Valentina. A name that has been on the fashion industry’s lips ever since the drag performer, whose real name is James Leyva, first appeared on RuPaul’s Drag Race in March of this year. Seven episodes into season nine, Valentina has floored the judges and Drag Race fans around the world with her beauty and her impossibly chic runway looks, demonstrating a fashion sensibility which far surpasses that of her fellow competitors. A matador-inspired ensemble in episode one; a gorgeous Dolce-esque wedding gown in episode two; a glittering Rococo-style bodysuit in episode three: the list goes on. And what makes Leyva’s story all the more captivating is that she’s only been doing drag for a year – which, considering the level of her craft, is frankly astonishing. The judges have been so enamoured that she has drawn derision from her competitors, perhaps unsurprisingly. Who can forget Brooklyn queen Aja's mocking words: “You’re perfect. You’re beautiful. You look like Linda Evangelista. You’re a model.” But who is the man behind Valentina? Well, we rang him to find out.
“I’ve always been fascinated by women and femininity,” says the Los Angeles native and “true Angelino”, before recalling the frustration he used to feel when his cousins would deface their Barbie dolls. “They would cut their hair off, and they would cover them with markers and they would always, always lose their shoes,” he remembers, horrified. “The best thing they had were their little shoes!” Instead of defacing his doll, or indeed playing with her like a regular child might, Leyva would give her a story. “Who is she?” he would ask. “Where is she going? What is she going to do?” The same questions a seasoned designer or stylist might ask before putting together a collection or a fashion editorial – not that Valentina, aged just three or four at this point, would have known this. All that was missing was a moodboard.
Born to first-generation Mexican immigrants (his mum is from Caliente, his dad from Chihuahua), Leyva’s fascination with femininity found other outlets – still a child, he began fashioning women’s clothes for himself out of the most rudimentary materials. “I was always very creative and I always loved design. So when I would get out of the bath, my mum would let me dry myself, and I remember grabbing my towel and turning it into a beautiful skirt or a beautiful shawl.”
“I remember grabbing my towel and turning it into a beautiful skirt or a beautiful shawl” – James Leyva
This, coupled with his quiet manner and artistic temperament, made Leyva an easy target for bullies, particularly from kindergarten to the fourth grade. He remembers being called “gay” before he even understood what the word meant. But it was the performing arts that were to be his saving grace; he first got involved in the sixth grade and underwent a complete transformation. “I went from being this little boy who was not doing great at school to a creative person who was really adored by other people in school… I started to blossom.” Through the arts, specifically theatre, he also made an important discovery in beauty, working on the girls’ make-up before they went on stage. It was an experience he describes as his introduction to drag.
On RuPaul’s Drag Race, Valentina’s own make-up and natural beauty have set her apart. One of the most beautiful queens to ever take part in the competition to find “America’s next drag superstar”, she is what’s known as ‘fishy’ – that is to say, feminine-looking, or able to ‘pass’ as a woman. She often opts for a strong eye, spider lashes and a lightly rouged cheek, with a couple of rhinestones thrown in for good measure. However it’s the brows that have become Valentina’s trademark – and they’re not just an aesthetic fixture. “I naturally have very full and thick eyebrows,” Leyva explains. “Also, I naturally have an unibrow. Growing up I wasn’t very confident about that, I felt kind of awkward. Then I saw this girl who had very full thick eyebrows, and I started to realise that thick eyebrows are cute and fabulous. So I wanted to inject that into Valentina.”
It’s when we start talking about fashion that Leyva really lights up. When asked what designers he likes, he quickly reels off a list that includes Valentino, Dolce & Gabbana, Oscar de La Renta, Carolina Herrera, and Ralph & Russo. “I am quite classic in my taste,” he muses. “I have a very retro aesthetic that I love to give a modern flare, a modern take.” Fashion is something Leyva has been engaged with in a professional capacity too, having worked in the Prada store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Is he a fan of Miucca’s work? Of course he is. “Miuccia is a genius of a woman,” he enthuses of the Italian designer. “[The Prada woman] is the most rich, powerful and intellectual woman in the world.”
“Miuccia is a genius of a woman... [The Prada woman] is the most rich, powerful and intellectual woman in the world” – James Leyva
Despite displaying a keen interest in fashion, it is not designers who inform Leyva’s drag but film stars, or rather one specific film star: María Félix, who he describes as “the Mexican goddess” and “the superstar of the 1940s”. While some queens cite more pop cultural women as influences – the Kardashian sisters, for example – Leyva’s admiration of Félix suggests a deep love of cinema and a pride in his Mexican heritage. Considered one of the most important female figures of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, Félix was dressed by the best designers of the day, including Christian Dior and Valentino. She even had movies put aside special budget for her costumes.
“I don’t have a drag mother, but I do consider Our Lady of Guadalupe my drag mother, who is a very important figure in Mexican culture,” Leyva reveals. “She is the candle that I was praying to to get on the show.” His own costumes and make-up are exceptional – even more so considering the length of time he’s been doing drag and even more so considering this revelation that he doesn’t have a drag mother (a mentor-like figure who acts as a guide to greener queens) in the conventional sense of the term. He’s not without practical support though, explaining that he has a close circle of friends – hairstylists, designers, hat designers, photographers, all of whom are Latino and who, in his words, “make sure Valentina looks fierce.”
“I don’t have a drag mother, but I do consider Our Lady of Guadalupe my drag mother” – James Leyva
Leyva is also able to count on the support of his family, who he introduced to Valentina before going on Drag Race. He put on a show at a Mexican nightclub called Capital in Los Angeles shortly before going away and invited his mum and aunts. While many queens on RuPaul’s Drag Race have shared heartbreaking tales of family rejection, his own kin welcomed Valentina with open arms. “They brought me roses and they had a great time,” she recalls. “All of my aunts were jealous of how glamorous Valentina is. They absolutely loved it.”
The competition isn’t over yet, and while the fashion world is hedging its bets on this fishy Angelino, it’ll be interesting to see how she fares. Winner or not, it’s clear that a sparkling career as a drag performer awaits – and Leyva is inordinately grateful to “Mama Ru” for that. “When I’m performing, the real reason I am on this earth becomes clear,” he says. “When I’m on-stage and the lights hit me, I have this total euphoria. For me, drag is magic.”
Tune in for RuPaul’s Drag Race on VH1, or, for UK-based viewers, on Netflix.