the United States, so we have a lot of work to do, specifically in the next two years because we have a huge election. If we’re not careful, we’re going to fall down this really slippery slope of allowing Tr*mp to have another term in office, which is dangerous because it’s proven he’s a liar, he’s hurting our government and our country. Let’s talk about our border security issue and the people who are in detention centres, who are being mistreated, let’s talk about how trans women of colour are being murdered, let’s talk about serious issues of gun violence. I think drag queens in this time period have a responsibility to make sure they are representatives of our community, regardless of how large your platform is. I’m hoping that we can combat this rhetoric of hate.
You’ve just released a children’s album, Drag Is Magic – what inspired you to do that?
Thanks for asking about it! I really wanted to do something that spoke to me. I’m a big kid at heart. I love magic, awe, wonder and allowing myself to be carefree and the willingness to also understand that not everything has an answer. I think that’s what I connected to, and I have a ton of gay and queer friends who are parents. I have friends who may or may not be heterosexual, heteronormative that also have queer identifying children, kids who are different, a boy who wants to wear a dress or a girl who doesn’t want to wear a dress. I thought, ‘Why is no one doing this? Why are we not having this conversation? Where is the dialogue?’ The response has been overwhelming, which will lead to a full children’s album and hopefully a children’s television show. Can you imagine?
Just like Mrs Doubtfire!
Yes! Which is what I would love to do. There’s a role for that and a need for that, and I think that it’s okay to learn lessons from someone who happens to be dressed as a woman, who might be a man! But also someone who has wisdom and compassion and kindness, who cares enough to want the best for everybody. I thi1nk it would be a perfect fit for the BBC…
BBC are you listening?
HELLO? BBC One? BBC Two? BBC Three? BBC Four? I think the voice of how education happens is changing, and it’s important that we don’t lose sight of educating and teaching. I think I’m a good fit for that, and I think this is where we’re heading, and I truly believe I’m the person to help lead that.
There have been instances where drag queen story times have been cancelled because of ignorant parents who argue that drag queens can’t be role models for children – what would you say to those people?
Every story time I’ve ever done has been at capacity, and full of love, compassion and willingness to be entertained. I think that we have seen a narrative of who drag queens are, and specifically people within the community know that drag queens are role models for kids. If you’re going to take your kid to a bar for a midnight show, I question your parenting. I do think there’s a conversation there. Drag queens are perfect role models because they’re confident, they live their truth, they are larger than life versions of themselves in these colourful, glorious silhouettes. What’s more magical to a kid than someone who is living loudly and largely and is a human characteristic of Barney? I remember I said that on the show, I want to be the drag Barney. I want to be that beloved character who will usher children into another understanding of what life can be, rather than being told what life is or isn’t. So to those people who don’t wanna go, they’re the problem with what’s happening in our country, specifically in the United States. You have not exposed yourself to what is happening in the world, and your rhetoric and your vitriol is not welcome. These are children who don’t want to be exposed to hate, and this is why hate breeds hate. These parents are using whatever rhetoric and language inside their homes – which is fine, if that’s how you want to raise your children – but in my mind, and I’m going to make a bold statement, I believe that to be child abuse. You are not allowing your child the ability and the right to live in a healthy environment where they can grow and learn how to sustain themselves on creative and open-minded thought. Children deserve the right to be children, they shouldn’t have to grow up any faster than they’re forced to in this world. The act of exposing your children to a drag queen and a fluffy bunny will not change their ability to still be a child. Anyone who puts anything else on it, in my mind, is problematic, perverted and uneducated.
Amen. Final question and it’s a bit of a 360: All Stars, are you down?
[Laughs] Hell yeah! Fuck yeah. Hell yes, I’d be down for All Stars. I mean, it would be a crime if I didn’t do it, right? Here’s the thing, after the show with what I’ve experienced, it would be really hard to go back, because this has been kind of a dream, a dream ending. But, as Mother Ru says, ‘Never say no to television.’ I think I’d be a little more free and operate in a different way. I don’t know if that would be good or bad, but I guess we’ll have to see. Drag Race is acting, sewing, but All Stars is acting, singing, performing. That’s who I am, so if I was offered, I would say yes.
Photography Gabriel Mokake