I saw Nina West the way most locals do– between the shoulders of strangers at Union. While it was my gateway to West, this wasn’t my introduction to drag. I watched Hairspray (the John Waters Movie) starring Divine growing up. Drag Race entered the periphery of my conscious when Tyra Banks’s make up artist, Sutan Amrul, competed on the show as Raja Gemini. Sutan snatched my wig off when he told an aspiring ANTM model who complained that lotion made her skin ashy that maybe “(her) personality is ashy!” DEAD! I craved more of whoever this person is, which led me to Drag Race, where Amrul (aka Raja Gemini) conquered the third season. Drowning in schoolwork kept me from superfan status, but by season eight or nine, graduation and full-time employment allowed me to spiral into obsession with Drag Race. But no season has been as special as season 11 for both me or Columbus, Ohio– where I live. Nina West is a cast member on season 11 of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. This essay is a love letter to her and to Columbus.
Nina West, or Andrew Levitt, is an Ohio native (Northeast Ohio, like me), and a graduate of Denison University’s theater program. If you’ve been to any gay bar in Columbus, you know who Nina West is. You know her Drag Mom, Virginia West. And if you’re really lucky, you’ve been shaded by West during her act or while she’s emceeing an event. She’s known for her performance quality, and as a figurehead for Columbus’s Queer Community and the city as a whole. West has raised over $2 million for various charities, including the Kaleidoscope Youth Center, who serves LGBTQIA youth in Central Ohio. In collaboration with the Columbus Foundation, West has set up The Nina West Fund to support local non-profits that provide services to Columbus’s LGBTQIA community.
There’s something incredible about a Midwestern city where Football is a religion, where our state politics couldn’t be more right-wing, where cornfields line the city limits– and our hometown hero is a drag queen. I like to say “the freaks shall inherit the earth”. What I mean by that is it’s the people who dare to be different, to show up as themselves when its hard, who build other people up who become the cool kids. Our success isn’t rooted in conformity but in being bold– in being ourselves.
There are kids watching Nina who aren’t thin. There are sissies and losers and weirdos across middle America seeing this example. And that’s my hometown hero. That’s our girl. That’s the queen of the Columbus Queers, the Mayor of the Island of Misfit Toys. Nina West is beloved. There are bars across this city cheering her on every Thursday on screen. We could not be more thrilled to be represented in this way both as a city and by someone who carries herself with grace and poise and ambition.
My residency in Columbus came as a consolation prize. I loathed my adolescence in Youngstown, Ohio. The weight of the rustbelt city weighed on my heels, and I ached to runaway. I applied to schools in Boston, DC, VA, but when the financial aid office grew stingy, I found myself at Ohio State. With venomous tongue, I called Ohio State “my consolation prize”, but I fell in love with my school and this city. I built sturdy friendships, and in the most unlikely of places, grew into the woman I always wanted to be. I work for Ohio State full time now. The 614 is still my home. My family teases me because, after years of screaming how I couldn’t wait to leave this hellhole, I am the only McGrath still in Ohio. West symbolizes why I love Columbus. This is how we bloom in a biome never meant for us. We cultivate gardens across landscapes designed for our withering. And we make it ours. We make the soil richer for those who follow us. We commit to our communities’ flourishing. We exist loudly and never as an apology.
This post isn’t intended to sanctify West, but it is to appreciate her. In pre-show interviews, West focused on the responsibility queer representatives have to be ambassadors and trailblazers. On a purely entertainment level, I love drag race. I’ve been a loyal viewer since season 3. Still, in season 11, I feel the way Cavaliers fans felt in 2016 when the Cavs beat the Warriors to win the championship– a hardwon victory. West epitomizes Ohio in many ways: She auditioned for Drag Race 9 times. To appear on this program was an endurance trial in and of itself. She’s not thin and dons lots of Ohio gear in her out-of-drag shots on Drag Race. She’s kind and polite, ever the Midwesterner– her facial expressions saying more than her words at times.
Tonight, I’ll be cheering Nina West on like I do every Thursday, with the same excitement as when I first caught a glimpse of her through the inlets in the crowd. Our local Queen. Our hometown hero. Our number one. We love you, Nina West!