Nina West on the Importance of Kindness and Embracing Being a Fantastical Fan

Nina West on the Importance of Kindness and Embracing Being a Fantastical Fan

Being a multi-hyphenate performer is something Nina West knows well. Winning Miss Congeniality on Ru Paul’s Drag Race season 11, partnering with Dolly Parton on a kindness campaign, making music for kids, acting opposite Daniel Radcliffe in Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, becoming the LGBTQ face of Disney’s Pride campaign, and releasing a children’s book — West is doing it all in heels and a wig that touches the sky.

Speaking of that children’s book: with The You Kind of Kind, West aims to spread awareness that kindness is needed more than ever, especially with legislation all over the U.S. with the potential to endanger LGBTQ youth. Gizmodo recently sat down with her to talk about its inspiration, working with fellow Disney creative illustrator Hayden Evans, what the season means to her, and her favourite things to do at Disney Parks during the holidays.

Sabina Graves, Gizmodo: Hi Nina! I have to start off by saying I loved seeing you in Weird as the iconic Divine at the eccentric celebrity pool-party scene. How did that come about?

Nina West: I’m on tour right now with Hairspray and I got a call at the end of January, beginning of February from my agent saying, “Hey, we have an offer for you to come do this project that’s kind of top secret, but they want you to play [drag legend and John Waters muse] Divine.” I think the day that I went to set was the day that TMZ or somebody posted a picture of Daniel [Radcliffe] as Weird Al.  I was there like in the heat of the secrecy behind the project. And it was just a dream come true to be asked to play such an iconic role and with pure camp and pure fun celebrating the life of Weird Al, with Daniel Radcliffe and with Jack Black. It’s just one of those things that I never thought would ever happen. Dan Radcliffe is like the most charming, the sweetest, most disarmingly kind and wonderful person. He was really interested in my drag career. The director, Eric [Appel] is just a really incredible guy and obviously Weird Al is so amazing. I feel like there’s this really cool storyline that’s about celebrating your authentic self and celebrating weirdness and celebrating what makes you you.

Gizmodo:  On the note of being kind, let’s talk about the book The You Kind of Kind. Congrats on the release, this is incredible. I love Hayden Evans’ art. I’m a big Disney fan as well so I’m familiar with his work and your work with Disney. So when I saw both powers combined, I was like, “Oh, this is going to be good.”

West: The project came about after I was eliminated from Drag Race. I released this EP of kid’s music called Drag Is Magic. Then the pandemic hit, and it allowed me to settle into it and give myself over to it in a luxurious way that I would never have had otherwise. I started working on the book really full time in maybe like April 2020, and Hayden came into the picture relatively late in the game. Hayden was someone that I brought to the table because of his artwork. I love the storytelling that he’s able to capture through his artwork and there’s the Disney connection, right? There’s something about Hayden’s artwork, which is similar to [legendary Disney artist] Mary Blair’s. Mary Blair, but there’s a whimsy to it, and there is a wonderment to it and an excitement to it that is captured in how Hayden does his artwork.

Hayden really informed how I had to edit the manuscript and how I had to really think about the presentation of it in a new way, which was really exciting. And he really encapsulated the energy of the character little Nina and the energy of my drag character of Nina West — I mean, really captured at every page turn through its vividness. The text really also does support it. Another Disney connection would be that I was really inspired by the Sherman Brothers who wrote a lot of different [Disney] songs from Bedknobs and Broomsticks, but probably most famously Mary Poppins’ “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

Image: PA Press/Hayden Evans
Image: PA Press/Hayden Evans

Mary Poppins is my favourite Disney film and it always inspired me and encouraged me to just kind of think outside the box. I really wanted to tip my hat to that and give little Nina her own energy and her own ability to have the licence to create the world she wanted to live in; part of that is how we speak in our language. And in turn, I wanted young readers. I want to reconnect to that, because when I was a kid and I heard “Supercalifragilistic” the first time, I was like, “but this isn’t a word, and it’s ok.” It was permission to dream and to be creative. And I really wanted to also have that impact in my book.

Gizmodo: Let’s dive into your first fandoms. Which ones would you say most inspired your career?

West: It was The Muppets. I’m of the Sesame Street generation and that evolved naturally for me because The Muppet Show was in syndication — that was my first real love. When I was a kid at that time, there were these really kind of major moments in the Jim Henson Company, it was Little Shop of Horrors, it was Labyrinth, it was Dark Crystal. They were all kind of circling around my childhood.  It was all these like presentations of Jim Henson. So I would say my ultimate first fandom and obsession were the Muppets. And I think Gonzo might have been [the] first real moment where I think I saw myself, because he was so different and he was an outsider. Here’s this thing or this it that loves a chicken, and it’s just kind of accepted in the same world where a frog and a pig are in love with one another, right? Like there was just this whimsy and natural logic to it that really didn’t make any sense, but it did. 

The Great Muppet Caper is one of the best movies ever made. Little Shop of Horrors is one of the best movies ever made And then it all extended and all went to my Disney love.  So these are all connections, right? For Little Shop of Horrors, Jim Henson Studios created [the Audrey II puppet], but it’s also the music of [pre-Little Mermaid’s] Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, and [The Muppets performer] Frank Oz directed it. It’s really amazing. This past fall in September, at D23 Expo, I got to host a Muppet Christmas Carol 30th anniversary panel! I performed with the Muppets. We sang a medley from the movie. I interviewed [Muppets songwriter and famed music man] Paul Williams and [director] Brian Henson, [voice of Gonzo] Dave Goelz, and [costumer] Polly Simmons. As a kid, I never thought I’d grow up and be sitting on a couch talking to the son of my hero. To sit next to his son, who directed The Muppet Christmas Carol and directed Muppet Treasure Island, it was just like this crazy moment.

And interviewing Paul Williams, who wrote “Rainbow Connection.” We did a Disney Pride special during the pandemic in 2021, and I sang “Rainbow Connection” with Kermit the Frog, which like, “this doesn’t get any better than this” somehow got better than that. We’re all in this room together. I’m sitting there talking to the man who’s been Gonzo since Gonzo was Gonzo created. And these things that are synonymous with who I am intrinsically at the core of my being.

Gizmodo: Since this will be coming out near the holidays I have to get your tips as you’re a Disney Parks expert. What are your festive must do’s at the parks during the holidays?

West: At Disneyland, they have special churros for every season, and I am like seriously obsessed with the churro in general, so I have to find them. I have discovered over the last several years at Disneyland The Nightmare Before Christmas overlay on Haunted Mansion is the best. Haunted Mansion is my very favourite and then to put Nightmare before Christmas on top of that? It’s fantastic.

Gizmodo: Love Mansion.

West: And then what they do with it seasonally also makes it super fantastic and wonderful. I love the holiday parade [and] the magic of the parks when it snows on Main Street, U.S.A. whether you’re in Southern California or the heat of Orlando. It’s wonderful and incredible. There is something about even the music that they pipe in at park opening and it feels just so holiday, it’s so wonderful and perfect. If you can experience the candlelight processional, it’s fantastic. Do holidays around the world at Epcot, or take the monorail around the Polynesian and Grand Floridian [hotels] and see the trees. Go from resort to resort and look at the beautiful decorations — that’s a way to experience the parks and the magic of Disney. Or do Disney Springs or do Downtown Disney — there’s just so may ways to do it where you can really feel the magic of the season, and also be fiscally responsible if you need to be. I think that’s really what’s wonderful about Disney is they provide an experience and they are storytellers. And that’s what I love about them.

Image: PA Press/Hayden Evans
Image: PA Press/Hayden Evans

The You Kind of Kind is available now at booksellers and online.

Want more Gizmodo news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel and Star Wars releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

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