Ada Vox has been a standout this season of American Idol, not just for being a head-turning drag queen, but for amazing performances that have turned judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan into diehard fans.
In fact, despite a less-than-stellar rendition of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” that was hampered by nerves and an allergic reaction, she was sent through to the Top 10 Monday night.
It was an enormous moment for the 24-year-old Vox, whose real name is Adam Sanders. The San Antonio, Texas, native tried for years to get on Idol—and even succeeded in Season 12, but she was cut before making it into the Top 40.
Before Sunday’s episode, Vox spoke with NewNowNext about her decision to audition in drag this time around, what representing the LGBT community means to her, and what it’s like to wake up to the news that “the mother of it all” has showed you love.
You made it through to the Top 10. How exciting is that?
Oh, gosh, it is ridiculously exciting! I have been trying to get on this show for eight years. So, it’s kind of crazy.
What was going through your head when you realized the judges were passing you through?
Nothing was going through my head—except I kept telling myself, ’I did it.’ And I said, ’I’m finally where I need to be right now.’ Because of the circumstances, of me having to sing for my life, I was thinking that if they give me that seat, I need to prove myself even more.
You’ve said you had an allergic reaction before that night’s performance. What did you eat that caused it?
Yeah, I’m allergic to citrus. And they brought me up my lunch order, which was pork chops. I took the first bite, and my tongue started stinging and my throat swelled up immediately. I guess it was cooked with some kind of citrus thing, which was, like, totally great to happen before a live show!
Well, you got through it!
I tried my best.
What age did you start singing?
I’ve been singing for a while, since I was a kid—singing and humming along with things. But it was when I was 8 years old that I finally said, You know what, this is something I realize can have an impact on people’s lives in a great way. I was in the hospital [to remove a cyst] and my mom starting singing to me in the hospital. That’s when I realized firsthand the healing it made me feel. When I really started taking it seriously.
I’ve been singing on stages since I was 13—all kinds of things, from singing at quinceañeras and weddings, to singing at festivals—like in San Antonio, we have the Fiesta Oyster Bake. I did stages in front of ten people, and I did stages in front of a couple thousand people. And it was all a great part of what made me feel like that was what I was supposed to be doing.
Wen did you start doing drag?
I’ve only been doing drag, I think, for about three years now. I’d been, you know, playing with makeup and whatnot before that, but I actually started performing as Ada about three years ago. It was really fun—and I haven’t stopped since then.
What made you decide to audition in drag this season?
People don’t seem to understand that I auditioned for the show a total of 13 times. Twelve times I auditioned as Adam, and aside from the one time that I was on in Season 12, I never made it past production. So, it’s a super-difficult thing to face all this rejection as yourself. When the show came back for another season, I said, I need something to push me over the edge, something to make me stand out.
I spent some time thinking about it before I went and did it, and I thought, you know what, Drag queens are someone that people can look up to. They can be role models and positive icons in our community. So I thought, I can do this and inspire people, and change people’s lives. I can stand as an icon in a very specific community and actually make a difference.
So when I went out and did it, I said, Maybe this is enough to set me apart, and my talent is still here, it’s just a matter of a different package now. And I’m here now, and I think it was probably one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made. Although it is quite a controversial thing on this show right now, I think it was something that needed to be done. Not only for myself, but for the community.
Speaking of which, you’ve talked about how during Season 12 you got some hate, and even threats. What has the reaction been like this time around?
This time around, it’s been interesting—it goes both ways. There’s so much love and there’s so much hate, because of what I’m doing and it being so controversial.
I have people still sending me the craziest messages, telling me to kill myself, to stop what I’m doing, to get off their television screens, that someone like me isn’t American Idol material. Simply because of what I represent.
But I’ve come into this with a lot more experience, with a much tougher skin, and with knowledge on what it takes to deal with situations like this. And I know that I am here standing for something that is so much bigger than just myself. So I’m not going to let all the negativity get to me, I have received so much more love and that just outweighs it so much.
How about the show itself? Are producers doing a good job letting you tell your story the way you want to tell it?
Absolutely. They have been so open with me coming onto the show as I wanted to do it. I said I only wanted to be in drag on stage, because I want to represent the whole drag community and gay community, and still stand for my transgender brothers and sisters, so they know that I am not misrepresenting them.
And I think [the show is] doing so, so great in representing the LGBT community in a positive light. Because they could have twisted so many things, and they could have cut me way earlier and made me look like a joke, or made me come across however they wanted to. But they have embraced it fully and have taken on the world as it is today, going forward in love.
I think having both myself and Jurnee [an out lesbian] here says a lot about people being accepting and believing that the world is ready for people like us to take to the stage.
And I saw RuPaul tweeted at you!
Yes, he did—that was so great! I received a lot of attention from his girls, and thought, Oh this is so great, maybe he’ll see it. Then one magical morning, I woke up and everyone told me about this tweet from him.
— RuPaul (@RuPaul) April 23, 2018
It was great to see that I had gotten recognition from the mother of it all. I said, That’s even more validation that I’m doing exactly what I need to be doing right now.
Do you have any favorite queens from Drag Race?
Oh, gosh, I love all of them for so many different reasons, because a lot of them stand for so many different things. Some queens that I really, really love: I love Latrice [Royale], because I feel like she is just a ball of goodness. Her energy is so great. I love Trixie Mattel, I think her humor is ridiculous. She has a super dry, ’dad joke’ sort of sense of humor, like me.
I love my singing queens, of course. I love my Courtney [Act], my Adore [Delano], my Jinx [Monsoon]. I don’t know, it’s hard to pick one.
Do you have a drag family or mother?
I was actually just kind of brought into a family recently—literally just weeks ago. Brazil Noreaga-Johnson decided, not necessarily to help me as a drag mother, but to just be there as my support system, my family. She invited me and my fiancé [Roland Ray, a.k.a. drag performer Alizae Marie York] into her family.
She’s already been a great support, willing to help us out with whatever we need. It feels like a real family, not just a drag family, because she doesn’t call herself a ’drag mom.’ She’s a beautiful trans woman, so she calls herself a trans mom. Because she’s there for us more as a real motherly figure.
What are your plans after Idol?
I already have a bunch of things planned. I would really like to go on a Pride tour, just to keep myself fresh and to keep myself in the community, representing on both stages immediately after the show’s over. I would also love to have a mainstream music career. That’s the goal in all of this, to be bigger than just a drag queen in the clubs and at the Prides.
I want to be a queen you hear on your everyday radio station. And I want to travel the world and fill arenas. I want to be a real global superstar and make the biggest move any drag queen has ever made.
Speaking of the future, do you have a finale song in your back pocket?
If I make it to the finale, I would really like to perform “Creep” again, and really just deliver that on a huge stage with even more emotion and realness than I felt the first time I performed it. That was a very important performance to me.
Finally, what would you like to say to your fans?
In all of this, as I have received so much hate, I’ve also received so, so much love. The one thing that I can say to people is that no matter how much hate you get, you have to realize that the love within yourself, that you need to have for yourself, is more than enough for you to continue on.
The Top 10 episode of American Idol airs Sunday, April 30, at 8/7c on ABC.