Valentina’s Downfall On “RuPaul’s Drag Race” Revealed Some Ugly Truths About The Show

Jade Schulz for BuzzFeed News

The lip sync is nearly excruciating to watch: Valentina, the breakout star of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 9, is up for elimination — and she’s hiding her mouth beneath a mask. Her opponent, Nina Bo’Nina Brown, is seemingly resigned to her fate, the usually captivating queen working her way through a lackluster performance. But a few seconds after Ariana Grande’s “Greedy,” begins to play, RuPaul asks the producers to stop the music. Valentina’s eyes are wide and desperate.

“This is a lip sync for your life — we need to see your lips. Take that thing off of your mouth,” RuPaul says.

Valentina, outrageously, declines. “I’d like to keep it on, please.”

Valentina removes her mask before attempting to lip-synch the song “Greedy” by Ariana Grande.

VH1 / Via youtube.com

RuPaul firmly reminds Valentina that the purpose of the lip sync is to see the performer’s lips. They stand off, and Valentina finally concedes. After she removes her mask, it becomes clear that the usually prepared and charming Valentina does not know the words to the song, a major disgrace in the world of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Her bombshell elimination goes down as one of the biggest upsets in the show’s history.

The show's first first-generation Mexican queen, who centered her immigrant identity and treated herself as nothing less than a superstar, had lost spectacularly in front of the world.

For many of us Latinx fans of the show, there was a sharp sense of loss at Valentina’s exit — her unapologetic Latinidad made her presence feel extra defiant and joyful in a political moment marked by grief and anxiety over DACA threats, ICE raids, the border wall, virulent racism, and anti-gay hatred targeting Latinxs, and especially Latinx queer people. The show's first first-generation Mexican queen, who centered her immigrant identity and treated herself as nothing less than a superstar, had lost spectacularly in front of the world.

But before her elimination, Valentina’s run revealed some ugly truths about the social world of RuPaul’s Drag Race — the abuse, anti-blackness, and anti-trans prejudice the fandom continues to struggle with; the illegibility, rarity, and threat of Latinx excellence on mainstream television; the tenuousness of racial and ethnic solidarity between queens of color and their fans; and the show’s double standard concerning who gets to define themselves as exceptional.

RuPaul’s Drag Race, often held up as an example of positive mainstream queer and racially diverse representation, has also inadvertently created an insider and outsider culture. Trans women, black queens, Asian queens, and big queens have all struggled with the show’s implicit bias, and Latin queens — specifically those with strong accents and English as a second language — are no exception.

RPDR’s otherwise groundbreaking inclusion of Puerto Rican queens, a nod to Latinx influence in drag ball culture, has not always been particularly sensitive. The so-called “Latin Queen edit” tends to show Boricua queens set to stereotypical salsa music at their loudest and most incomprehensible, opting for gags highlighting the language barrier, or moments when it becomes obvious that their cultural touch points don’t line up with the show’s American sensibilities. For example, Nina Flowers was eliminated from All Stars Season 1 for portraying La Lupe, which RuPaul warned would go over viewers’ heads. (Jinkx Monsoon, on the other hand, was praised for making a similarly risky choice with Little Edie.) Lineysha Sparx, one of the only Afro-Latinx queens to compete on the show, was similarly eliminated for portraying Celia Cruz in Season 5’s “Snatch Game.”

Lineysha Sparx as Celia Cruz in Season 5's “Snatch Game.”

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While their performances were not necessarily up to par with the other queens, the issue of celebrity impersonation for Latinx queens highlights the conundrum they face when making their “Snatch Game” choices: Impersonate a Latinx star no one will recognize, or fail to capture an American star on the basis of language and culture? Kenya Michaels’ depiction of Beyoncé on Season 4’s “Snatch Game,” while crude, is an example of this conundrum. Her heavily accented English and interpretation of humor led to her elimination, after which she was subjected to a hamfisted “English translation” by Charo in the Season 4 reunion.

Drag Race has also often failed to represent Latinx culture beyond stereotypes and caricature. Season 5’s telenovela challenge in Episode 9 proved to be more an exercise in acting out racist stereotypes than succeeding at capturing the camp and humor of telenovela drama. The episode’s runway added insult to injury, when contestant Detox emerged in a pink mariachi suit and emitted totally meaningless approximations of mariachi gritos.

This is not to say that the show hasn’t allowed queens of color to succeed. Nina Flowers, BeBe Zahara Benet, Jujubee, Tyra, Raja, Alexis Mateo, and Yara Sofia were top queens of color in the early days of the show, and more recent standouts such as Bob the Drag Queen, Kim Chi, Adore Delano, and Bianca Del Rio still earn its top honors. Performativity and irreverence around taboo subjects such as gender and sexuality are historically part of the fun and craft of drag, and make the show accessible to mainstream audiences. But cultural factors, such as the race, education, and class privilege of the contestants, as well as cultural legibility and erasure, are beginning to shape the show into a space that can be hostile to a certain type of racialized outsider — a space both Nina Bo’Nina Brown and Valentina found themselves in during Season 9.

Valentina, 26, raised as James Andrew Leyva in Bell, a 90% working-class Latinx city in Southeast Los Angeles, had only been performing professionally in drag for 10 months when she joined the show. She introduced herself to the world in a beatnik ensemble, and described her drag as “very dramatic, very theatrical, and always very Latina.”

A particular feeling of loss and mourning can define certain aspects of the first-generation immigrant condition — the more assimilated you become, the more the culture and language that created and shapes you slips away. To survive the daily lived effects of cultural alienation, a middle identity emerges, one too “American” to connect to the origin country and too “Other” to connect to “Americanness.”

A few of Valentina's runway looks: mariachi, traditional Catholic Latina bride, and Maria Felix.

VH1 / Via youtube.com

So when Valentina stepped onto her first runway in a mariachi charro suit in front of guest judge Lady Gaga and said with a wink and smile, “I’m Valentina; I’m from East LA, and I’m repping Mariachi Plaza,” she was doing something much more radical than showing where she was from and what she was about. Her visibility in that moment as an unapologetically Mexican-American contender gave her audience a nationally televised moment to see Latinx culture represented as a thing of beauty, desire, and pride. But most stirringly, we saw her proudly represent East LA, the historically Latinx side of town, in a look that called back to Boyle Heights’ Mariachi Plaza — a neighborhood currently under siege in the fight against gentrification — on a show shot in and shaped by West Hollywood, home to wealthy and mostly white gay men.

From her first look representing her hometown to her Maria Felix tribute look in Episode 5, Valentina showed that she was unafraid to draw inspiration from deep cuts in vintage Latin-American culture. Valentina’s representation of vintage Latina icons from the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s thrilled fans who clocked her references. Her dramatic clumped lashes paid homage to singer-actresses of the ’80s, like Verónica Castro and Lucía Méndez; her brushed curls recalled elegant Spanish balladeer Rocío Dúrcal; her morena glamor and big smile echoed telenovela actor and ex-Timbiriche pop group member Bibi Gaytán; her waist-length mane evoked famously long-haired singer Daniela Romo, all powerful divas the anglophone RuPaul's Drag Race fandom scarcely knows. For people raised watching Telemundo and Univision with our abuelas, or reading ¡Hola! or Vanidades, her looks were emotional moments of validation and visibility in a climate where queer Latin culture is erased and disappearing.

One of these moments occurred in Episode 5. Valentina brought icon Maria Felix to life on the faux-fur-themed runway. This look was all about elegance and drama, her hair brushed back to emphasize an extravagant serpent necklace, seemingly modeled after the Cartier necklace worn by Felix, the legendary Mexican Golden Age actress of the ’50s and ’60s. Felix’s mythic beauty is preceded only by her reputation as a fierce, enigmatic diva who had the audacity to turn down anything that did not meet her impossibly high standards, including Diego Rivera, Hollywood, and its smitten American (white) leading men.

But a fan-favorite look — Valentina’s wedding gown for the “White Party” challenge, a portrayal of a traditional Catholic Latina bride inspired by her mother’s wedding video, complete with the elaborate floral peinetas and the mantilla veil — spurred a moment of emotional recognition in Latinx fans. There was no spitfire here, no spicy Latina, no criminal or maid or uneducated immigrant as the butt of a language barrier joke. She emerged as a frontrunner performing a Latinidad other Latinxs could recognize.

On the basis of her performance as a contestant, Valentina was second only to Chicago’s indomitable Shea Couleé, having never landed in the bottom two — until of course, the night she was eliminated.

RuPaul has said that the show is successful and accessible to all because it is more than a reality competition: It’s about the tenacity of the human spirit. The show’s success has garnered the host two Emmy awards. Queens reveal vulnerable details about themselves and their personal struggles, from abuse to drug addiction to living with HIV, and watching them emerge triumphant from the pain of the past is not only great television, it’s an inspiration to millions of fans coping with their own struggles.

Often, RuPaul diagnoses the queens’ issues as their “inner saboteur,” a voice of self-doubt that prevents them from reaching their full potential. This idea stems from RuPaul’s own brand of new-age spirituality mixed with a pro-capitalist-bootstraps message, which he talks about at length on his podcast What’s the Tee? By trying to help the queens transcend that which holds them back, however, he can sometimes end up discounting the daily realities of systemic oppression, mental illness, and trauma. While a queen overcoming a confidence issue makes for great television, deeper, more serious battles with long-term mental health issues don’t always translate well to the screen.

While a queen overcoming a confidence issue makes for great television, deeper, more serious battles with long-term mental health issues don’t always translate well to the screen.

This all came to a head in Season 9. While Nina Bo’Nina Brown openly grappled with paranoia and depression, much to contestants’ frustration, Valentina seemed unflappable, immune to other contestants’ criticisms and mind games, exhibiting the kind of mental strength, even delusion, that RuPaul seems to champion as the mindset necessary for success. Focused, confident, and positive, she garnered the judges’ consistent praise, creating tension between herself and the other contestants. As we watched the competition and its social pressures slowly get to Nina, one kind of outsider, we could not see it get to another — Valentina.

But there were clues that it had. In Episode 2, Valentina earnestly reveals to Aja that she prays to a Virgen de Guadalupe candle, calling the indigenous Mexican virgin figure her drag mother. The response in the room is chilly — we see several queens’ baffled reaction, and cut to white alpha queen Trinity Taylor’s commentary, “You crazy, bitch! That is some crazy shit.” Cue the Latin Queen edit: “kooky” mariachi-style music played over the interaction, highlighting the very early moment in the season that Valentina is inscribed as Other by her peers for her cultural practices, in the very same episode in which she is picked last for the cheerleading team group challenge.

As the season progressed, the jealousy toward Valentina seemed to intensify. When Valentina is compared to Linda Evangelista by the judges, Aja’s apparent jealousy gets the best of her when she “aggressively compliments” Valentina (a takedown now made famous in meme culture) on Untucked, the behind-the-scenes show filmed between the main runway challenge and the final judgment of the night. Valentina does not retaliate, but rather continues to focus on her own performance and do her best — a choice that will later be criticized as cold by her fellow contestants.

Aja aggressively compliments Valentina after another successful runway walk.

VH1 / Via youtube.com

In Valentina's final episode, the infamous “Your Pilot’s on Fire,” we see Valentina and Nina, the show’s outcasts, get paired by default after the other contestants quickly pick their teams for the television pilot challenge and ice them out. As a result, they both seem quiet and down throughout the pilot planning. Valentina’s usual preparation and perfectionism are nowhere to be found, as she goes along with Nina’s suggestions and trusts that everything will be okay. Viewers on social media reduced her behavior to laziness, but there’s a chance something else might have been up.

The two eke out a disastrous pilot, and can’t even watch their footage when it’s played for the judges on the runway. Valentina pulls together a beautiful Lupe Vélez–inspired matador look for the club kid couture runway theme, and while it succeeds in originality as a high-fashion piece, it fails to find a cultural touch point with the judges, who prefer to see more literal interpretations of the ’90s NYC subculture. It is here that we see the Latin queen double standard count against Valentina: While she is required to be extra-fluent in the show’s American pop culture references, the show and its viewers do not have to be accepting or even aware of hers.

While Valentina is required to be extra-fluent in the show’s American pop culture references, the show and its viewers do not have to be accepting or even aware of hers.

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