Mariah Ward steps out, spreads love as Shawty West

The drag king’s new show, ‘Coming to Columbus,’ opens Friday at District West

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Mariah Ward

Mariah Ward’s transformation into Shawty West is as much mental as physical.

If rushed, Ward said she can get a version of West’s makeup done in 20 minutes, but her mental transition can take longer, aided by a running soundtrack that includes songs by Bruno Mars, Sam Smith and Michael Jackson. “And once I’m there mentally, the makeup is quick and easy,” said Ward, who will headline “Coming 2 Columbus” as her drag king persona Shawty West at District West beginning on Friday, Jan. 14 and running through Jan. 23.

As Ward morphs into West, everything changes, from her gaze (in character, it’s more of a smolder) to her stance to the way she talks, with her voice becoming deeper, silkier, slower. West’s walk takes on similar characteristics, the performer moving “like I’m in one of those music videos where everything’s in slow motion,” she said. “It’s an I’m-scanning-the-room type of walk.”

Ward received her introduction to the world of drag beginning around 2014, when she worked backstage with Columbus drag legends Nina and Virginia West, assisting with everything from costume change to props. Over time, Ward gradually shifted from behind-the-scenes to the stage, first appearing in drag during a group number in a 2016 Union show. “Virginia painted my face, and I got onstage and did this number,” Ward said. “I was a nervous wreck, and everything happened so fast that I couldn’t process it. … But I guess they saw something in me, and they asked me to do more.”

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Ward developed her drag persona by looking to entertainers such as Bruno Mars and Sam Smith, artists who projected both a natural smoothness and a sense of uplift. “I always want to be a fun drag performer, but I also want to empower,” said Ward, who was born and raised in Cincinnati and moved to Columbus in 2009 to attend CCAD.

Beginning with the core of her character — “You have to find the heart of the person,” she said — Ward then started to work outward, developing a bold, colorful wardrobe for West, much of it acquired via thrift stores.

“For me, I love different, fun patterns, and I love blazers,” Ward said. “So I would find all of the cool blazers that helped project who Shawty is.”

While Ward initially discovered drag through the world of its queens, she was gobsmacked the first time she saw drag kings the Royal Renegades at Axis, an experience she described as “mind-blowing,” and which further helped shape her approach to the art form.

At a glance, the outgoing, comfortably confident West might appear far removed from Ward, who described herself as a long-time introvert and someone who only in recent years has started to feel more comfortable in her own skin. In reality, becoming West has allowed Ward to more fully embrace traits that had always been present, if somewhat buried.

“Before, I was fun, but I was also shy,” Ward said. “Once I became Shawty, though, I became more confident. Not only in myself, but also in who I am as far as my sexuality. I was able to be proud to be a Black entertainer, and just to be a Black, queer woman overall. So, some of those characteristics were already in me, but through Shawty I’ve been able to push them out there even more.”

Generally, Ward said she likes to embody good times as West, an approach that has been challenged by events of the last two years, including the ongoing pandemic and the revitalized Black lives matter movement sparked by the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police — realities that have bled into and shaped drag shows across the city, in particular “2020 WTF!?,” created and staged by Anisa Love. 

“That was a challenging show, because we were talking about everything that was happening in the moment,” said Ward, who was a part of the cast (Love will return the favor this week, joining “Coming 2 Columbus'' alongside a roster of performers that includes Boyonce, Roxy Nikole and Holliwood West, among others). “But each night, weight was lifted because we were able to get onstage and breathe. During all of that time, I think a lot of people were holding their breath, waiting to see if positive change was going to happen. But during that show, it was like I could breathe, because I was surrounded by people who were just as passionate, and who felt the exact same way I did.”

“Coming 2 Columbus” is by design a more inward-looking, personal show, addressing the evolution that has taken place within Ward since West became a part of her existence. At its core, however, is a similar message of holding to hope amid the chaos.

“At the end of the day, we’re all going through things, but I want this show to be a reminder to spread love,” Ward said. “If you’re not feeling good, or in a good mindset, know that there are people out there who are ready to give you love, so you need to be open to receive it.”