“We Connect a Divide in Families”

Some people believe one’s confidence should be moderated—showing too much pride can be delusional at best and cocky at worst. But Valentina, the 32-year-old drag queen who first rose to fame on Season 9 of RuPaul’s Drag Race sees it differently: “I call that being a star,” she says.

Her ascent (and the eventual Oscar, Grammy, and Met Gala appearances she sees in her future) should come as no surprise if you’re at all familiar with her run on Drag Race in 2017, or in 2018 when she returned for All Stars. She’s reality TV gold, churning out quotable lines—“Sending me home doesn’t make sense with my fantasy”—and gaining fans who were drawn to the melodrama of her telenovela-tinged persona, along with the vintage Mexican glamour of her runway looks. Following her first appearance on the competition show, the drag queen added singer and actress to her list of accomplishments, starring in Fox’s Rent: Live as Angel, logging cameo performances in In the Heights and La Casa de las Flores, and dropping her first solo singles.

This year, she made her return to the Drag Race universe—not as a contestant, but as the co-host of the highly anticipated spin-off, Drag Race: Mexico, currently the only Latin American installment of RPDR’s thirteen international editions. It’s a milestone that, as with most things in Valentina’s life, she owes to the powers of manifestation. “I was waiting for this,” she says. “Even if I wasn’t a part of it, I’d be the number-one fan.”

Valentina sees Drag Race: Mexico as more than an opportunity to share Mexico’s diversity with the rest of the world. The series is also a chance to combat misconceptions about Mexican machismo and Latin American homophobia. “It’s not often that queer people get to tell their stories, and be highlighted as protagonists,” she says. “We can connect a divide in so many families and provide understanding for people who don’t know much about us.”

Born and raised in southeast L.A., Valentina—born James Levya—was raised in a bicultural household. Her parents both immigrated from Mexico, suffusing Valentina’s earliest memories with reruns of classic Mexican films and TV shows, and the music of Juan Gabriel, Rocío Dúrcal, Thalía, and Paulina Rubio.

Valentina was always destined for a career in the arts; it was a major part of her lineage. “I grew up in a family with dancers, musicians, and painters,” she says. Watching beauty pageants like Miss Universe and observing the fashion choices of her favorite Mexican performers were the catalysts to awaken her creativity. “The brown lip liner, the burgundy lips, the matte supermodel look, were big influences on me,” she says. It wasn’t long before Valentina made a ritual of becoming her mother’s personal stylist, lying on her bed and helping her choose the right earrings or the perfect blush. The queen’s florid imagination was hard to shake—and could turn even a simple bath towel into a potential conduit for beauty. “I would come out from the bath, and when no one was looking, it became a turban, it became a cape, it became a dress—whatever I could do to express my femininity and my creativity. That was the beginning.”

Valentina was able to bring her vision to life in middle school, when she attended a performing arts school. Being cast in her first plays were big milestones, and they came with one major benefit: access to stage makeup. It would be a few years before she mastered the art of contouring, or perfected the Maria Félix arch to her brows, but the simple kit Valentina’s mother gave her was the start of it all.

Valentina fell in love with drag after attending local shows around Hollywood when she turned 21. And in 2016, the stars aligned: the casting call for season nine of RPDR went out just as Valentina was laid off from her job at the Prada boutique on Rodeo Drive. She used the little savings she had from retail work and put it all toward her audition tape.

All that was left to do was tell her family. On her 25th birthday, Valentina invited her mother and her aunts to Club Tempo—a queer Latin nightclub on Santa Monica Boulevard where she felt they would be comfortable. She lip-synced Juan Gabriel’s emotional ballad “Asi Fue” while they watched from the audience. “Getting to introduce them to Valentina was a beautiful moment,” she recalls. The moniker was technically a family name, one the queen first heard when her cousin was going over names for her own child. “I put it in my pocket and when it was time to name myself, to come forward and show myself the way I wanted to be seen, it was perfect.”

Valentina attends RuPaul’s DragCon on April 29, 2017 in Los Angeles.

Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/WireImage

On Drag Race, Valentina got the opportunity to introduce herself and her heritage to the world. Her fashion sense and comedic references were a love letter to her Mexican-American upbringing, and though it sometimes landed her in hot water with her castmates, her unwavering confidence was an act of cultural pride, too. Her drag persona, which she describes as “a melting pot of Old Hollywood with a little Rita Hayworth and Maria Felix, some ditziness and charisma, and a bit of that unhinged Latina character where you never know what she might say,” was a bit more measured upon her return to All Stars—but there was no doubt she was still a magnetic diva.

“There’s been a lot of criticism of my confidence, that I think very highly of myself,” Valentina tells me. “I do. I deserve to feel proud of where I come from and who I am.”

“Valentina means brave,” she adds. “I stand by that. If I’m going to be in this world, in this system, I’m going to shine, and no one is going to dim my light.”

Drag Race: Mexico airs on WOW Presents Plus on Thursdays at 2am ET, with local airing in Mexico on Paramount+.


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