Community feature: Nina West shares her journey to 'RuPaul's Drag Race'

Erica Thompson

Columbus drag queen Nina West’s theater background at Denison University has aided her throughout 35 main stage productions in her 18-year career, including a recent role as Ursula in “The Little Mermaid.”

But it really came in handy for hiding her participation in the upcoming 11th season of “RuPaul's Drag Race,” which premieres Thursday, Feb. 28, on VH1. West, nee Andrew Levitt, received the phone call outside of Axis Nightclub, where she had rehearsal for one of her shows.

“[The producer] told me and I just broke down,” West said in a recent phone interview. “And I was like, ‘Oh my God, I have to pull myself together. I've got to go in and rehearse.’”

West said she made up a story about her sister calling to explain her emotional state to her cast.

“It helps being an actor because I was able to convince people of a lot of different things,” West said.

West also told people she had foot surgery to explain her absence while filming the reality show.

“People seem to grab on to that whether or not they believed it,” West said. “People would come up and ask me how my foot was, and I'd be like, ‘Great, just healing it up.’ … When I first got back, I was wearing a foot bandage. I was going all out.”

Suffice it to say Columbus didn’t buy it. According to polls Alive put on social media after hearing about West’s “foot surgery,” 60 percent of Instagram participants and 80 percent of Twitter participants believed she was on “Drag Race.”

When the news was confirmed on Jan. 24, the city exploded in excitement fueled by a collective thought: It’s about time.

“I’ve wanted this for so long,” said West, who auditioned nine times before being selected. “It got to a point where I was just getting really bitter. I was like, ‘What do I need to do to show them that I'm ready for this opportunity?’ And then I decided I need to take a step back and remove my ego from the equation. … [I said,] ‘I'm going to give it a really great, honest-to-god try [and] be my best authentic self.’”

RuPaul famously judges contestants on “charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent” (he even recorded a song about it). West said possessing all of those traits has allowed her to survive so long in the “dog-eat-dog” drag industry.

“I'm a big dude,” West said. “I'm a 6-foot-3, 240-pound man. For a lot of people, that doesn't fit the mold of what drag is. So I have of a lot of nerve to continue to try to break the mold.”

But people all over the country have also noticed the self-proclaimed “comedy queen” for her creativity. In 2008, she won the national Entertainer of the Year competition, making waves with her “moving dress” — copied by [pop singer] Sia, according to West.

“Drag Race” will no doubt grow West’s reach as an entertainer, but also provide a greater platform for giving back. Through the Nina West Foundation, she has raised more than $2 million for organizations benefiting LGBTQ youth and families.

“It's such an integral part of who I am as a performer, and it's such an integral part of who I am as a person,” she said.

West could only reveal that viewers are in for “one hell of an incredible season.” By the looks of the sneak peek online, she’s not overstating the sentiment. The competition — which includes over-the-top veteran “Vanjie,” pageant beauties and shock queens — is fierce.

Whether at home or viewing parties scheduled at Axis and Seventh Son Brewing, Columbus will be watching and rooting for West to win.

“I'm really lucky to go into this journey embraced by the city and knowing that I'm surrounded by so much love and support,” she said.

And even if she doesn’t win, she’s already inspired people with her perseverance.

“It’s the idea that if you really don't give up [and] keep knocking on the door, eventually somebody will open,” West said. “I kept knocking and they answered. It feels like I'm totally achieving a dream now.”