Ernesto Castillas for GAY TIMES

“My crazy ass has achieved a lot with my fantasy and if I keep on pushing, it’s all gonna come true, like being on the cover of GAY TIMES!” laughs the Miss Congeniality slash fan-favourite contestant of RuPaul’s Drag Race season nine… Valentina.

“Did I know this was gonna happen? No. But in my fantasy, I’ve been on the cover of every magazine.” The Mexican-American drag icon is currently on a high after her gag-worthy photoshoot (look at her, like, hello?), and she’s explaining the true meaning of her ‘fantasy’, which she memorably introduced to fans during her stint on the fourth season of All Stars. “The fantasy is the world you can live in and be taken over by the spirit of delusion,” she tells us in true Valentina, telenovela fashion. “You create these defence mechanisms about life that allows you to continue being happy, because life isn’t as fabulous as I dreamt it, so I’m gonna keep dreaming it until it all comes and meets up with me!” Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it HUNTY – it’s gotten her this far.

Valentina – birth name James Leyva – is one of the most popular drag queens in the world on social media, boasting over 1.3 million Instagram followers (she has a bigger following than most Drag Race winners). She’s also released the Spanish dance-pop anthem A Prueba De Todo – which has amassed over one million Spotify streams – and performed live on Fox to an audience of three million plus, alongside the likes of Tinashe, Vanessa Hudgens and Brandon Victor Dixon. Valentina is H-E-R-E honey, and she has her eyes set on global domination. Thanks to her fantasy – and the Virgin of Guadalupe – Valentina’s career jump-started when she was accepted for the ninth season of Drag Race back in 2017 (it was her first audition tape and she had only practiced the art-form for tenth months). After just a couple of episodes, Valentina garnered one of the most rabid and loyal fanbases of any queen from the Emmy Award-winning series, thanks to her polished, high-fashion runways, quirky sense of humour and unique perspective on drag.

“I had been waiting and dreaming of a big moment,” she reminisces. “Has some of it been very difficult and challenging? Oh yes Mary, but that’s exactly what I signed up for. If you can’t handle criticism, you can’t handle success.” In the ninth episode, Valentina was at the forefront of one of the most controversial and viral scenes in the show’s HERstory. During the iconic ‘lip sync for your life’ portion against fellow contestant Nina Bonina Brown, to the beat of Ariana Grande’s Greedy, the star refused to take off her Club Kid Couture inspired mask because she couldn’t remember the words, which eventually led to her abrupt elimination. (Even Mama Ru said it was in his top three most jaw-dropping moments from the series.) “I’m very different from all the other Ru girls because some queens say, ‘Oh they edit me bad,’” she explains of her portrayal on the season. “But I am so immensely grateful to Drag Race, to this part of my humble beginnings, for giving me the platform to become who I am today with the character I’ve created.”

Shortly after the drama-filled season nine reunion, Valentina was approached by the show’s producers to return for the third instalment of All Stars, which she ultimately turned down because she wanted to travel the world, advance her aesthetic, and make some coin. “At that point, I hadn’t toured, I hadn’t made any money, and I hadn’t grown. I felt bad turning it down, but I was able to learn so many new things, such as touring as a drag artist, as a stage performer, as an entertainer, as a host.” She eventually made her long-awaited comeback on the widely-acclaimed – and controversial – follow-up season earlier this year, and she did so because she felt she had “a lot to prove”. After she lost her lip sync to Nina, Valentina earned a reputation in the community as a queen who lacked skills in the performance department, despite turning it the fuck out in every tour and live performance after the show. Did she get her redeeming moment? If you’re reading this, you watch the show, and girl, you know she did.

In the second episode of All Stars 4, Valentina battled it out against Monét X Change to Into You, another Ariana Grande song no less, and in the words of Monique Heart, gave us the “ooh-ahh-ahh sensation” and more. “At that point, when I was standing there, I just knew that I had to perform, go all out,” she recalls fondly. “With someone like Monét, who’s known for being a really great performer and a lip sync assassin, I was like, ‘Girl, don’t even try me when it comes to being sexy. I am gonna give WOMANA!’ And then crazy Tammie Brown at the end.” Valentina won the lip sync, and in every subsequent episode up until her elimination in episode seven, provided fans with some fanfuckingtastic, telenovela-esque television. Remember “Ladies I’m boiling, my blood is simmering through my veins”? We say it pretty much everyday, in any situation. This queen may have not taken home the crown, but she cemented herself in Drag Race HERstory as one of the most legendary, entertainting and sickening contestants to have ever graced the main stage… full stop, the end.

But will she pull a Manila Luzon or a Latrice Royale and return to the series for a third time? Sorry Valentina stans, it’s looking unlikely. “It’s not on my list. I would hope that if it came around, I’d be so busy with my endeavours that I’d have to say no! If I was available Mary, what a fun fucking ride it would be to do that shit again. But I don’t feel the need to compete with a bunch of people. I’m done being a competitor, I don’t see it like a sport. I see it as an art. If you notice on All Stars 4, I wasn’t competing against other people. I was like, ‘All you girls are worried about who’s gonna win the challenge, I’m just worried about putting more glitter on.’ I just want the DJ to push play, I want the bitch to turn the light on and let me perform!” But don’t get your hopes up completely. There is one thing that could lure her back to franchise: “They’re doing Drag Race UK, and if they’re doing another season and want me to come back in for some sort of challenge, I think I’d be down.”

At this point in her career, however, Valentina admits that she wants to explore other endeavours, perhaps world domination (like we mentioned earlier). Not long after her All Stars journey, the star appeared in Fox’s live production of the classic Broadway musical, Rent Live!, which tells the story of struggling young artists in New York City in the days of Bohemian Alphabet City and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. One of the show’s producers was a fan of Valentina’s stint on Drag Race and championed for her to get the part. She eventually won the role of Angel Dumott Schunard (originally portrayed by Tony winner Wilson Jermaine Heredia), a homeless, HIV positive, genderfluid street performer, which she says was a major win for the gender non-conforming community. “I got to be a part of an experience where I push forward that topic of conversation authentically through who I am. And I myself, through the role of Angel, found out a lot of unanswered questions around my own gender identity. It made me discover, ‘Well, how do I feel? What do I think about myself in this moment?’ Around that time, I was questioning if she was non-binary or trans, where did my heart lie with this? How can I tell this authentically? It was such an honour to play a role that was created for people like me to exist, and to exist in major roles that have a heart and a story and emotion, instead of just being seen as comic relief.”

Back in January, a few weeks before Rent Live! premiered, Valentina came forward and announced to the world her non-binary identity, revealing that she feels like a “goddess” and her “own gender”, which was met with widespread praise amongst fans, the queer community and media outlets. “It’s been really confusing to be constantly working, representing as a woman,” she tells us of her past struggles. “I work everyday as this character, be called by her, and when I am her, I feel like the most powerful version of myself. And then I take it off, and then I’m no longer that person. And so, now I’m a boy and my personality is supposed to contrast that? Getting in and out of drag had me very confused, and I couldn’t define why there was something extra about me in drag that feels more feminine… and I think it’s the separation of James and Valentina. I have now interpreted and understood that I am both all the time. I identify with the heart of a woman, without having any sort of discomfort or confusion with living in my male body. I just identify as either. I don’t necessarily have to decide. I’ve put my foot down because this is who I am.”

Initially, Valentina was hesitant to publicly live her truth because she was afraid people were not going to understand, but she ultimately chose to come out in order to be a “beacon of light” for people who are experiencing the same confusion. She tells us: “Things are changing, and you have to push the conversation forward and that’s all I can do to help. If it helps, so be it. If it doesn’t, I get to be a pioneer for something, even if I’m not the best representation, even if I’m not the activist.” The topic of conversation quickly turns to the lack of education in schools surrounding the LGBTQ community and non-heteronormative practices, a subject she feels incredibly passionate about. When Valentina was in school in the U.S., she would be just taught about puberty, the reproductive system, and a smidgen about sexual health. “I find it to be very entitled that the system is only teaching students how to have protective sex in a heterosexual relationship,” she says defiantly. “What if we taught each individual person to protect their bodies in whatever case they’re gonna have? It’s not as progressive as it should be, and I do think it’s a university level conversation.”

She continues further: “I came out as non-binary to all of Latin America, which is an extremely macho culture with predominantly Catholic territories. The more people are talking about it, the more people demand respect for how they should be spoken to.” Although LGBTQ rights have become somewhat progressive in Latin America over the past few years, Valentina says the idea of being gender non-conforming is a “very bold conversation” for them to have. But because she’s still learning about her identity, she doesn’t expect everyone to have the same amount of patience and understanding of her gender because, in her words, “I’ve gone against the grain and I’m not your average person.” However, she does reveal that at times, it’s difficult to not become offended by the naive words and actions of others. “Being easily offended by people is living in the state of being a victim,” she says. “So if you invest your time in trying to make someone understand, and they still don’t, it ends up affecting you way more. At the end of the day, I’m happy. When people don’t understand, ‘Well Mary, gotta go, gotta go, I’ve gotta catch a flight to my next dream, sorry!’”

When it comes to members of her own community, Valentina understands, but at the same time is confused why some denounce her non binary identity. After all, there’s more “important shit” to be worried about in the world right now, such as Chechnya’s anti-gay purge, Tr*mp’s military trans ban and Brunei’s death penalty for same-sex relations, all issues that we, as a community, should be unified in fighting against. “There is internalised homophobia, of course,” she sighs. “Just look at the Drag Race following. Bitches are fucking crazy. We have a bigger battle to fight rather than yelling at a person, ‘You’re a fucking man! Non-binary my ass.’ People really wanna get that way, y’know? Go suck a dick. It will make you feel better.” In order to move forward with the self-hate in our community, Valentina wants people – especially white queer people – to be aware of their privilege and show compassion for oppressed people of colour. “They need to know that who they were born as came with this privilege, and because they were born with this privilege, it should be a duty for them to help those that are in need.”

One corner of the queer community that have particularly taken Valentina under her wing are fellow trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people, which she sees as a “beautiful gift”. “Since coming out as non-binary, I’ve connected with a lot more of the trans community. I’ve gone to safe trans places and it’s such a beautiful community that look out for one another. I want to thank the community for being so kind with me, and I’ve been trying my best to advocate for them in Latin America because there’s isn’t a lot of safe spaces.” To those who may be questioning their gender identity, Valentina says it’s important to continuously ask yourself questions and be around like-minded people who are open to having the right dialogue of conversation. She wants you to know: “Don’t ever feel pressured for anything. Take time to understand yourself, your body, your gender, how you present. Being non-binary is way more than the physical attributes. Sometimes we think with our minds, with our hearts, and sometimes we have a natural intuition to feel inclined a certain way. Trust yourself and be patient.”

So where is Valentina’s fantasy going to take her next? You’ll be happy to know that she’s in the process of working on that long awaited debut album and has been developing her skills as a songwriter, as a vocalist, and the message and sound she wants to convey with her brand. Because of the mixed critical reception of her Rent performance, Valentina again feels like she has to prove herself as an artist, but make no mistake, she’s not doing it for you – she’s doing it for herself. “It’s the mistakes that fuel the anger or aggressiveness to want to achieve higher than that low point,” she states. “And sometimes when you do something wrong, it can be fucking beautiful.” It’s not just the world of music and reality television she wants to conquer, she has her eyes set on attending the Met Gala and Cannes Film Festival, performing and winning at the Grammy Awards, being in the front row of Fashion Week – even having a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. “All these things that my crazy French vanilla ass aspires to be are things people tell themselves but won’t tell anybody, because they think it won’t happen,” she says, before continuing with the utmost confidence: “I verbalise them because I’ll be like, ‘Oh shit, did I just say that out loud? Well now I have to make it happen bitch!’ If I don’t, I’ll look stupid. I’m just trying to convince you to see it with me, because baby if you don’t believe, watch me go do it.” Erm DJ? Can we get a spin of Can I Get An Amen by RuPaul? Thanks!

Photography Ernesto Casillas
Creative Ali Daniel Flores
Stylist Antonio Esteban @ Style PR
Hair Maurice Neuhaus
Makeup William Carillo
Set Design Brian Eliseo Equihua