It’s impossible to not be happy when talking to Nina West. With every word she speaks, the beloved drag queen radiates an infectious joy that could turn a Scrooge’s frown upside-down and grow any grinch’s heart three times its size. Though known by many for her appearance on season 11 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Nina has been winning hearts and doing good for years – and, as it turns out, she absolutely adores Christmas. In her brand-new Christmas EP, The West Christmas Ever, Nina gives Santa Claus a run for his money when it comes to spreading the holiday spirit.
Nina spreads goodwill and cheer over the course of five original songs and three whimsical interludes (voiced by Disney Legend Jim Cummings, aka Winnie The Pooh, Tigger, Darkwing Duck, and hundreds of more voices from your childhood.) The honky-honk holiday hoedown “Jingle Juice” will put the rocking back in your stocking, and, as Nina explains during her EXCLUSIVE interview with HollywoodLife, there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to that festive drinking song. “Christmas Arrow” pays homage to one of her favorite singers of all time. “Chris, Miss” is her hilarious letter to Santa about what Hollywood hunks she wants to find under her tree come Christmas morning.
Her trademark humor is ever-present on The West Christmas Ever. Still, Nina takes time for the real reason for the season on “Santa Will Be Gone,” her collaboration with The Vox Ensemble of the Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus. As demonstrated in her departing message on Drag Race — “Go Big, Be KIND, Go West” – Nina reminds us that we need to carry this moment of ‘peace on earth, goodwill to all’ beyond December.
While she was prepping her sleigh and her nine reindeer, Nina took time to speak with HollywoodLife, while sharing with us an EXCLUSIVE premiere of the music video for “Jingle Juice” (be sure to clock the National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation reference.) Nina reveals how she got the voice of Winnie The Pooh to play Santa, why she’s hoping for a Thor-shaped present this year, and what YOU can get her for Christmas.
HollywoodLife: Happy holidays, Nina West.
Nina West: Thank you so much.
Have you always wanted to record a Christmas album?
Yeah, oh my gosh, I love the season, and I love the way the season makes me feel, and I just love it, and so yeah, I’ve always wanted to do a Christmas album. It’s just my favorite time of the year.
A little elf told me that you have five Christmas trees in your home every year.
Oh, my God. [laughs] Who told you that? It’s true. Oh my God, yes, it’s true. I do five trees.
So, you basically transform your home into a winter wonderland?
Yes! [laughs] I’m a little excessive. I mean, look, the only thing I really collect in life are Christmas ornaments. My grandma used to collect Santa Claus ornaments, and so I adopted that idea. And so, I collect, oddly enough, Disney Christmas ornaments. It’s been like, kind of, the thing I do. So yeah, I go all out and decorate my house like crazy for the holiday season.
While listening to The West Christmas Ever, it’s evident that you have sincere love for the holiday. You also pay homage to some of the classic song songs of the season too. “Christmas Arrow” gave me this really big Darlene Love / Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You / Ronettes-vibe to it. Was that intentional?
Yes! Oh my God, I love you. Let me tell you, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is my very favorite Christmas song ever recorded. Darlene Love is maybe perhaps one of my top four vocalists of all time. I think she is highly underrated and not given the love or respect that she deserves. But I do think that that is the best Christmas song ever recorded and that Phil Spector Christmas album that came out in the 60s with the Ronnettes and the Crystals and the Bob B. Soxx –I mean, I just love that sound, to me it’s timeless. I think that’s what Mariah Carey really tried to capture with “All I Want For Christmas Is You” — which she did, she really did, obviously. But there’s something about that sound that is just so reminiscent, I think for so many of us, of the sound of the season.
And with “Christmas Arrow,” when I sat down to write that song with my co-writers, Mark Byers and Ashley Levy, I was like I want it to feel like a Darlene Love continuation, part two. Like, what would happen if he actually came home? You know what would happen. That’s really, it is definitely my love letter or my homage to Darlene Love, for sure.
You’ve just come up with the next Lifetime Christmas movie.
Oh, don’t start. That’s like a dream, a lifetime, or Hallmark Christmas. Come on, sign me up.
We’re putting this out in the universe right now: Christmas 2020, Nina West stars in Christmas Arrow.
Oh my God, I love it. Wouldn’t that be so good? It would be so good.
Speaking of Christmas movies, I listened to “Cha-cha Heels,” and I have to tell you, I immediately grew a John Waters-esque mustache. Does this now mean that female trouble is a Christmas movie?
[laughs]Oh, that scene with Divine and that Christmas tree and throwing that Christmas tree on top of her mother is to me and has always stood out to me as one of them, more like the most memorable moments in a film about the holidays. And so, if Female Trouble isn’t a Christmas movie, that’s, I don’t want to celebrate. [laughs]
If people say Die Hard is a Christmas movie. I can’t see why not.
It’s because he’s in the Nakatomi Tower at Christmas! That’s why! [laughs] I mean, there is something so great about that. John Waters probably has wanted to commemorate or celebrate and his style [during] the holiday season. And I wanted to really take it and expound upon it and go further with it. Like, okay, like what if Dawn Davenport had a Christmas song? What would it sound like? And so then I immediately put myself into that mind almost kind of that Mark Shaiman Hairspray (the musical world) and wanting to give it a little treatment of that as well.
Obviously, Divine to me — like there are a few, there are very few drag icons on that level. It’s like RuPaul Divine, Lady Bunny — I mean, there are very few who are like reached that kind of level, and Divine was so legendary. So I wanted to kind of celebrate that, and I wanted to also remind people of the campy, fun, trashy side of the season.
I love what you just said because Christmas does have a trashy side to it.
Yeah, it certainly does.
You mentioned icons. You have an icon on this album. You’ve got Jim Cummings! He’s Santa Claus. How’d that happen?
So, what happened is I’ve been a lifelong Disney fan. I’m a Disney nerd, like through-and-through. I went to the D23, which is a big fan convention that happens every two years, and the Anaheim for Disney. And I went to the 23 this year, and I met Jim Cummings, and his wife happens to be a big fan of Drag Race. She helped introduce me to him. He was just so lovely as a person and so nice and so kind and so giving of his time, and we just kind of hit it off.
I started [West Christmas Ever] in July, and D23 was in August. I was really trying to figure out how to tie it all together, and I thought it would be really great if there were a Santa Claus leading us through the journey of these tracks. I just took a chance, and I said, “Hey, I’m a big fan, would you, would you be willing to do this?” And he didn’t even hesitate. He was so kind. And I sent him the script. My best friend Patricia, who helps me write a lot of the shows that I do. She wrote those interludes, and he immediately like he just captured it in the first take.
Like three takes, the first take is the one that we went with because it was so perfect. This is the guy who does Winnie the Pooh and Tigger and Pete! I mean, I’m a major fan. I’m just smiling so hard right now, just like even acknowledging the fact that he’s on the EP. It’s just so major for me. It’s so cool, and it just made it feel really finished.
You also filmed a video for “Jingle Juice.” We know you’re from the Midwest. Was the rural setting for the shoot a love-letter to your past or a chance to live out your Dolly Parton & Kenny Rogers Once Upon A Christmas fantasy?
[laughs] It’s kind of both. The concept for the video was initially very To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. This drag queen rides into this remote town and brings the holiday season with her to this kind of tumbleweed, little Western area. Yeah, I grew up in Ohio, and [“Jingle Juice”] definitely about this idea that we all should celebrate the season in different ways.
I wrote the song because I wanted it to be for queer people. There are so many different ways that we celebrate the holidays, and some of us don’t get the opportunity or decide not to go home for Christmas to celebrate with our blood family, with our “born to” family.
Many of us — I have done it many for several years. I celebrated with my chosen family. And, a lot of the times, the way that we’ve celebrated is by going to the bar, going to the gay bar and throwing back a drink and spending time together, laughing and having a Christmas Eve together at the bar. So, I wanted this song to also recognize them, [and] honor that tradition for people who don’t necessarily celebrate in a traditional sentence.
That’s such a wonderful message.
You know what I mean? So yeah, it’s a big Christmas drinking song, and it’s really campy and playful, in this country rockabilly kind of style. But, at the core of it, it really is about celebrating with the chosen family. … I mean, it’s probably lost in that and that song, but I mean that’s where it came from, and it’s okay.
While being heartwarming, genuine, and incredibly sweet, The West Christmas Ever is also really, really funny. I had to suppress a guffaw when you mentioned Christopher Meloni from Law & Order: SVU on the track “Chris, Miss.”
On that track, you also mention Chris Hemsworth. Since you also gave him love on “Hemsworth,” a cut from your John Goodman EP, are you hoping Santa brings you a Thor-shaped present this year?
[laughs] Only if it is as big as his hammer. [laughs] I do have this weird obsession. It’s really funny because so many times when I talk with friends about, like, the dreamy man in Hollywood is always kind of circles around the Chrises – the Pines, the Evans, the Pratts. So, it’s like, I thought it was really funny to do an SNL treatment of this idea that the only thing you want under your tree is the Chrises. So, “Chris, Miss” continues the weird fascination with Chris Hemsworth. It’s like, part two of “Hemsworth,” part two of that song. It’s like, I take it a little bit further and being really campy with it.
But, yeah, if I get a Thor-shaped gift in my stocking – gurrrl, I would be the happiest girl on Christmas day.
You cover all aspects of the season on The West Christmas Ever. You celebrate the trashy side, you camp it up, and you toast those who celebrate with their chosen family at the bar. The closer, “Santa Will Be Gone,” ends the EP on a sentimental note, and you worked with The Vox Ensemble of the Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus on it.
On the sentimental side of my whole journey, I’m so rooted within my community. I’m from Columbus, and I have done drag for 18 years. Really, before Drag Race, I’ve had a really successful career on a really local level. I was doing drag full time, and my city embraced and continues to embrace me and celebrate me. It’s been so important for me to really kind of return the favor as I go on this journey and celebrate my city and all of these incredible things that make up my city. The Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus is one of them.
Every great city has one. The New York Chorus, Epic, legendary, you know? The Los Angeles Chorus, incredible, sensational. Every great city has this amazing course. Seattle! I mean, I mean like these Chorus are kind of the lifeblood for so many in their community. I wanted to celebrate them and lift them up and bring that into my album as well because that’s so much of who I am.
You are a bit of a Santa Claus yourself. You started the Nina West Fund, and you’ve raised millions for a wide range of causes – HIV/AIDS testing, marriage equality, trans right. As we head into the Christmas season, if someone were to give you a gift by donating to a cause, what would you’d love them to do?
I would encourage people to give …back to our communities across the country. I don’t like gifts. I don’t want anyone to give me something. As I’ve grown into an adult — I’m a 41-year-old man [laughs] — you know, like it’s so important for people to actually give during the season.
I’ve learned along my journey that there are so many different ways that people can give. If you don’t have the money, you know what, over the holiday season, donate your time. Like give up several nights and go, if you’re in New York, go deliver meals for God’s Love We Deliver. Or, make a call on behalf of the Trevor Project to make the phone calls on behalf of their organization. Or, Broadway Care/Equity Fights AIDS, always needs volunteers for their events. People can do things that, like actually giving their time, would make a difference to these organizations that don’t have the resources or the funds to pull off. There are so many different ways that people can do it.
And my goal is to just raise a little bit of awareness and bring organizations to a level that people can say, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t know this is this specific organization with service servicing transgender youth. I didn’t know this organization. There was an organization for LGBTQIA senior citizens like Sage.
So, that’s my goal: to elevate these organizations and the people who are the lifeblood of these organizations and celebrate them during the season.
Wow. You pretty much just wrapped it all, put and put on a bow.
[laughs] Merry Christmas!
The West Christmas Ever is out now on all streaming platforms.
This interview has been edited.