Valentina has been preparing for her season on RuPaul’s Drag Race for the past 14 years — she just didn’t know it at the time. As the only Los Angeles native on the ninth season of the reality competition, which premiered last week, Valentina explains how her L.A. roots helped her become the drag queen fans of the show soon will be seeing on their television screens.
Valentina, also known as James Andrew Leyva, was born 25 years ago in the city of Bell. Currently residing in Echo Park, Valentina is a first-generation Mexican-American whose culture has had a big impact on who she is today. “Growing up, I learned Spanish as my first language and my parents would leave me with babysitters, who were family friends from Mexico. I was very close with my babysitters and we’d do things like watch telenovelas and listen to music,” she says. “I’ve always been obsessed with this idea of Latin beauty and the drama of the Latin culture.”
Valentina’s parents not only inspired her culturally but they were also the driving force behind embracing her creative side. “In elementary school, I was very introverted and shy and didn’t have very many friends. My parents noticed that I was very creative and I loved to draw,” she said. In fifth grade, she got into the LAUSD magnet program and started to study visual arts.
In middle school and then high school at Hollywood High as part of the magnet program, Valentina was able to branch out and study a bigger range of the performing arts, including dance, drama and improv. “I was very privileged to study these things that led to knowing great techniques that have now helped me in my experience on RuPaul’s Drag Race," Valentina explains. “It feels very heartwarming to be on the show because there’s moments where I felt like, oh my God, this is just like being back at school.”
After graduating high school, Valentina did a bit of modeling and styling while studying fashion design at L.A. Trade Tech. It was only recently — 10 months before filming began on season nine — that James became Valentina. While she cites her makeup skills from years on the stage as the inspiration behind exploring the world of drag, it’s really all of her performing arts education combined that made her into Valentina. “Valentina is fashion design, she’s modeling, she’s acting, she’s creative director. She’s just all these things that I’ve learned. I feel like my life experience studying the performing arts has honestly led me to being a drag queen,” Valentina says.
Ten months later, Valentina was face to face with two icons, Lady Gaga and RuPaul himself, on the first day of shooting season nine. “[Lady Gaga is] such a supporter of the gay community and she does so much to represent us and speak up for us,” Valentina says. “It was also super exciting to be in the presence of Mama Ru as well. … When you’re in the presence of a star, you just gotta try and do your best to learn from them.”
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Season nine is just gearing up, but Valentina already has some big goals to accomplish. Declaring her admiration for past contestants Miss Fame, Adore Delano and others who've been able to shift the art of drag to other forms of entertainment based on their talents, Valentina hopes to do the same. “[I want to] shed some light to being queer in Latin America and carve a path for the artistry of [drag being] respected in Latin America,” Valentina says. “I have this dream where I’m either on Telemundo or Univision making sure I’m making a difference.”
At a time with so much discussion in the political realm involving people like Valentina — she's both the child of immigrants and gay — she feels that right now is the perfect time for her to become visible. “I’m trying to show the glamour, the elegance, the sophistication, the intellectual, romantic, beautiful side of Latin culture that needs to be respected,” Valentina says. “Especially in such a tough time when the community of mine has been considered bad people, illegal immigrants, rapists and criminals, all I can really do is show how much love and admiration I have for my community and my culture. Through the show and through what I do, [I hope to] be a little beacon of light for those people who have been feeling really down and make them feel represented in a very positive way.”
While it may seem like Valentina has a lot of work ahead of her, she has only a positive outlook on her future. “This has not been my life and now things are shifting and you kind of just have to [shift as well]. It’s all very exciting. …The ultimate goal for me is to become a superstar.”
Season nine of RuPaul’s Drag Race airs Friday nights at 8 p.m. on VH1.