Thanks to a heartwarming turn on 'RuPaul's Drag Race,' the rest of the world is discovering what Columbus has known for years: There's no one like Nina West.
Things are not looking good for Nina West.
It's Feb. 28, the date of the season 11 premiere of RuPaul's Drag Race, the reality show that aims to find “America's next drag superstar” through a series of challenges. The crowd at Seventh Son Brewing Co.—one of many local bars hosting viewing parties—is momentarily subdued. After a constant buzz of chatter and sprinkles of clapping and cheering whenever Nina appeared onscreen earlier in the show, the crowd is now worried. The judges do not love her runway look, the focus of the first challenge. Could Columbus' hometown heroine be eliminated in the first episode after working so hard to get to this point and auditioning so many times (nine to be exact)?
Not today, it turns out. The judges give Nina a reprieve, and you can hear the crowd relax. Nina didn't squander the break. For the next 10 weeks, Nina—the drag persona of Andrew Levitt—did Columbus proud. By the time she was sent home in episode 11, the entireDrag Racecommunity had fallen in love with her compassion, drama-free attitude and well-honed comedy—qualities that helped her earn the Miss Congeniality title at the end of the season.
They also loved her honesty. In episode four, she discussed her experiences as an out student at Denison University, where bigots broke into her dorm room, carved “fag” on the door and threatened to kill her. All this happened not long after Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Wyoming, was murdered. It was this experience, along with Shepard's death, that would inspire Nina's activism. “We live in a [time] right now where divisive culture is winning,” she said during the episode. “It is our responsibility to create the world that we want to live in.”Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
Nina's elimination in episode 11 “broke hearts around the world,” RuPaul said during the May 23 reunion episode. One of those broken hearts belonged to U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “Just know how important you are to the bigger picture, and I'm so proud of you and your fundamental kindness and goodness,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote in an Instagram story. Entertainment Weekly writer Joey Nolfi even called for Nina to get her own TV show.
Tales of Nina's kindness are well known in Columbus. She's raised more than $2 million dollars for LGBTQ organizations through the Nina West Foundation. She's hosted storytimes, brunches and a sing-along film series. She's performed her own shows countless times. She's hosted HighBall Halloween since its inception in 2008. This year, she was chosen as the grand marshal of Columbus' 2019 Pride Parade in mid-June. Through it all, she has introduced new people to her persona: a campy comedy queen on a mission to make you laugh and care.
“I really brought my activist self to the world stage, and that was intentional,” West says of her run on Drag Race, during a May interview with Columbus Monthly. “I want people to know that at the root of drag is activism and social awareness and commentary.”
When Nina was eliminated, her parting words were, “Go big. Be kind. Go West.” Since then, Nina has gone west, east and all the rest. Her Pride homecoming was expected to be her longest time in Columbus—five days—in almost five months. This summer, she's going to Europe for the first time. In the fall, she'll head to Australia. Next year she hopes to do a solo tour in the U.K. Between those tours, she'll continue to perform across the U.S. But no matter how far Nina goes, she knows she can always come home. “Columbus has my back,” she says. “It has had my back for almost 20 years. I'm proud to be their girl.”***
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