Nina West earned a place in our hearts on Season 11 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, where she established herself as the queen of kindness, and snatched the award for Miss Congeniality, given out every year to the fan-favourite.
Since then, she’s made a name for herself as an celebrity and activist, collaborating with Dolly Parton, having a street named after her in Columbus, Ohio, and becoming the first queen to walk the Emmys purple carpet in full drag.
Like every entertainer, this year has hit Nina West hard, but she’s pushing through and maintaining a positive attitude, and she caught up with PEDESTRIAN.TV to tell us how she’s surviving, and spill on her filthy new John Waters-inspired Christmas video.
Alasdair Duncan: You’ve just released a video for your Christmas song Cha Cha Heels, which pays tribute to iconic John Waters movies like Female Trouble and Serial Mom. What was it that inspired you do to that?
Nina West: I’m a big lover of the holiday season and Christmas. I was trying to figure out what was something I could pay tribute to the no one else had really done, and no one has really celebrated the Dawn Davenport character that I can recall in pop culture. The famous Christmas scene from the movie Female Trouble [in which Dawn pulls the Christmas tree down on her mother] is just such a great moment. And I’m a drag queen, so I can make it amplified, louder and more fun. We created a whole song around that, and then the video, as a celebration of John Waters.
AD: Have you always been a fan of his movies?
NW: I grew up with them in the ’80s and ’90s and his style of storytelling in movies like Cry Baby and Serial Mom and Hairspray really captured my imagination as a queer kid and informed a lot of who I was. When I was a little kid, it was all Jim Henson and Disney, and as I grew into my queerness, it was John Waters. I thought it was amazing that there were drag queens in his movies – it perplexed me and it was wonderful. So I love the idea of doing a John Waters tribute and celebrating his perversion and filth while also celebrating Christmas!
AD: I’ve heard you have five Christmas trees at home – what does the season mean to you?
NW: It’s an opportunity to connect to nostalgia and tradition and these beautiful, idealised things. I love the way the holiday season makes me feel, I love the warmth of it. Yes, it is a very isolating and lonely time of year, but it’s also beautiful. The music is incredible, and the things we celebrate are amazing -generosity and kindness and joy. Also, a lot of my favorite family memories happened around this time of year -a lot of beautiful memories, like celebrating Christmas with my grandma. It’s a very sacred time for me, not in the religious sense, but in a very personal sense.
AD: Is there one particular Christmas memory that sticks out?
NW: One of the things that made me fall in love with Christmas was that every year, from the time I was seven until my grandmother passed, I helped her decorate her Christmas tree. I collect nothing in life, except ex-boyfriends and Christmas ornaments! That’s why I have five trees, I think it all goes back to my grandma and that sacred responsibility of helping her put up the tree – that was the centrepiece of the entire holiday, everyone would come around and see it and see what a beautiful job we’d done, and I got to help put it up. That, forever, means something to me. I think that for me was the magic of it, for me.
AD: Do you have any cool or bizarre ornaments in your collection?
NW: Three of the five trees are Disney ornaments! That’s where my collection started. I have a really rare wooden Donald Duck ornament from the late ’50s or early ’60s. As for the more bizarre ornaments – some of the fans found out I collect them, so at DragCon in New York last year, I got these hand-made ornaments of me, from an Instagram ‘Badly-Drawn Nina West’, so it’s all pictures of me in these glass balls. They’re amazing, and they’re on my tree. I’m so lucky to be in a position where I have fans like that. I sit in a tremendous place of privilege.
AD: This has obviously been a very challenging year for everyone, but especially for a performer because you can’t go out out on the road. How have you been surviving all this?
NW: It’s hard! I’m working constantly to continue to keep my creative juices flowing, I’m trying to pivot and think of ways to keep myself viable in this digital age. I never really did a lot of YouTube or video content, but now I’m really trying to focus on it. I’m also really focused on staying healthy and keeping my fans healthy, so I’m not rushing out to go do a show at a bar, I’m not rushing out to go make it all happen in that way. What I am trying to do is figure out what my next steps are, and figure out how I can reinvent myself. And that’s hard, because I’m telling you, this … I mean, I sit in a position of privilege. I’ve been on TV and it’s been tough for me, so how tough is it going to be for people who haven’t had that?
AD: You’re known as being the queen of kindness – has this year been testing you?
NW: [Laughs] Yeah, definitely! It’s a mantra for me to be kind. I’ve learned more in the last eight months of isolation and quarantine, that I need to be kinder to myself to actually truly live a kind life. I haven’t been kind to myself, I have not been fair to myself, I have not been … I’ve been hard on myself. I think that’s something everyone goes through, and when you go into isolation, with one or two other people in your bubble, it’s extremely isolating. You are forced to take a really hard look at yourself. We’ve all had to do it, and it hits every one of us in a different way.
AD: Not to mention the election you’ve just gone through in your country …
NW: That has been trying as hell. It’s been very taxing. And, you know, we still have this person in office, and his followers who spit out rhetoric that is so divisive in our country. It’s dangerous, and it makes people who have any kind of difference feel alone. Put that on top of being physically alone. It sucks! I’ve had my moments, and of course, my hope is that I can be resilient and stalwart in the fact that this is going to end and I’m going to come out better on the other side. I have a job to do – my job is to make people happy. I believe that in my heart of hearts that my job is to remind people of how important and valuable they are. And that’s all of us, it’s not just not just some of us LGBTQIA people. We matter. I’ve had hard days, but I take comfort in knowing that I’m not here to make a million dollars, I’m here to make a million lives better, and that really is my goal.
The West Christmas Ever EP by Nina West is out now, and you can find out more about it here.