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NUNN ON ONE TV Valentina, 'Rent' and rave
by Jerry Nunn, Windy City Times

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The drag world is seeing an angel get his wings this January, with Valentina playing Angel Dumott Schunard in Rent: Live, the upcoming television production of the rock musical loosely based on the opera La boheme. It tells the story of artists in New York struggling with HIV/AIDS and poor living conditions, among other challenges.

Many will recognize Mexican performer James Andrew Leyva—better known as Valentina—from the ninth season of RuPaul's Drag Race and the fourth season of RuPaul's Drag Race: All Stars. Valentina has also appeared on America's Next Top Model and Claws.

Windy City Times: Hi, Valentina. I haven't seen you in Chicago in a while.

Valentina: It's been a while, but Roscoe's has me on a double package deal with multiple shows there. I will be there for my Chicago crowd very soon. I am obviously very busy with Rent at the moment.

WCT: Why don't you have a drag last name?

V: I wanted to be like Cher, Madonna, Thalia and Shakira. I wanted a big bold name, like the protagonist of a telenovela. I don't come from a drag community, drag family or house. I thought the name Valentina was just enough.

WCT: Valentina is a hot sauce?

V: Yes. There are many reasons, but that is one of them. The hot sauce is picante and fiery—full of flavor, like me. I thought it was a very romantic sounding name. Valentino red is very "fashion" and there is nobody out there named Valentina. I'm trying!

WCT: Where did you learn to do drag in the first place?

V: I learned to do drag taking baths as a little boy. I would get out of the bathtub and get that little white towel. I would drape it on my head and make a turban. I would put one around my shoulders for a superhero cape, then I would put one around my waist to create an amazing Grecian goddess flat skirt.

I was playing with the idea of gender and silhouette. I studied at a performing arts center in high school. I studied theater and fashion design. I was doing makeup artistry and wanted to be a model. I think I have been doing drag my whole life without knowing. I didn't really get into it until about age 22, where I would play with makeup on myself or go shopping and put an outfit together to go out in. A year before Drag Race was when I had my first booking. That was when I was officially a drag queen and not just playing with drag. It has been a long journey.

WCT: When did you come out of the closet?

V: I came out when I was 19. I wrote a letter to my parents. Latino parents are very protective of their kids. I was living at home and my parents were very strict with me about going out and I felt so suffocated.

I wrote them a letter where I told them I was going out into the world and live my life freely as myself. It was a shock for them. They are American citizens now, but came here as immigrants. They were brought by their parents for better opportunities. They come from a different country with a strict religious background. It wasn't an easy transition for them to be open to that right away. It has been a process, and I am happy to say they are supportive now. I have been patient with them and let them know I am human like everybody else. I am still their son with the same personality and smile.

WCT: Did you have a favorite musical growing up?

V: I have always loved Les Miserables. I live for "I Dreamed a Dream," gurl! I think I need a few more years experience to give you an authentic version of that number because I am just too young and naive still. I need to go through some things and heartbreak, but when I give it to you, the crowds are going to roar and throw roses at me! I am going to shut the house down. Who knows, Mary? I might just sing it live. [Laughs]

WCT: How were you cast in Rent?

V: Somebody in the cast of Rent was a fan of mine from Drag Race and they hit up my manager when they were casting. I was very busy on tour with Werq the World [a tour featuring drag queens from RuPaul's Drag Race].

Fox had me audition and they had no expectations that I could sing or act. I had to audition until the final call back.

I am working my ass off every day now that I got the part. I have a vocal coach. I'm hitting the notes and being authentic. I'm taking in everything and applying it all the time. We are building something very beautiful.

WCT: It is a lot of rehearsing, isn't it?

V: Oh, every day and even on the weekends. I have a personal trainer and a dermatologist. I am fulfilling my whole Hollywood fantasy right now, preparing for my big role. Even when I am cleaning the house in my little briefs, walking around in high heels, I have the soundtrack to Rent playing. I stop for my part and act it out, then I go back to cleaning. I am always working on this!

WCT: You have some heavy scenes toward the end.

V: Yes. I am crying most of the time.

WCT: Who is your main co-star?

V: Brandon Victor Dixon. His character's name is Tom Collins. He is my boo and we fall in love. He is there by my side until my last breath. He is an award-winning singer. He has become such a good friend and has done the role before.

I am new to this so there are stumbles during rehearsals and some frustrating moments. Throughout those moments, he has been so supportive to me and coaches me. It is such an honor to be singing beside him with that beautiful voice.

WCT: Why is the costuming still the same as in past versions of Angel?

V: Thank you for asking this question! I have the privilege of working with Angela Wendt, who designed costumes for the original Rent. She is working very closely with me on how I wear my clothes as a drag queen. She is blending it with how Angel is adapted on tour and through the years. I told her to take it back to the roots of Angel and make Angel iconic to the Rentheads. It has to be the Santa Claus outfit, the Dora the Explorer wig and the zebra tie. We want to make it glam and the textiles to be modern, but root and the soul of the original.

I am very passionate about my fittings, so I hope people really enjoy the costumes.

WCT: Keala Settle is performing in Rent?

V: Homegirl must have gigs and bookings because she joins us next week. We are all excited. I am a big fan of The Greatest Showman. The cast is all coming together here on the Fox Studio lot. We are finally going to see our big set!

WCT: How was your experience for RuPaul's All Stars?

V: When I got the call for All Stars I was on tour in Europe. My first thought was to do it. My fans had missed seeing me on TV. It is mainly for them. They want to see me on there and win.

What I was most excited about on All Stars was going in with a different mentality and having grown as an artist, performer and mostly as a person. When I did my original season I entered in full competitive mode. I wasn't taking in all the stories and interacting with the girls because I was competing with them and my focus was to win.

The second time around was getting to know the girls and remembering ever single day and challenge. I was transmitting an energy that was more authentic. I was not so in my head with everything. I am being a more true character than the hyper focused, hawk eyed, intense Valentina that I was before. People can now understand that I am not perfect and that I am human. I hope my fans can see that when they watch the show.

RuPaul's Drag Race gave me that big break and now I have to thank Fox for giving me this big role to challenge me vocally. This is a mainstream opportunity where I can be an openly gay, Latino drag queen featured in a major supporting, iconic role for the masses. I am living my dream and fulfilling a purpose.

Rent: Live airs on Fox on Sunday, Jan. 27, at 7 p.m. CT. RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars debuts new episodes every Friday on VH1 at 7 p.m. CT. Visit for more on Valentina.

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