Valentina of 'Rent': 'Success is for everyone'

By Nicole Girten
Valentina of "RuPaul's Drag Race" poses in character as Angel for "Rent: Live." Photo by Pamela Littky/FOX
1 of 2 | Valentina of "RuPaul's Drag Race" poses in character as Angel for "Rent: Live." Photo by Pamela Littky/FOX

Jan. 25 (UPI) -- Valentina, drag queen of RuPaul's Drag Race fame, strives to be an exemplary member of the LGBT community.

"I just feel a responsibility to be a great example for people like me," Valentina told UPI.


The self-proclaimed "Latina goddess," born James Leyva, will play Angel in the upcoming television live special, Rent, airing on Fox. This is her first major role on TV, playing opposite Brandon Victor Dixon as Tom Collins and alongside an all-star cast.

"I'm landing a major role unapologetically as a triple minority. I'm gay, I'm Latino and I identify gender non-binary," she said.

Valentina said her visibility will give hope to people who don't identify within traditional gender constructs and don't see themselves represented in a "world not built for them."

"Through me getting a role like this, it gives them hope that success is for everyone, you know?" she said.


She said several of her Drag Race sisters reached out to congratulate her on the part, including previous winners Bianca del Rio and Violet Chachki.

"We want to be more than just reality TV," she said. "We want to achieve big and great things, and I think a lot of us are fighting to land those roles and we support one another."

Playing Angel

The gender identity of Valentina's character Angel often is debated among fans of the 1996 musical Rent and typically is interpreted to either be a gay drag queen or a transgender woman. Although Valentina was crowned Miss Congeniality on Season 9 of RuPaul's Drag Race, she said her drag doesn't impact her interpretation of Angel.

"When it comes to Angel, I don't think through the lense of Valentina," she said. "It's not very much like 'What would I do?' because what I would do would be a diva and Angel wasn't necessarily a diva. Angel was a big-hearted person."

Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who played Angel in the original play and won the Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical in 1996, also played Angel in the film adaptation that premiered in 2005. Valentina said she appreciates Heredia's interpretation of Angel, but made it clear she would be interpreting the role with her own artistic vision.


"It's still such an honor to be a part of the Angel family, but I think it's my job as an artist to bring my own interpretation," she said. "I've done my research about the AIDS epidemic in the late '80s and early '90s, and also I've been studying my friend who's a lot like Angel."

Valentina said she plays off the other actors' emotions during rehearsal to push her performance, and she has received encouragement from her co-stars.

"The whole entire cast is so supportive," she said, referring to herself as "sometimes being a deer in the headlights because it's all so new." She praised fellow cast members for coaching her.

Vanessa Hudgens has performed in this format, starring as Betty Rizzo in Grease: Live! in 2016, and she gave Valentina words of encouragement through busy rehearsal sessions.

Hudgens, she said, boosted her confidence by telling Valentina "You are doing so great ... This is all so much for you to take on, and the way that you are taking it on is just amazing."

Valentina saId she's both nervous and excited about the performance being live, "which I think is perfectly fine, because if I'm not nervous, then I'm chillin', and I shouldn't be chillin'. If I'm not excited, then there's no point of living life if you don't enjoy it. It's definitely both at the same time."


Drag Race/All Stars

Valentina is best known for her Season 9 appearance on RuPaul's Drag Race, in which she placed seventh. She was an early front-runner in the competition, but lost a "Lip Sync For Your Life" against Nina Bonina Brown when she didn't know the words to "Greedy" by Ariana Grande. She started her performance with a mask over her mouth but was asked to remove it, to which she replied, "I'd like to keep it on please."

She ultimately did oblige, but in doing so revealed that she wasn't mouthing all the words. After finishing the song, she was asked to "Sashay away."

Valentina is now back in the competition for RuPaul's Drag Race: All Stars 4, in which the format changes from "Lip Sync for Your Life" to "Lip Sync for Your Legacy." In All Stars, the top two challenge winners of the week lip sync to win $10,000 and the ability to eliminate one of the bottom two drag queens.

In the second week of All Stars, Valentina won the Super Girl Group challenge along with Season 10 competitor Monet X Change. The two lip-synced to another Ariana Grande song, "Into You." Valentina wore a gold dress and twirled her way into winning the lip-sync.


"After not knowing how to kind of process my emotions and feelings, and the pressures and all that from the 'I'd like to keep it on please' Valentina mask moment to coming full arc and redeeming myself, I feel great," she said.

Valentina said people had questioned whether she would be able to handle her role in Rent after her Season 9 mishap on Drag Race, but made it clear this experience put those questions to bed.

"When I got this role, people out there were like, 'Is she going to learn the music?' 'Does she know the words?" she said. "Girl, I won that lip sync. Hands down. Point blank. Facts are facts. I feel very redeemed and very proud of myself because that's something I really wanted to accomplish while going to All Stars 4."

Valentina won another lip sync on Friday, this time in the "LaLaPaRuZa" challenge to RuPaul's song "Kitty Girl," against the queen she had sent home on week two, Farrah Moan.

As for what to expect from Valentina in the future, she said she wants to continue to share her artistry, "whether the challenge is acting or singing or dancing or fashion or drag."


"As long as something comes and it challenges me and it excites me, I'm willing to continue on this path of feeling like this is my purpose on earth to share my gift as an artist," she said.

Valentina said her dream always has been to stay in her hometown of Los Angeles and to be a part of Hollywood.

"I feel like Margarita Cansino finally made it as Rita Hayworth in Hollywood, you know?" she said. "It's really fancy."

RuPaul's Drag Race: All Stars 4 airs Fridays at 8 p.m. ET on VH1 and Rent airs Sunday 8 p.m. ET on Fox.

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