Many past alumni of RuPaul’s Drag Race will tell you that the key to success is capitalizing on your moment. That’s exactly what drag star Nina West has done. In just a year, the star has put out multiple music projects, been a featured guest twice on The View, and even stars in the short animated film Coaster. But she’s still not done just yet.
On Friday (Nov. 8), West put out her latest music, an entire EP of original Christmas music titled The West Christmas Ever. The new project sees the star tackling all the genres she can, from country-rock to classic choral Christmas, all while playing up her character as Nina the Elf, and not-so-helpful helper of Santa Claus (played by Jim Cummings, the voiceover artist famous for voicing Winnie the Pooh).
But West’s mission extends far beyond spreading holiday cheer — the queen hopes that her music, along with past releases like her album Drag Is Magic — helps show that drag queens can be kid-friendly as well. “Drag queens have so long been relegated to nightlife because of the sheer setup of our society,” she tells Billboard. “We’re fighting that — and we’re trying to show the world that, as artists, we are to be presented in a variety of fashions and formats. I believe that we can work in the children’s space and change a lot of minds and a lot of hearts, and open up the world to a very colorful, accepting landscape.”
West chatted with Billboard ahead of her album’s release about her dream of working with Disney, the importance of seeing representation in all forms of entertainment, and her love of the holiday season.
[Laughs.] I just am a workhorse, I guess! You know, I have wanted to really just run with it — this is a golden opportunity, and I wanted to do everything. So I’m just trying to have fun with it, and I hope people are having fun with me doing it, and … you know, I really just wanted to try and make the most of this moment. It’s a lot of hard work, you know?
I started playing it, and I was thrown when I heard the voice of Winnie the Pooh as Santa. How did you get Jim Cummings involved with this?
Yeah, it was a big moment for me, too! I grew up loving everything Disney, and I’m a gigantic, adult, Disney nerd. I’ve gone to the big convention, D23, a couple of times, and this year I went in August where I had the privilege of meeting Jim and his wife! We just kind of hit it off, and he was so wonderful and friendly and welcoming.
So, we started the album in July, and we were tracked to finish it by the end of August, beginning of September. And the one thing that was missing was the glue that kind of held it all together, because the five tracks were very different, and represent all of these different parts of Andrew and Nina respectively, and my sensibilities around the holidays, both in and out of drag. So I wanted something to tie it all together, and I was like, “I need a voice of Santa Claus! But who could do it?”
And I asked around, but my gut was like, “It’s Jim Cummings all the way, but I don’t know if he’ll do it.” Without batting a lash, he said yes immediately, and it’s just kind of perfect the way it all worked out. I get really choked up, like, “Oh my god, that’s Jim Cummings on my album! It’s Winnie the Pooh!”
You did mention your love of Disney — do you think working with Jim could be your next step toward your larger goal of infiltrating and ultimately working with the company?
[Laughs.] I must become one with The Mouse! You know, it is no secret at this point that I am trying to court Disney, and trying to prove to Disney that there is viable products, and viable quality work with making drag queens a part of the brand, and I think that I am that queen, that I can kind of transcend that line, and hopefully try to usher in a new era of children’s television programming.
I think Disney is definitely aware, and I hope that they will respond in a really positive way. I know there are people there who love me, and who love what I do, and they all know that I love them. I hope it’s going to happen.
Well, the album is kind of another example of you reaching out to families and kids with your performance of drag. That’s sadly a controversial topic still, especially with Drag Queen Story Hours around the country still being widely criticized. How do you think that your work, and the work of drag queens like you, are helping to eradicate that idea?
So, when you talk about the specific example of Drag Queen Story Hour, it’s really important for people to see us in action and have an understanding of what it is. Because people on the far right, specifically, want to attach some kind of connotation to it. The way that many people who have not experienced drag understand drag is that it is a devious nightlife activity, rather than being an actual, viable, cultural art form that presents itself in so many different ways and avenues.
Drag queens have so long been relegated to nightlife because of the sheer setup of our society. We’re fighting that, and we’re trying to show the world that, as artists, we are to be presented in a variety of fashions and formats. I believe that we can work in the children’s space and change a lot of minds and a lot of hearts, and open up the world to a very colorful, accepting landscape.
So I think, in the case of storytime, people who have no bearing, or any interest in the issue in the first place, want to shut it down because it’s a further representation of difference and diversity, which scares them. It’s so much more than just some drag queen reading a picture book to kids. It’s people who are bigoted, homophobic, racist, misogynistic, hateful people who will really, truly attack anything. And unfortunately, they’ve become really good behind the keyboard at motivating and rallying people to their fight.
In Columbus, Ohio, for example, I’ve seen storytimes getting shut down by people who don’t even live in the state! They started some online campaign to say this is wrong, and they don’t even live there! That’s how crazy these people are right now, and there has to be people brave enough to say, “No, what I’m doing is right and good and safe, and it should be acceptable.” And the people who really should be applauded are the parents who say, “You know what? No. I want my child to have this experience and exposure to people who are bringing something different to the table that is educational and enlightening.”
Getting back to the album, it’s also really funny. Which song was the most fun to record in the studio?
Oh, “Jingle Juice” for sure. I mean, they’re all different — “Jingle Juice” is really fun to sing, with this rockabilly, Chris Stapleton, stomp-clap, Christmas at a saloon in the North Pole kind of vibe. I loved performing it when we were recording it, and was thinking how it’s a major performance thing, and I could definitely get behind it live. “Cha Cha Heels” is a ridiculous send up of John Waters, so I feel like that’s almost connecting, oddly enough, to my Broadway love. It feels like it’s a weird extension of Hairspray, so I loved that. “It’s Chris, Miss” is so Nina West [Laughs.] It’s just ridiculousness, it’s really really fun, and was laughing a lot during that, because lyrically, it is just so dumb.
I did want to ask — at the opening of that song, were you channeling like a gay Bruce Springsteen singing his “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” cover? Because it sounds like it.
Oh my god! [laughs] Yeah, I felt like Michael Bolton meets a gay Bruce Springsteen!
You were also featured in the short film Coaster recently, which is already getting some Oscar buzz — how does that prospect, of a film you starred in potentially earning a nomination next year, make you feel?
It is overwhelming! When I was asked to take part in that project, it was right after we did that Pride episode of the The View, and legitimately, it was four days after that I signed on and was committed to that. I said on the show that I want to do voiceover work. These guys, Amos Sussigan who’s from Warner Brothers, and Dan Lund who is the lead special effects animator at Disney … like this is how amazing this is, Dan Lund is the guy who did the Elsa gown change in Frozen. Dan Lund is major, and Amos is major, and … they heard my voice, they heard my request, and they said, “Yeah, let’s do it!”
They took a leap of faith on me, and here we are now with the potential shortlist that we’ll find out about in December! I mean, that .. it’s hard to put into words, this ride has been otherworldly for me. It’s been good and bad for me, but I am so blessed and lucky to be here, and it’s literally happening like a fairytale. I wouldn’t have ever imagined that this would be my reality after coming off of the show in May. The first episode aired in February, and it’s only November, and so much has happened already!
Well speaking of, we have so much that we’ve gotten from you already — what projects can fans look forward to from you coming up from you?
Ooh, okay. I’m going on a Christmas tour that kicks off in two weeks and goes all across the country. Next year, starting in January, I’m touring Europe with a solo show for a bit of time before the Oscars, and hopefully there is an Oscar nom to celebrate. And then I have some really big things in the works that are truly exciting that will take up a lot of the year that I can’t really talk about yet, but … through a lot of the fan support, and the support of media, a lot of the stuff is happening because of stuff like that. So I can’t wait to share it with everyone.