By Joey Nolfi
January 27, 2019 at 12:30 PM EST

In early 2017, RuPaul’s Drag Race star Valentina — who’d then been participating in the art of drag for a mere 10 months — was eliminated mid-way through the reality competition series’ ninth season after delivering a lackluster lip-sync (in other words: she didn’t know the lyrics) to an Ariana Grande song. Flash-forward to January 2019, and the 27-year-old beauty is preparing to star in Fox’s ambitious live production of the Broadway smash Rent — which contains approximately 525,600 more words to memorize than any ditty in Grande’s discography.

Though she spent time between both gigs honing her performative skills via appearances on America’s Next Top Model and the reality spin-off RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars 4, it was a period of introspection and self-discovery that allowed Valentina — real name James Leyva — to fully embrace tackling the biggest role of her career as the street-drumming, HIV-positive drag performer Angel Dumott Schunard not yourin Sunday’s televised adaptation of the beloved musical.

“Being in drag for so many hours of my day and for so long in my career now, I’ve been wondering: How much do I identify with the femininity of being a woman and how much is put on?” Valentina tells EW of the moment she realized she was neither fully male nor totally female, but gender-non binary — an element of her humanity she says helped her approach Angel with pure empathy. “My coming out as non-binary has been, in context, connected to Angel because I want people to know and understand that Angel is such a beautiful human being…. I hope that through this, people can see what it means to fully be free and to identify freely as yourself — especially when you have the level of community around you to support your truth.”

Pamela Littky/FOX

In Rent, Angel’s truth plays out against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis in early-’90s New York City, where a band of supportive city-dwellers (played by Vanessa Hudgens, Tinashe, Jordan Fisher, Brennin Hunt, and Kiersey Clemons) navigate their ambitions, personal lives, and romantic entanglements in the wake of the epidemic. And in the drag world, Valentina found commonality in the bohemian community of support bolstering Angel’s tragic experience.

“Drag helped me be fully aware of my authentic self. When I’m not in full drag, I have shaved eyebrows, a full manicure, and I sit with my legs crossed; those things explain my femininity, but it’s also a part of how comfortable and how feminine I feel inside,” she says. “There’s a shift between how masculine and how feminine I feel that I don’t really feel the need to define if I am male or female, because I feel like both at the same…. Non-binary means you don’t have to be either or.”

To play Angel, Valentina has to be bold and vulnerable, compassionate and assertive; That takes talent that knows no gender.

Rent airs live Sunday at 8:00 p.m. ET on Fox. RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars 4 continues Friday at 8:00 p.m. ET on VH1.

Pamela Littky/FOX

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