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Nina West spreads holiday cheer in two new videos

‘Drag Race’ vet says ‘Cha Cha Heels,’ ‘Quarantine Dream’ were labors of love

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Nina West, gay news, Washington Blade
Nina West says being on ‘Drag Race’ was a life-changing experience. (Photo courtesy West)

Nina West has two new videos she’s unleashed on the world.

In “Cha Cha Heels” she pays homage to John Waters playing iconic characters from three of his movies — Dawn Davenport in “Female Trouble,” Beverly Sutphin in “Serial Mom” and Tracy Turnblad in “Hairspray.” The song is from her 2019 Christmas EP “The West Christmas Ever.”

And in “Quarantine Dream” she worked with friend and Disney animator Dan Lund, a veteran of many classic movies such as “Frozen,” “Aladdin,” “The Lion King” and more, to mix live action/animation for the West-penned song about coping with COVID-19 induced quarantine. The three-and-a-half-minute mini-musical was filmed with a cell phone and inspired by the Disney classic “Mary Poppins.” Both are on YouTube.

West, aka Andrew Levitt, is a Columbus, Ohio-based drag performer who came to fame on season 11 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” where she finished sixth and was named Miss Congeniality. She made history at the 2019 Emmys for being the first to walk the red carpet in drag and was named one of the “most powerful drag queens in America” by New York Magazine the same year. West, 42, has been performing for 18 years.

Andrew Levitt, Nina West’s alter ego. (Photo courtesy West)

WASHINGTON BLADE: So how did the concept for the “Cha Cha Heels” video come about?

NINA WEST: I’d had this big idea of a big flash mob and this huge cast and filming in the street with a bunch of people and then COVID hit. So the intention was always to do a “Cha Cha Heels” video, but we had to really adjust quickly when the time came to pull the trigger and film the video because (of restrictions). I worked with a really great director, who is a tremendous John Waters fan named Brad Hammer, and he suggested doing three different female characters in three different John Waters movies. … We filmed it with a cast of four including myself, all people were already in my bubble, so we made all the adjustments we needed to make to have a safe shoot and went there and I think the video ended up being much better for it.

BLADE: Where was it shot?

WEST: We shot it in a day in two locations here in Columbus.

BLADE: Do you have to get permission from Waters or whomever owns the films before you do something like this or is it considered a parody and thus fair game?

WEST: Yeah, it’s seen as parody so you don’t have to get a green light really. We weren’t recreating it shot by shot or telling the same story but we were lucky enough that when John saw it last week, he sent me an e-mail … saying how much he loved it and how much Divine would have loved it … so that was pretty fantastic.

BLADE: Oh wow, that must have been incredible.

WEST: I practically fell over, yeah. I’m 42 so queer Andrew coming out, John Waters movies were a huge rite of passage just as I was coming into my queerness. I wanted this to be a love letter to a queer trailblazer who has had more impact and power than I think any of us really recognize.

BLADE: Tell us about “Quarantine Dream.” How do you know Dan Lund?

WEST: I worked with him on a project called “Coaster” where he was the executive producer and we have remained in touch. He’s one of these people who’s just always talking and dreaming. His brain is constantly rolling. The day after I flew home in March, he called ….

BLADE: Where had you been?

WEST: I was on tour in Europe and then I was going back and forth from New York to L.A. working on a couple projects and I ended up in New York and I was supposed to be going to the opening of the Broadway musical “Six,” but the day it was supposed to open everything was shut down. I was panicking trying to get a flight home.

BLADE: Oh wow.

WEST: Yeah. So he suggested this and I was like, “Sure, um, OK.” I didn’t really know what he meant but then he pitched this whole treatment inspired by “Mary Poppins,” which I’m a huge, through-and-through Disney queen and “Mary Poppins” is my favorite film of all time, so when you have a Disney artist who’s worked on all these cultural touchstones, yeah, OK, I’m not gonna say no. That’s how it happened. I worked with a songwriter Markaholic who is super prolific. If you’ve seen the RuPaul Old Navy commercials, he wrote that song, he’s worked with Ru a lot and is just super talented.

BLADE: So you basically are encouraging people to take the pandemic seriously but in a fun way?

WEST: Yes. We thought it was a fun way to say, “Hey, it sucks, but let’s all stay home and like instead of having the fatigue, maybe we can just take a step back and dream a little bit. We’re gonna get through this. We were gonna release it earlier in the year, but we felt like it wouldn’t have as much impact but now here we are, oddly enough, going into round two and people are getting more sick than ever before and this fatigue of anger and frustration has settled in … so I think the message it sends if very different than it would have been six months ago.

BLADE: How different has your year been?

WEST: Oh my god, I started off with a full calendar and full plate and watched it all disappear. Some things are being rescheduled, some things have been canceled, some things are being reimagined. I hate the word pivot, but that’s kind of what we’ve all been doing. …. I never thought I would be doing drag primarily by phone for almost a year of my life (laughs).

BLADE: Who was your favorite season 11 celebrity guest judge on “Drag Race”?

WEST: Oh my gosh, I really love Bobby Moynihan. I’m an SNL fanatic so he was on my season. I also was really gagged when we had Lena Waithe and Wanda Sykes. That was the episode I went home, but it was still pretty awesome because I’m gigantic fans of both of them.

BLADE: What was your favorite challenge?

WEST: Probably the magic challenge. It was supremely challenging but it allowed me to show off all my skills in one 10-minute segment. I was glad I got that in before I went home. Some of them were really hard, just really, really arduous. “Trump the Rusical” was so hard. When they say it’s the drag Olympics, it really is.

BLADE: You were a fan of the show a long time before you were on it. What seemed the most different seeing it all in real life vs. watching it on TV?

WEST: Oh wow, my brain is going in like 17 different directions. It was all overwhelming. You never forget walking into the workroom for the first time. … Also seeing RuPaul for the first time is really overwhelming. People always ask why we always react so wildly seeing him walk in the workroom. It’s the same person coming through the same door and you know it’s gonna happen, but he really is just so larger than life, I don’t know how else to explain it. He’s so magnetic and so those moments to me were always supremely overwhelming.

BLADE: I can imagine that.

WEST: One thing I didn’t expect that wasn’t so great was realizing later that there are parts of the fandom that are extremely toxic. When I was eliminated and saw the anger and disgust and vitriol and poison directed at Silky (Nutmeg Ganache), that was surprising. It’s not the show’s fault but there are sections of the fandom that cultivates and allows itself to breed this incestuous, toxic hate.

BLADE: What are your plans for the holidays?

WEST: My parents live about 10 minutes away from me so we talked about maybe doing a quarantine for two weeks then a rapid test before Christmas, and I’m willing to do that, but my siblings and I are all just trying to be super responsible so we may just do a Zoom Christmas. I know it’s really hard but I think it’s important for all of us to work collectively to pull ourselves out of this any way we can.

BLADE: Are you and the queens from your season all constantly on group text and Zoom and all that. Whom are you closest with?

WEST: Yeah, I’m in touch with several people from my season. I talk to Silky, I talk to Brooke Lynn (Hytes). I talk to Vanjie once in a while. … Those relationships from that six-week experience, I can’t explain it — you come to rely on these people in a whole other way. It’s not something tangible or that you can even explain. It’s very life changing to go through that together.

BLADE: What’s gonna happen with season 13? Did they do something this summer?

WEST: I don’t know anything official but yesterday I saw a casting call for season 14 so that tells me season 13 must be in the can. I think it’s like full speed ahead for “Drag Race,” which is great because we all love to watch it and fall in love with new people.

BLADE: You auditioned many times before you got on. Was it discouraging or were you just that tenacious you weren’t gonna be deterred or what?

WEST: Oh no, no, no. (laughs) I’m positive but girl, I’m not that positive. I was broken. It really broke me. My last audition was authentically gonna be my last audition and I don’t even remember who said this to me but on of the production people said it had been stated that, “Nina is either on this season or she’s not, this is the last time we’re watching these tapes.” I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I think we all just felt it had come to like a shit-or-get-off-the-pot type moment. I had to move on with my life in a way. I wanted it so badly and for so many years it just was not happening. Finally my last time, I was the most like, “I don’t care, let’s just get it done, whatever,” and that was the one that got me on. So I think tenacity is one thing, but wearing them down is another.

Nina West channels Divine in a scene from her new video ‘Cha Cha Heels,” an homage to ‘Female Trouble.’ (Photo by Staley Munro)
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Rodriquez scores historic win at otherwise irrelevant Golden Globes

Award represents a major milestone for trans visibility

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Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, on right, and Billy Porter in 'Pose.' (Photo courtesy of FX)

HOLLYWOOD – Despite its continuing status as something of a pariah organization in Hollywood, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has managed to cling to relevance in the wake of last night’s behind-closed-doors presentation of its 79th Annual Golden Globe Awards by sole virtue of having bestowed the prize for “Best Leading Actress in a Television Series – Drama” on Michaela Jaé Rodriguez for her work in the final season of “Pose” – making her the first transgender performer to win a Golden Globe.

The ceremony took place as a private, no-press-or-audience event in which winners were revealed via a series of tweets from the Golden Globes Twitter account. No celebrities were present (not even the nominees or winners), although actress Jamie Lee Curtis participated by appearing in a video in which she pronounced her continuing loyalty to the HFPA – without mention of the  longstanding issues around diversity and ethical practices, revealed early in 2021 by a bombshell Los Angeles Times report, that have led to an nearly industry-wide boycott of the organization and its awards as well as the cancellation of the annual Golden Globes broadcast by NBC for the foreseeable future.

While the Golden Globes may have lost their luster for the time being, the award for Rodriquez represents a major milestone for trans visibility and inclusion in the traditionally transphobic entertainment industry, and for her part, the actress responded to news of her win with characteristic grace and good will.

Posting on her Instagram account, the 31-year old actress said: 

“OMG OMGGG!!!! @goldenglobes Wow! You talking about sickening birthday present! Thank you!

“This is the door that is going to Open the door for many more young talented individuals. They will see that it is more than possible. They will see that a young Black Latina girl from Newark New Jersey who had a dream, to change the minds others would WITH LOVE. LOVE WINS.

“To my young LGBTQAI babies WE ARE HERE the door is now open now reach the stars!!!!!”

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As You Are Bar and the importance of queer gathering spaces

New bar/restaurant poised to open in 2022

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As You Are Bar had a pop-up venue at Capital Pride's "Colorful Fest" block party in October. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

More than just a watering hole: As You Are Bar is set to be the city’s newest queer gathering place where patrons can spill tea over late-morning cappuccinos as easily as they can over late-night vodka-sodas.

Co-owners and founders Jo McDaniel and Rachel Pike built on their extensive experience in the hospitality industry – including stints at several gay bars – to sign a lease for their new concept in Barracks Row, replacing what was previously District Soul Food and Banana Café. In a prime corner spot, they are seeking to bring together the disparate colors of the LGBTQ rainbow – but first must navigate the approval process (more on that later).

The duo decided on this Southeast neighborhood locale to increase accessibility for “the marginalized parts of our community,” they say, “bringing out the intersectionality inherent in the queer space.”

Northwest D.C., they explain, not only already has many gay bar options, but is also more difficult to get to for those who don’t live within walking distance. The Barracks Row location is right by a Metro stop, “reducing pay walls.” Plus, there, “we are able to find a neighborhood to bring in a queer presence that doesn’t exist today.”

McDaniel points out that the area has a deep queer bar history. Western bar Remington’s was once located in the area, and it’s a mere block from the former Phase 1, the longest-running lesbian bar, which was open from 1971-2015.

McDaniel and Pike hope that As You Are Bar will be an inclusive space that “welcomes anyone of any walk of life that will support, love, and celebrate the mission of queer culture. We want people of all ages, gender, sexual identity, as well as drinkers and non-drinkers, to have space.”

McDaniel (she/her) began her career at Apex in 2005 and was most recently the opening manager of ALOHO. Pike (she/they) was behind the bar and worked as security at ALOHO, where the two met.

Since leaving ALOHO earlier this year, they have pursued the As You Are Bar project, first by hosting virtual events during the pandemic, and now in this brick-and-mortar space. They expressed concern that receiving the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) liquor license approval and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, or ANC, approval will be a long and expensive process.

They have already received notice that some neighbors intend to protest As You Are Bar’s application for the “tavern” liquor license that ABRA grants to serve alcohol and allow for live entertainment (e.g. drag shows). They applied for the license on Nov. 12, and have no anticipated opening date, estimating at least six months. If ABRA and the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board give final approval, the local ANC 6B and nearby residents can no longer protest the license until the license comes up for renewal.

Until approval is given, they continue physical buildout (including soundproofing) and planning their offerings. If the license is approved, ABRA and the ABC Board can take action against As You Are Bar, like any bar, at any time if they violate the terms of the license or create a neighborhood disturbance that violates city laws such as the local noise ordinance.  In the kitchen, the duo snagged Chef Nina Love to develop the menu. Love will oversee café-style fare; look out for breakfast sandwiches making an appearance all the way until close. They will also have baked goods during the day.

McDaniel and Pike themselves will craft the bar menu. Importantly, they note, the coffee bar will also serve until close. There will be a full bar as well as a list of zero-proof cocktails. As with their sourcing, they hope to work with queer-, minority-, and women-owned businesses for everything not made in-house.

Flexible conceptually, they seek to grow with their customer base, allowing patrons to create the culture that they seek.

Their goal is to move the queer space away from a focus on alcohol consumption. From book clubs, to letter-writing, to shared workspaces, to dance parties, they seek an all-day, morning-to-night rhythm of youth, families, and adults to find a niche. “We want to shift the narrative of a furtive, secretive, dark gay space and hold it up to the light,” they say. “It’s a little like The Planet from the original L Word show,” they joke.

Pike notes that they plan on working closely with SMYAL, for example, to promote programming for youth. Weekend potential activities include lunch-and-learn sessions on Saturdays and festive Sunday brunches.

The café space, to be located on the first floor, will have coffeehouse-style sofas as well as workstations. A slim patio on 8th Street will hold about six tables.

Even as other queer bars have closed, they reinforce that the need is still present. “Yes, we can visit a café or bar, but we always need to have a place where we are 100 percent certain that we are safe, and that our security is paramount. Even as queer acceptance continues to grow, a dedicated queer space will always be necessary,” they say.

To get there, they continue to rally support of friends, neighbors, and leaders in ANC6B district; the ANC6B officials butted heads with District Soul Food, the previous restaurant in the space, over late-night noise and other complaints. McDaniel and Pike hope that once nearby residents and businesses understand the important contribution that As You Are Bar can make to the neighborhood, they will extend their support and allow the bar to open.

AYA, gay news, Washington Blade
Rachel Pike and Jo McDaniel signed a lease for their new concept in Barracks Row. (Photo courtesy Pike and McDaniel)
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Need a list-minute gift idea?

Books, non-profit donations make thoughtful choices

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‘Yes, Daddy’ by Jonathan Parks-Ramage is the story of a young man with dying dreams of fame and fortune, who schemes to meet an older man.

You knew this was coming.

You knew that you were going to have to finish your holiday shopping soon but it snuck up on you, didn’t it? And even if you’re close to being done, there are always those three or five people who are impossible to buy for, right? Remember this, though: books are easy to wrap and easy to give, and they last a while, too. So why not head to the bookstore with your Christmas List and look for these gifts.

And if you still have people to shop for, why not make a donation to a local non-profit in their name? A list of D.C.-area suggestions follows.

BOOKS: NONFICTION

If there’s about to be a new addition to your family, wrapping up “Queer Stepfamilies: The path to Social and Legal Recognition” by Katie L. Acosta would be a good thing. In this book, the author followed forty LGBTQ families to understand the joys, pitfalls, and legalities of forming a new union together. It can’t replace a lawyer, but it’s a good overview.

For the parent who wants to ensure that their child grows up with a lack of bias, “Raising LGBTQ Allies” by Chris Tompkins is a great book to give. It’s filled with methods to stop bullying in its tracks, to be proactive in having That Conversation, and how to be sure that the next generation you’re responsible for becomes responsible in turn. Wrap it up with “The Healing Otherness Handbook” by Stacee L. Reicherzer, Ph.D., a book that helps readers to deal with bullying by finding confidence and empowerment.

If there’s someone on your gift list who’s determined to get “fit” in the coming year, then give “The Secret to Superhuman Strength” by Alison Bechdel this holiday. Told in graphic-novel format (comics, basically), it’s the story of searching for self-improvement and finding it in a surprising place.

So why not give a little nostalgia this year by wrapping up “A Night at the Sweet Gum Head” by Martin Padgett? It’s the tale of disco, drag, and drugs in the 1970s (of course!) in Atlanta, with appearances by activists, politics, and people who were there at that fabulous time. Wrap it up with “After Francesco” by Brian Malloy, a novel set a little later – in the mid-1980s in New York City and Minneapolis at the beginning of the AIDS crisis.

The LGBTQ activist on your gift list will want to read “The Case for Gay Reparations” by Omar G. Encarnacion. It’s a book about acknowledgment, obligation on the part of cis citizens, and fixing the pain that homophobia and violence has caused. Wrap it up with “Trans Medicine: The Emergence and Practice of Treating Gender” by Stef M. Shuster, a look at trans history that may also make your giftee growl.

FICTION

Young readers who have recently transitioned will enjoy reading “Both Sides Now” by Peyton Thomas. It’s a novel about a high school boy with gigantic dreams and the means to accomplish them all. Can he overcome the barriers that life gives him? It’s debatable… Pair it with “Can’t Take That Away” by Steven Salvatore, a book about two nonbinary students and the troubles they face as they fall in love.

The thriller fan on your list will be overjoyed to unwrap “Yes, Daddy” by Jonathan Parks-Ramage. It’s the story of a young man with dying dreams of fame and fortune, who schemes to meet an older, more accomplished man with the hopes of sparking his failing career. But the older man isn’t who the younger thinks he is, and that’s not good. Wrap it up with “Lies with Man” by Michael Nava, a book about a lawyer who agrees to be counsel for a group of activists. Good so far, right? Until one of them is accused of being involved in a deadly bombing.

For the fan of Southern fiction, you can’t go wrong when you wrap up “The Tender Grave” by Sheri Reynolds. It’s the tale of two sisters, one homophobic, the other lesbian, and how they learn to forgive and re-connect.

NON-PROFIT GIVING

Like nonprofit organizations throughout the country, D.C.-area LGBTQ supportive nonprofit groups have told the Blade they continue to rebuild amid the coronavirus pandemic, which disrupted their fundraising efforts while increasing expenses, at least in part by prompting more people to come to them for help.

This holiday season, if you’re looking for a thoughtful gift, consider making a donation to one of our local LGBTQ non-profit organizations in someone else’s name. This list is by no means exhaustive, but a good place to start your research.

Contributions to the LGBTQ supportive nonprofit organizations can be made via the websites of these local organizations:

• Blade Foundation, which funds local scholarships and fellowships for queer student journalists, bladefoundation.org

• DC Center, our local community center that operates a wide range of programming,  thedccenter.org/donate

Food & Friends, which delivers meals to homebound patients, foodandfriends.org

HIPS, which advances the health rights and dignity of those impacted by sex work and drugs, hips.org

• SMYAL, which advocates for queer youth, smyal.org

Wanda Alston Foundation, which offers shelter and support for LGBTQ youth, wandaalstonfoundation.org

• Whitman-Walker Health, the city’s longtime LGBTQ-inclusive health care provider, whitmanwalkerimpact.org

Casa Ruby, which provides shelter and services to youth in need, casaruby.org

• Us Helping Us, which helps improve the health of communities of color and works to reduce the impact of HIV/AIDS on the Black community, ushelpingus.org/donate

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