The Standard Interview

Hot Tea with Nina West

Nina West has waited all her life for this moment. But she hasn't spent that time just wishing, hoping and praying. She's been preparing. With numerous pageant accolades, a drag family of her own, and incredible advocacy work for the LGBTQ+ community, Nina has established herself as an impactful, caring, charismatic, and extremely entertaining artist. With nearly two decades of drag, she spent almost half that time auditioning for RuPaul's Drag Race, and this year finally secured her well-deserved spot among the cast of Season 11. Before taking the stage for our Drag Race viewing party, MUSE, at NO BAR at The Standard, East Village, Nina cozied up with us for a cocktail in The Penthouse to dish about her time on the show and how she feels more ready than ever to take on the world.
You’ve been an established queen for a while, how did things change for you once you got cast on RuPaul’s Drag Race?
Oh, yeah. I’ve been doing drag for 18 years! I’m not like a lot of other Drag Race girls; I learned to paint my face by looking at other queens. There was no YouTube, no Instagram, no painting tutorials. My icons in drag were RuPaul, Harvey Fierstein, and Divine. Those were the giant celebrities of drag, and then the others were pageant winners. Then Drag Race entered the scene and I don’t think people, or even other drag queens, took it seriously at first. But now, the show has changed the culture entirely, like for queens like Aquaria who were raised watching Drag Race. Her intro to the art form was the show! I have a strong belief that Drag Race highlights certain aspects of drag, but you can’t get a full sense of drag unless you go to a bar or club. You can see a lion in the zoo but it’s a lot different when you see it in the wild.

Did the show affect your identity in the real world?
I’m a major exception to the rule. I am from Columbus, Ohio, and have ruled the roost there. Had I not had the show, locally I would have continued to hold my own. I’m proud of my accomplishments already. But you can’t deny the impact of the show. I am living a dream. I believe I am talented and worthy, but I’ve knocked on doors for 18 years and in literally months since the show aired, the world opened up. 

After auditioning nine times, what do you think struck for season 11?
Had I gotten on any earlier I would have been disappointed. Now it’s a global platform and a pop culture phenomenon. Straight girls are quoting it! Even lesbians are quoting it! I think my time was now. Also, I represent a style that isn’t seen on show anymore. I am classic, man-in-a-dress drag.

How was that style perceived by your fellow cast mates?
I don’t think people took me seriously at first. They knew my accolades, [like my] gown copied by Sia, but to a degree I don’t think they, or some of the fandom, think my drag is legit. Especially the fans much younger who haven’t seen drag in its natural element, where there is almost always a queen like me, definitely don’t get it. I am here to educate people on what I do. 

Who are the Drag Race queens that you relate to most?
I see a lot of myself in Latrice Royale, being warm and larger than life, and a big teddy bear. I also see myself in Ben and in Trixie, especially in my aesthetic or approach to drag. Willam is the most professional queen I’ve ever met -- she’s no nonsense business -- which I think I have a lot of in myself. 

Let’s go back and then we’ll go forward. I have to ask the cliche question of how you got into drag. 
I had planned to move to New York in 2001, and then 9/11 happened and I got scared. So, I stayed home in Columbus and was looking for an outlet, and I started drag. It really saved my life, I met my tribe, my people, my everything because of this artform. Everything really did happen for a reason, and I’m so grateful I stayed in Columbus.

Tell us about your first night out as Nina. 
I was a mess! I couldn’t walk in heels -- every queen thinks they have to wear huge heels for the first time. Big mistake. I had blue eye shadow on, like every first time queen thinks they need to wear, and I had kitten lashes on. Honestly, they could not have been more than a millimeter long and I’m a big dude, so it was a mess. But i also had the time of my life.

What kept you pushing through nine auditions? How did you not plateau or get discouraged?
If you don’t knock, no one is gonna answer. For years I thought they didn’t want me, and that I wasn’t right for this. A square peg in a round hole. That’s the expression, right? I took a year off [from trying out] but then came around because this was such a major dream for me and I couldn’t let it go. I’m 40 years old, and kids are starting at like 15 now, so I was getting anxious I was going to age out of it. 

On the podcast “Race Chaser,” Willam and Alaska discuss how sometimes queens aren’t cast until later seasons because they don’t fit with the other queens, and that it’s more a matter of production design than the queen’s skill set. Do you think that’s true?
I don’t think there’s any formula, honestly! It’s cast on personality, not type of drag. Like, we can’t continue to reference past queens. You need to have something compelling. And I think this season really has a dynamic range of personalities. We all may not always be loud, but always unique

Let’s dig into that a bit.
Lemme get the shovel, girl!

When you get to a certain season of a reality show, it does begin to reference itself and people are more aware. Did you experience cast mates that came in with sound bites ready, camera time strategy, and all that?
I think the show beats that out of you after the first episode. Whatever plan you have for a meme, t-shirt, thinking you’re gonna win, it doesn’t happen that way. All bets are off. This show is a machine, they know what they want to turn out and how to do it. I had an idea of what I was gonna do, but the second I walked into the workroom my whole approach completely changed. And I saw that happened with my cast mates. When you’re isolated, cameras on, and it's a high-stress competition, [it’s impossible] not to be shaken by that. When I watch the show now, more than halfway through the season, there’s a queen where I am wondering how they are so delusional at this point in the season? How are you not aware of yourself or have the ability to see how you’re impacting other people? What it comes down to is that comes with age and experience. Some of these queens haven’t worked that stuff out in a natural setting, amongst other entertainers and without cameras. Being self aware and self-editing are two different things. 

Who were your pillars of support during the show?
Brooke Lynn was my main source of support. Yvie and I post-show have gotten close, and I’ve also gotten tight with Vanjie. There’s just a great bond that exists with the 15 of us, not necessarily with the hundred plus queens who have been on the show. Although I do get surprised sometimes during a confessional.

Was there anyone you didn’t get along with?
Look at me. I get along with everyone! I never had a fight with anyone because I knew myself well enough to remove myself from drama I wasn’t interested in. I am very maternal, caring and impacted by other people’s emotions, and I didn’t want to get distracted. Like in that Untucked I was like, “why are we yelling?” 

I know you can’t tell us any secrets about the current season, so what personally are you excited for next?
I take this position very seriously because -- what’s that quote from The Devil Wears Prada? “A million girls would kill for that job.” There are queens all over the country who would kill to be here. I represent something much larger than myself now and I want to only be seen with respect, admiration, and professionalism. So much goes into this beyond the TV show -- attention detail, maintenance, hard work, on top of compromising health and relationships, at times. You need a focused and strong mindset to handle this, and I am excited because I have prepared my entire professional life for this moment and I am very, very ready. Sitting here in a penthouse in New York City with you, about to do a viewing party with people coming to see me, is a dream come true. Look at that skyline. Are you kidding me? Yes, a million girls would kill to have this job. 


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