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How Queen of the South Actress Idalia Valles Helped Me Overcome My Fear of Heights

Idalia Valles shot by Jon Pham

When I asked Idalia to go bouldering with me for this article, I didn’t mention my crippling fear of heights and how I had never successfully scaled a rock wall in the past. In fact, I had actually gotten stuck on a rock wall in my childhood -- but I decided not to mention it, in hopes that maybe I could face my fear this time around.

I met Idalia about four years ago when I was casting for my show, CON, back at USC. She was so vibrant in her audition to the point where we expanded her role and added more scenes than originally planned for her character, and we went on to get nominated for two College Television Emmys from the Television Academy for the show. We also got to travel to Miami for a festival where we won ‘Best Drama,’ and we’ve been friends ever since that week spent drinking fishbowl margaritas by the beach and celebrating with fellow cast and crewmates.

Idalia’s incredibly talented -- but you can just ask any QUEEN OF THE SOUTH fan and they will tell you the same thing. Idalia is on the hit USA Network show as Isabela Vargas, the troubled daughter of drug lords, and her fans adore her.

Idalia uses her platform for good, mobilizing her followers to support good causes and Latinx businesses and companies. On Tuesdays, she highlights women-owned small businesses on social media.

What I admire about Idalia is not just her work ethic and dedication to her craft, but also her endless kindness and ability to befriend anyone and everyone no matter where she goes. She has an authentic, warm quality to her that makes anyone in her presence feel at ease -- even if that someone is me, about to attempt to scale a fifteen-foot wall while terrified out of my mind.

Solving Problems with Bags of Chalk

We meet at LA Boulders in Downtown Los Angeles, and we grab our shoes and a bag of chalk for grip and start by warming up and catching up.

At a bouldering gym, you free climb without a harness on large fake boulders and walls, and cushioned mats line the floors in case you fall. The climbing paths are color-coded with grips for your hand and feet and are known as “problems.” You wear climbing shoes that are snug-fitting with pointed toes that help you scale the wall without slipping off the grips -- but each “problem” comes with unique solutions.

After our warm-up, Idalia walks me through a V0 problem (one of the easiest ones, thank god) and showed me how to position your body to maneuver through the climbing wall. I’ve got some upper body strength from pole dancing, but this is still a challenge.

“If you need to reach further, you can twist your hip this way and stretch out your leg against the wall,” she said, demonstrating next on a V1. “That way, you can reach further! Here, try using the wall to help you on this one.”

She moves gracefully, scaling the wall with ease. This speaks to her background in dance: Idalia grew up studying every style of dance, from tap to jazz to everything in-between. “I used to be the one that was thrown in the air whenever we did tricks!” She told me, explaining her fearlessness.

“I just got my first dino down,” she said, referring to a bouldering trick involving being able to use your momentum to throw yourself from one rock to the next.

Idalia's first dino

She demonstrated how she had an almost-running headstart from one rock to the next before being able to throw herself from one rock to the other in a kind of swinging motion.

As we climbed a few easier problems, I was able to make it halfway up, but almost always froze in fear and then had to come back down.

“So, I’m kinda afraid of heights,” I finally confessed.

“Here, let’s practice falling,” she said without missing a beat, ready to help me approach my fear head-on.

Climbing the Boulders of Hollywood

It’s not a fear of climbing, but a fear of falling that keeps us landlocked -- just like the fear of failing is usually what keeps us from creating.

Idalia didn’t turn away from her fear. Although she landed an agent and a manager on day three of a trip out to Los Angeles due to a mix of talent and tenacity, she still had to hustle to book her first jobs. One time, when her father was visiting, he told her: “why aren’t you working? Can’t you go call someone and tell them you need work?” “It’s not how this industry works,” she replied, but he just shrugged and asked, “why not?”

So she took his advice, literally calling casting offices and pretending to be her own agent, which is how she booked the job that got her into SAG-AFTRA.

“When I started bouldering, I got the best piece of advice: if it’s really hard, there’s probably a better way to approach the problem,” she told me.

Idalia's also recently took up outdoor bouldering, an extra challenging when you've got to forge your own path up the side of a mountain.

It’s clear she’s inherited her father’s work ethic, and even in the tumultuous years of losing her reps, starting fresh, and going on countless of auditions, she values every experience she’s had. This outlook and professionalism got her on QUEEN OF THE SOUTH, and makes her a role model for anyone starting out in acting.

A Student of Life

Idalia Valles and Haider Mir
Idalia Valles & Haider Mir: Photo by Jon Pham

“I’m a student of life,” Idalia replied when I asked her about her pursuits when it comes to learning new instruments and skills (she’s recently taken up piano.)

Idalia’s also a talented musician, and recently released two singles (‘Amor Danado’ and ‘Y Me Canta’ on all streaming services) where she sings in Spanish alongside musician Haider Mir (known for his Los Angeles folk band, Foxes and Lions.)

Music has always been an important part of her life out here in Los Angeles, and she founded and ran a benefit concert series out in Los Angeles known as LAMB where she showcased bands and local artists for good causes and local charities. She ran the benefit concert series completely on her own, raising a ton of money for charity with only word-of-mouth in order to get people to the event. It’s kind of insane, when you think about it, but Idalia sees it as par for the course, and is looking to continue the benefit series when she finds a new space.

“The nice thing about bouldering is that it’s really social,” Idalia said as we rested in-between climbs on the mats, and it’s no surprise that this is something that she loves about the sport. Across the gym, a small group of people cheered on a climber completing a tough climb. “You can’t climb the whole time, so when you’re resting you can help give others pointers and work on problems together.”

It makes sense why she loves this sport: she's always been one to go after challenges, and make new friends along the way.

The Secret to Success

I finally found a wall I was able to climb, a ladder-like pattern on one of the main bouldering walls. I was able to scale it pretty easily, but stopped, frozen on the grips several feet off the floor. I felt so high up, imagining how one misstep would send me falling backwards onto the (albeit cushioned) floor below.

I could only see how this could end badly, how I was most definitely going to break every bone in my body if I tried to go any further, even as the top of the boulder was in sight.

“Keep going, you got this!” Idalia called out, and with my heart pumping and hands shaking, I finally pulled myself to the top of the artificial boulder, and somehow didn’t die.

‘Holy shit!’ I mouthed back down to her, in shock of being able to make it all the way, and she laughed.

I think there’s something magical in that push over the edge, when you make it to higher ground when it feels like you’ve been struggling to get there for so long.

As I gingerly made my way back down to her, I knew that the secret to bouldering and to our industry was about helping your friends work through problems. The cliche is true: any fear, any problem, any leap of faith can be conquered if you have the right people cheering you on.

I hope Idalia knows she’s got a long line of people cheering for her, too: from her fans to her friends to all those who have run into her on her many adventures.

Check out season three of QUEEN OF THE SOUTH, now streaming on Netflix. You can follow Idalia on Instagram here.


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