Iowa City drag community seeks rising stars in ‘Studio 13’s Star Search’

Every Sunday, ‘Studio 13’s Star Search’ searches for the drag performer who best represents Iowa City’s drag community. The competition will crown its star on March 13.


Lillie Hawker

Drag queen Barbara Lusch Light (left) and Drag queen Daphne Danger (right) perform at the semifinal round of the Studio 13 Star Search Drag Contest Sunday, March 6, 2022.

Jami Martin-Trainor, Arts Reporter

The disco ball smattered light into all corners of the bar, shimmering over the rainbow paneling distinctive of Studio 13’s performance space. Patrons filled tables scattered around the floor on Feb. 20, anticipating the latest night of the Iowa City bar’s weekly competition: Studio 13’s Star Search.

Studio 13’s Star Search is a drag competition for Iowa City performers. Held every Sunday night since Jan. 16, the ultimate Iowa City drag queen or king will be crowned this coming weekend.

Studio 13 remains Iowa City’s only LGBTQ+ nightclub, and for over two decades it has provided a space for a strong community of drag queens and kings. For years, the club has hosted regular drag shows and has expanded its usual performances with its star search to give newer performers a chance to take the spotlight and hone their skills.

The competition consists of several elements, including a lip-syncing contest and a runway walk to show off the contestants’ personalities and performance skills. Each week, one performer is sent home until only one winner remains.

On Feb. 20, the theme of the show was “red.” Contestants are given relatively vague predetermined themes each week, allowing for their own creativity to be at the forefront of the show.

Throughout the night, the audience interacted with performers, cheering on every entertainer. Singing along to the music playing and screaming in support of everyone in the room, Studio 13’s patrons helped build and sustain the supportive atmosphere.

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Barbara Busch Light took the stage first that night, performing with passion. Her runway outfit consisted of a long, glittering red dress, which she complemented with a matching red wig and jewelry. While the judges later commented that her piece didn’t feel cohesive, Barbara Busch Light explained that her look was meant to encapsulate the duality of drag — both elegant and dramatic.

Drag king Spooky Santos got the crowd especially riled up, performing the song “Dirty Little Secret” by the All-American Rejects. Parading around the stage with confidence and executing an intense air-guitar moment, Spooky Santos earned second place that night.

The lip-syncing contest begins the night, with each performer showing off their look and stage presence in front of the audience and judges. Performers must balance pandering to an audience just feet away, remembering the words to their song, and displaying their skills to the panel of judges to succeed in this element of the contest.

The songs the queens and kings choose to perform vary drastically. Some take on slower and smoother ballads to draw in and entice the audience, while others perform more high-energy routines to ignite the energy in the space.

Regardless of the chosen style, it is incredible to see the performers transform on stage. Before their performances, kings and queens can be seen standing and awaiting their turn, and it’s clear that the competitive setting brings about tension and nervousness. But once the music begins, those nerves seem to instantly turn to total confidence.

Even though Studio 13’s Star Search is a competition, the performers were nothing but kind to each other, both on and off stage. Whether it be taking photos of each other in their respective outfits or supporting the performer who got voted off at the end of the night, it is abundantly clear that Studio 13’s community thrives on kindness.

The contest is also meant to give newer drag queens and kings an opportunity to improve their skills. One of the show’s co-hosts, Lil Kimmy Blaque, explained that performing in a competitive setting is ideal for growth.

“The goal is to pretty much set up these newer performers for success by them showcasing their performance skill, and then they are judged based off of that,” Lil Kimmy Blaque said.

After the performances and runways conclude, the show judges give comments and critiques to the performers. Criticism was clearly focused on being constructive, allowing for the performers to use past mistakes and improve their craft. Through the judges’ commentary, it became quite clear to the audience that drag is much more than being able to get up on stage — it takes skill, creativity, and practice to succeed.

The concept of a drag competition is not necessarily new to Studio 13. Before the COVID-19 pandemic limited the entire performing-arts community, the nightclub was home to Sasha Belle’s Drag Race. Hosted by former competitor on RuPaul’s Drag Race Sasha Belle, the competition ran for eight seasons and three all-star seasons. According to the show’s hosts, Studio 13’s Star Search was partially conceived to fill the gap left after Sasha Belle’s Drag Race ended.

Since the pandemic started, a positive change was noted in Studio 13’s drag community. Co-hosts Lil Kimmy Blaque and Beep Beep explained that before they were separated by space, the drag community was divided by experience, leaving those who were new to the community on the outskirts.

“It’s definitely changed a lot since we first started,” Lil Kimmy Blaque said. “The pandemic definitely flipped everything on its head. I would say the pandemic kind of brought us a lot closer, and not in a sense of space-wise.”

Entertainment and experience are the main goals for the competition, but building community is also a key component. For many competitors, the co-hosts, and the show’s primary judge Myla Jade, Studio 13 has been home for a long time. Jade immediately jumped into Studio 13 at the age of 19, and has been performing there for the past seven years.

“Looking back at myself seven years ago when I first started coming to the studio, it was like I was so awful [at performing],” Myla Jade said. “This is seriously going to push [performers] to the point that they need because it’s making them do drag every week.”

Lil Kimmy Blaque, Beep Beep, and Myla Jade all expressed that Iowa City’s drag community is diverse and accepting of everyone.

“There’s a lot of, like, weirdos, there’s a lot of pretty queens. We have a lot of kings here,” Beep Beep said. “You’ll never see the same thing twice in a show.”

Studio 13’s Star Search’s final competition will take place on March 13 at 9 p.m.