It may be 2017, but tonight drag queen Roxie Mess is channeling her inner ’80s superstar. From the moment she takes the stage, she controls the crowd at Studio 13, the only gay bar in Iowa City. Taylor Dayne’s “Tell It To My Heart” blasts through the speakers. Roxie struts on stage in a skin-tight, neon orange dress with pink frills and huge blonde hair that seems to take up more space than her actual head. Her 4-inch heels make her tower above the crowd at 6-foot-9. Her makeup is just as bright and jarring as the neon dress and makes it impossible for anyone to look away as she dances across the floor and against the wall.
Throughout the song she walks around to dozens of people eagerly holding out dollar bills for her to take, blowing kisses to each one as she grabs the bills and stuffs them down her dress. People cheer as the song finishes up and she glides off stage. As she rushes to change costumes for her next routine, she feeds off of the energy around her. Studio 13 is her place — a bar full of people who come out week after week to support the loud, comedic, crazy, dramatic routines of Roxie Mess.
Last year, Roxie took her act to a new level: She performed for the third time at the Miss Gay Iowa At-Large pageant. The at-large category of the pageant calls on all plus-size drag queens around the state to compete. After disappointing results in the previous two years, 2016 was different. She walked away with the crown.
“I got to reign as the symbol of excellence for plus-sized drag queens,” she says.
Now Roxie has her hopes set on a national stage: RuPaul’s Drag Race. She will audition for the VH1 show for the third time this summer.
When she’s not wowing crowds on a weekly basis at Studio 13, Roxie Mess is better known as Jason Seaba, a 26-year-old from Blakesburg, Iowa, who works as an associate at a tuxedo rental store.
Growing up in Blakesburg, population 296, was difficult for Jason. He used to spend his afternoons in the library reading, or on the playground sketching his Power Rangers action figures. In high school, he still felt like he didn’t fit in with any of the groups around him, and he found himself in a dark place mentally — what he calls, “looking over the edge.” He attempted suicide twice.
“I lived through that time, and I learned from it,” he says. “And that’s the way I kind of look at life and drag in general. That’s why I find humor in a lot of dark things, because I’ve been to the edge. I’ve looked down.”
After graduating high school, Jason attended Central College in Pella, where he studied theater, mostly working behind the scenes. He says going to Central College was the first time he had a group of people that he felt like he fit in with.
“I found a really supporting, accepting family there. It took me a little bit but I found them, and that helped me a lot with being confident,” Jason says.
But it wouldn’t be until after college that Jason would transform into Roxie Mess for the first time, and find his home in front of the crowd, instead of behind the scenes.
When Jason began performing, he needed a name that fit his drag persona. He knew right away that the first part should be Roxie, based on the character from the movie Chicago.
“I liked the character Roxie because she was dumb, stupid — she didn’t know what she was doing,” Jason says. “And then the last part came from my roommate complaining one night when I was stumbling home after a night out. I had tripped on a table in our apartment, and he said, ‘Jason, you’re such a fucking mess,’ and I thought, ‘Mess. That’s it.’”
And Roxie Mess was born.
At Studio 13, Roxie is known for being over-the-top comedic: a queen who can (and does) laugh at herself. You can often hear her deep, croaky laugh throughout the hallways of Studio 13, before and after her shows.
“I didn’t want to be taken seriously, because I think that’s the biggest downfall in drag performers,” Jason says. “I am serious about being not serious, if that makes any sense.”
Jason’s bedroom is covered with different colored wigs, hung up on the walls and strewn about. Each one has a story.
“This one was given to me by Detox, a queen that I really look up to on RuPaul’s Drag Race,” he says as he takes down a deep purple wig. “I went up to her in the club and asked her how much she wanted for it, and she wouldn’t take my money. She just gave it to me,” he remembers.
An entire wall of his room has been converted into clothing racks for the different outfits that Roxie wears. Jason sews every single one of them by hand.
The room is one that would have made 12-year-old Jason swoon.
“I always wanted to be the star. I wanted to be like Madonna. I wanted all the lights, the prettiest costumes,” he says. “In middle school I would take beads and put them on my shoe laces because I thought it made me different. My locker was always decorated with colorful things. I just wanted to be something.”
When it comes to supporting Roxie, Jason’s family has been mixed in their response. His parents split when he was young, and he was always closer to his mom.
“I love my mom, a lot. She’s one of those ’80s power bitches,” he says.
When Jason first told her that he was gay, her response, he recalls, was: “You really didn’t have to say it. I kind of knew. Can we go get dinner now?”
Jason’s father was not unsupportive so much as indifferent, Jason says.
“My dad’s a very stoic man. Our relationship isn’t built on talking once a week or anything … I don’t even know if he was supportive. We just never really talked about it.”
But looking back to his childhood, despite the incomplete support network and unsuccessful search to find his place among his peers, Jason says he grew stronger.
“I don’t really believe in a lot of regret. I think things are meant to be the way they are. So those mistakes and heartbroken nights I had in high school and college … I’m still living,” he says. “I think one of the biggest lessons that I have learned is: The people who bully you, you’re not going to remember their name in ten years, or even five years.”
Since he started performing as Roxie four years ago, Jason says he has become much more comfortable with himself, both in drag and out of it.
“I used to be a very shy person. It still comes out, but I think that doing drag has really helped me broaden myself and believe in myself a lot,” he says. “I used to have a lot of self-doubt.”
Now, drag brings self-expression rather than self-doubt.
“With drag, I get to be that star that I wanted to be, that I saw in Madonna. You know, that standout, where all the lights are on me and I’m sparkly and I look cool,” he says. “People want to talk about me.”
Most recently, this led to a rock-and-roll Power Rangers mash up, where Roxie came out dressed as Rita Repulsa, a villain from the first season of the iconic children’s TV show.
The music blared, screaming “Power Rangers attack!” amidst guitar solos, and Roxie emerged from backstage with braids that looked like horns sticking out of her head, a black cone bra and brown robe draped over her. As she commanded the stage with sinister villain choreography, the crowd roared with applause usually reserved for heroes. Roxie was in control, just where she belonged. She was the star.
Julia Davis is a recent journalism graduate from the University of Iowa, specializing in scientific and political coverage. In the past, she has reported for PBS, ‘USA Today,’ the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, and Iowa Public Radio. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 224.