She’s perfect, she’s beautiful, she looks like Linda Evangelista, she’s an All Star. It’s Valentina, and everyone — even her fans, love to hate her. But why? She’s fierce. She’s self-assured, almost to the point of self-delusion, but she poses an undeniable talent. Really. James Andrew Leyva, better known as Valentina, has never shied away from her true dream — achieving superstardom — and she’s on her way in her own way, stoned tights and all. After the fan favorite failed to lip-sync for her life in Season 9 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which cemented her place in pop and drag culture, the Latina goddess made a grand return to RuPaul’s stage for All Stars 4. And she’s still making headlines, in the last month, Valentina released a song, “A Prueba de Todo“, came out as non-binary, and will be taking on the emblematic role of Angel Dumott Schunard in Fox’s live musical event of Rent, which premieres January 27th.
In the Uber to Rent rehearsal, Valentina spoke with Interview’s Mel Ottenberg and Thom Bettridge about her style, her Latina roots, and her haters.
MEL OTTENBERG: Hi, Valentina. How are you?
VALENTINA: I’m doing good. I’m on my way to work right now.
OTTENBERG: You seem so busy these days.
VALENTINA: Very, yes. Everything is definitely intense, and eventful. Every single day, I wake up with a busy schedule, but I’m very lucky and blessed to know that this is a dream come true. I’m glad that my problems include being stressed out about my exciting work that I get to do every day.
OTTENBERG: So good. It really is such a blessing. You are just so talented and you’re clearly working really hard, and it’s really paying off.
VALENTINA: Thank you so much.
OTTENBERG: Of course. I mean, full disclosure, I’m a big Valentina fan and I’m a big fashion queen like you. I’m impressed with how you’ve handled yourself coming back from the ashes. It’s been really fun to watch.
VALENTINA: I’m definitely battling with the idea of my day to day, being really involved with the work I’m doing with Rent. That is my present clock-in, clock-out. I live and breathe thinking of Rent, but I hope that the fans are enjoying watching this season of Drag Race because the reason I did come back, above everything, was for my fans who wanted me to be on TV. I did my very best to make them happy and proud.
OTTENBERG: Miss Congeniality. There you go.
VALENTINA: I won Miss Congeniality, but I don’t think I’m the most congenial queen of all. I think that’s just my inner Miss Venezuela that has trained me to be congenial you know? I identify more with being a good person, but at the same time, I cannot deny that I’m a very complex character as well— I’m a diva, and it’s okay.
THOM BETTRIDGE: What are some moments on the show — and in your career thus far — where you felt empowered to be a diva?
VALENTINA: Well, many times because we are female presenting there is this notion that we’re not allowed to stand up for ourselves and speak up. At the same time, people have to remember that behind the soft spoken girl that is Valentina, there also lies a really strong business person and a strong Latino man that is James. So I feel that as drag queens we don’t have the kind of management that stars do, where they have a manager that can handle everything at all times. So we have to put our own foot down and speak out for ourselves in order to protect our brand and the experiences that our fans are going to get. So the diva comes out because if we don’t make things happen, no one’s going to do it. For instance, let’s say a plane arrives really late and it’s out of my control and they want me to be ready in 45 minutes for the meet and greet, I’ll explain to them, “The plane landed late and it usually takes me three hours to be ready. I’m going to rush as fast as I can. Give me about an hour and 30 minutes.” And if they say no, that’s when you put your foot down as an artist.
OTTENBERG: Absolutely. No one’s there to see you half-ass. They’re there to see Valentina with a capital V. And a real queen, a real super star also should be getting drama.
VALENTINA: A lot of those experiences people still hold against me until this day, and it’s something that people don’t let go. I think some people have really come forth, openly as a Valentina hater.
OTTENBERG: You just didn’t text somebody back, like, God!
VALENTINA: Being 30 minutes late to a meet and greet makes me an awful, terrible, unprofessional person that is undeserving of any of what I have achieved? Me being delusional on the latest episode makes me deserving of being sent home? There’s just small things that people blow so out of proportion, and with the people that are wanting to bring me down, their energy lies on focusing on the smallest things. But I’m lucky to say that I have so much love, and the overall reaction to me from my fans has been very positive, and that’s what I focus on.
OTTENBERG: I wanted to talk to you a bit about the fashion. You got the look really together more than ever. You went from the felt beret to the Steven Jones leather Dior beret. You used that cunning uniqueness, nerve, and talent tenfold, and it really pays off. So let’s talk about your fashions, because they’re so good.
VALENTINA: My drive is more towards glamour than fashion. I find that I have an old Hollywood aesthetic at core. Sometimes I question, “Okay, what would Gilda do? What would Rita Hayworth do?” Then there’s other times where I think, “Well, what would Galliano do?” That lies in the back of my head. Then there’s also times where I think, “Okay, well what would Miss Venezuela do?” There’s the telenovela goddess in me that wants to be very much all about floral prints, very romantic with flowers everywhere, and a red lip. Latina, Latina. There’s also another side of me right now that is connected to being this young sexy pop star.
OTTENBERG: I love her. I want so much more of here. The beaded dress with the twirls, who made that dress? Who makes this stuff, or is that a secret?
VALENTINA: I work specifically with about three designers. I’m really big about design and custom. I really enjoy that with my career with the money that I make. I get to work with designers, sit down, and tell them, “I bought this fabric, I’m thinking exactly of this thing. This is the inspiration. This is the reference. Let’s make it.” Going to All Stars the biggest challenge was that I had a small amount of time to make so many costumes. Many of those costumes that I’m wearing underwent maybe one or two fittings, when I am used to having six to eight.
BETTRIDGE: Do you have a favorite look, one that you look back on where you’re like, “Wow, I can’t believe I did that?”
VALENTINA: My hometown look that was inspired by Rihanna with the Manolo Blahnik boots that are like chaps that go all the way to the waist.
OTTENBERG: The blue ones? Wait, hold on. I’m Rihanna’s stylist by the way. It was really funny when hey were all yelling about the tights, because I’m like, “You fucking crazy bitches. That’s what looks good . That’s what looks fucking pretty on her.” It doesn’t have to be that complicated, but I felt like that look was very what I did with the CFDA Adam Selman stone dress. It’s like, don’t make it crazy, just show the beauty underneath. Because a gorgeous woman doesn’t need to look totally overdone.
VALENTINA: Like a piñata!
OTTENBERG: You know that look was fucking good.
BETTRIDGE: Wait hold on, tell me what your favorite look is?
VALENTINA: It’s the “hometown couture,” or something like that, but it’s the one where I was wearing a mariachi-inspired look.
OTTENBERG: She was so good. She really was.
VALENTINA: The reason I love it so much is because it’s just so my roots. Who I am and where I come from are in that look. It’s kind of like being Chicano: not being American enough for the Americans and not being Mexican enough for the Mexicans. I was inspired by Rihanna’s boots, so I took that element and blended it with the classic Mariachi from Mexico. I really wanted to do something that represented how I see L.A., and being Chicano, and being Latino, and how that is really a part of my experience growing up. It’s perfect example of how drag queens can take fashion and not copy it to a T, but really be inspired by it and get away with it. We live by a different standard and we totally should be the ones that do the copy and paste thing with fashion, because there’s a humor to it and there’s an aspect of craftiness.
OTTENBERG: It’s a celebration of the times. You doing the Anthony Vaccarello Saint Laurent black strapless baby doll — but in patent, or vinyl, or whatever it was — to walk into the Werk Room for the first time on All Stars 4, that’s like the ultimate respect to Anthony Vaccarello as a designer, because anybody that knows fashion, knows that you’re like, “That’s what’s fierce right now, and I’m going to do my spin.” I’m looking at this GIF right now of you with the mariachi look that we’re talking about, and remembering how happy I when I saw those chap boots come out, because because the ones I did for Rihanna’s tour were something that I worked so hard to get into this world. It was such a nightmare to get someone to understand how to make those kind of boots, and you did it so beautifully. But we’ve got to talk about this tuck honey. Where did you learn that tuck?
VALENTINA: It was just through experimentation. The first time I’d ever tucked was a week before leaving for Drag Race. It was just with normal duct tape, and then when I got there, Trinity [Taylor] was using this clear vinyl stretchy tape that really helped me understand what kind of tape you can use. Tucking in itself is a discomfort to the artist. Not the aspect of it being uncomfortable like a when you get kicked in the balls kind of feeling, but it’s more so the aspect of the skin that’s there being pulled. A fierce tuck is about really using the tape and getting everything to be put in its socket, then you pat flat down as fierce as possible. Most queens they adhere it with spray adhesive to really lock it in.
OTTENBERG: Did Steven Jones give you that hat, because that’s sort of the most iconic thing. I’m so gagged for that.
VALENTINA: He didn’t.
OTTENBERG: I love it.
VALENTINA: I feel like people in the fashion world really do love me, but there’s something about me that’s not as connected to the fashion world like the other queens are. I’ve never been the kind of queen that gets thrown put front row at fashion week.
OTTENBERG: If you ever need anything, you can DM me, I’ll help you. What size shoe are you?
VALENTINA: I’m a 41.
OTTENBERG: That’s a good answer.
VALENTINA: Sometimes a 40.
OTTENBERG: That’s a major answer.
OTTENBERG: Wait, before we wrap — I know you’re so busy — do you have any fashion tips for the baby drag queens that are gagged by you?
VALENTINA: My biggest suggestion would be, and this is a big secret that I shouldn’t be giving away, but it’s finding a bunch of vintage beaded fabric, like those three piece suits that have all those rhinestones that are already encased. Get that stuff and build it on top of a corset, or just drape it. That’s the easiest way that you can get away with something while looking expensive, and so fabulous.
OTTENBERG: Kind of the best answer ever.
OTTENBERG: It was fun talking to you. Congratulations on Rent. And I’ll be tuning in on Friday.
VALENTINA: Alright, mi amor.