Nina West has two new videos she’s unleashed on the world.
In “Cha Cha Heels” she pays homage to John Waters playing iconic characters from three of his movies — Dawn Davenport in “Female Trouble,” Beverly Sutphin in “Serial Mom” and Tracy Turnblad in “Hairspray.” The song is from her 2019 Christmas EP “The West Christmas Ever.”
And in “Quarantine Dream” she worked with friend and Disney animator Dan Lund, a veteran of many classic movies such as “Frozen,” “Aladdin,” “The Lion King” and more, to mix live action/animation for the West-penned song about coping with COVID-19 induced quarantine. The three-and-a-half-minute mini-musical was filmed with a cell phone and inspired by the Disney classic “Mary Poppins.” Both are on YouTube.
West, aka Andrew Levitt, is a Columbus, Ohio-based drag performer who came to fame on season 11 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” where she finished sixth and was named Miss Congeniality. She made history at the 2019 Emmys for being the first to walk the red carpet in drag and was named one of the “most powerful drag queens in America” by New York Magazine the same year. West, 42, has been performing for 18 years.
WASHINGTON BLADE: So how did the concept for the “Cha Cha Heels” video come about?
NINA WEST: I’d had this big idea of a big flash mob and this huge cast and filming in the street with a bunch of people and then COVID hit. So the intention was always to do a “Cha Cha Heels” video, but we had to really adjust quickly when the time came to pull the trigger and film the video because (of restrictions). I worked with a really great director, who is a tremendous John Waters fan named Brad Hammer, and he suggested doing three different female characters in three different John Waters movies. … We filmed it with a cast of four including myself, all people were already in my bubble, so we made all the adjustments we needed to make to have a safe shoot and went there and I think the video ended up being much better for it.
BLADE: Where was it shot?
WEST: We shot it in a day in two locations here in Columbus.
BLADE: Do you have to get permission from Waters or whomever owns the films before you do something like this or is it considered a parody and thus fair game?
WEST: Yeah, it’s seen as parody so you don’t have to get a green light really. We weren’t recreating it shot by shot or telling the same story but we were lucky enough that when John saw it last week, he sent me an e-mail … saying how much he loved it and how much Divine would have loved it … so that was pretty fantastic.
BLADE: Oh wow, that must have been incredible.
WEST: I practically fell over, yeah. I’m 42 so queer Andrew coming out, John Waters movies were a huge rite of passage just as I was coming into my queerness. I wanted this to be a love letter to a queer trailblazer who has had more impact and power than I think any of us really recognize.
BLADE: Tell us about “Quarantine Dream.” How do you know Dan Lund?
WEST: I worked with him on a project called “Coaster” where he was the executive producer and we have remained in touch. He’s one of these people who’s just always talking and dreaming. His brain is constantly rolling. The day after I flew home in March, he called ….
BLADE: Where had you been?
WEST: I was on tour in Europe and then I was going back and forth from New York to L.A. working on a couple projects and I ended up in New York and I was supposed to be going to the opening of the Broadway musical “Six,” but the day it was supposed to open everything was shut down. I was panicking trying to get a flight home.
BLADE: Oh wow.
WEST: Yeah. So he suggested this and I was like, “Sure, um, OK.” I didn’t really know what he meant but then he pitched this whole treatment inspired by “Mary Poppins,” which I’m a huge, through-and-through Disney queen and “Mary Poppins” is my favorite film of all time, so when you have a Disney artist who’s worked on all these cultural touchstones, yeah, OK, I’m not gonna say no. That’s how it happened. I worked with a songwriter Markaholic who is super prolific. If you’ve seen the RuPaul Old Navy commercials, he wrote that song, he’s worked with Ru a lot and is just super talented.
BLADE: So you basically are encouraging people to take the pandemic seriously but in a fun way?
WEST: Yes. We thought it was a fun way to say, “Hey, it sucks, but let’s all stay home and like instead of having the fatigue, maybe we can just take a step back and dream a little bit. We’re gonna get through this. We were gonna release it earlier in the year, but we felt like it wouldn’t have as much impact but now here we are, oddly enough, going into round two and people are getting more sick than ever before and this fatigue of anger and frustration has settled in … so I think the message it sends if very different than it would have been six months ago.
BLADE: How different has your year been?
WEST: Oh my god, I started off with a full calendar and full plate and watched it all disappear. Some things are being rescheduled, some things have been canceled, some things are being reimagined. I hate the word pivot, but that’s kind of what we’ve all been doing. …. I never thought I would be doing drag primarily by phone for almost a year of my life (laughs).
BLADE: Who was your favorite season 11 celebrity guest judge on “Drag Race”?
WEST: Oh my gosh, I really love Bobby Moynihan. I’m an SNL fanatic so he was on my season. I also was really gagged when we had Lena Waithe and Wanda Sykes. That was the episode I went home, but it was still pretty awesome because I’m gigantic fans of both of them.
BLADE: What was your favorite challenge?
WEST: Probably the magic challenge. It was supremely challenging but it allowed me to show off all my skills in one 10-minute segment. I was glad I got that in before I went home. Some of them were really hard, just really, really arduous. “Trump the Rusical” was so hard. When they say it’s the drag Olympics, it really is.
BLADE: You were a fan of the show a long time before you were on it. What seemed the most different seeing it all in real life vs. watching it on TV?
WEST: Oh wow, my brain is going in like 17 different directions. It was all overwhelming. You never forget walking into the workroom for the first time. … Also seeing RuPaul for the first time is really overwhelming. People always ask why we always react so wildly seeing him walk in the workroom. It’s the same person coming through the same door and you know it’s gonna happen, but he really is just so larger than life, I don’t know how else to explain it. He’s so magnetic and so those moments to me were always supremely overwhelming.
BLADE: I can imagine that.
WEST: One thing I didn’t expect that wasn’t so great was realizing later that there are parts of the fandom that are extremely toxic. When I was eliminated and saw the anger and disgust and vitriol and poison directed at Silky (Nutmeg Ganache), that was surprising. It’s not the show’s fault but there are sections of the fandom that cultivates and allows itself to breed this incestuous, toxic hate.
BLADE: What are your plans for the holidays?
WEST: My parents live about 10 minutes away from me so we talked about maybe doing a quarantine for two weeks then a rapid test before Christmas, and I’m willing to do that, but my siblings and I are all just trying to be super responsible so we may just do a Zoom Christmas. I know it’s really hard but I think it’s important for all of us to work collectively to pull ourselves out of this any way we can.
BLADE: Are you and the queens from your season all constantly on group text and Zoom and all that. Whom are you closest with?
WEST: Yeah, I’m in touch with several people from my season. I talk to Silky, I talk to Brooke Lynn (Hytes). I talk to Vanjie once in a while. … Those relationships from that six-week experience, I can’t explain it — you come to rely on these people in a whole other way. It’s not something tangible or that you can even explain. It’s very life changing to go through that together.
BLADE: What’s gonna happen with season 13? Did they do something this summer?
WEST: I don’t know anything official but yesterday I saw a casting call for season 14 so that tells me season 13 must be in the can. I think it’s like full speed ahead for “Drag Race,” which is great because we all love to watch it and fall in love with new people.
BLADE: You auditioned many times before you got on. Was it discouraging or were you just that tenacious you weren’t gonna be deterred or what?
WEST: Oh no, no, no. (laughs) I’m positive but girl, I’m not that positive. I was broken. It really broke me. My last audition was authentically gonna be my last audition and I don’t even remember who said this to me but on of the production people said it had been stated that, “Nina is either on this season or she’s not, this is the last time we’re watching these tapes.” I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I think we all just felt it had come to like a shit-or-get-off-the-pot type moment. I had to move on with my life in a way. I wanted it so badly and for so many years it just was not happening. Finally my last time, I was the most like, “I don’t care, let’s just get it done, whatever,” and that was the one that got me on. So I think tenacity is one thing, but wearing them down is another.
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