‘Drag Race’ Star Nina West on Touring ‘Hairspray’ at a Time of Drag Bans: ‘I Can Tell When People Are Uncomfortable’

Andrew Levitt — best known as his bubbly, mama bear drag persona Nina West — is no stranger to life on the road. In addition to a laundry list of film and TV credits, the “RuPaul’s Drag Race” Season 11 fan-favorite and Miss Congeniality winner has for years toured the country as Nina and, more recently, as the beloved Edna Turnblad in the national tour of “Hairspray.” (The latter begins its three-week stint at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on Tuesday.)

But it’s only within the last year that touring in any capacity has begun to feel dangerous. Anti-drag bills are sweeping across the U.S., with Tennessee banning public drag shows as of March, and over a dozen other states introducing similar legislation, including Arizona, Kentucky and Oklahoma. Levitt’s holiday drag revue, “A Drag Queen Christmas,” toured 35 dates between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, and he, in conversation with TheWrap, recalled how each one was met with protesters, bomb threats and worse.

“The main composition of those protesters happened to be Proud Boys or people Proud Boy-adjacent, representing groups and organizations that felt and feel that drag is a danger to our society,” Levitt said. “That was a really scary period of time.”

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And while “Hairspray” is less a drag show and more a show that features a man in drag — Levitt’s character, Edna, is protagonist Tracy Turnblad’s doting mother, famously played in previous iterations by Divine in John Waters’ original 1988 movie, Harvey Fierstein in the 2002 Broadway musical and John Travolta in the 2007 movie musical adaptation. Returning to the “Hairspray” stage after his Christmas tour came with a “bit of relief,” Levitt admitted, because “a theatrical environment was more conducive to being a place of discourse.” No “Hairspray” performance thus far — and Levitt has starred in over 420 of them — has been met with a protest.

Even so, the performer said “it feels different” in different cities and states that may not be as welcoming to queerness. “I mean, I can see their faces. It’s theater. We’re live in front of an audience and I can see their faces and I can tell when people are uncomfortable by my presence on the stage,” he said. “I am energized by that. That focuses me even more on the importance of the story.”

In telling that story — one of a segregated 1962 Baltimore and the brazen teen who finds a way to bring her community together — Levitt believes that “Hairspray” may provide a part of the answer we need to overcome today’s divisions. He reflected on it all — and teased what may lay ahead — in our conversation below.

Nina West in Hairspray national Broadway tour
Credit: Jeremy Daniels

You grew up a queer kid in rural Ohio. Do you at all relate to Tracy Turnblad’s experience of burning bright in a small town?

Unlike Tracy, I was really ashamed of my difference. There’s a beautiful naivete or youthful energy about Tracy where she’s not listening to other people tell her what’s wrong with her, right? She doesn’t own that. That hasn’t entered her psyche in any way. She feels shame in her own way in how she deals with her body, but she also celebrates herself. In my queerness, I just heard from such a young age that that was wrong. And so I oftentimes would allow other people’s opinion of me or their judgment of me – or their judgment of the other before I knew it applied to me at my very young age. That would absolutely dampen my light. So I don’t know that I “shined brightly” as much as I really could have as a kid because my queerness was, I thought, a weakness.

Now here we are all these years later and I see that my queerness is my strength. It’s my armor. It’s my shield; it is my cape; it is the thing that gives me, I think, my passion and my drive in my day-to-day life. I personally feel like that’s why this story is so important. The story was written by specifically queer voices, and the Broadway musical was crafted by queer voices, so there are queer undertones to every aspect of this show. And I think it’s really awesome that I get to be kind of a torchbearer for someone like Divine and John Waters — and then Jack O’Brien, who’s the originally director, and Jerry Mitchell, the original choreographer, and Harvey Fierstein, the original Edna and one of the secret ghost writers of the show, to today. And they’ve all entrusted me with it.

In what ways have you tried to make Edna your own?

When I was asked to do this, I had some reservations. I said yes, but I didn’t want people to compare me to Harvey or to even, really, more so dangerously John Travolta – because that’s the film that everyone most recently had the most access to. So a lot of people who’d never seen the Broadway show saw Travolta’s version and thought, “Oh, that’s Edna.” And to me, it’s a version of Edna, and I love Travolta’s Edna, but it’s not the Edna that I wanted to share. And so in the process of working on the show very early on in the rehearsal process, Jack O’Brien and Harvey both said to me you’ve gotta let go and strip it down — stop putting all the bells and whistles on it and just tell her story. Your version of her will come to life. And that’s exactly what happened. I have wrested my Edna in I think a lot of heart. The character calls for being really exposed, being very protective, being a mother, being also a definitive force of knowledge but also having no idea what the world actually holds at all. And so she’s unaware of her limitless potential by being limited in her own perspective.

It feels today pretty prescient that “Hairspray” examines division in America. Taking the musical to different audiences in different states — some of which may have anti-drag bills on the table — is the show received in different ways based on where you’re performing it? 

This is a complicated question. I left the tour in the month of December to go do a drag queen Christmas tour, and we were protested at every single stop. The main composition of those protesters happened to be Proud Boys or people Proud Boy-adjacent, representing groups and organizations that felt and feel that drag is a danger to our society. That was a really scary period of time. We had bomb threats every night, we had bomb sniffing dogs at every venue, we had protesters at every stop. At one city, we had to be escorted by police 35 miles outside of city limits so that no one would drive us off the road.

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So going from that experience back into “Hairspray,” I will admit to you, I felt a little bit of relief because it felt like a theatrical environment was more conducive to being, I think, a place of discourse. It felt a little bit more safe. I do think the presence of Edna as a male actor definitely has a different connotation to the audience right now and it feels different to me than it did on the first leg of the tour. I can say that, especially, really more conservative markets, right? It feels different. It feels like the eye of the viewer — I mean, I can see their faces. It’s theater. We’re live in front of an audience and I can see their faces and I can tell when people are uncomfortable by my presence on the stage. I am energized by that. That focuses me even more on the importance of the story.

Does “Hairspray” at all feel in conversation with the real-world conversations we’re having right now?

The story is – yes, Tracy wants to integrate “The Corny Collins Show,” which, you know, race relations in this country … things aren’t good. They’re not good for our BIPOC communities, they’re not good for the women in this country, it’s not good for our Jewish brothers and sisters, it’s not good for our LGBTQIA+ people, it’s not good for anyone who’s different than a white, cis, heteronormative presenting person. And I think “Hairspray” is not the answer, but I do think “Hairspray” provides an answer. If there are a bunch of puzzle pieces that are going to help us in this time period have conversations, I think this is a puzzle piece.

It speaks more to what’s happening in this country than what we otherwise thought. It’s scary. Living in this country right now as a queer person is scary. When you see Equality Florida say, “The state of Florida is not a safe place for LGBTQIA+ travelers to go to,” I’m thinking: What’s happening? What’s really happening in this country? And what does that mean for the future of this show touring around the country? And I don’t know. And I would hope that the Broadway League or that other lobbyists who are invested in telling thoughtful, artistic stories and are invested in lobbying state legislatures to continue to tell these stories. But I would also hope that we continue past the confines of a professional theater setting, because really, it doesn’t matter professionally if a tour can go in and out of a market if people who are LGBTQIA+ can’t even walk down the street safely.

Nina West in Hairspray national Broadway tour
Credit: Jeremy Daniels

You have always tied your drag to activism and guiding the youth. What hope can you shed on the times we’re living in?

We have to remember that we do need one another more than we ever thought. We don’t exist in bubbles and we don’t exist in a vacuum. So what’s happening to the Jewish community in this country is a part of our movement as LGBTQIA+ people, and I believe that what’s happening in the LGBTQIA+ movement is directly affecting people of color in this country. All of this rhetoric and this divisive conversation that’s tearing the threads apart of each individual community is actually just tearing apart the foundation of this country … Hope might be in short supply, but it’s not lost, and I really feel like if we all pull together — I don’t know how this happens — but my hope is: go to a drag queen story time and provide support the library or the privately owned business or the parents or the kids who are attending that by showing support and showing up for that. Donate your money to organizations that desperately need it that are on the frontlines like the ACLU. This is going to require us to get on the frontlines and to truly show up.

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What do you envision doing after “Hairspray”?

I’m gonna be honest with you about the challenges of my dreams and where I was going and where I am going. I am an activist and I am a staunch defender of my community, and I really, for so many years, have tried to maneuver a career within a family space or a children’s space, and that’s proving really difficult right now. And that is a form of activism, by the way: drag queens showing up. It always has been. My dream has always been to be a part of the Disney family and do voiceover work and to be a very nontraditional, unconventional drag queen. Drag exists in many spaces, and I believe it to be really, truly punk and rock ’n’ roll for a queen to be in these children’s spaces telling our stories in very palpable, tangible ways that kids and their families can have access to. And I hope that my next chapter continues to go down that path, but I’m also very aware of the work that’s gonna have to be done for that to continue. I’m recognizing now that I have to continue the work to actually open the door for somebody else to walk into that space after me. I hope it’s gonna happen in my lifetime because I wanna do it, that’s the dream for me. But I also believe that it’s much more important to fight for our decency and our rights and our access to healthy lives. I can’t believe in 2023 that this is a conversation that I’m having. All of these things that are coming under attack in all of these different state legislatures to our community that put our community at risk, those are our fights. So I think what’s next for me is to be much more visible after I leave the tour and become a much more present force in this activism and in this fight for our community. Also, I think, elevating myself and my story to help others be elevated as well — hopefully through television and film, but we’re fighting for a lot more than that.

So is that also to say that something like “Drag Race: All Stars” isn’t really on your priority list right now?

I mean, listen: If they asked me, I would say yes. And I think “Drag Race” is a form of activism. There is something about that show being in people’s houses and homes all over the world that I do think changes people’s minds. So I think it’s a wonderful part of the sauce of the recipe.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and flow of conversation.

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