Iowa City Drag Community Seeks Rising Stars in “Studio 13’s Star Search”


The disco ball cast light into every corner of the bar, shimmering over the distinctive rainbow panels of the Studio 13 performance space. Patrons filled tables strewn across the floor on February 20, anticipating the last night of the Iowa City weekly bar competition: Studio 13 Star Finder.

Studio 13 Star Finder is a drag contest for artists in Iowa City. Held every Sunday night since Jan. 16, Iowa City’s ultimate drag queen or king will be crowned this coming weekend.

Studio 13 remains Iowa City’s only LGBTQ+ nightclub, and for more than two decades has provided space for a strong community of drag queens and kings. For years, the club has held regular drag shows and expanded its usual performances with its star-studded search to give new performers a chance to take center stage and hone their skills.

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

On February 20, the show’s theme was “red”. Each week, participants are given relatively vague pre-determined themes, allowing their own creativity to be at the forefront of the show.

Throughout the night, the audience interacted with the performers, cheering on each performer. By singing along to the music and shouting to support everyone in the room, Studio 13 patrons helped create and maintain 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, shimmering red dress, which she complemented with a matching red wig and jewelry. While the judges later commented that her piece didn’t seem cohesive, Barbara Busch Light explained that her look was meant to encapsulate the duality of drag – both elegant and dramatic.

Drag king Spooky Santos particularly pissed off the crowd when he performed the All-American Rejects’ song “Dirty Little Secret.” Parading around the stage with confidence and performing an intense moment of air guitar, Spooky Santos took home second place that night.

The lip-syncing contest begins at night, with each performer showing off their looks and stage presence in front of the audience and judges. Performers must balance submitting to an audience a few feet away, remembering their song’s lyrics, and showing off their skills to the panel of judges to succeed in this element of the competition.

The songs Queens and Kings choose to perform vary widely. Some take on slower, softer ballads to draw in and draw in the audience, while others perform more energetic routines to ignite the energy in the space.

Regardless of the style chosen, it is incredible to see the performers transform on stage. Ahead of their performances, the kings and queens can be seen standing and waiting for their turn, and it’s clear the competitive setting is causing tension and jitters. But once the music starts, those nerves seem to instantly turn into complete confidence.

Although Studio 13 Star Finder is a competition, the performers were nothing but nice to each other, on and off stage. Whether it’s taking pictures of each other in their respective outfits or supporting the artist who was rejected at the end of the night, it’s abundantly clear that the Studio 13 community thrives on kindness.

The competition also aims to give new drag queens and kings the opportunity to improve their skills. One of the show’s co-hosts, Lil Kimmy Blaque, explained that playing in a competitive setting is great for growth.

“The goal is pretty much to set these new performers up for success by showing them their acting skills, and then they’re judged on that basis,” Lil Kimmy Blaque said.

After the performances and tracks are completed, the show judges give feedback and reviews to the performers. The reviews were clearly meant to be constructive, allowing the performers to use past mistakes and improve their craft. Through the judges’ comments, it became clear to the audience that drag is much more than the ability to take the stage – it takes skill, creativity and practice to be successful.

The concept of a drag contest 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 lasted eight seasons and three all-star seasons. According to the show’s hosts, Studio 13 Star Finder was partly designed to fill the void left after Sasha Belle’s Drag Race ended.

Since the start of the pandemic, a positive change has been noted in the Studio 13 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 periphery.

“It’s definitely changed a lot since we started,” Lil Kimmy Blaque said. “The pandemic has definitely turned everything upside down. I would say the pandemic kind of brought us a lot closer together, and not in the sense of space.

Entertainment and experience are the primary goals of the competition, but building community is also key. For many contestants, co-hosts, and the show’s lead 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 seven years.

“Thinking back seven years ago, when I first started coming to the studio, it was like I was so horrible [at performing]”, said Myla Jade. “It will seriously push [performers] to the point they need because it forces them to do drag every week.

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

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

Studio 13 Star FinderThe final competition will take place on March 13 at 9 p.m.


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