Virginia West yells out to an ensemble of 20 dancers as they work through a dance sequence to “Who Loves You?” from Jersey Boys. A couple of Red Bulls sit on a table nearby, intended as fuel for the long rehearsal ahead for West’s latest drag creation, “Oh, What A Night,” a tribute to golden oldies and the sounds of Motown.
West pulls a few trademark Four Seasons moves into the up-tempo sequence: lots of shoulder work, bouncing, and grapevine steps that quickly have everyone sweating, even in the air conditioning of the Axis Nightclub stage.
“See … it’s like Jane Fonda,” she explains to the group.
“Who?” asks a young dancer. West can only shake her head. It’s one of those moments where a person, particularly one who’s been in the business for two decades, feels a bit dated.
“I originally said growing up doing drag, ‘I will never be a 40-year-old drag queen.’ That was my quote,” said West. “And now, I’m a 40-year-old drag queen.”
But the upshot to being dated is being legendary. And talking with a Columbus drag legend is everything I hoped it would be—the energy of an ultra-large stage persona combined with a sweet and genuine modesty. When I tell her I’ve heard her called the Godmother of the Columbus drag scene, West nearly blushes with pleasure.
And like any godmother, West is still making the magic happen. She’s doing her best stage work, bringing new performers into the scene, and continually giving back to the community.
“I think people might think … I’ve done this for so long that I wouldn’t want anybody else to come in and do this as well,” said West. “I’m completely the opposite. I love to meet new people. I love to talk to people, and I love to get new entertainers on stage.”
That’s kind of how it happened for West two decades ago when she started her drag career at Union Cafe’s (then called Union Station) Turnabout Show, an employee drag night. Despite feeling ridiculous, she stuck with it.
“I kind of fell in love with it. It was a way for me to get on stage,” said West, who’s a conservatory-trained musical theater major. “All my life I was in the theater, and it just kind of transcended into drag.” West next teamed up with Mary Ann Brandt, who mentored West in drag performance in her Axis Nightclub show and remains one of West’s inspirations.
“[Brandt] did these really funny comedy shows with just a little bit of choreography, but mainly just really funny things,” West reminisced. “And from there when I was offered my own show about a year after that, I thought, ‘You know what, I could have backup dancers and I could do these really big-scale productions.’”
Thus began West’s venture into drag theater—fully rehearsed, conceptual productions found in only a few parts of the country. Her cast has grown from ten to 30, and boasts a diverse range of performers: straight female dancers, lesbians, drag kings and queens, femme queens, and trans male and female drag characters, boosting both the production values and the audiences.
The expansion of drag entertainment in Columbus testifies to its popularity in the Capital city, but West credits “drag daughter” Nina West with putting Columbus drag on the national map.
“Once Nina won [National Entertainer of the Year in 2008], she was really our first entertainer that became a national pageant winner,” West explained. “From her it kind of branched out that our [drag] family became recognized.”
West also dismisses any assumed rivalry between and her “drag daughter” and confesses the competition is a good thing.
“Before [Nina], I didn’t have to push myself as hard,” said West. “She pushes me to be a better entertainer. We have this really great onstage presence together, and then offstage she’s actually my best friend.”
It’s an example of the generous spirit that extends through West’s drag franchise. Over her 20 years of performing, she’s raised over $2 million for individuals in need and for charities such as BRAVO Ohio, Planned Parenthood, Equitas Health, the ACLU, Meals on Wheels, and even Pets Without Parents. West also admits her shows have taken a decidedly more political turn over her career as she champions for social justice.
“I have a voice because I have a platform with drag,” says West. “So I’m able to use that voice to help different communities that aren’t necessarily being fought for … whether it’s the trans community or the community of people of color. They need people to stand with them.”
And they need people to dance with them, too. A West family show is home for the LGBTIQ community, but guests are always welcome. If you’re new, West might even buy your first drink.
“The Youngstown State football team, years ago— one of my buddy’s brothers was on the team—would bring the team in to see my shows. So it was always these really hyper-masculine guys for some reason being able to let loose. They didn’t care that they were in a gay bar or that there were drag queens on stage. They just wanted to come and have fun,” said West. “And I think that’s what’s really happened in these shows. People come and they just let loose. And I think that’s what’s made it so big. There’s no judgment.”
Is she ready to stop and go out on top? West doesn’t think so. Despite suffering a major knee injury requiring surgery and rehab last year, West is still ready to go for another 10 years.
“I don’t foresee me slowing down a lot,” said West. “It’s just so much fun.”
Virginia West presents
“Oh, What a Night!”
8.11-12, 8.18-20, 8.25-26