Dressed in a shimmering golden skin of a dress, his hair teased into a lion’s mane of curls, and a dramatic projection resembling a burning sun scorching behind him, Ada Vox roared out a rendition of “Circle of Life” from The Lion King Sunday night on American Idol that just about stopped the show.
Take his incredible vocal gymnastics into account, and it was the talent show equivalent of all the fireworks at a firework show going off at once. So it says a lot about the caliber of this performer that a spectacle like his “Circle of Life” performance actually falls among his least memorable. Perhaps that’s why he was voted out of the competition on Sunday night.
After jaw-dropping performances of “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” “Creep,” and “House of the Rising Sun” earlier in the season, Ada raised his own bar. Though still delivering a stellar performance Sunday night, he perhaps noticeably faltered in attempting to clear that bar again. Meanwhile his less-talented competition managed to run right underneath it, unnoticed, to the next round of competition.
Ada Vox was the first drag queen to make it to the Top 10 of American Idol, and would have been the first gay or gender nonconforming contestant to ever win an amateur reality TV talent competition. It’s a distinction that many critics watching the show felt he deserved, and the amount of social media attention he received indicated he might accomplish.
But there seemed to be a disconnect between those raves and the actual votes from Idol’s audience, an audience that historically leans conservative and toward Middle America (as many of these talent competitions do). After steamrolling through the rounds of competition that judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan controlled, Ada fell to the bottom twice when the public took control of voting, including his elimination this week.
It’s interesting that one night later, Olympic figure skater and out gay media star Adam Rippon danced his way to the top of the leader board of the new athletes-only season of Dancing With the Stars with a fantastic routine set to a song by RuPaul, “Sissy That Walk.” Later this week, the annual fan-favorite episode of a RuPaul’s Drag Race season will air—“Snatch Game”—an event of sorts for a series that celebrates the art of drag and is breaking ratings records, winning Emmy Awards, and achieving mainstream status 10 years after it first began airing.
Even as we vent about Ada Vox’s elimination, it’s also a moment to cheer on visibility, queerness, drag, and LGBTQ talent on reality TV. It also raises the question, though, of how far we’ve come—and still have to go—when it comes to gay and gender nonconforming performers and acceptance in these reality shows.
It’s been 16 years since Jim Verraros was forced to delete web journals discussing his homosexuality during the first year of American Idol, 15 years since Clay Aiken competed on Idol while closeted, and nine years since Adam Lambert—Adam Lambert!—waited until after the show to come out. No gay contestants have won The Voice. It’s been more than a decade of dancers not discussing their sexualities on So You Think You Can Dance.
It’s 2018, and we still haven’t had an openly gay or gender nonconforming winner of a major reality TV competition. Was Ada Vox going to be the first? Should he have been?
Ada Vox is a drag queen from San Antonio who first competed on American Idol’s 12th season under his birth name Adam Sanders. He made it to the Top 50 before being sent home, returning to compete in the revival as his drag alter ego.
His vocal range and noticeably confident performance flourish stunned the judges. His rendition of the iconic anthem “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls, performed to save himself from elimination from the Top 10, was so remarkable that the judges didn’t even deliberate before deeming him safe.
But that Ada found himself in danger to begin with certainly suggests that something about the package he was serving audiences didn’t resonate, which might not be entirely surprising given the history of the show. In fact, Ada acknowledged that himself before Sunday’s show, saying, “America might not be ready for people like those of us who are a little bit different.”
There are those, whoever, who scoff at the idea of blaming prejudice for Ada’s elimination. Clay Aiken himself wrote an entire piece for HuffPost centered around the idea that Ada simply just wasn’t talented enough to win.
“Ada Vox wasn’t voted off because she is a drag queen and she wasn’t voted off because Adam Sanders (her alter ego) is a gay man,” he wrote. “She was voted off because she was not the best voice on the show.”
Be kind to Aiken. His column does consider Ada’s identity and how it might be perceived, as well as the reaction he might get as a gay man for arguing against Ada’s talent. He calls Ada a star and magnetic performer. But he’s steadfast in his opinion: “Ada Vox was not eliminated because she didn’t conform to the societal norms of Idol viewers; she was eliminated because she didn’t conform to the key of the song.”
Our counter to that opinion is that, as Aiken well knows, the “best voice” is often the least important factor when it comes to Idol winners. The days of Kelly Clarkson-level vocalists belting their way to the finale went by the wayside early in the Idol years, quickly replaced by raspy singer-songwriters with engaging personalities and sexually nonthreatening smiles.
To wit, of this season’s two perceived frontrunners, one chirped through “Bare Necessities” while accompanying herself on the ukulele Sunday night, while the other grinned through a vocally one-note, though very charming, rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.”
In fact, you could argue that performance, package, and personality is almost exclusively what matters, certainly over voice, in these competitions. Obviously, Ada’s identity and gender bending are intrinsic parts of all those things. And that’s what Idol voters weren’t buying, which is a shame.
It’s hard to think of a reason why this Idol revival exists, but it did—and still does—have the opportunity to make a cultural mark showcasing diversity of all kinds, be it gender, race, or sexuality. It’s only in recent years on shows like The Voice that a performer has even felt comfortable talking about identifying as queer, after too many storylines to count about heterosexual performers’ love lives.
After Ada’s elimination, there is one performer left in the competition who identifies as queer, 18-year-old out lesbian Jurnee, who is married to a woman. Jurnee stumbled in the Top 10, finding herself up for elimination before being saved by the judges alongside Ada Vox. But she was voted through to the Top 7 Sunday night.
She hasn’t made nearly as much noise as Ada and could be hindered by more direct comparisons to the show’s other young female belters. But she could also make history as the first out champion of American Idol.
It’s interesting, but perhaps hardly surprising, that for all the campy theatrics that define these competition shows, audiences are hesitant to vote an LGBTQ winner. We’re at the point where contestants are finally comfortable being out and discussing their identity on the shows, but that still seems to be a liability against winning.
It makes Adam Rippon’s run on the athletes-only Dancing With the Stars this season one to watch. Rippon’s media star shot through the hemispheres during the Winter Olympics. But as beloved as he was by the media, he was equally polarizing to many Americans who were put off by his personality and his outspoken politics.
Of course, few TV shows are gayer than Dancing With the Stars. To wit, in 2016 male model Nyle DiMarco, who publicly identifies as “sexually fluid,” became the first contestant who identifies on the queer spectrum to win the competition. Though his sexuality wasn’t addressed on the show, he also became the first man to dance with a same-sex partner—although just for a few seconds during a group routine.
It might be surprising that Dancing With the Stars, of all these competition shows, is breaking so many boundaries, though it should be said that So You Think You Can Dance has made major strides in embracing its queerness in recent seasons, and had same-sex couples dancing together long before Stars did. Still, a win by Rippon would be monumental.
All that said, there’s a difference between a show that showcases performers who are already celebrities, and a show meant to launch the career of an unknown person, one who is attempting to do so while being true to their identity. There’s a powerful message that crowning a person who identifies that way unapologetically could send. We’re just waiting for one of these shows to send it.