The Devil and Miss Needles
By Adam Rathe
Needles landed on Drag Race to the amusement and amazement of fans expecting another season of living dolls. Her road to the crown wasn’t without its bumps -- her epic feud with another contestant, Phi Phi O’Hara, dominated screen time, and the judges endlessly questioned whether she could pull off anything other than freaky chic.
O’Hara’s now-infamous line, “Go back to Party City, where you belong,” encapsulated what everyone thought of Needles; now the reigning queen carries a purse with a Party City sticker proudly pasted to it. And, one night when we met, she wore a hot pink O’Hara shirt. “I own all of her shirts,” she said with a sly smile.
“My first impression of Sharon was that she was a total whack job,” says Michaels. “I completely underestimated her when she walked in, just because of what she had on.” O’Hara echoes the sentiment. “We thought it was a joke or a stunt they were pulling,” she says of seeing Needles for the first time. “I’ve never seen drag like that, so I was a little surprised. I judged the book before I read it and thought she was going home.”
Needles did go home -- at the end of the season, with a check in her bejeweled clutch. And while Drag Race isn’t exactly American Idol, Needles’s win was a huge deal, thanks in no small part to her extremely active fan club and the legions of followers she picked up just by being the dark horse.
But heavy is the head that wears RuPaul’s crown. For a queen of such epic assurance, Needles is surprisingly uneasy about her win, and maybe even more so by what comes next.
“I’ve always wanted to be famous,” Needles says. “A lot of faggots do. It justifies our lives and solidifies our existence and pumps up our bank accounts. Fame is something everyone wants. What I never realized is that fame is something only other people can feel. You never feel your own fame.”
What Needles has felt is the glare of the spotlight. She’s been called out for her use of racist and transphobic epithets and at one point had an Atlanta performance protested because of her un-PC ways. She was unsparing in her use of similar language during our talks, at one point leaving a voicemail for her mother (she dialed the number on my phone with her tongue) and signing off with the N word. Needles does not view her words as those of a hatemonger so much as a provocateur, but finds the attention jarring nonetheless.
“I thought fame was going to feel good, like drugs,” she says. “I thought I’d be consistently creating adrenaline and serotonin. And I thought that since I had a chance, I was going to be the punkest bitch on the block. I am not. I am the beacon of hope. I am the standard for getting over whatever you have to get over and becoming an adult.”
This is the second time Needles starts to cry. Being famous doesn’t quite agree with her. How well known can a reality TV drag queen be, you might wonder? In the span of one evening at a quiet dive around the corner from the too-crowded gay bar we had planned to meet, the shirtless DJ and a handful of random patrons came by to profess their love. Later on, a friend texted me to say she had heard Sharon Needles was at a bar on Avenue B, and did I want to go check it out? So, yeah, she’s famous.
And she’s cashing in -- sort of. Upcoming is an album of pop songs, a three-week run in a San Antonio production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and a headlining role in The Silence of the Trans! in San Francisco.
She clearly takes pleasure in the work and revels somewhat in her celebrity -- she orders a second beer by hollering across the room to the bartender -- but it’s the big picture that’s getting her down.
“When you get fame, you have absolutely no idea why you wanted it,” she says. Of her failure to adapt to her new notoriety, she notes, “If Darwin was alive today, he would kill me.”
He might not need to -- it’s possible Needles will just off herself. “I might,” she muses when asked if she’s ever thought of putting the character to
ground for good. But if it is to happen, it won’t be before this year -- her year -- is over.
“I’m going to be the first queen to use this crown as a testimonial,” she says. “Everyone has wasted that crown. What do they do? Photo shoots? Lipsyncing to a fucking Rihanna song? This crown has given me the financial ability and confidence to make my world known. I’m bigger than fucking RuPaul -- I have no qualms saying that. It might not last -- my reality fame might be as temporary as fake tattoos -- but I am determined and have never been more certain about anything in my goddamned life.”