The first time I saw Sharon Needles, I thought “What? Who are you, child?” with a skeptical, furrowed brow. “Where did they find this clown?”
As all of the drag divas entered the bright pink RuPaul’s Drag Race workroom for the first time on the show’s fourth season and greeted each other, there was this pale, gap-toothed lanky creature wearing an onyx Veronica Lake-style wig topped with a witch’s hat, a short black cocktail dress and a long black gloves. Creamy black lipstick lined her mouth and her contact lenses were pools of white, making for a rather ghoulish countenance. As someone who has a weak constitution for anything scary, the sight of her was unsettling.
Other queens commented on it too, in a not-so-subtle way. They laughed at her, not with her, when she came in. ‘Whack-job’ was a phrase used. Not to mention Sharon out of drag as her boy counterpart Aaron Coady, is a bleach-blonde, dimpled boy with a dark black Tammy Faye tattoo on his arm and a captain’s hat on his head. I did not know what I was looking at.
But Coady was from Pittsburgh, which was cool. Having spent four years in Pittsburgh going to college, I was intrigued that Coady could conceive of such a creature in the city’s conservative depths. Even so, I had heard Sharon Needles was known for hosting ‘Night of 1000’ drag events at the very hip Brillobox bar in the very hip neighborhood of Lawrenceville, where attendees were encouraged to dress up in various incarnations of celebrities from Britney Spears to Lady Gaga.
Though I still found her strange, I was intrigued that, not only was there a drag queen from Pittsburgh, but that she looked how she looked. It was almost as if she had slapped the city’s conservatism in its face. Being unusual not just for a person, but for a drag queen? That takes guts.
The first assignment for RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 4 contestants was to give ‘RuPocalypse’ realness, or end-of-the-world couture (Note: to ‘give realness’ or ‘serve realness’ means to style oneself as realistically female while still in drag). Outfit materials had to be snatched from the grasps of drag queen zombies, and while the other queens flitted about nervously, in dove Needles with her lanky, ghoulish flair: “It’s like a family reunion!” she squealed with delight. She was beginning to grow on me.
And she could have gone a completely different direction. She could have been self-conscious and whiny and ‘why don’t they like meee?,’ but she totally owned her identity, owned that whatever made her different made her special and, frankly, better.
While the girls were donning their makeup for the RuPocalypse challenge, another queen, The Princess, and Needles chatted:
“I’m really glad you’re here,” The Princess said. “…because I don’t know anybody else who does your drag, and I know that some of the other queens are just like, why is she here, she’s a freak.”
“Well, they can think all they want,” said Needles. “There’s a million kinds of drag, and it’s not just being a fishy, annoying girl.” (‘Fishy’ in drag lingo means super-girly.)
I heard her say this and I thought to myself, she’s right.
Sharon Needles was not just some girl. She was a fully-formed character with a backstory, voice, and interests. Sharon Needles was not just a drag queen. She was a performance artist. Pale white skin, dark eyes, white contacts, a breathy, Marilyn-parody voice and a penchant for the darker things in life made her real — there was more at work here than just some big hair and eyeliner. Out of drag, Aaron Coady’s sense of humor was quick, and he was clever. So while Coady describes Needles as being “beautiful, spooky, and stupid,” it takes real brains to make all that happen. Some ladies can be fierce, but not all of them can be intelligent and fierce.
The runway show began and one by one the queens strutted in their supermodel-y, post-apocalyptic realness, long legs and sexy boots and exposed midriffs that made you question whether or not you were actually looking at a man — all good things, and things I love about drag. But then came Needles.
Bald cap formed to her head, she had decimated herself with makeup and costume, looking like a living corpse that had not so much survived fire, explosions, diseases, and general apocalyptic paraphernalia as inexplicably existed in spite of dying after experiencing them anyway. Dirty rope wrapped around her forehead and a long muddled brown tube dress slashed to bits hugged a now svelte female figure working the runway in patent leather pumps. Eyes flashed and slowly a pool of fake garnet blood began at her mouth and got bigger and bigger until it dripped down her chin and fell onto her dress.
RuPaul’s mouth dropped open, as did mine. I thought I was going to die of sheer fabulousness. Not fabulousness in the traditional sense of the word — not glitter and glam and over-the-top attitude — but from exposure to pure, unbridled creative genius. I applauded furiously at the television in the gay bar where I attended Drag Race viewing parties. The entire bar went nuts. Cries of “WERRRRRRRK!” and “YAAAAASSSSS” rung out through the venue. This was no longer drag. It was art.
I have been a Sharon Needles fan ever since. Referring to herself as a ‘punk rock sex clown’ and ‘post-Warhol mannequin,’ which, if it wasn’t cemented for me to love her before then, it was after reading that, Needles’s drag inspirations come from traditionally off-the-radar sources: robots, Tammy Faye, Elvira, Annie Lennox, Little Edie of Grey Gardens fame. She’s donned gender-bendy wonderfulness in the form of a leotard-clad female Elvis, high glam burlesque as a sparkly devil, heroin-chic dog-walking Mary Kate realness, and god knows what else, but all her ensembles are tailored to the very last detail. She is an edgy, unusual professional entertainer.
And because she is so quick-witted, she is not only able to shut down the bitchy queens who claw at her in jealousy, but to snap out cleverness and comedy in a hot second, as she did in multiple acting challenges throughout the season. The last thing the world needs is a dumb drag queen who can’t form a sentence and, happily, Needles is not that. In fact, she is probably more intelligent than she gives herself credit for.
More than most of the queens before her, too, I think Needles represents triumph over adversity. In the episode entitled “DILFs: Dads I’d Like to Frock,” in which contestants have to do a drag makeover on a straight father (who Needles brilliantly names “Robin Mansions”), Needles, rather Coady, reveals he was bullied and beaten because he was gay, to such an extent that he dropped out of high school to escape it.
Sadly, this is the case for many gay youths all over the world. Many queens have been on the show with similar stories of being outcast and harmed because of who they are. What I find with Sharon, though, is that this bullying didn’t even stop with drag; other queens, who maybe had been bullied as well, called Needles a “freak,” too. So often queens ascribe their personas to a conventional fabulous showgirl/ fierce bitch/ supermodel, perhaps at the risk of trying something new. But it’s also not right, and frankly quite hypocritical, to rag on someone who doesn’t do that.
In this way, Sharon Needles is one of the ultimate icons of self-expression. As far as I can tell, she lets absolutely nothing stand in her way, and that is truly inspiring. She is a breath of fresh air in a drag world I didn’t realize was stale until I saw her. In one episode from this past season, Needles yelled at a fellow contestant who insulted her style: “I AM THE FUTURE OF DRAG.”
She is right.