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Divine Inspiration

Photo: Staley Munro

by Steve Desroches

From the moment young Andrew Levitt saw Divine as Edna Turnblad in the 1988 John Waters’ film Hairspray, he knew he was seeing something special, but was unaware at the time just what that character, and the actor playing her, would mean to his life. Levitt is better known as Nina West, a breakout star from season 11 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, as well as that cast’s Miss Congeniality—well-deserved as kindness is at the core of West’s persona. So it might seem a bit of a contradiction that Divine, known for her brilliant, yet outrageous and sometimes deliciously rude performances would be such an inspiration to Levitt, who has become a major success for his drag gospel of being kind and thoughtful to one another. But nevertheless, on that fateful day in his hometown of Greentown, Ohio, Levitt saw Divine in a star-making role, one that many years later he would play as he slid into Edna’s high heels himself when he was cast in the national tour of the musical adaptation of Hairspray.

“I was made aware of who Divine was when I was about 10 years old, I think,” says Levitt. “My sister Emily brought home a VHS copy of Hairspray. At the time I had no idea Divine was a man. It wasn’t until I was in college that I fully explored the John Waters universe. And the world of John Waters began to influence me in a big way, and of course so, too, did Divine. Divine was very influential to me as a person and who I was as an entertainer, as a drag queen.”

Levitt performed the role of Edna Turnblad in over 350 performances for over 600,000 people, hitting big cities, but also smaller locales like Casper, Wyoming, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Fayetteville, Arkansas. It was a dream come true, not just to play a role that Divine created on film and then played by Harvey Fierstein on Broadway, but also because it almost didn’t happen as after only a handful of performances the Covid-19 pandemic shut the tour down, and at the time it seemed like it was for good. But in a near miracle the touring company was back at it in late 2021, running well through 2022 and into 2023. But in that long hiatus the country had changed, with the murder of George Floyd and the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as the rapid and ferocious attack on LGBTQ rights and a backlash against drag performance. With a storyline about integration in Baltimore in the early 1960s, the narrative of Hairspray was relevant in a new way. And with a lead that is a man in drag, there were some spots on the tour that the production was now illegal. But that’s when Levitt looked to Divine for strength. Levitt embraced the spirit of Divine in films like Pink Flamingos, which had Divine in a red dress holding a gun or as lovably rotten Dawn Davenport in Female Trouble, but he also embraced the maternal love Divine put into Edna and wrapped it all into putting his own stamp on the role. Kindness became punk.

“In my own soft edge and round edges there’s a punkness in being an entertainer that demands we are both edgy and kind,” says Levitt. “We’re living in a time that being caustic, brutal, and cruel is the norm or even encouraged, celebrated. I’ve always felt that being kind and accessible to all is the way to go. In this time period it’s very punk to do that. It’s counter to the current culture. Being kind is punk. Being yourself, your true self, is punk. Treating people with a modicum of decency and providing space to be seen and be themselves is punk. And you can see how that bothers certain people by their dangerous reactions. But kindness is the only effective response, not certainly for people like the Oath Keepers or the Proud Boys. Fuck them. But to spread kindness in any way you can. That can change the world.”

Divine was certainly on Levitt’s mind when he came to town for Bear Week last summer to make his Provincetown debut at Town Hall, a venue he’s returning to this Sunday for a one-night-only show with Broadway aficionado Seth Rudetsky as host and pianist. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Divine lived year-round in Provincetown off and on, becoming such a part of the fabric of the town her influence continues to this day. That’s a significant part of the magic of Provincetown that Levitt felt upon arrival and that he hopes he contributed to with his show at Town Hall, and plans to do again with this brand-new offering. And just like the impression Divine made on Levitt all those years ago, so too has Provincetown forever changed him.

“Ever since I was there for Bear Week last summer I literally cannot stop thinking about Provincetown,” says Levitt. “Every day Provincetown pops into my head. I’ve never experienced anything like I did when I was in Provincetown. It’s magical. It truly was a cathartic and transformative experience. I’ve never been somewhere where you could just relax and be yourself like that. Some place that was so positively queer. Just all of Provincetown I loved. We can’t take it for granted. We have to protect it. My advice to anyone visiting for the first time is to just completely give yourself over to it.”

Nina West performs at Provincetown Town Hall, 260 Commercial St., with Seth Rudetsky as host and pianist on Sunday, August 27 at 8:30 p.m. Tickets ($50-$200) are available at the Art House box office at 214 Commercial St., online at, or at the door the day of the show, if not sold out. For more information call 508.487.9222.

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Ginger Mountain

Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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