JPost Exclusive: Express yourself

Israeli actor and Cameri Theater star Nisso Shalev talks all about inspiration, love, hard work and his drag queen alter-ego.

Nisso Shalev (photo credit: GERAR ALON)
Nisso Shalev
(photo credit: GERAR ALON)

Actor Nisso Shalev is everywhere. Even if you haven’t heard the name, you most definitely have seen or heard him before. Whether it’s on a TV hit show or drama series, a big musical or dubbing your children’s movies, this has been Shalev’s year.

Acting in The Cameri Theater for the past six years, Shalev is currently acting in Kazablan, Fiddler on the Roof, Ghetto and Cabaret. On TV, you have probably seen him playing in an Eretz Nehederet skit, or heard his beautiful voice singing in the animation film A Monster in Paris, or dubbing Jokey Smurf  the Movie The Smurfs.

But most importantly, this has been Shewanna B Black’s year. Who is Shewanna? Well, look her up on YouTube, and you will quickly learn what 20,000 viewers have already learned – she is something you do not want to miss. Shewanna is Nisso’s Alter Ego, a non-conventional drag queen figure he created and is performing all over.
“When I started doing drag, a lot of the older people in the industry told me not to. They said it would categorize me. But I said, hey, I have been doing male parts for years now. I don’t think that drag will mess up my career.” Nisso is playing a lot of very manly roles in the theater, but Shewanna is a whole different thing for him.

Photographer: Shachar Hezkelevich, Photo-editing: Menahem Haluba

“It was a risk, but I didn’t care, because I believe that once you do something that comes from your heart, you will not regret it, even if you fail,” says Nisso.

“When I am playing a character in the theater it has already been written, and I am directed and dressed by others. Shewanna is all mine. I write and direct, I choose what she is going to wear, how she will wear her make-up, and what her mood will be like that day. She is the fruit of my labor, a part of me, my inner black woman.” And that is how he came up with her name, looking for a stereotypical strong black woman’s name. He thought about ‘Shewanna’ because “she wants to be black,” and so Shewanna B Black was born.
Last year, Nisso played a drag queen on a HOT drama series. “I auditioned for a different part, and about a month later the writer called me. He saw me play a drag queen in the web series The Witches from Shenkin, and that gave him inspiration for a new character. I told him about my Shewanna idea and that was it, he wrote a part for her. A week after the filming I started performing” says Nisso and adds, “I believe good things come when you are working hard and are true to yourself.”
Drag queens have become more familiar in Israel in the past few years.
They are mostly known for their provocative appearance, lip-syncing and a lot of sparkly make-up. Nisso’s Shewanna is very unique in the local drag scene. He wears designer dresses, his make-up is in the beauty category and lucky for us, he sings. “There are many different genres under the glittery umbrella of drag queens. I define myself as a female impersonator.” Nisso tells us he wants to empower women with his drag. “I think women are divine. That is why Shewanna is so elegant. I want people to think Shewanna is beautiful and moving.” And oh boy, does he manage to do that. There isn’t a dry eye in the hall when he gets off the stage. “I see those young boys, from Ashdod and from Ramat Aviv, come up to me at the end of a show, and I feel like I am doing something important.”

Photographer: Nir Slakman, Styling: Aviv Kfir; Clothes from: Pomerantz Studio; Hair and make-up: Chen Danino, Facial products: Dermalogica Israel

Soon you’ll get to see Shalev on the big screen, acting next to big stars such as Gal Gadot, Oshri Cohen and Elli Finish in the movie Shoshanna Halutz Merkazi.

“The film industry in Israel is very small, and when I got the chance to act in an Israeli film, I couldn’t believe it,” says Nisso, and tells us he was really connected to his role, which included the character as a man, and as a drag queen.
Not by chance, as he was called for the part after its creators saw Nisso as Shewanna and as himself. “Working with the amazing director Shai Kanot, with these unbelievable actors, and Wonder Woman herself was such an experience.”

Photographer: Shachar Hezkelevich, Photo-editing: Menahem Haluba

When asked if he would want to be Shewanna all the time, Nisso says that although he loves that part of himself, it is only that, a part of himself. “Shewanna is my stage self, my alter ego. I can’t play Shewanna without putting on the whole outfit, but when I do, I love it.”
When asked about his inspiration, Nisso starts talking about Rupaul with shining eyes.
Rupaul is an actor, a drag queen, and the host of a reality TV show, looking for America’s next drag queen. “He broke every convention, and is still so successful. He is my idol,” says Nisso, and adds, “Rupaul says ‘If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you going to love somebody else? And that is exactly it. I am madly in love with Shewanna, and through that I express love to myself, and that is how I can give my heart and soul to the audience.”