Fans of Cher, Madonna and Charo should get ready to fall in love with a new one-named diva who is already taking over 2019, only a month in. Her name is Valentina, and if you watched the 2017 season of RuPaul's Drag Race, you're probably already familiar with the lovely L.A. native, not only because of her killer runway looks but also for her way with words, especially the now-infamous ones, “I'd like to keep it on please,” uttered during the big lip-sync challenge on the show. Not knowing the words to an Ariana Grande song, she attempted to keep a mask over her mouth during her performance. But Ru wasn't fooled and told her to take the thing off, forcing the contestant to reveal her lack of prep and ultimately have to sashay away. Val may had the last laugh, though: Her “keep it on” retort remains a popular meme to this day, and it made her one of the most memorable queens in the show's history.
Valentina may do some dramatic drag but she's never been one to mask who she is inside, or hide where she came from. L.A. Weekly spoke to the rising star, who came out as non-binary — identifying as neither exclusively male or female — to Out magazine soon after our interview. (We refer to her with the pronouns “she” and “her” here, as Out and other media outlets have done thus far.) Less than two years after she took Drag Race by storm, she's got a handful of projects: playing the HIV-positive cross-dressing character Angel Dumott Schunard on Fox's Rent Live airing on Sunday, Jan. 27; appearing on the current season of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars; and starring in her own stage show at Cal State L.A. on Feb. 3.
The 27-year-old performer, also known as James Andrew Leyva, is a first-generation Mexican-American born in the city of Bell. Young James attended North Vista Elementary School in Bell, followed by Bancroft Middle School in Hollywood and then Hollywood High, and credits the LAUSD magnet program for the visual and performing arts as a huge influence. “Through this free program that we had through LAUSD, I was able to study the arts at a very young age,” the Angeleno says. “I was able to discover a tribe of people that were weird like me, and I was excited to wake up to go to school because I didn't only just study math and English and history but I also had dance class and choir class.
“Those were the very humble beginnings of preparing me for stardom and for what I'm doing now, and I thank LAUSD for having the magnet program that allowed [my] working-class family to send me. I really encourage parents of children who are unique and very different to sign them up for these kinds of programs, because when I started to study the performing arts, I started to thrive and started to learn more in school, and that's definitely part of my experience growing up here in L.A.”
After graduating high school, Valentina was in a dance company in East L.A. for a few years before she got into drag. While she's performed numerous times throughout Los Angeles since her Drag Race debut, her Feb. 3 show, All About Valentina at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex at Cal State L.A., is her first solo headlining show. Valentina said she was inspired by the venue after she went to a show there, and also by its location. “It's an honor that I get this opportunity and that it's in East L.A.,” she says. “It's really special to me because it's where I come from.”
All About Valentina will be different from any of her past performances since it includes live vocals, not just lip-syncing. Fans will no doubt expect to hear a live rendition of the single she released at the end of 2018, “A Prueba de Todo.” “I'm really wanting to put together a performance [for] my fans that is not just living in the world of nightclubs but really features my talents as a singer, as a dancer, as a personality, where I can really stand onstage and show you my vocal technique that I've been working on with Rent,” Valentina says. “I [want to] put something together that's really authentic, that I can curate, that I'm passionate about. It's not just a gig, it's art.”
Valentina will star as Angel in Fox's live production of Rent exactly a week before her live show. “I feel very honored, I feel very excited, I feel very emotional and above everything, I feel like I am now given the biggest artistic challenge that I've ever been given in my life,” says the charismatic performer. “I'm very aware of how big an opportunity this is for me to have gotten the role, so I don't take it for granted that this is an iconic show. This is an iconic role and it is my duty to do my very best because this role could have been given to any actor, but they really believed in me.”
While Valentina has had a lot of live experience on tour and has had television experience on Drag Race, she has the unique challenge of combining the two mediums for Rent. “We've been rehearsing for months and months so that we kind of rehearse out those funky little funkies that happen, and when we have those funky funkies in rehearsal, you know how to react to them or make sure that they don't happen,” Valentina assures.
Acknowledging the significance of a broadcast network airing a production as diverse, dark and complex as Rent, Valentina says, “To be somebody that's a triple minority in this role, to have been given this opportunity on Fox and to be able to let people fall in love with these human beings through the story, is such an honor because it gives representation for people like me. So when I do this, it's not just me having the achievement, it's my Latino community.
“They can be proud of this moment that we shared together,” she continues, adding that she hopes to “give some little Latino queer child the ability to look at the television and say, 'Oh wow, I can do that too. I'm kind of like him,' because I didn't have a lot of that growing up and I would have liked to have had that.”
Of course, Rent isn't Valentina's only opportunity to inspire Latin queer kids (and adults); she also represents on RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars (the show was filmed last year and, as of press time, she is still in the running for a spot in the Drag Race Hall of Fame). Perhaps Valentina's most shining moment so far was in episode two, “Super Girl Groups, Henny,” when she got vindication for her infamous season-nine elimination. She won a challenge having to lip-sync to her own live vocals alongside Monét X Change and then faced off against Monét in a “lip-sync for your legacy” to another Ariana Grande song.
“Oh my goodness, girl, when they said the lip-sync song was going to be Ariana Grande, I said, girl, what is this rig? What a coincidence! I don't know how that happened or why that happened, but once I saw Ariana Grande, I said, 'Oh bitch, you better learn this lip-sync and you better do it and do it well,'” Valentina recalls. “I'm very proud of myself. The redemption that I needed and wanted has been done, has been made. … I feel like I've proven that put to the challenge, I can lip-sync for my life.”
Though her unmasked lip sync was traumatizing, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, literally. “It became something that a lot of my fans found easy to replicate, and that year for Halloween I had hundreds, thousands of people that were dressed as 'I'd like to keep it on, please Valentina' for Halloween,” she says. “Even this year, I still had many, many people tag me as that costume, so I will definitely be remembered for that forever. So be it — it was an iconic moment. I can't erase it, I don't want to erase it. I'm at peace with it. I've grown and I've learned from it and I look back at it, laugh at it and it's all cool now.”
As for the song (Grande's “Greedy”), she adds, “Not to toot my own horn, but I feel like that iconic moment had a lot to do with how popular that song became in the gay clubs. The gays know that song because the gays know that moment in Drag Race history.”
So what does the future hold for Valentina after Drag Race All Stars, Rent and All About Valentina? “Because of Rent, I aspire to continue in this kind of work where I am in front of the cameras and I have to learn lines and act or sing,” Valentina says. “I definitely want to stay in television or move into film, and if opportunities like that don't come, I will gladly go on tour as a singer and show people my talents in a different light and in a different way. But right now it's kind of like a transition moment for me where I can go anywhere and everywhere. This is my first time putting together my own show, so I'm trying to see how it would work on tour. This is the rehearsal toward building a tour, if that's what my next move is.”
Whether Valentina sees more time onscreen or in the live theater world, one thing is certain: Her star is definitely on the rise, and whatever she does, she'll be a proud representative for both the LGBTQ and Latinx communities. She'll also carry plenty of Los Angeles pride as well. “I hope that what I can do for other people is lead through example and be somebody [who has] overcome adversity and represent my people in a positive way,” Valentina says. “Latin excellence. [I want to] take it to all parts of the world, not just here in America where we're going through a really tough time and being highly criticized. [I want] to go against the negative stigmas of what people are thinking of Mexicans and immigrants. I am an example of the American Dream. My grandparents brought my parents here for a better life, and my parents were able to give me a better life. I am American and I'm very lucky to be an example for young kids to see that success is for everyone.”
Rent Live airs on Fox Sunday, Jan. 27, at 8 p.m. More info at fox.com/rent/.
Rupaul's Drag Race All Stars airs Friday nights on VH1 at 8 p.m. More info at vh1.com/shows/rupauls-drag-race-all-stars.
All About Valentina debuts Sun., Feb. 3, 7 p.m., at Luckman Fine Arts Complex, 5151 State University Drive, Los Angeles. Tickets here.