The Devil and Miss Needles
By Adam Rathe
Photography by Jeremy Kost
If Sharon Needles wasn’t already dead, fame would probably kill her.
Sitting at a small table in an East Village dive bar, Needles is unsteady; her eyes are welling up with tears, her voice is shaking. Talking about the drag family she’s left behind in Pittsburgh is just too much to handle.
Out on the street for a moment to collect herself, Needles is barely three puffs into a Pall Mall before fans approach. Right then, her troubles seem to vanish as she vamps energetically for the camera, every bit America’s Next Drag Superstar. It’s the kind of split-personality moment that Needles, who won the fourth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race in April, is learning to live with.
Back inside, Needles is drinking a Stella and a shot of Maker’s -- the bar doesn’t serve her preferred PBR. At her request, T. Rex is playing on the stereo, and, as we talk, she toys with the hem of her long leopard-print gloves, which stretch to just below the Tammy Faye Bakker tattoo on her arm.
“I’m exhausted,” says Needles, a member of two concurrent touring acts in addition to several other collaborative projects. “I gave up my favorite drug, which is sleep, and currently I’m residing in a hotel called airport. There’s no end in sight.”
This is everything that Needles wanted, and it could also be her undoing. Nobody enters a competition like Drag Race and puts up the kind of fight Needles did hoping not to win. But winning comes with more than a tiara and a $100,000 check -- it comes with a year of touring, appearances, and being trotted out for events, like a padded and tucked Miss America, until her reign expires.
“I think she’s capable of doing everything that’s expected of her, but I think it frightens her a bit,” says Chad Michaels, a Needles pal and former Drag Race opponent. “She said it herself on the runway: ‘I’m sorry, but I’ve set up my life at age 30 so that I don’t have to answer to anybody’ -- and now she does.”
Sure, the exposure is unparalleled, but for a self-described freak like Needles, the pressure of fulfilling her obligations while staying true to her character is taking its toll.
“I’m weaker now than I’ve ever been,” she says. “But I’m devoted to this year, because RuPaul didn’t give me that crown -- America did. I am going to run myself ragged to make sure I say thank you to everyone. When I do a show, I come out in a coffin from a fucking hearse. Who does that? That’s my way of saying all your shit needs to die and this is the year of you.”
It’s an odd place to be for Needles, who grew up Aaron Coady in the small, meth-addled town of Newton, Iowa. By her own description, Needles was an outcast, a gay teenager with a taste for punk and heavy metal, and a uniform of fetish gear and Marilyn Manson T-shirts.
“I was the only out person in high school; I don’t think I ever came out, it was just really evident,” Needles says. “I’d been shaving my eyebrows and drawing on new, high ones since I was 14, and this was in light of Columbine. I was that kid. I think every school has one.”
Being gay wasn’t the only thing that set Needles apart. In addition to a latchkey kid’s fixation with television -- shows like Married... with Children and B-movies instilled in her a taste for exaggerated femininity -- Needles’s discovery of underground music and film put her at odds with her white-bread environs.
“I had this girlfriend named Shannon who was 20 years old when I was 15, and she gave me records by My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, KMFDM, Ministry, and the Sex Pistols,” she says. “She showed me Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, and films by Gregg Araki and David Lynch, and that’s when I realized there was this underground world that was way fucking cooler than what the cheerleader and football star were doing.”
Needles left high school on the advice of a guidance counselor who thought her look might distract other students and, at 16, split for Des Moines. She lived and worked there, at first doing drag, thanks to a fake ID, before heading on a tour of the South four years later and settling in Boulder, Colo. Following a DUI charge, Needles skipped town and hitched a ride with friends to what would become an unexpected muse: Pittsburgh.
“I left my boyfriend, my possessions, and my family to go to Pittsburgh, thinking I’d be there two or three months tops. By September, it will be eight years,” Needles says. “It’s heaven on Earth. L.A. and New York are great places for art, but they’re not great places for artists. You need to be around things that are unaware of art to create something new.”