Watch out, Atlanta. The reigning queen of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Sharon Needles, is about to make her Atlanta debut.
Needles, the winner of the fourth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, has quickly become a stand-out in the drag scene for her macabre style and wicked humor. Even Lady Gaga tweeted about her during the season’s run, wanting to borrow one of Needles’ outfits.
More controversially, she’s also becoming known for her use of shocking imagery and comments that have been deemed transphobic and racially insensitive, attributes that Needles thinks are not accurate.
In the middle of a whirlwind schedule, Sharon Needles took the time to speak with David about her drag origins, her controversial statements, RuPaul’s Drag Race and her many trips through the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
For someone who’s never seen RuPaul’s Drag Race and will be getting their first exposure to you when you come to Atlanta, what do they need to know about Sharon Needles?
Well, first of all, I don’t think there’s one person in Atlanta who hasn’t seen RuPaul’s Drag Race. It is the highest-rated television show of all time. Of course, of course I’m joking, but I guess I would say for the few people in the gay community who are unaware of the phenomenon of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the three [things] that sum up Sharon Needles are: she’s beautiful, she’s spooky, and she’s stupid. But most important, she’s very approachable. She really is turning the drag world upside down, and taking it from a beauty contest and turning it into real performance art.
What are the major differences between Sharon Needles in and out of drag?
I’m an intelligent, sensitive punk rock guy who’s in love with education, literature, art, and music, and Sharon Needles…she’s an idiot. She’s Kelly Bundy in black lipstick. She’s irreverent and intentionally acts a fool, but it’s a great juxtaposition between the way she acts and the show that she gives, because the show is very politically motivated. It’s very based on social issues and social anxieties. Her favorite thing is to take very dark issues that people don’t like to talk about, and force them in the spotlight where hopefully we can all create some dialogue, and laugh at ourselves.
You’ve come under some fire for your use of controversial imagery. What is the intention of using these symbols in your act? Is it for shock value? A deeper message that you’re trying to portray?
I do consider myself a shock artist. The reason I love shock art so much is when I was a kid, I didn’t want to watch Jurassic Park and Titanic; I wanted to watch Pink Flamingos and Dune Generation. I wasn’t listening to Britney Spears as a kid; I was listening to Ministry, Marilyn Manson and the Sex Pistols. I’ve always been a fan of people who liked to make a stink, and I think it’s hard to get a message across when you’re so fluffy about it. I never use shocking imagery or audio for the sake of upsetting people. I have a great compromise, a juxtaposition of shock imagery and performance art, that I think really creates a message. I’m basically saying, “I’m not afraid to talk about everything that we’re all thinking but not saying.”
On a similar note, you’ve made some comments recently about the trans community that have sparked some controversy. Would you like to clear that up?
That was directed at someone personally who has put my work under attack. I really don’t think we should give her that much attention, since she’s just a Pittsburgh little brat who has done nothing but try to cause me and my family a lot of pain, so I’d prefer not to give her a lot of attention. But you know what? Here in Pittsburgh, me and the Haus of Haunt, we call ourselves “drag things.” I think it’s misogynist for a drag queen to even be called a “her” because drag queens look nothing like women. They’re the exaggeration of American consumerism amongst the female population. So, yeah, I choose to use the word “thing” when I’m not quite sure what to call you. In my personal opinion, I say “Call me he, call me she, fuck – call me Regis Kathie Lee. Just call me.”
What actually inspired you to go into drag?
I think I’ve always been in drag. I grew up in Iowa in a really small farming community, and [there were] not a lot of imaginative outlets for a kid like me. And though I had two really loving parents, they were both really working class people, so I say this all the time – I was raised by a single parent, and that parent was television! And even though I grew up in this gray, desolate farming community, I had this glowing color box in the living room that just had all these glamorous women like Elvira, Peggy Bundy and Rhonda Shear from USA Up All Night. And I was so inspired by these people, that I was always in my mother’s closet. The Halloween box was never put away.
Since I was bullied a lot in high school, I became a recluse in my own head. I’ve always been creating these fantasy female creatures that I wanted to be. In terms of performing in drag, I had a fake ID by the time I was 15, and was professionally doing drag in Des Moines, Iowa at the age of 15. I’m 30 years old and have 15 years under my belt in this business. I think I started drag two and a half hours after coming out of my mom’s cunt.
Now you have a very distinctive look. Where do you get your inspiration for your wardrobe and makeup?
I’m really into fashion. A lot of people say all drag queens are into fashion. I…don’t know if that’s necessarily true. I’m not the queen with the hot glue gun and a bag full of rhinestones. I don’t want to look like Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, Patti LaBelle, [or] Cher. My idols are true fashion icons, people like Leigh Bowery and the Factory Girls from Andy Warhol, Amanda Lepore, the Limelighters and the Tunnel kids, club kids from New York in the 80s and 90s. I like to look as extreme as I feel, talk, and act. I think life should be full of extremes, or I would die of boredom.
You were just honored by your hometown of Pittsburgh, with the city declaring a Sharon Needles Day. What was that like?
It was too early. It was too fucking early! I had a two-day break in my American tour right now, and then these people wanted me in full drag in a courthouse at 10 a.m. But I will tell you this. It felt really good to walk into a courtroom being applauded, and not being escorted out in handcuffs. So it was a real change for me. Pittsburgh has been the home now of two very famous monsters, one being me and one being Rick Santorum. I’m glad there’s a Sharon Needles Day and not a Rick Santorum Day. I’m glad the city’s applauding the monster who stands up against bullying and anti-gay rhetoric, and for gay marriage, as opposed to a multi-millionaire psychopath.
But yeah, a win for Sharon Needles is a win for the entire city of Pittsburgh. There’s a reason they call Pittsburgh the City of Champions. We have six Super Bowl rings…which is funny, because I have about six cock rings. It was great to be applauded by not just the gay community, the underground scene or the punk rock scene, but elected officials who really understand the importance of having a figure who stands up for kids who are being bullied because it happens in every city, but I would say it probably happens pretty predominantly here in Pittsburgh. We’re a blue-collar city, and blue-collar cities tend to have a more rough-and-tumble attitude towards minorities. So if these kids for one day can feel like their freaky selves, and it’s A-OK, then I’m happy.
Now I heard you recently bought your first car, and that it’s a hearse.
Yeah, I bought a 1972 original Bonneville black hearse with siren. It has an ambulance siren, that’s my favorite part. I named her Rhonda, after Rhonda Shear. She’s the Elvira of my childhood.
How challenging is it to drive?
Oh, I don’t drive it! It’s a piece of art to me. Pittsburgh roads are so shitty, and we have no parking. It would just be ridiculous to even try to drive it. So I let my friends drive me around in it. I’ve had it for over a month and we’ve driven it around the block twice. But…there’s nothing funner than getting a 30-pack of PBR, piling in the back with your friends, and getting drunk in a car that has held thousands of dead bodies, and I’m glad to just be one more corpse in the car.
Moving on to RuPaul’s Drag Race, I have to ask: during the competition, which challenge was the most difficult for you?
The most challenging would have been the Bitch Ball. Every season has a ball episode, and I’m sure the Atlanta queens know what I’m talking about because they have such a great ball scene. What we had to do was create three entire looks in one day based around the concept of a dog. I’m not a real sewer, and I was the only one in the room who wasn’t an advanced sewer. I found that part quite challenging. But I won that challenge. In fact, I won every sewing challenge without ever touching that fucking machine. That goes to show the real thing to applaud a drag queen for craftiness. Real drag queens can dive into any dumpster and turn it into couture. I could sell life insurance to a dead person.
You seemed to be the contestant this year that the majority of Drag Race viewers loved to watch. Was that surprising at all to you?
I knew I would be entertaining because I’m different. A lot of drag queens like to assimilate. A lot of drag queens, when they’re growing into their characters, try to follow the rules and try to follow the successful queens amongst them. I was the complete opposite. It’s like…punk rock was challenging society, I felt like I was the punk rock queen of drag. I wanted to challenge what we all thought drag was, or what most Americans were exposed to. I knew I would be funny and kitschy, but did I ever think I would win? Absolutely not. RuPaul’s Drag Race has previously been a show for beauty queens, and I’m glad that this year, it was given to the artist and not the model displaying the art.
The finale was done a little differently this year. The winner was announced after the finale, and even then you filmed three endings for each finalist. How did that impact your reaction to winning on-camera?
Well, I was very disappointed in the producers’ decision to do it that way. Of course I understand. No other reality show in history covets the sanctity of the process of knowing who the winner is, because it really is a downer for the gay community to know who wins [in advance], and RuPaul’s Drag Race is to us the way the playoffs are to most Pittsburgh Steelers fans. No one wants the surprise ruined for everyone, but we had a lot of queens and press in the live taping, and we knew we wouldn’t be safe. So it was a last-minute decision. We were told about 20 minutes before taping that we should make up some things. I was worried that if I acted, my fans would be disappointed and wonder just how honest and real my story was on the show. So when RuPaul asked me if there was anything I would like to say, I simply said, “Happy Halloween!” I didn’t want to do a “I can’t believe you chose me! Oh my gosh!” I didn’t want to give any of that because I knew it would be leaked that we filmed three separate endings, so I just acted as graciously as I could to hold that crown.
How did you find out that you actually won?
I found out on TV, just like everybody else! I was in New York, and we were doing a show because, of course, it was the last episode. We invited all the New York fans to come out, and all the RuPaul girls were doing a drag show. And I was standing there with the other two finalists, Chad Michaels and Phi Phi O’Hara. I was also with my best friend, Randy; my boyfriend, Alaska Thunderfuck; and my mom, who’d flown in from Iowa. So I really couldn’t ask for a better way to learn. I was learning it with America right on television. It really has come full-circle. I’m not just a contestant and the winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race. I’m the biggest fan of this television show ever. I’ve seen every episode, every Monday at 9:20, in the same La-Z-Boy chair. It was just great to come full circle, to be a fan of the show, a part of the show, and having it bond together. Being a fan, and watching myself win live on television. It was surreal.
What has life been like since winning RuPaul’s Drag Race?
It’s been insane. I moved into a new apartment. It’s called “Every Airport in America.” And I’ve given up my favorite narcotic, sleeping. Beyond that, it’s been phenomenal. A year ago, I was paying my rent by cashing in the penny bowl, and making up every excuse I could to the electric company to keep my power on. Now, I’ve been put into a financial position to take care of myself and my family. You know, RuPaul didn’t give me the crown this year. This year was really based on fan reception of the show, and I had an overwhelming majority support me. So I’m on a 60-city tour, which at times I find is running me ragged. Sometimes I cry and I scream and I punch the wall. But at the end of the day, this is me writing my thank-you notes to every fan who supported me. So I just want to make sure I hit every city and meet every fan who was there to not only go online to support me, but found some solace and maybe hope for the future, so that their teen years that were as shitty as mine could become more fruitful and they can make more positive changes for themselves. I never wanted to be a role model because all of my role models are fucking dead, but I do take the challenge very seriously.
Since winning RuPaul’s Drag Race, what’s the coolest thing that’s happened to you, or the most surprising thing?
If Chad Michaels had won and she wanted to work with her idols, that would never happen. Cher’s not going to work with her. If Phi Phi O’Hara won and wanted to work with her idols, never gonna happen. Nicki Minaj is never going to call her. But I’m the kind of person whose idols were underground, cult figures, so I’ve had the opportunity to work with so many of my idols. So few of them are alive. I’ve been able to work with Amanda Lepore, Suzanne Barnes, and just recently, I’ve gotten to work with my biggest idol, an Atlanta resident – Jayne County, who I just did a photoshoot with, and that was a life-changing day for me. Atlanta, you have no idea what you spawn. Pittsburgh spawns great stars. We have Andy Warhol and Mr. Rogers, Christina Aguilera and Sharon Needles. But you guys, you have the home of Lady Bunny, RuPaul Charles and Jayne County. So you guys have some famous drag queens up in your town. Oh, and don’t forget Nicole Paige Brooks!
Now this is your first time performing in Atlanta, right?
Yes, but what’s funny is that I’m in the Atlanta airport every single day. And I love it. The Atlanta airport is my Starship Enterprise. I have a secret crush on the bartender in Concourse B. His name is Dan, and if he’s reading this, I’m absolutely smitten with him.
Is there anything you’re looking forward to doing while you’re in town?
Maybe seeing the Suzanne Sugarbaker house. I’m a big fan of Designing Women. And maybe…oh, shit, Ray Charles died. If he was still alive, I’d love to sit on the lawn and hear him play “Georgia” for me. I wouldn’t mind sitting under an umbrella sipping a slow gin fizz watching the yard boys trim my rose bushes.
What advice do you have for up-and-coming drag performers?
Don’t try to assimilate to your city’s drag scene, because the more you all act, look and perform the same, the more people are going to treat you the same. If you want to be a real star and really hit the mark in this business, you’ve got to stay true to yourself and to your morals and your own personal art. Don’t let anyone tell you a different kind of drag is wrong. And don’t be discouraged at being an up-and-coming drag queen. In fact, I’ve seen every drag performer in America, from a Miss Continental to a girl’s first show, and I will tell you this: beginner drag and bad drag are my favorite drag, because the flaw is what makes it entertaining. The flaw makes it humble, and the flaw is what makes it funny. And for any queen who’s ever booed off stage, honey, that’s just applause from ghosts.
Finally, is there anything you’d like to say to your fans?
Yeah. I love all my fans, especially the ones who are on the ceiling, because they’re ceiling fans. And I never know what to say to them, except I love anyone that supports Sharon Needles, and I’m so happy people find a little bit of Sharon Needles in themselves. And…Happy Halloween, and Hail Satan. You can find me on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or you can contact me through any standard Ouija board.
Sharon Needles is performing at Jungle on Wednesday, June 27. Doors open at 9 p.m. Attendees must be 21+. The evening includes a $500 Sharon Look-a-Like Contest. General admission tickets and VIP packages are available online at www.jungleclubatlanta.com.