From ‘Drag Race’ to children’s author to ‘Hairspray’

Andrew Levitt as Edna Turnblad makes a grand entrance in the finale of “Hairspray,” part of the Broadway in Atlanta series at the Fox Theater. 
(Courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

Credit: Jeremy Daniel

Credit: Jeremy Daniel

Andrew Levitt as Edna Turnblad makes a grand entrance in the finale of “Hairspray,” part of the Broadway in Atlanta series at the Fox Theater. (Courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

When you come onstage as Edna Turnblad, you have some mighty big pumps to fill.

The drag legend Divine originated the role of the extra-plus-sized Baltimore mom and gay icon in John Waters’ 1988 film “Hairspray.” She was followed by Harvey Fierstein and his gravelly rasp in Waters’ musical adaptation on Broadway, then John Travolta in the movie musical version.

Says the latest Edna, Andrew Levitt: “I never thought I would fill these shoes. When it was offered to me, I really made a conscious effort not to watch other people. That can be such a trap, to be rooted in other people’s interpretations.”

Andrew Levitt (aka drag queen Nina West) will play Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray” at the Fox Theatre, a role that has been played by Divine, Harvey Fierstein and John Travolta.
(Courtesy of Hairspray)

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

Levitt brings his own resume built over years as a performer and advocate in the queer community to the national touring production of “Hairspray,” which opens May 30 at the Fox Theatre. Although mainly the story of Edna’s daughter, Tracy Turnblad, “Hairspray” audiences frequently leave the show talking about the outrageousness of Edna.

“My Edna is a working-class woman who is an agoraphobe, who is a wife and a mother and is overweight,” he says. “She doesn’t love herself. There is a lot to unpack there. And while the character Is often played by a man in drag, the job of the actor is to make the audience believe this is Tracy’s mother.”

As drag queen Nina West, his alter ego since 2001, Levitt competed on the 11th season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” in 2019, for which he was named Miss Congeniality. He used that fame as a springboard to acting, music, writing (his latest is a children’s book, “The You Kind of Kind”) and touring, most notably in last December’s controversial showcase of RuPaul reality alums, “A Drag Queen Christmas.”

“Drag was just a lark for me initially, but it became my career,” says Levitt, 44. “When I first did drag [while attending Ohio’s Denison University], I didn’t know what I was doing, so it felt very foreign to me. But as time went on and I did it again and again, I really did fall in love with it.

“And I met a whole community of drag queens and I decided to make a commitment, have it become a part of my life.”

(Levitt says his pronouns are he/him, but Nina’s are she/her.)

He took the name Nina West from singer Nina Simone and from Ohio queen Virginia West, his “drag mother,” a mentor in drag culture who “takes a person under her wing and teaches how to do makeup, wigs, sewing skills, the nature of the business,” he explains. “Cause it can be very difficult.”

Levitt, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, has leveraged his fame to be an advocate for LGBTQIA (his preferred acronym) rights. He established the non-profit Nina West Fund, which has raised more than $2 million and given money to ACLU of Ohio; Equitas Health, which does HIV/AIDS treatment; and Kaleidoscope Youth Center, the largest LGBTQIA youth center in Ohio.

He has also encountered plenty of controversy. “A Drag Queen Christmas” played in cities in many red states in December and was met with frequent protests and attacks by politicians. Levitt said the uproar over the show contributed to anti-drag legislation passed in Tennessee, and to retaliation from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis against the venues that hosted the show.

“The idea that queer people are a danger to the fabric of our nation and to children and to families is very scary,” he says. “This is not who we are as a nation. The majority of Americans do not see drag as a threat to the fabric of our nation.”

He does have one prominent ally, however, who is also beloved in red states: Dolly Parton. The singer praised his latest book, “The You Kind of Kind,” which is intended for 4-8-year-olds.

“To quote some lines in a song I wrote, I always say: ‘Whatever you are, be that’,” Parton wrote. “‘Whatever you do, do that. Anything else is just an act. Whoever you are, be that, be that.’ Nina West’s ‘The You Kind of Kind’ teaches the same lesson ― just be yourself!”



May 30-June 4. $35-$109. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 855-285-8499,