Sometimes what you see is what you get. That’s not typically true on television, especially on reality competition shows, where we’ve all grown so accustomed to the production formula that we can guess whoever gets the most camera time in the first ten minutes is usually going to be voted off this week.
But who really cares who wins or loses on reality TV? We’re mostly there for the drama and comedy and messiness between characters who are edited into roles we can identify easily. It’s fun, it’s entertaining. This shit’s not deep. The characters the contestants serve us each week are maybe what I love most about RuPaul’s Drag Race, though I love just about everything. This season Phi Phi Ohara was our villain, The Princess was labeled “boring” (anyone who has seen her perform live knows THAT is not true). Madame LaQueer was the “whiny” queen, but in our interview this season she was the opposite and was so excited about the opportunities performing her art on a TV show were bringing.
Sharon Needles’ role is less simple to label, mostly because she is totally a character of her own creation. As a performer and as the guy behind the runway too. A kind of drag queen many people, especially those tuning into Drag Race not fluent in drag, may not have seen before. Sharon quickly became a fan favorite on Season Four. But unlike every other contestant, aside from Latrice Royale and maybe Chad Michaels, I can’t recall anyone I’ve talked to NOT appreciating on some level what Sharon is up to. Especially artists and oddballs and drag queens aka the kind of people I enjoy spending time with in real life. Her show in Nashville this weekend was the most crowded club show of ANY sort I’ve been to, ever. And you should have seen her crazy autograph and merchandise line; her fans could not wait to talk to her and buy her “I Ran Into Sharon Needles At Party City” t-shirt. I watched her greet and show affection to hundreds of fans and treat everyone she spoke to with appreciation. And then she made the packed-house gag every time she took the stage.
I sat down with Sharon at a Nashville brewpub a few hours before her sick’ning sold-out show at PLAY Dance Bar. It didn’t surprise me and probably won’t surprise you that with Sharon Needles you get exactly what you see on TV.
Hollis Hollywood: You’ve talked in interviews about your love for television as a child in Newton, IA. Elvira and Peggy Bundy being two of your biggest influences. What was it that appealed to you about outrageous women?
Sharon Needles: Sharon Needles is built around three things. She’s beautiful, she’s spooky and she’s stupid. And she’s really based on the women on television that made me feel empowered as a child. Now growing up in Newton, IA, there is really nothing. It’s the headquarters for Maytag Washers and Dryers and that’s about it. So being a very creative artistic child, television was my outlet. I say this a lot: that I was raised by a single parent and her name was TV. Characters like Elvira and Peggy Bundy and Rhonda Shear and Julie Brown, these really campy ditzy stupid villains were so inspiring to me and I always wondered what was wrong with my mother and why she didn’t look like Peggy Bundy. I thought all women were supposed to look like that. She was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
HH: I assume Newton is not a hotbed of oddball culture. Aside from television, how did you develop your interest in artists like Amanda Lepore, the Warhol scene, bad drag and subversive art?
SN: Being in a small town and not having a lot of friends, studying a life I that wanted was something I always did. My bookshelf always had Warhol books and diaries, and of course my obsession with Amanda Lepore and people like her, The Glamorous Monique and stuff, were part of my interest in exaggerated femininity and turning your body into a sculpture. There’s a fine line between beauty and misogyny, and I like the idea of women being ridiculously inflatably beautiful and stupid; because I think it’s really smart.
HH: Have you always been a performer? Did you like to play dress-up with your friends and siblings?
SN: Oh absolutely. When I was a child the Halloween box was never put away. And I was dabbling in makeup and costumes, wigs, since I was four. I remember my mom would take us to the Salvation Army and we could always pick one thing, because you know it cost nothing. And I always wanted one thing: red high heels. I wanted ruby slippers so I could play The Wizard of Oz with my brothers and sisters. I had every pair of red high heel pumps that Newton, IA could provide. I knew I could get away with having high heels if I was referencing The Wizard of Oz. My mom’s closet and makeup room were more playrooms for us than the backyard.
HH: Tell me about your first drag performance. I’ve read it was in Des Moines, IA in the basement of a club.
SN: Mmmhmm! It was in the basement of Faces bar in downtown Des Moines. And I remember lying about my age because you had to be sixteen to join the teen cast and I was fifteen. So I lied but I don’t remember exactly how I got in. It was at around three in the afternoon and the local gay teens were allowed to pile into this dirt floor basement and we would do daytime drag shows. Yeah “Human Nature” by Madonna. I’ll never forget it.
HH: Do you have photos of you in drag as a teenager?
SN: I do have photos from back then. Maybe not my first performance, but I definitely saved those pictures because when you are young, no matter how good you are at makeup you still look pretty.
HH: How did you wind up in Pittsburgh?
SN: Well I didn’t go to college and I didn’t finish high school, but I definitely knew I wanted to educate myself in the world that I wanted to be in. I wanted to escape that corn field as soon as possible. I was kind of like a transient punk hippie for awhile, living in squats and art collectives and activist collective homes. I kind of bounced from house to house through different states and different cities. I ended up in Pittsburgh and thought I would be there a couple of weeks and eight years later there I was. I think it’s America’s best kept secret.
HH: Pittsburgh seems to be an art focused city: Carnegie Mellon, PittArts, The Frick, The Warhol Museum stand out in my mind. Does having such a rich arts community influence the drag there?
SN: Pittsburgh drag is definitely what some would negatively call regional drag; which means that it’s very Top 40, very large costumes. It’s very political with a sense of hierarchy with these girls. I never really fit into that realm, so I just started my own family with my own friends. My good friend Veruca la’Piranha and I started the House of Haunt: a drag collective basically dedicated to outsider drag queens. Or you know, like I always said, any queen who’s been kicked out of another club, I’ll take.
In the Haus of Haunt we’re all different, but the thing that makes us the same is we never want to read as traditionally beautiful. We never want to entertain in a way that, as we say in drag, is “fishy” or serving female realness. We like to make a mess. We like to make a scene. We like to make them gag. We’d rather see jaws drop than hoots and hollers. We’re not happy until the audience is not quite sure of their own personal safety. And every show we are always trying to out top each other. So its great, and you know we are so open to taking anyone, because I think that’s what makes a really entertaining show. Yeah. We just love to make a big mess and it gets us in trouble a lot.
HH: Do Haus of Haunt members collaborate on hair and makeup and performance?
SN: Well we definitely don’t paint each other, but we definitely do learn from each other. I mean, I learned wig styling from Alaska Thunderfuck, and I know Amy Vodkahaus has learned about makeup from me, and Cherri Baum has learned to be more aggressive onstage. I’ve learned about padding from Cherri, so we all most definitely learn from each other.
HH: I’m sort of in love with Kitty from the Haus of Haunt. Her Cruella DeVil “Dog Days Are Over” video on YouTube is one of my new favorite things.
SN: Ohhh, my little Kitty Klottsalot. Isn’t she a ham? I miss out on all the fun lately because I am touring and they just keep putting on shows without me.
HH: You showed a wide range of looks on Drag Race….
SN: Oh REALLY? Because Phi Phi said I only had one look!
HH: Hmm. Well I don’t think that’s at all true. I saw you bounce around between scary and pretty and comedic and punk….
SN: Oh! Okay! Well then I guess Phi Phi was wrong…. (laughs)
HH: Well this is about you. We really don’t have to spend time on Phi Phi O’Hara. Which look was the farthest stretch or most difficult for you to pull off?
SN: I guess the farthest stretch for me would have been the girly girl challenge on the second episode. And I had immunity so I don’t know why I played it so safe. I think even when you have immunity you still have to remind those judges that you are going to give them 100%, and that you are really going to take the idea and roll with it. You know people always say, “Well you took the idea and made it work for you,” but I say that’s not always necessarily true. I really wanted to embody what I thought the challenge was. So I would say the girly girl was one of the more difficult and the Dog Ball was definitely one of the more difficult.
HH: That was one of the most fun things about watching you this season. You really went for the challenges and seemed to listen to the judges and manage to play the game without a bunch of “game playing”.
SN: Well you know, I’m so ugly, sloppy and untalented that I didn’t have time to play any vicious games, you know, I was trying to get though that damn shit! I don’t know how those girls had time to play games with each other, ‘cause I sure didn’t have it!
HH: One of your performances fans enjoyed most this season was the Snatch Game. What were the character options you had prepared when you arrived? I heard you intended to pull out your Cher until Chad Michaels showed up as a contestant.
SN: (in flawless Cher voice) My Cher is legendary!
HH: Had you prepared your Michelle Visage impersonation? Was it something you had worked on?
SN: Oh absolutely not. I brought four characters with me. I brought Cher because I do her really funny and I think I look pretty close to her when you get Chad Michaels out of the room. And I was going to do Pee Wee Herman, Freddy Krueger or Lady Gaga. But there was a clause about not being able to do male characters. Even if they had boobs you couldn’t do them. However, I think Pee Wee Herman is a great drag queen. And I wanted to do Lady Gaga because someone always tries to do Lady Gaga on the Snatch Game and it always fails because Lady Gaga’s personality is really hard to make fun of. She is more visual than she is audio, you know. But I know how to make fun of Lady Gaga and I make fun of her all the time because she steals all my looks. And so PhiPhi was going to do Ariel from the Little Mermaid, but they couldn’t get the rights because it was Disney, so she started creating a Lady Gaga costume as well. She was like, “There can just be two of them.” And I was like, “Well….”
HH: Wait. So PhiPhi knew you were already doing Gaga….
SN: Ohhhh…we don’t have to talk about her, remember? Because this is about me! But yeah, what it basically demonstrates is that I love when the shit hits the fan and you’ve got to come up with something. When you hit rock bottom there is only one place to go and that is up. So that’s the time when you can really get creative. And you know being such a fan of the show I always thought that Michelle Visage was such an evil Disney villainess with those brows and that cackle. And she scared me! But being on set I just felt this bizarre kindred spirit with her, you know. I even though we kind of looked alike in a way — this kind of vampy glamour. And I was like, “OK…I’ll do Michelle Visage.” And I know her background, I know her history, I know her friendship with Ru from the beginning and I knew if I could make Ru laugh, I’d be safe.
HH: That’s what was so perfect about it. You had her history down, you had her laugh down. It wasn’t just the look or mimicry or even mockery of her. It wasn’t even super mean.
SN: It was a tinge mean, because it’s not the Snatch Game if you’re not making fun of them. But it was a huge gamble because the judge and person you are making fun of is right in front of you. Sooo it was a delicate balance of just poking her in the ribs and also showing her that I knew her shit, because how many people REALLY know who Michelle Visage is? And I know!
HH: A lot of outsider artists use controversial symbols, imagery, words…
SN: Here we goooooo! (laughs)
HH: Is that a question you have answered too many times?
SN: No, But it is the one I always get afraid to answer. But since I’m here in the South, I’m sure it will go over quite well.
HH: Oh yeah. Sure, we all love Confederate flags here! My question is about the intention in your act. Are the swastikas and flags and satanic imagery simply shock value for entertainment’s sake, or is there any kind of underlying message ?
SN: I do like shocking imagery because it scares me. And you know I like that kind of feeling, that shivering feeling. But then balancing that with beauty is also very shocking . But I never just wear it for no reason. I always find an artistic balance and a way to take a trashy shitty pop song and find a way to flip it. There’s a song I do called “Cause I’m A Blonde.” Basically, because she has blonde hair and blue eyes she can get away with murder. And I thought, “Hmmmm.” So I do it dressed as Hitler. And it just has this balance of shock art, transgression, and just plain old pissing people off because it’s funny. I like when people boo me, but with a smile. I can’t please ‘em all!
HH: I know, like me, you are a fan and a friend of the young Ru Paul’s Drag Race video re-cappers Isis Mirage and Coco Ferocha….
SN: (in perfect imitation) “Hiiieee!! Give her her TENS. Give her her TENS. It wasn’t my FAVORITE look, but it was alright. It was cute. It was cute.”
HH: Hahaha. I interviewed them for HollisHollywood.com because I think they are fantastic….
SN: Are you just a GIANT drag hag?
HH: (laughs) Yeah. Pretty much so! I just write about the shit I like.
SN: Cause that is just like a CULT thing. Us RuPaul girls, we LOVE Isis and Coco.
HH: I bring them up because when I talked to them, and you referenced this earlier, we discussed how the inability to get into the drag cliques or even be accepted by the local community when you want to do something outside of whatever the “norm” is can be frustrating. I’ve heard successful performers say repeatedly, “You just have to do it.” Do you have any more practical advice for performers getting started?
SN: No…you do just do it. All you need is a PLACE to do it. Talk someone into giving you a chance, because once people see something different they love it. People are only afraid of what they don’t know. My shows in Pittsburgh attract a huge straight audience because it’s so out there that it’s not just for the gay community.
HH: One of the clubs in particular where you perform, Brillobox, is a straight bar.
SN: It is a straight bar. Right. Have you been stalking me? (laughs)
HH: Well I did my RESEARCH. I came prepared!
SN: The biggest piece of advice I can give really is “Just do it.” I’ve never heard of a drag bar that wouldn’t give a girl at least once chance. And if they won’t take you, find your own thing. Do it on the street corner. Do it anywhere. Find galleries that will let you perform. You only have yourself to blame if you can’t find work.
HH: There are so many places online now to get information that used to be drag secrets, and I’ve seen some established drag performers speak out against that in defense of the old system of mentoring and learning from other queens in person.
SN: Well this is the thing: if you don’t have your booger down-time, then you don’t have time for your character to grow. If you look flawless, you can dance great, and you’re headlining these great clubs within the first year of you doing drag, you didn’t give yourself the opportunity to grow. It’s fine, do what you want to do, but I am so grateful to have had those booger years. Those years of having to prove myself to get to where I was. Because it makes you a much more well-rounded performer. You are making your own personal art and you are not just a doll. You should really be a self-created identifiable character.
HH: Which is what I think is interesting about drag in the first place, when it’s a fully realized character performance. Not just a cute guy in a dress shaking his ass to Nicki Minaj.
SN: (puts imaginary gun to head and pulls the trigger)
HH: You are traveling lots more because of your new popularity due to RuPaul’s Drag Race.
SN: My broom has had more mileage on it this year than EVER. I’m thinking about upgrading.
HH: Are there any remarkable experiences you’ve had through your travels? Any cities that have surprised you?
SN: I love every city I’m in and they’re all completely different. Unfortunately I don’t get a lot of chances to go see the cities, because it’s airport – club – airport – club – airport – club. But when I travel I am always so shocked about how connected my fans are with me. I mean when they cry, I cry; I can’t help it. I know exactly what they are feeling and I know exactly what they are seeing when they look at me, because just a year ago I would stand in these same lines to see performers who inspired me and artists that seemed just so out-of-this-world to me. And I’m that for them. I’m not saying this in a vain way, it’s a real thing. When people look into my white contacts, there is like a rumble inside them that gets them so excited, and reminds them that they too can do whatever they want. And that’s the craziest part. Oh! And Mobile, AL was the biggest surprise.
HH: What was surprising about Mobile?
SN: It was awesome! I snuck out of my hotel room while my manager took a nap and just walked around town and it was awesome. There were punks and hipsters and there was a great vegetarian restaurant and the kids were cool. I’m thinking about someday buying a haunted house there myself.
HH: Got any interesting projects coming up you’d like to talk about? Any last words for your fans?
SN: The sky is the limit right now. Look for me on Drag U, maybe another show too. And for every bad drag queen out there, know that I am applauding you. Because as I always say, “Being booed off stage is just applause from ghosts.”
Keep up with Sharon Needles at www.sharonneedles.com
Huge thanks to the fabulous Stephanie Ross for the beautiful photographs of Sharon and some of the other artists in the Haus of Haunt family. I hope you will follow her links and check out more of her work.
Stephanie Ross is a junior art major at Carnegie Mellon University, with a concentration in performance and painting. Besides photographing drag queens and documenting their shows in Pittsburgh, PA, she has performed at the Andy Warhol Museum and has had her first solo exhibition of her performance and sculpture work at the Ellis Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University this year. She currently performs regularly at the Blue Moon bar with and under the mentorship the Haus of Haunt under the name Darla de la Rosa.
Additional Photo Credit: Sharon as Freddie Krueger, January 20, 2012, Philadelphia, PA by Hollis Hollywood
Watch videos of live performances by Sharon and the rest of the Haus of Haunt performers at www.youtube.com/user/frickie002 SUBSCRIBE!
Follow me on Twitter @hollishollywood