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Exclusive | Nina West talks All Stars and what American queens can learn from 'Drag Race UK'

Drag Race's reigning Miss Congeniality is still a firm believer in the power of kindness.

2020-02-19

Words: Tim Heap

When fan-favourite Nina West was booted out of RuPaul’s Drag Race season 11 after a lipsync against Silky Nutmeg Ganache that was infamously declared “meh” by Ru herself — we in Attitude Towers were not best pleased, let’s just say.

We were, however, in good company, with Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and — reportedly — Rihanna sharing our disappointment that the kind-hearted queen had sashayed away (until a future All Stars, maybe?)

But as the old adage has it, you can never keep a good (wo)man down, and the 42-year-old entertainer shook the elimination off, bagged the season’s Miss Congeniality crown and released two albums: Drag Is Magic, aimed at children, and comedy EP John Goodman. The records peaked at number nine and two in the US kids and comedy charts respectively.

An Anglophile at heart (her PR told us she could share her thoughts on Megxit if we were interested), Nina spent a few weeks in the UK recently with her solo tour The Magnificent Nina West and then ensemble tour Katya & The Comedy Queens.

While she was here, Attitude was able to catch up with her over a good British cuppa to talk drag queens in the classroom, what American queens could learn from the recent success of Drag Race UK, and, of course, that All Stars question...

Us Brits have always loved Drag Race, but now we've had the UK season, it's really upped the ante. Have you noticed that since you’ve been back here?

I think what's really interesting is that I don't think we've seen the full effect of Drag Race UK yet. But Brits love drag, and so I've been fortunate enough — like many other Drag Race girls from the States before me — to be able to come over here and be embraced by this amazing community of fans. But now we’ve had Drag Race UK, American girls are going to have to really identify what makes them really stand out, because these UK girls are remarkable.

The show really does highlight that the drag scene here in the UK is so different from the States. It's so based on cabaret and singing live and the theatricality of drag, which is where our drag comes from, but we've evolved into many different things: look queens, social media influencers, actors, performers, and so many different facets. It's going to be really interesting to see the impact of Drag Race UK on the American queens.

Is there anything that you'd really like to see the US queens in season 12 pick up from the UK?

The comedy. Brits are raised on this high level of comedy that is so beautiful to watch and to experience when you're watching the show. And when you come over here, your sense of humour is very different than ours. I hope American queens can get that sensibility down. It's really cool.

Do you have any advice for the season 12 contestants?

Oh my god, season 12 sisters, you're about to be on the ride of your life. Be yourself. Don't lose sight of who you are. Have fun. Just remember you're one of very few who are lucky enough to go on this journey, and embrace it and run with it and don't take it for granted.

Are there any queens from the new season that you’re friends with?

I know Sherry Pie, I've worked with her in New York and she's a comedy queen and she's a camp girl. I'm a little bit older than she is, but I see a lot of myself in her so I'm excited to see what she does this season.

Drag Race season 12 queens Sherry Pie (left) and Gigi Goode

I don't know her personally, but I'm a big fan of Gigi Goode. I'm just excited to see how the season turns out and I'm excited to see how the franchise goes further — every season, something is slightly different, you know, it grows in a different way.

With that in mind, if All Stars came knocking at your door...

[Screams] Argh, the All Stars question, oh my god! Um, I would never say no.

How do you feel about the difference between the UK and US in terms of the raunchiness that the UK queens were able to tease out?

I think that Americans are puritanical. You know, that's where we stem from, and it's so deeply embedded in our culture. So it's a little bit more evolved, in my opinion, over here. It is a little bit more risqué, a little bit more what Americans would call "blue" or "potty" humour, but I delight in it. I think there is a little bit more of a grasp on where the joke can go, and how free we can be with our humour over here, and Americans can learn from that. We're so uptight, and I think that that has led to a lot of different issues culturally in our country.

 
 
 
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Her in all that Covent Garden glory. Hair by @marcoswigs Sgt. Pepper’s Jacket by @patryq65

A post shared by Nina West (@ninawest) on

However, you know, the United Kingdom and the United States are very much alive right now. We're in terrible times with two nations that are very divided amongst themselves and trying to find answers. So even in our stark differences, there are serious things in life that are so similar right now. Those conversations are more alike than not, probably.

You released a children's music album last year, but there've been protests around drag story time events in Australia, and in the UK we have this huge row around schools Birmingham that started to introduce LGBT-inclusive education. What do you make of those kinds of stories you see popping up?

Well, drag queen story time is really under attack in the United States as well. I am very much a proponent for those kinds of activities. I believe that education starts as soon as children are willing to be an active participant in their own learning. As for when you introduce the subject matter of drag, I think that is on a parent to decide. However, I believe when handled with care and love and nurturing and understanding, the topic of drag and what it means as a form of entertainment and subcultural art, I think children can handle it. Judgements form as children get older, and I think adults have a terrible tendency to put their own bias and their own judgement on children, which stops them from being able to experience a world that is beautiful and colourful and full of love.

I can't tell a parent what is right for their children, and I cannot even begin to understand how scary it might be to raise your child in these times. But that's also why I feel like it's necessary for someone like me to come in and say, "It's all going to be OK. We're full of love too and we can bring a message of happiness and sense of fun to education." But of course it's all in context, you know? Protesters want to get you on the context, like, "I see drag queens in bars and they're doing X, Y and Z.” They see drag as a nightlife activity, associate it with sex or promiscuity or alcohol or... you know? Context is everything. I'm not asking any parent to bring a child to a bar at one in the morning to see a drag show. That's ridiculous. But a drag queen sitting with a book in her hand, reading about what it means to stand in your own truth and your own identity… I don’t understand the issue with that.

It seems that the rise of RuPaul's Drag Race and therefore the drag scene has started to make people think about gender in a different way. What do you make of that?

I've been around for a long time, I've done drag for 19 years. I have seen a variety of things, I came out at a time when, in the States, going to circuit parties was the thing. Drag was relegated to those spaces. But I was also raised by a variety of entertainers who had different identities that might not have been mainstream or talked about in the mainstream pop culture. I was surrounded by trans women who were living their truth outwardly and fighting that battle for all of us to be seen as equals. I was raised by cisgender queer men, I was raised by dykes and lesbians who took me under their wing, so knowing where I come from and knowing what the world looks like now, Drag Race has really shifted the conversation. I think that it's important to recognise that. There's that big conversation now of "Well, why don’t they have a transgender contestant on the show? Why don't they have a king on the show?" And I couldn't answer that.

 
 
 
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2019. It finally happened. 9 years from the time i started auditioning and @rupaulsdragrace has taken me on the journey of a lifetime. Forever grateful to @rupaulofficial @michellevisage @helloross @carsonkressley @worldofwonder @randybarbato @fentonjbailey @thairinliesaphoto @thecastingfirm @ethanpcasting @golokatv @mcbrewster @newwavechola @johnpollysays - the cast of queens who i shared the journey with, all of the production team, staff, crew, and anyone who had a hand in getting me to this point- biggest of love to my Columbus family who always wanted this for me as much as I wanted it for myself. Thank you for pushing me and never letting me give up. My 2019 was amazing because of RuPaul and RuPaul’s Drag Race.

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But I do know that the barometer has moved globally because of a show like RuPaul's Drag Race. I think it's foolish for me to think that this is the last place we stop; to think that this one form of entertainment is supposed to have the answers. Has it given answers? Yes. Has it asked more questions? Of course. We have to be smart viewers, you know, we have to ask the right questions. But I have seen the culture of our community move and shift, and our shows now are a 50/50 split. It's really queer and it's really heterosexual. It’s parents with their kids who have watched the show. It's the older gay men who love drag. It's older lesbians who worship drag. And it's also these young kids who are just finding out that their gender identity might not be what they once thought it was, and that’s thanks to Katya or Sasha Velour, or even Nina West. The show is freeing, and the show has given those answers — you can be who you want to be.

You were crowned Miss Congeniality, and you're going to be giving the title up soon...

[Pretends to cry] I'll always be nice though!

Do you think there’s a special Miss Congeniality series to be had?

God, can you imagine? It's interesting to me because Miss Congeniality is... [In] American pageantry, there's pageantry like Miss America, Miss USA, which are real women pageants for real women. Then there's drag pageants like Miss Gay USA, Miss Gay America, Miss Entertainer of the Year, Miss Continental, and even in those pageants there's a Miss Congeniality. And — before Drag Race — [Miss] Congeniality was kind of like, "OK, you're not the prettiest, you don't have a lot of talent..." And that still might be the case because I won, but now, I think the show has moved that barometer as well. And I hope that my story has even furthered it. I think it's OK to be nice, I think it's OK to be kind. For so long in my career, I was told kindness is weak, being sincere and nice is weakness, you have to toughen your skin. I wear my heart on my sleeve, I'm emotional, I show it all, so when I received that award of Miss Congeniality, I was really proud of that because I didn't go into the show as anything other than myself.

 
 
 
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Happy birthday to my beautimus babes @bluhydrangea_ !!! @rupaulsdragrace @dragraceukbbc

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Can you imagine what that would be, if there was a Miss Congeniality version of Drag Race? There would be me, Nina Flowers, Pandora Boxx, Monet Xchange, Latrice Royale, BenDeLaCreme… It would be amazing. Even if there was a Miss Congeniality tour — hi promoters! — wouldn't that be fun? It'd be the nicest tour ever and the longest meet and greet you can imagine! And let me say this too, what I love about the UK version of Drag Race is it showed that all those girls can be nice to one another without the drama, and have it be just as successful. And I think that was a big takeaway for Americans, it was like, "Whoa, you mean no one threw shade?" And while there's playful banter and playful shade, when you watch those girls interact, there's been no season like Drag Race UK. They're so supportive of one another. They want to see each other succeed. They want to be a part of each other's successes, and they want to nurture their success along the way. That is unique. That is very different from the American version.

Nina West's 'Drag Is Magic' and 'John Goodman' are available to stream and download. Follow Nina on Twitter and Instagram.