On the new Paramount+ singing competition series Queen of the Universe, the four corners of the world are represented: Paris, Mexico City, Mumbai and … San Antonio?

The international drag queen competition draws its contestants from locations all over the globe, including Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, England and the U.S.

San Antonio is represented thanks to Ada Vox, a former American Idol contestant who has rocketed to No. 2 in the standings with just two weeks left in the competition.

Vox has what might be considered a competitive advantage, as contestants on the unusual show are judged not by their lip-syncing abilities — standard drag fare — but on the contestants’ actual singing voices. The 28-year-old Vox started singing in earnest at age eight and became a professional vocalist at age 13.

“I have never lip-synced, it’s never been part of my gig,” said Adam Sanders, who adopted the stage persona Ada Vox at age 21 as a “safety blanket” to be able to express himself fully.

Sanders auditioned for American Idol 13 times, once making it to the 50th spot as himself before being cut, finally earning a spot in the competition as Ada Vox. As Vox, she then performed with such aplomb that she made it onto American Idol’s 16th season in 2018. She sealed her fate with an emotional rendition of Radiohead’s Creep, which asks the self-conscious question of an outsider:

I’m a creep,
I’m a weirdo,
What the hell am I doing here?

Vox answered the question with her performance, earning a standing ovation from the audience and approval from Idol judges Katy Perry, Lionel Ritchie and Luke Bryan to advance to the group of final 24 contestants.

Vox went on to place eighth in the competition.

The experience boosted Vox’s confidence, but also showed a darker side of celebrity in a culture that still struggles to accept members of the LGBTQ+ community as participants in mainstream culture.

San Antonio native Adam Sanders performs as Ada Vox on the Paramonut+ series, Queen of the Universe.
San Antonio native Adam Sanders, performing as Ada Vox, first earned a spot on American Idol. Credit: Guy Levy /Paramount+

“A drag queen could never, at least at this point in time, win American Idol — no matter how well they performed — because the voting audience just isn’t that audience,” Sanders said, explaining that Queen of the Universe appeals to a broader audience than American Idol.

“If people were even close to aware of the amount of messages and hate that I got, because of the audience that American Idol catered to, then they would understand that.”

But show business requires resilience, he said. “I’ve been turned down from hundreds of auditions in my time,” he said, but told himself he’d keep trying no matter how many times he heard the word ‘No.’

RuPaul’s new show is more likely to provide a positive environment for drag stars, he said. “Queen of the Universe is literally meant to combine the best parts of music, the best parts of entertainment, the best parts of people … and put it all on a stage where we can all be celebrated and appreciated.”

Anyone curious how far Vox makes it in this first Queen of the Universe competition will have to tune in on Thursdays to the Paramount+ show, which requires a subscription to view.

Sanders said that no matter the result, he’s proud of how far he’s come.

“I’ve always viewed these competition shows as platforms. And a platform is just something … to make the most out of. Whether you win or not, there is always an opportunity for success.”

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...