Of the many industries impacted by COVID-19, live performance has been hit particularly hard, with theaters and live music venues abruptly shuttered and our beloved drag queens temporarily ushered back into the closet.
It didn’t take long for drag artists to migrate online or producers to reimagine drag experiences with large-scale drive-in shows or more private driveway performances. RuPaul’s Drag Race alum Nina West (aka Andrew Levitt) has kept the wigs and lipstick close at hand. For the past 18 years, Levitt has been producing and headlining shows, and in 2019 ranked in Vulture’s top 100 “Most Powerful Drag Queens in America.” As Charity Hope Valentine sings in Sweet Charity, “If My Friends Could See Me Now.”
West will appear in Short North Stage’s virtual production of Howard Crabtree’s When Pigs Fly, a hilarious musical revue that references the satire of Beach Blanket Babylon and the over-the-top costumes of Ziegfield’s Follies. Levitt says he was bit by the theater bug long before the incarnation of his drag alter ego. He started participating in community theater after earning his driver’s license, and upon high school graduation, pursued a B.F.A. in theater from Denison University.
It was in college that Levitt first experimented with drag, but was more focused on leaving central Ohio and pounding the pavement of New York City. Then 9/11 happened and his dreams of moving to the Big Apple moved to the back burner.
“I pivoted and made other decisions,” recalls Levitt. “I kept saying to myself, ‘I’ll get to New York,’ but drag kept knocking on the door. For the first few years, I thought nobody will take this seriously. I eventually learned that I was wrong.”
Drag mother Virginia West, a Columbus icon, encouraged Levitt and the emerging Nina West to own the theatricality and make that part of the performance style. “I was unaware of the power of camp drag,” says Levitt. “I thought it had to be female illusion. I’m 6’4” with big shoulders — I’m the John Goodman of drag.” As Levitt discovered Nina, he also discovered himself.
“I had no understanding of the value of using my own voice to inform my performances,” recalls Levitt. “I can tell the stories I want to tell. I don’t have to be this soft, beautiful thing, but use what was in my toolbox. I was terrified—the meanness and reading. ‘I don’t fit in this, that energy isn’t me,’ I thought. Eventually, I was introduced to all spectrums of drag and all the spectrums of the LGBTQ community. I had never had met a trans person ‘til I did drag. I had been surrounded by white, cisgender heteronormative environment. The education of life came from bars and dressings rooms. It changed my whole life.”
The Nina West brand has grown exponentially since Levitt first started performing nearly 20 years ago, but Levitt still calls Columbus home. Short North Stage, located in the Short North Arts District, is part of the city’s robust cultural identity and presents various musicals and plays, often with LGBTQ themes such as La Cage aux Folles, Angels in America and Kiss of the Spider Woman.
Levitt has also used his platform for substantial philanthropic work. He established the Nina West Foundation and has raised more than $3 million for LGBTQ youth and literacy, including a recent partnership with Dolly Parton, the “Dolly X Nina Kindness is Queen” collection. Levitt attributes
“I grew up in a family that believed in giving back,” says Levitt. “There are three T’s of giving and it doesn’t always have to be financial, there is also time and talent. I had a college professor who was HIV-positive and so open and willing to share his story and educate his students. The power was transformative. Denison University emphasized getting involved in the local community, and I just continued to find my niche and groove. I have a responsibility to use my voice to speak to specific issues. There is a greater need in queer community. I didn’t realize how much power a microphone had. I grew up in drag and grew up in a community-minded city, which created the perfect storm.”
Looking ahead, Levitt has a strong interest in creating a children’s television show and has already been making short videos for Nina’s alternate Instagram account, storytimewithnina. And though Broadway’s reopening is unpredictable, Levitt hopes to leverage his drag star power to fulfill a longstanding dream.
Levitt also recognizes and celebrates and advocates for a more inclusive definition of drag for the next generation.
“Just because RuPaul’s Drag Race defines the contestant pool as men presenting female drag, it doesn’t mean that’s the actual definition. The show will hopefully respond to the cry to include trans people in the conversation by allowing them to compete. Drag is for everybody,” says Levitt. “We cannot allow the art form to be relegated to a specific type. Nothing exists in a bubble. We need to make sure we embrace all the beautiful colors of drag: the style, the shapes, the genders, the ideals. Drag is not just a male art form. And it never really was. Men that controlled the narrative have silenced those voices.”
Nina West appears in When Pigs Fly September 21-30.