What gave you confidence to start your own business?
Drag is an art form first and foremost. I started it as a hobby, not intending it as a full-time career because I didn’t know if I had enough support.
The turning point happened when I believed in myself and decided to commit to making it a full-time career. I had an internal metamorphosis knowing there was support for me to chase this dream and turn my hobby into a career.
I filed to become an LLC 10 years after I started drag. It was because of the people who supported me helped me build the foundation and get my business running. I looked outwardly from my own drag community to small business owners in Columbus, Ohio who were integral in helping me formulate and figure out what my business model and plan could look like for someone like me.
What is the most indispensable advice you give LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs as they reach challenges along their way?
As LGBTQ+ people, it’s really important that we build our own networks of support that allow us to validate our business. We are entertainers. We are storytellers and this is an opportunity to connect to that story that resonates with our audience.
The most important thing when you hit roadblocks, and you’re inevitably going to hit them, is to surround yourself with people who will lift you up, dust you off, celebrate you, ground you and help you get back on your feet because you will be required to do the same for somebody else. I’ve seen success because there were so many people who stopped and believed in me. You will have moments of great success and you’ll need people to ground you and provide different life skills and different sets of abilities for you to learn from. Having a peer group that is specifically LGBTQ+ is integral to having success as a queer entrepreneur.
What do you wish you’d known as you began your entrepreneur journey?
It’s a full-time job. I have to be aware that I’m the one who has to say no, I have to be able to work on things that I need to do. I’m constantly cultivating and working on my business. I’m thinking about new ways of engagement, new modes of representation and new ways to reach new people. This is a seven days a week, 24 hours a day investment. If I’m awake, I’m thinking about it.
Being present, being in the moment and leading with kindness and respect truly helps you learn and grow in your own business. Showing up ready to be accessible and willing to hear someone else’s story, and in turn share your own story, will only help you. Not everything is going to be successful and the first time you start might not work. You might fail, but there is magic in failure. You learn the greatest in the mistakes.
It’s important now for businesses to remain authentic in a crowded marketplace. How do you remain authentic in your work?
I check in with myself. I think about my goals, and ask myself if I’m working towards the goal or being distracted from it. You only have so much energy to expend in any one day. For young entrepreneurs, you might have a ton of energy, but focus your heart and soul on your business. People will see you and they will love it. Don’t spread yourself too thin that you are fractured. You may have to diversify your business, its simplicity and beauty from what you initially intended it to be in the beginning. RuPaul’s Drag Race is a great example of authenticity. When you try to be everything other than yourself, you don’t have success on the show. They can cut through that in an instant. The second you start being yourself, you will find success. Give yourself a little bit of leeway to check in and check out for a minute to recharge. You may need to refill your tank and come at this in a different way.
What impact did RuPaul’s Drag Race have on your career and personal and professional pursuits?
I tried out for the show 9 times before I got on the show. When I didn’t get on Drag Race for the first seasons, I pivoted my business. I learned what was important to me. With those failures, I focused on what I really wanted to do. I started doing other kinds of work not typical for drag queens - I started The Nina West Foundation and we’ve given over $3 million in gifts and grants. I produced main stage production shows, dancing, costuming and video production.
As for RuPaul’s Drag Race - there’s a hallway before the doorway work room and it’s only illuminated by a neon sign on the wall. I remember the first time I walked into the workroom and they gave me a count to walk down the hallway, through the door and to my mark. At that very moment, standing there, I knew my entire life was going to change - good or bad. This was a transitional moment. It taught me not to give up on myself, it showed me if I keep knocking on doors, someone will answer. You have to fight through it all and you have to be your best advocate.
On the Podcast, you talk a lot about your hustle. What keeps you motivated over your 20 year career?
I'm always dreaming. I'm always thinking of new ways to do things. Drag Race was an entry point and I’m continually thinking about what keeps me motivated. I have a thousand more ideas in my brain and want to see what comes to life. I often find when I support others, they inspire new ideas and creativity. I think the best part of my life’s work is that I’m not done yet. I don’t see myself retiring or stopping. I see myself evolving and growing and challenging myself to do something else. I haven’t taken a linear path, I think my path winds and has lots of turns. I’m going to have to crawl over some things and get dirty, but I prefer the difficult path forward. I learned by not being accepted. By adapting quickly, I added to my armor of resilience and perseverance. I also learned that my “people” were going to keep changing - some are constant, but you can’t have excitement without growth and evolving without new people and experiences.