When Valentina starts broadcasting live on Instagram, fans inevitably ask the Question: First, they want to know if she’s Mexican-American. When they learn she is indeed Mexican, they want to know specifically where in Mexico her parents came from. Mom’s from Aguascalientes; dad’s from Chihuahua.
Valentina, real name James Andrew Leyva, has risen to fame as a contestant on the latest season of VH1's RuPaul’s Drag Race. She’s the breakout star the show’s ninth season, frustrating other contestants with her relative inexperience (she’d only been performing professionally for 10 months before joining the show).
For Drag Race viewers that don’t have personal connections with Mexicans, Valentina presents them with Latina excellence during an era where the U.S. president has called brown people that come from Mexico criminals, drug dealers, and rapists. She’s a Latina LGBTQ personality who is open about her affirmative connection with religion and says the patroness of all the Americas, La Virgen de Guadalupe, is her drag mother. Her looks, she told me this week, are inspired by Selena and María Félix, an actress who became famous in 1940s Mexican cinema.
Her rise on Drag Race has attracted a cult of young fans around the world: During a recent live Instagram broadcast (when it’s not uncommon for her to switch between speaking English and Spanish and Portuguese), she greeted fans who said they were from Guatemala, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and Poland. At this year’s RuPaul’s DragCon, a drag queen convention in Los Angeles, her followers told me they waited three hours to take a picture.
Fusion spoke with Valentina this week about her influences, her family, and being Latina during such a heated political moment. The following interview has been edited and condensed.
Drag queens are notorious for being sharp, often sarcastic, and not always the sweetest. Valentina comes across as a really kind and a generous person. How much of that is you and how much is that Valentina’s character?
It’s half and half. Part of it is just naturally me and the other part is me being extremely soft-spoken because I’m trying to be Miss Venezuela and win the pageant.
Half of it is me, because as James, I can honestly say that I had a really great upbringing. My mom is a very loving and kind and caring person and she’s taught me to be forgiving and taught me to be patient with people and to treat others the way I’d like to be treated.
Then the other is just me looking up to Selena, looking up to wanting to be Miss Universe. You know, there’s always that kind of world peace kind of answer that they give.
I created Valentina in my mind as one of the greatest superstars that ever lived. And when I think of a superstar, I think of Selena, I think of Dolly Parton, I think of people that are just so graceful, kind, and humble.
And there is a part of me that is just a little tongue-in-cheek and I give a little extra frou frou. I love to do it.
There’s a very specific level of elegant, glamorous Latina that you present. Did you have glamorous Latinas in your life?
Yeah, my mom and all my tias, but I really think that the main one is my mom, she is the person that raised me.
[My mother is] beautiful and she was really kind and there’s no one else in the world that I want to be more like than my mom. She is my favorite person in the whole world. And when I created Valentina I really wanted to embody a powerful Latina figure. Luckily I’ve had that since birth from my mom.
She came from Mexico and started taking English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and found a love in school and education. And through her hard work, even graduating high school as an ESL student, she got all these scholarships.
During a time when Latinos are being deported in record numbers, and being accused of being drug dealers and rapist, you’re representing Latina excellence. Do you feel a pressure to present Valentina as a proud Latina that challenges these stereotypes?
I don’t see that as a pressure, I see it as my responsibility to shed light on how beautiful and how elegant and regal our community is.
Through Valentina I artistically want to show the passion, the dramatics, and the beauty of not just being Latina but of the Spanish language. Oftentimes when you translate things from Spanish to English there isn’t that same poetic definition of what our language is like—it’s very passionate.
And during these politically difficult times, I’m so privileged and honored to be a little beacon of light and not just show that we’re your gardeners or housekeepers. Valentina is proudly the protagonist of a telenovela and along with that she is very kind.
You called La Virgen de Guadalupe your drag mother. How has she been your drag mother?
The Virgen de Guadalupe has been my drag mother because she’s helped guide me toward what’s best for me. I’ve prayed a lot to her and I don’t have a drag mom. And why not have it be the one person that heard my prayers and helped me and guide me to be to not only be a better person but to achieve my dream?
Did you get any pushback or feel any stigma from fellow drag queens or fans for speaking about religion?
No, it’s all been good. If anything it just sheds light to how real spirituality is with Latino culture.
Sometimes I just think religion can be taken way overboard around subjects like homosexuality, or to [accuse me of] being sacrilegious for talking about the Virgen de Guadalupe.
I’m on a television show, it’s all for entertainment, but at the same time I would like people to know that my spirituality, I take it serious, and that I do pray to her. And I do have a lot to thank her for being on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
I saw you at DragCon and you seemed to be surrounded by a posse of people that love you, protect you, and inspire you. How did you develop this community, how have they helped make Valentina?
These are my homegirls, these are my true good friends that I trust with my all my heart and they are Team Valentina, they even helped me get to the show. They include my hairstylist, costume designers, photographer, graphic designer, that whole production at DragCon would have not been possible without them.
And with everything that I do, they are there for me. If I’m down or I don’t feel well, they’re there to give me a hug. They’re there to lift me up.
I’m so grateful to them because without them there isn’t an as good Valentina. I can’t be Valentina without my team. They really have helped me because I don’t have a drag mom.
I don’t come from a drag family and I’m not that kind of drag queen with years and years of experience under her belt or a community that has already embraced them in drag.
What’s really powerful is knowing that each one of them is Latino and Mexican, because when I throw out my references like, ‘Oh, you guys I want to do a Maria Felix look. But Maria Felix when she was this age and she’s wearing this and that and I want to do it to this song,’ when I throw down these references, they get it, they understand it.
You’ve mentioned your mother a few times, what does she think of your success as a drag queen?
My mother is very happy for me because she’s the mother of a gay little boy that had a really big dream.
I remember being 4 years old watching children dancing on the variety show Sabado Gigante and asking my mom,‘Why is that not me, why am I not there? I need to be in classes.’
I feel like her listening to what I wanted has now put me where I was always meant to be. And thank you for asking me that question, talking about her makes me very emotional.
I’m a product of the Los Angeles Unified School District and was bused from Hollywood to the Valley so I could attend a specialized school. This experience really shaped my life. You grew up in Bell, and you commuted from the other side of town to Hollywood so you could attend the performing arts magnet schools. How did that experience at the performance art magnet shape who you are today?
Oh my God. So I went to Bancroft Middle School, which is across the street from the studios where we record RuPaul’s Drag Race, which is a crazy! In middle school I knew that those were the studios where they filmed I Love Lucy.
It’s so crazy to think that years later after studying the performing arts that it would be bring me right back near my middle school.
In sixth grade I started to get bused out. I’d been waking up very early since then, at 4:30 AM every day, to make sure I would not miss the school bus. Once I got to high school I started to use public transit, the Red line and the Rapid bus.
And it’s all those years of learning technique, all those all those hours of rehearsals, all the things that I’ve done, and going through the audition processes and studying a character and knowing what you’re lighting is, and being upstage, downstage, all those little things molded and prepared me to becoming the most powerful version of myself when I’m Valentina and when I’m on stage.
What’s next for Valentina?
The show is not over yet. But what I can say is that I want to live through the rest of this RuPaul’s Drag Race experience and through this experience elevate the art of drag and hopefully this propels me to live a very long career. I have a dream and a goal to be the face of drag in all of Latin America.
RuPaul’s DragRace airs on Fridays at 8PM EST/PST on VH1
Update: Friday 5:51 PM EST
Additional images were added to this post.