By: Al Ballesteros
Valentina is the stage name of James Leyva, a drag performer from Los Angeles and one of the 14 contestants competing on Season Nine of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Valentina is 25 years old and is Mexican-American and born and raised in Los Angeles California. She’s a “home girl” and we can’t get enough of seeing her strut her stuff.
Valentina is unique, classy and offers traditional Mexican-style in her drag. Whether she is wearing beautiful bright-color dresses and hats, decorated with large colorful flowers or black Charro hats and tight mariachi outfits with beautiful gold stitching she looks off-the-hook. Valentina’s classy looks, she says are often inspired by Maria Felix a classic actress from the 1940’s and the great Mexican-American singer Selena.
Famous Quote: “Who needs a drag mother when you’ve got La Virgen de Guadalupe?!” (Valentina’s Twitter account)
Amazing in and of itself, Valentina was accepted on her first time auditioning for Drag Race and had only been a professional drag performer for 10 months at the time of filming for Season 9. She says her drag name is like a character out of a Pedro Madovar film or like the protagonist in a Telenovela and that there is actually a salsa named Valentina. She says she loves Valentino and the color Valentino Red so “I felt like Valentina was the perfect name.”
Adelante Magazine had an opportunity to catch up with Valentina and talk to her about her performance in Drag Race, her background and what experiences prepared her to perform on the World Stage of Drag.
Adelante: You’re a home girl from Los Angeles and we’re all so proud to see you representing on the show. What part of LA are you from?
Valentina: I am a true Angelino, born and raised and have been living in Echo Park for the last six years. I was raised in Southeast Los Angeles in the City of Bell. But I’m no stranger to all of Los Angeles and of course with public transportation, I got to places where I used to go pick up LA Weekly and Adelante Magazine. I studied the performing arts in Hollywood and when in school, I was bussed there. I also went to school at LA Trade Tech College and East LA Community College. I’m a true Angelina at heart and I’m glad to be representing.
Adelante: How does your family feel about your participation on Drag Race”
Valentina: My family is extremely excited and supportive. They are constantly sending me text messages and pictures of them grouped up together and watching me on the show.
Adelante: What led you to a career as a drag queen and performer?
Valentina: What led me to performing and becoming Valentina is my love and passion for the performing arts. I was part of the magnet program in the LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District) when I was 11 years old. I started with the visual arts in the fifth grade and I had a painting class. When I went to middle school, I got bussed-out of the area and then I went to Hollywood High School. I’m no stranger to the stage and I’ve studied everything from singing, dancing, costume design, writing and staging.
I never had any physical education classes except for dance. When I’m on stage it is really home for me and there is no place where I feel more comfortable being. It is what I was meant to do. I’ve done some modeling and some costume design in college and all these things that I’ve been doing and exploring have led to me becoming a drag queen. And there is nothing other than being a drag queen that I would want to do right now.
Adelante: Do you have a strong network of friends that support and help you?
Valentina: My friends have been my biggest support even up to the beginning of the show. They helped me at Drag Con and made sure I was rested and prepared for everything leading up to show they were there. They would help me with shopping for fabric or wigs, hats. I’m so fortunate to have such a great group of friends and I would not be able to be Valentina without them. There’s this close bond we have, they help me stay strong, rested, and there is nothing more important to me than those friendships. My friends are very much a part of the success for me and I try to make time to be close to them because I’m very grateful to have them…
Adelante: Are/were your parents supportive of your doing drag?
Valentina: Yes. Before leaving for the show, I had an amazing performance at Club TEMPO. TEMPO is my favorite place in LA. It is such an oddly endearing “other world” you enter when you get through those doors. The club has the three different dance floors…upstairs they have the drag room and downstairs they have the banda room where the Latino Cowboys dance and to the left they have that little Hip Hop room. I really, really love the Hip Hop room. When you go there you see the Vaqueros (Latino Cowboys) really sharply dressed with their ornate shirts and tight pants. It’s just an amazing experience. Oddly, even though I don’t fit in necessarily in a place like that, I love the music and it’s always a great time.
I wanted to have a show where I could invite my mom and all my Tias so I invited them to Tempo. They brought me flowers and we had Tequila shots, except for my mom, she doesn’t drink. We all had a great time and had a line-up of amazing queens as well.
Adelante: You said on the show that you won Prom King at your high school?
Valentina: Yes I did. I had a big campaign for Prom King and I was going up against guys on the football team and others at school. I remember we had a big gathering where we all got to make a speech. The other guy’s speeches were like (with a deep voice) YO, VOTE for ME…without a lot of substance. I came out very prepared and spoke about my dedication at the school. I talked about how I had to get up early every day to go to school and always stayed late. So I was very dedicated to school and I made that part of my speech.
During my campaign for Prom King, there was some stupid stuff, like people taking down my campaign posters or writing FAG on my posters, but I called them out, like “my, my, so much hate…but aren’t you guys going to school in Hollywood?” A big part of my campaign was I won over the female vote. As part of my campaign in every single women’s restroom at my school, my friends helped me put one of my posters inside of every one of the women’s bathroom stalls. So when they went to sit down they would see me there winking at them. Because my posters would say “James Leyva for Prom king” with a picture of me winking at them.” So, I won Prom King at Hollywood High School.
Adelante: That’s impressive. So what’s your secret to winning people over?
Valentina: I can say that I’ve always been a very kind and polite person and I like to treat people the way I like to be treated. I’ve always been kind to all my teachers, the lunch ladies, the vice principals, the janitors. I’ve always been of the opinion that anyone who is helping me to succeed, in whatever their capacity, it was always better to be nice to them because you never know when you might need their help.
For instance, I kept it cool with the lunch lady because, I knew that some days they would be serving some nasty whack lunch and I’d be like, “hey, poncha, girl, you know I don’t want to eat that…can you go get me one of those peanut butter and jelly sandwiches..” She’d say ok, “No digas a nadie/don’t tell anyone.” So I have always had my charm by winning them over and treating them nice. I think it’s the way I acknowledge people and make them feel good. That is something I feel I learned from my mom, my mom raised me well. She taught me to be kind and patient and accepting of other people.
Adelante: The show looks like it must be challenging. Tell us what it’s like?
Valentina: Of course. What you see on TV are just small clips of a long day of shooting and, a lot of not sleeping. There’s an air conditioning system blasting and you feel like you’re in the frozen food section of the supermarket. But, although it was exhausting, draining and long days and the surprises around the corner that you never would be prepared for…I walked into the situation very mentally prepared to take on the challenge without a lot of expectation. I told myself you have to live this experience for what it is. Take everything in for the moment and all you can do is your very best for that moment. Live in the moment and take things for what they are. For instance, if we have to get ready to do a challenge in 20 minutes it’s not going to look like the version of Valentina which took 2 hours. So, I can’t beat myself up for the version that took 20 minutes. But what I can do is say, I did pretty well for something that just took 20 minutes. I was mentally prepared and knew that all I could do was my very best.
Adelante: Did you bond with any of the drag queens on the show?
Valentina: Yes. I’m very close with Cynthia Lee Fontaine and Trinity Taylor. It goes beyond us being drag queens and it’s how great of friends we are and how we are when we’re together not in drag. We listen to each other’s challenges in life and up-hold each other and want the very best for each other. They are very positive people and they are people that I trust. I was lucky to have RuPaul’s Drag Race to meet these good friends. The rest of the girls, we get along great; we all love each other but when it comes to that real deep interaction with a friend, its Cynthia Lee and Trinity. And I love them very much and if they’re reading this, I hope they know they are very special to me.
Adelante: Drag Show is going to give you a big platform; how do you see yourself using the platform now and in the future?
Valentina: I really try to keep things simple. What I want to do is be an example of what it’s like to be an openly gay, proud, power and successful, not only Latino but person of color. And do it unapologetically well. I also want to shed light on my Latin culture of respect and being respectful when people are speaking and not to speak over them. I myself want to be respected. I want my career to be a beacon of light for my community and show my passion and love for my art and in my own way, create my own path. Maybe from this experience, I can help elevate the art form of drag my own way and make it more flavorful with my Latin flare. I also want to show that what I’m doing is done with good deeds and have a purpose and is not just frivolous. When I get on stage, there has to be a meaning behind the songs that I sing, the outfits that I ware and how I connect my movement to that lyric. And, in that moment I get lost and out pour my heart to anyone that is there to see me.
Adelante: What do you think the challenges are for young people in the Latino community that want to do drag? What are the biggest obstacles?
Valentina: I can’t speak for anybody else, except me. I can say one of the challenges was not having many people to look up to in our community. Growing up, I looked up to Selena, she was Mexican-American and extremely talented. When she passed away, I felt like that was taken away from me. And growing up, I really did not have a role model, no one in the media to look up to that was like me, that was gay, that was Latino. Latinos in the media have mostly been depicted as gardeners, or sexy mistresses or housekeeping persons. What I’m trying to do is say, “No, I’m not your sidekick, not your housekeeper.” I am the lead protagonist and I am powerful. And so, I hope what people take away is to not give up on their dreams. I’ve dreamt about this ever since I was little and I never let anything get in the way of that. I always kept my eye on the prize.
I grew up with some telling me my dreams were one in a million and that I should study something more realistic. But I never gave up and maybe by me creating my own path, I can be an example for other Latino drag queens. If I can do it they can do it also.
Adelante: Any final words for our readers?
Valentina: It means a lot for me to be interviewed by Adelante Magazine and especially for a Latino queer audience. I hope you pick a flawless picture of me to put in your magazine.