The Devil and Miss Needles


By Adam Rathe

Spooky drag superstar Sharon Needles vigorously wrestles her demons -- without smudging her lipstick.

Needles initially found the Pittsburgh scene alienating. “I didn’t want to go to gay clubs; I wanted to hang out under the bridge and have a bonfire and just get shitfaced,” she says. “I quit drag completely and tried to stick to my guns on that as long as I could.” It wasn’t long before drag became inescapable.

“I was so hurt when I was young for being gay that I wanted to distance myself from it and say, ‘I am so much more than gay,’ ” she says. “I’m a million other words before you get to the word ‘gay.’ But it got to the point where I was trying to completely suffocate it. I couldn’t go into a gay bar. Then I started meeting these weird, underground drag queens and I realized I just couldn’t shut her up; I had to find a compromise.”

Thus, Sharon Needles was born. She wasn’t one of Pittsburgh’s prissy, glamorous queens, reliant on beauty and body for a tip, but she also wasn’t quite a clown. She was supposed to be a dumb blonde of a prostitute, modeled partially on Married... with Children’s Kelly Bundy, who was more clueless than anything else. It was a fresh take on drag, but something was missing.

“It was about 2006 when I decided to make her dead,” Needles says. “Black lips, white eyes, straight out of a coffin; she’s a ditzy zombie. By adding that, I gave her the full range to molest so many parts of pop culture.”

Indeed, Sharon Needles, who could be Elvira’s granddaughter, struck a chord with people sick of seeing the same types of drag over and over again.

SLIDESHOW: Exclusive Photos of Sharon Needles by Jeremy Kost

“If you have any sort of sense of humor, you’ll get her fully and completely and just want to eat Sharon up with a spoon,” says Drag Race judge Michelle Visage. “She’s a performance artist, plain and simple. She tends to identify with the dark side, and that makes her laugh. It’s very vaudevillian in a way.”

Rock icon Jayne County, a collaborator and something of a mentor to Needles, agrees she’s on the right track. “I think that Sharon likes to push people’s buttons and get a reaction, whether it’s good or bad,” she says. “She sticks out and draws attention. Once you’ve got their attention, that’s when the work starts. My advice would be for her to not hesitate one iota, and take it to the next step.”

For everything that Sharon Needles is, there’s one thing she’s not: Aaron Coady.

“Sharon’s not smart, she’s ignorant. She’s very sweet, and I’m not a sweet person,” Needles says. “She’s unaware of what she says; she purposely says words wrong. But it takes one smart cookie to create someone that stupid.”

The Pittsburgh drag scene wasn’t sure what to do with Needles. Her act didn’t fit in with what was happening on local stages. But instead of forcing her way in, Needles did what she’s always done: embraced her status as an outsider.

“I tried to perform with the other girls, and my show was always like if Vincent Price walked onto the Starship Enterprise -- it didn’t belong,” she says. “So me and a couple of the weird girls in town, we created the Haus of Haunt, a drag cooperative where we wait for other drag troupes to let someone go because they’re not talented or pretty enough, or they’re too weird or psycho, and we take them in.” The confidence Needles developed as the mother of the Haus of Haunt is part of what helped her make it to Drag Race.

The other part is Alaska Thunderfuck. Together for close to two years, Needles and Thunderfuck are Pittsburgh’s drag couple. Both, in character, are blonde, glamorous, and in on their own joke; at a recent party in New York City, Needles’s corpse makeup and dazzling gown were upstaged only by Thunderfuck’s curve-hugging ketchup-bottle costume.

Of course, their romance is marred by the very thing that made Needles the subject of magazine profiles to begin with. Thunderfuck is said to have applied for each of the first four seasons of Drag Race without making the show, while Needles, who never harbored the same ambition, made it on her first try.

“Me and Alaska both got a call,” Needles says. “When you audition, you have to do a lot of Skype interviews with producers and sponsors -- they want to know your range. We spent months doing interviews and psychological profiling together. After two months, one day it was only my phone that rang.”