116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — At 6-foot-5 and 350 pounds, Roxie Mess steps out onto the stage at Belle’s Basix, where the emcee introduces her as “the world’s eighth wonder.”
In a wig the size of a raccoon and heels that make her tower well over 7 feet tall, it’s not hyperbolic to say the local drag queen is larger than life in the nightclub. In a mesh mermaid-style dress that manages to make a sex symbol of Elphaba, the main witch character of Broadway’s “Wicked,” she lip syncs to “No Good Deed.”
Halloween presents a high bar for edgy acts. The opening act performs an uncommon headbanging, heavy metal number while dressed as the Joker. One of the performers after Roxie has makeup that realistically rivals the look of a serious burn victim.
But with a high bar for visual gore, Roxie’s transgressive personality consistently pierces through the noise, Halloween or not. As she lip syncs “never let him die,” forcefully punctuating the words in what would otherwise be a wholesome Broadway piece, she uses her fist to make a gesture too obscene for most standard musicals.
With a persona and mannerisms reminiscent of Divine, the star of John Waters films like “Pink Flamingos,” Roxie is more than a look — she’s a presence. When Roxie is in front of you, she’s not simply the illusion of a woman — she’s the fantasy of imaginations not spoken aloud in polite company.
“Where do you know a woman who smashes on blush, puts on crusty hair and wears a rhinestoned or sequined gown?” she told The Gazette, referencing the pageant style common in the drag scene. “I know I have a role to play, I have a character to play. There’s a reason why people want me … I fulfill that fantasy for people.”
As other performers rotate throughout the evening, a TV screen in the background of the dark nightclub introduces the regular queens at Belle’s Basix with a short video clip of each one posing.
As other queens settle for seductive poses on a green-screened red carpet, Roxie’s introduction to the uninitiated is a full minute of her smearing what appears to be lipstick all over her body in a mobile home park. On second glance, it’s actually a whiteboard marker.
“People go and pay for that experience — they want larger than life,” said Jason Seaba, 31, who becomes Roxie with some makeup, padding and a very large wig. “People want that experience when they’re at a nightclub. They want that grittiness.”
Drag performers like Roxie Mess can be seen performing at regular shows in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.
Cedar Rapids: Belle’s Basix, 3916 First Ave. NE. Shows most Fridays and Saturdays starting at 11 p.m.
Iowa City: Studio 13, 13 S. Linn St. Regular drag shows most Saturdays starting at 10:30 p.m. Others regularly scheduled most weeks.
Over the last eight years, a period in which drag has become a more mainstream art form thanks to the popularity of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Roxie has wholesale rejected the notion that drag is simply looking as much like a woman as you can.
As drag grew more mainstream in popular culture during that time period, Roxie exemplifies a trend with local drag queens across the country who have chosen to embrace their own messy styles. No longer can one define a drag performer strictly as a cisgender man who dresses to pass as a cisgender woman.
With the build of a linebacker, Roxie isn’t afraid to come out on stage with chest hair sticking out of her bra — something a pageant queen wouldn’t be caught dead doing. By daring to be her brand of transgressive, she stretches a boundary, even if in small ways at local shows.
During some shows, her piercing blue eyes almost hold those who dare to look at her in contempt, reinforcing her Divine-esque appeal.
“If I’m in the shadows, I look like I want to punch anyone who looks at me,” she joked.
On other nights, she’ll leave a lipstick print on the cheek of anyone gracious enough to tip her during a song — a daring act in the age of COVID-19.
If a tip is left on the stage floor after a previous performer’s number, Roxie’s eyes will subtly dart down and back up behind heavy eye makeup. As she discreetly leans down to pick up the dollar bill and stuff it in her bra, she flashes a wry grin of amusement.
“When you see money on the ground, you grab it quick,” Seaba said. “I like to raise money for my favorite cause, which is me.”
But the persona created by the North Liberty resident hasn’t been going for eight years because of the money. In a typical weekend performance, Roxie will make $20 to $75 in the dollar bills customarily handed to her during her numbers — not a great living for the eight hours of work it takes to get into drag and perform each night.
“I’m an attention whore. It’s nice to feel like a rock star,” Seaba said.
With a big personality, Roxie tries to fill the shoes of the power women Seaba was raised on: Madonna, Cindy Lauper, Reba McEntire and Lady Gaga.
Though she identifies as “a clown in drag” with a “garbage” style that hasn’t changed much since she began, Roxie concedes that her style has grown more luxe, refined and opulent over the years. Born as an outlet for Seaba’s creativity, Roxie’s style has gotten better with money from a full-time day job since graduating from college. The advent of an affordable lace-front wig has helped, too.
“I would go onto Amazon and buy those garbage Spirit Halloween wigs,” Seaba said. “I would get six to seven of them, safety pin them together, spray them with (temporary) color, wash them and start over again at the next gig. I probably have scars on my head from the safety pins, bobby pins digging in.”
A glance toward Seaba’s shaved head to confirm whether the scars exist reveals shaved eyebrows — a sign of dedication for any drag queen. As other queens glue down and paint over their natural eyebrows for higher, more feminine brows, Roxie has a head start.
By being larger than life in her own style, Roxie has found a way to belong that she never felt growing up as a queer child with nowhere to go. Through Roxie, Seaba feels wanted.
“When you’re a bigger person, there’s a lot of categorization that you have to be a camp or comedy queen,” Seaba said. “I don’t think you can be a real comedian unless you’ve had trauma in your life.”
At 15, Seaba was kicked out of his home by his stepmother and father in Blakesburg, a town of under 300 people about 25 minutes west of Ottumwa.
“Growing up, I just sat underneath the slide. My grandma would buy me notebooks and I’d just draw on them,” he said.
Though Roxie used to be Seaba’s first line of defense — “they can’t hate you if they’re laughing,” he said — the local personality is now the product of confidence that Seaba has managed to build in life. In addition to being the eighth wonder of the world, Roxie has held the real-life title of Miss Gay Iowa At-Large 2016 and the made-up title of Miss Hot Ham & Cheese 2004.
But it took a long time to build that confidence in a drag world where pageantry dominates.
“When I first came into the scene, it was very much pageantry,” he said. “You have to give this feminine illusion.”
If you weren’t giving that illusion, you weren’t going to get booked for shows as often. Though bookings have gotten easier for her, she said the more feminine looking queens still tend to pull in more tips.
When Roxie started doing shows, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” was still on a niche LGBTQ TV network. Now, Roxie makes a side income by sewing and tailoring outfits for some well-known drag performers in the TV franchise with several spinoffs, in addition to “Dragula,” an alternative drag competition now on AMC+.
“I’m grateful it’s more acceptable,” Seaba said.
But with the advent of mainstream drag, Roxie fears that drag has lost its power and significance. With LGBTQ history still largely absent from school curriculum, each year’s Pride celebrations are another year removed from the transgender drag queens of color who threw the first bricks at Stonewall.
In a heteronormative world, no matter how popular one TV show becomes, drag performers like Roxie keep drag in its original form: an art that doubles as the ultimate transgression.
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