A recent episode of Drag Race España paid tribute to the late Spanish superstar Cristina Ortiz Rodríguez, better known as La Veneno. A lip sync segment highlighted her single “Veneno pa tu piel,” the runway was decorated in homage to her incredible aesthetic, and the guest judge was her best friend, Paca la Piraña. It’s a testament to La Veneno’s enduring popularity. US viewers might not understand, and most missed Veneno, the 2020 biographical miniseries of the star. It slipped by after premiering on HBO Max last year, but it’s one of the best pieces of recent queer art. Given all the works promoted with lazy claims about positive representation, it’s refreshing to something that doesn’t just centralize trans women, but actively seeks to showcase figures whom many might call “problematic.”
In an era when sex workers are often vilified by conservatives and liberals alike, Veneno highlights a woman who kickstarted her career through sex work. Discovered in 1996 by a reporter who interviewed her while wandering her workplace, el Parque del Oeste (West Park) in Madrid, La Veneno used her shamelessness and sense of humor to land regular appearances on television. Her grandiose stories, like fighting off Nazis harassing her friends and fellow sex workers in the pouring rain, were usually considered too eyebrow-raising to be real, but audiences wanted more and more scandal around her. She released two singles, performed at nightclubs, had plenty of sex and drugs, fought her transphobic mother on live television, starred in two pornographic films, and was arrested (and sent to a men’s prison) after being implicated in a case of arson and insurance fraud by her then-boyfriend.
La Veneno’s life was varied and chaotic, but always fascinating. Despite being somewhat illiterate, she relayed her life story to journalist Valeria Vegas, who published it as ¡Digo! Ni puta ni santa. Las memorias de La Veneno. Veneno, which adapts that book, operates on a number of levels. It’s a loving memoir, a story of Vegas growing into her own identity as a trans woman and reporter, and a look at La Veneno’s impact on the women in her life. Though helmed by two cis men, Javier Ambrossi and Javier Calvo (both of whom also co-host Drag Race España), it’s an overwhelmingly trans series, featuring three trans actresses (JEDET, Daniela Santiago, and Isabel Torres) playing the singer at different stages of her life while also providing a breakout role for Lola Rodríguez as Valeria. The story fluidly bounces between characters and time periods, presenting Cristina and Valeria’s lives in parallel. Any possible bending of the truth on Cristina’s part is irrelevant, since the impact she has on Valeria’s evolution is undeniable. We see their lives change in tandem, right down to one episode literally climaxing with them separately embracing their sexualities in a split-screen sequence.
In the penultimate episode, as Valeria consults a potential publisher about Veneno’s memoirs, she is bluntly told: “To us, Cristina is iconic, but we’re looking for other types of individuals. She’s a worn out and harmful figure for the community on occasion, so it seems too risky for us.” But that risk is exactly what makes La Veneno a fascinating figure, and why television networks exploited her in the 1990s and 2000s. As Hari Nef notes in Artforum, “Where erstwhile entries of ‘trans tipping point’ television have sought—single-mindedly, it seems—to humanize their characters in the name of positive representation, Veneno lays bare the process of representation itself.”
Provocation was the reason Cristina became a Spanish icon, and despite the way people weaponized her behavior and tall tales against her, that same attitude and capability for storytelling was her greatest asset. If most biopics are already exaggerations and half-truths, then why not embrace it? Where many contemporary queer works might aim for sanitized depictions of queerness — Bohemian Rhapsody and Stonewall being prime examples — Veneno is enthusiastically about someone who could easily read as unsympathetic. Instead La Veneno’s vulgarity, from biting off a fellow sex worker’s nipple to readily flashing her own breasts on live television, is spun as peversely empowering. Even when the show navigates her lowest points, she maintains a certain dignity in her reflection. Every actor who plays her is featured when she dances without restraint to Pet Shop Boys’ “Always on my Mind,” emphasizing how every part of her narrative deserves to be fondly remembered, not just the more conventionally “inspiring” parts.
The series enthusiastically embraces hyperbole and emotional truth over literal truth — in its most impactful sequence, Cristina’s funeral is presented as an ethereal event that brings together literally everyone from throughout her life to mourn and celebrate her. “Valeria, is my life beautiful?” she asks her biographer. For those who discover La Veneno’s story and feel understood in some way, there is only one response: “It’s precious.”
Veneno is available to stream on HBO Max.