Regular RuPaul’s Drag Race viewers already know that Valentina sees herself as a megastar. With her forthcoming role as Angel Dumott Schunard for Rent: Live, Fox’s live production of the musical that debuts Sunday, January 27th, she’ll come one step closer to dominating the world outside of drag.
“I started with a dream — always in my fantasies, in my head and in my world, ever since I was a little boy,” the young star tells Rolling Stone while en route to one of her final rehearsals for the televised production. “I’m dreaming my dreams into existence.”
Born James Leyva, the 27-year-old first caught the public’s attention on Season 9 of Drag Race, the first in the show’s “herstory” to air on VH1. While she didn’t win the competition, she immediately became a fan-favorite, amassing a fervent social media fandom, while also winning the title of Miss Congeniality. Currently, she’s made it to the final six in the current All Stars season, with one challenge win under her belt.
Valentina’s appearance in Rent: Live was announced just before the new season of the reality competition began airing, but her Season 9 performance had been so beloved by one of the telecast’s casting agents that the drag star was hand-selected to audition for the role of Angel.
“[The casting agent] had be audition without knowing if I could sing or act or anything!”
Luckily, however, before Leyva (who identifies as non-binary when out of drag) created Valentina, they had gained some performance skills. “I was always a big fan of musical theater, dance and choir,” the Los Angeles-native explains. “So those things that I did in school are all part of what I get to do now. I was not an expert performer in those times and I wasn’t getting the best training, but I always had a love for what I get to do now with Rent.”
As a teen, Leyva’s first encounter with the musical came in choir class when the students performed “Seasons of Love.” Leyva, at the time, sang in the baritone section and soon became enamored with the musical’s tale of a group of struggling artists and their found family in Nineties New York City. “I went to explore the rest of the music and saw the movie and have been in love with it ever since. Only, I’m no longer a baritone — they got me singin’ these high notes now, girl!”
Valentina is part of a stellar cast, including Vanessa Hudgens (Maureen), Tinashe (Mimi), Mario (Benjamin Coffin III) and Jordan Fisher (Mark), among others. Given the newness of putting on a show where she is tasked with singing live and performing as a long-beloved fictional character has been a source of new insecurities for the typically confident performer — “Sometimes I go, ‘Oh my God, am I right for this role?’” — but the months of rehearsal have turned the cast and crew into the same support system the show depicts.
“There’s some magical shit that goes on with this show that Jonathan Larson created,” she explains. “The level of community that is so prevalent throughout the process of building the show — not even the show itself but the process of us being together every day and working together — we have to be close to one another. We have to trust one another. The material is so vulnerable and so raw that it makes you feel and cry and hug and enjoy the experience together. It moves us to be grateful for life.”
By nature, she works most closely with Brandon Victor Dixon, who stars as Angel’s boyfriend Tom Collins. The seasoned, Tony-nominated Broadway star has helped assure Valentina that she’s on the right track. “He is there holding my hand, believing me and telling me I’m doing a great job,” she says.
Along with Dixon, Valentina has forged other close relationships with the cast, making dinner plans with Vanessa Hudgens and her mom while talking through newfound vulnerability with Tinashe. For many of the performers, the telecast is not only a way to flex some of their less visible abilities but also find ways to translate the story to modern times. For example, Valentina is hoping that her own identity as a non-binary queer person will help open up the possibilities of Angel’s story. In fact, some fans believe Angel is a gay male drag queen, while others believe the character is transgender or genderfluid — which wasn’t the terminology when Larson created the role.
“The conversations about gender identity were not as prevalent as they are today,” she explains. “The label of ‘drag queen’ was really all there was.”
Rent: Live will also open the possibilities of Valentina’s own story. She has big, long-term dreams and lists them off rapidly, without pause. “I have this aspiration to be in a Pedro Almodóvar film or to have my own telenovela on Telemundo where I’m the lead and I sing the original score. I want to have star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and to be the first drag queen at the Met Gala and to win an Oscar.”
In the short term, she wants to continue “exploring artistically” and continue taking risks like Rent: Live. “I hope this will be a great year for me, and I hope I can open doors for people like me as representation as a proud, Latino, non-binary goddess who is able to believe in their dreams,” she adds.
Valentina is already on the right track, and even has one very famous, public supporter in her corner: Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has named Valentina as one of her favorite Drag Race stars and even “fangirled” when the performer joined the politician’s Instagram Live one night.
“I’m just honored to live in a time where people like her exist who represent me,” Valentina gushes of AOC, noting that she is a huge fan of her as well. “I’m really grateful to her and in support of everything that she does. She has a great head on her shoulders, and she really makes me believe in the America that I want to live in. She really is one for the people.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez fangirling over Valentina and Rupaul’s Drag Race on Instagram live. pic.twitter.com/muYikFnGFG
— Pop Crave (@PopCrave) January 19, 2019
With a world of possibilities, a chance of winning All Stars and some powerful people in her corner, Valentina could become one of mainstream culture’s biggest drag stars. The timing of that could prove perfect; she’s already had a taste of this superstardom and is not ready to give it up quite yet.
“Now that I’m in this Hollywood lifestyle, girl, I don’t want to ever go back,” she explains. “It’s too fuckin’ fabulous!”