When Adam Sanders first performed as the drag persona Ada Vox over three years ago, her audience was limited to the local gay scene in San Antonio, Texas.
But in recent weeks, Vox has become one of the most-watched drag queens in the world. Millions tune in to watch her bring the house down on ABC's American Idol, with powerhouse covers of "Creep," "Feeling Good," "House of the Rising Sun," and even a duet with Lea Michele on Wicked's "Defying Gravity."
Vox's performances have wowed the judges. Katy Perry bowed before her. "A star is born," declared Lionel Richie. Their reactions have left even Vox floored. "It just gives me the validation that I needed to feel like I'm doing the right thing," she said in a recent phone interview. "I feel like I'm in the right place at the right time, and like I'm making the most of this opportunity."
As a result of her talent, Vox has been given a place in the Top 14, becoming the first drag performer in Idol history to reach this level. But this "crazy journey" has been no easy feat. In total, the 24-year-old has auditioned for the show 13 times. A singer with 11 years of stage experience, she even appeared on season 12 — out of drag — but was eliminated before getting a chance to go to Hollywood.
When ABC announced it was bringing back American Idol this year for season 16 — it formerly aired on Fox — Vox saw a new opportunity. This time, Ada, not Adam, was ready to take the stage. "I'm going to bring out the big guns this time," Vox recalled thinking. "I needed to make a statement because, while my talent was there, I needed something to push me over the top. That just happened to be bringing Ada out of the woodwork."
The story of Vox's rise coincides with what has been called the "golden age" of drag. RuPaul's Drag Race is now a hit show on VH1, with its alumni going on to become stars in their own right. The inclusion of a drag queen on American Idol is one more example of the art attaining a mainstream appeal. "It's something that's bigger than life. It's something that's grand. It's something that draws your eyes in," said Vox of drag's visceral power. "People can relate to someone who is onstage living their dreams."
"Drag is in such a wonderfully glorious time right now. And I happen to be one of the ones that jumped on it when it was still gaining popularity," said Vox. "I don't think I could have picked a better time to do it. I think the world is moving forward in acceptance and in love."
How Vox fares on Idol may be a litmus test for just how far America has moved forward. An out contestant has never won the competition; performers like Adam Lambert and Clay Aiken have come close, but they were also initially pressured to hide their identities. Danny Noriega reached top 24 on season 7, but would debut as Adore Delano only later in his career on RuPaul's Drag Race. Vox realizes how her presence on the show is considered "monumental" by some. Representation is a heavy burden, but Vox is up for the challenge.
"I am so glad to be carrying that torch, because it's something that needed to be done by someone who isn't afraid to speak on behalf of what's right," Vox said. "I feel like I'm doing well on being a representative for doing that on such a big platform. It's changing the world one person at a time."
Vox has experience with dealing with the dark sides of Idol fame. On season 12, the gay performer was bullied on social media. "People attacked my weight, my sexuality, telling me that I was horrible, that I sucked, that I don’t deserve to be here, that I shouldn’t be who I am. And I let it get to me in a wrong way. It killed me inside. It killed me inside almost as much as people were telling me that I should kill myself … I was contemplating lots of things that I shouldn’t have," Vox said on Idol, before her audition.
Today, "my skin is thicker," confirmed Vox, who has gained strength through her struggles. That said, she acknowledged that the hate she receives online has gotten "120 times worse." The attacks are both homophobic and transphobic. Vox does not identify as trans; she calls herself "a gay boy that's a part-time woman." But the online abuse has given her greater empathy for the trans community. "It makes me feel for the people who live their everyday lives" fearing harassment, she said.
Through it all, Vox has not lost hope. "All the hate that I'm receiving is so much weaker than all of the love that I'm getting," she said. "So for every one person that hates me, I have one thousand people saying that they love me."
But Vox is also a realist. "I'm not sure that the majority of America is ready for someone like me to be on that platform of saying that I am the next American Idol," she said. "But what I do know is that there is a big part of America that is ready to accept me into their hearts. It's the people that love what I do that are the reason that I do what I love."
And winning for Vox does not necessarily mean winning American Idol. "Winning is the fact that I have changed anybody's life," said Vox, who is heartened by the messages she receives from those she inspires. Come what may, "I can look back and say, 'Hey, I made somebody's life better.' And my whole goal in not just my career but my life is to inspire people, to change people for the better. So if I can just do that for one person? Wow."
In the meantime, Vox wants viewers to sit back, relax, and enjoy what she has to bring to the stage. She promised "show-stopper" songs and "drama" looks. "I have never looked this good onstage and that is the truth," affirmed Vox, who arrived on Idol with only a handful of gowns, but is now receiving the full star treatment from Idol's stylists. "You all are going to get ready for some lewks, especially for Ms. Ada. They have gotten me feathered and sequined the house down."
"Oh, my God, I can't wait for them to see it."