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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”