Lessons in Being Nina: Justin’s experience

By
From the May 1, 2014 edition

When you go under the makeup, who knows what will surface. I expected to feel a little uncomfortable — it’s not every day I dress in drag, after all. But the stereotypes and prejudices that flitted through my head Sunday afternoon weren’t as anticipated. I worried what my family, neighbors, co-workers and friends would think when/if they saw the pictures, and I even had a concerned thought about driving through a “rough” part of town. Silly maybe, but for some performers, I’ve learned, it’s not that crazy of a thought. Still, it gave me pause and caused me to reflect on my own insecurities and prejudices more than I thought I would. It’s easy to consider yourself open-minded and accepting, but self-identifying as such can be dangerous too. We all have blind spots, myself included.

Here are a few other (more lighthearted) lessons I learned on what it takes to be Nina West.

Lesson #1: Bearded queens are a thing.

It goes to show my own ignorance that I didn’t know this. When I tentatively asked Andrew Levitt (aka Nina West) if I could keep my beard and he replied, enthusiastically, in the affirmative, I was somewhat at a loss. I was so concerned initially with showing respect to drag queens that I thought shaving was the only way to do so. By the end of the day, I realized drag performers are so inclusive, I should have been more worried about my own preconceived notions of what constitutes a queen.

Lesson #2: Drag queens are artists.

It was fascinating hearing the queens share tips on makeup techniques and products, but mind-blowing to witness the transformations in front of my eyes. When I later showed a friend a selfie I had taken of me as a queen, she thought it was a photo of Nina herself. Higher compliments couldn’t have been paid.

Lesson #3: Method acting is a drag thing, too.

Nina/Andrew and cohorts were as funny, witty, gracious and kind behind the scenes as they appear onstage. They often talk in their character’s voice, and they mostly refer to each other by their stage names. Oh, and the sex talk/jokes are raunchier backstage (topics overheard: finding, post-show, your own fake nail on your scrotum, the meaning behind the acronym DSL, tempting offers from Australian hunks, etc.).

Lesson #4: I wasn’t prepared to be pretty.

The emotion I’ll probably most remember came, to my surprise, from being told I was pretty. At first, I barely registered a “thank you,” but when someone later said I “have a pretty nose” (a body part I’ve not always liked), I started walking a little taller.

Lesson #5: Fake it ’til you make it.

Standing in a dress was awkward, but mostly because I didn’t know how to carry myself. I felt vulnerable and exposed in ways I don’t wearing shorts and T-shirts. (But also: heavenly; seriously, a cool breeze blowing through my dress felt soo good.) I was still, ultimately, a dude, and no amount of makeup or clothing was going to change that. (Meghan, our photographer, had to explain to me during the shoot that women’s hips are higher, or something, so my hand on my hip should be as well.) Even if acting like a drag queen didn’t come naturally, pretending like it does isn’t a bad place to start. By the end of the shoot, I was blowing kisses, curtsy-ing and batting my thick, lustrous lashes — and fooling (most) everyone around me.