Sharon Needles: In depth from hell
RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 4 winner Sharon Needles is spooky, beautiful and (not so) stupid. I had a chance to talk with her backstage at Five Sixty, where she was performing for TFD Presents “Every Night Is Halloween Ball.” One thing about Sharon is certain -- she may look dead, but her immaculate corpse is full of life.
You’re in such demand right now. Are you enjoying the whirlwind?
I always wanted to be famous. I grew up in a small town in Iowa, and I pretty much was raised by a single parent who I call television, and I knew one day I wanted to be inside that box. I saw Elvira and Peggy Bundy and Rhonda Shear from USA Up All Night and I wanted to be that ditzy, you know, kind of overpainted lady clown on TV, and I got exactly what I wished for. The weird thing about fame is that you think it’s going to be the ultimate Band-Aid, the ultimate Xanax, the ultimate paycheque, and it gives you a real sense of control and lack of doubt, and unfortunately, the thing about fame is that it becomes much more of a telescope on your insecurities.
Do you feel more insecure now that you’re famous?
I feel like I have to be more responsible for my actions. I’ve always just kind of considered myself a punk-rock, downtown clown who was always trying to push barriers, push buttons, take dark issues and put them in the spotlights. But now, every waking moment of my life is completely documented and can be misinterpreted or misunderstood, and sometimes molested and abused.
Do you think of yourself as a role model?
I never wanted to be a role model.
But you are.
Yes, I don’t think people get to decide whether they’re a role model or not. My idols aren’t role models. My idols were drug addicts who committed suicide or were violent.
People like GG Allin or Leigh Bowery, Andy Warhol, Divine . . . These were people who lived in sheer excess to the point where it killed them. But now I am put in a position, especially with youngsters, who identify with the character that I’ve created. I think the hardest part is trying to find a successful compromise between me not budging my artistic intentions and trying not to alienate my broad fan base. And it’s hard, and I’m still learning how to do it.
You said that you created this character. How fast did it come, and what was the process?
I mean, Sharon’s still a work in progress. Originally, she was designed to be a stupid, kind of ditzy, like, slut, you know? That’s how I wanted her. I wanted her to have big blonde hair, mini dresses, and I wanted her to act like she didn’t know where she was or what was going on. She mispronounced words on purpose. And it was basically a juxtaposition against the other queens that I was seeing in my hometown and on the scene. Like the queens where I came from had these very strong, staunch diva personalities that were to me off-putting and kind of scary. So I wanted Sharon to be the opposite. I wanted her to be stupid. I wanted her to be Kelly Bundy; I wanted her to be Elvira, this kind of irreverent, ditzy, stupid person. And I think it takes a really smart person to act effectively and comedically dumb, but I would say, in the last, you know, five or six years I noticed there was a layer that was missing and she needed a third layer to really make her pop and to make her a superstar . . . So I make her dead! I made her a corpse. And I made her visually kind of macabre. But the thing about Sharon is I think she is almost unaware that she’s macabre. I think she thinks her black lipstick is red, and I think she thinks coffins are bedrooms, and I think she thinks hearses are pink Cadillacs. She’s just completely oblivious to the fact that she’s this dark, macabre character.
Why did you start doing drag in the first place? Is it because someone like you was lacking on the scene?
No, I consider my life to be a lot of drag. Growing up in a small town there weren’t a lot of outlets for imaginative kids like me. My parents were pretty open-minded. They never put away the Halloween box; I was allowed to buy high-heels at the age of four so I could play Dorothy in the backyard.
I was Glinda!
Yeah! Well, now, we’re both the Wicked Witch, so that’s all that matters. I was 15 years old and I was being bullied a lot in school. I had a fake ID, and I would run to the biggest city that was closest to me, and I started illegally performing with true professionals. Yeah, there’s just been tons of reincarnations.
Yeah, growing and evolving. That’s another problem with reality fame. Andy Warhol said, “One day everyone will have 15 minutes of fame.” Well, I got my 15 episodes. And so, I’m going to be living the remainder of my life basically either feeling trapped by those 15 episodes or by evolving and hoping that the world is prepared for a new reinvention of Sharon Needles. But then again, my goal is never aim to please because what comes naturally to me has been so successful I can really trust what I do.
When Sharon is evolving, is your male counterpart evolving? Are they in sync?
They’re so different, you know. The second the white contacts go in and the wig goes on, it is a totally different person. A lot of people come up to me and be like, Sharon did this over-the-top thing, Sharon did this offensive thing on stage. Well, don’t come to me, honey, take that to Sharon. A lot of queens, when they’re completely dressed -- their voice is the same, their demeanour is the same, their vocabulary is the same -- that’s just not with me. Sharon is a completely different entity. So I think we grow at different paces.
I think sometimes viewers expect RuPaul and the judges to favour the pretty and the glamorous girls. Did you ever worry that you were too weird or unconventional to win?
No. You know, there’s an episode where I say that I’m the future of drag, and I sometimes bite my tongue on that. What I meant by it was I’m the first drag queen that Hollywood sponsorships and producers had the balls to let America see. What I’m doing is nothing new. There’s been great transgressive, successful, out-there, art-scene drag queens for decades, and I actually think it’s where drag came from. But I never thought I was too weird or too visually off-putting. I think Sharon Needles is definitely a compromise between American consumeristic beauty and underground night-life punk sub-culture. It’s not like I was walking down the runway in googly eyes and devil horns, you know. Sharon to me is very glamorous and is very pretty, and anyone can have their own opinion, but I’m pretty sure Sharon Needles is pretty classically feminine.
You’ve said it’s important for you to not be put in a box, but when you think of Sharon Needles it evokes a certain image -- and it seems to be working for you. So isn’t your box profitable?
[Laughs] Well, absolutely. But like I always say, success comes with compromise. So do I want to be socially relevant for much longer? Yes. Do I want to be commercially successful? Yes.
You want to be commercially successful? So --
Yeah, I like money!
But what do you want to do? With drag? Or do you want to get into more acting?
Yeah, of course. The worst part about this job is lip-synching other people’s songs for coin.
So do you make your own songs?
We’re actually in the process right now of creating a full album. We were thinking about just doing a single -- seemed to be kind of the common route to go for RuPaul’s Drag Race girls . . .
By "we" you mean you and your management, or you and a producer?
Me and my management, and my production team, yeah, so we’re going to be working on that in July and August.
To come out this year or in 2013?
It’ll probably come out in 2013. My thing is I don’t want to put out shit. I don’t want to rush it and I don’t want to write songs about runways and wigs and corsets and mascara, you know?
Are you going to be involved in the writing aspect?
I’m probably going to write 90 percent if not all of my content, because I’m so protective over her that I don’t really allow her to say things I don’t want her to say, or to look in ways I don’t want her to look. And I do turn a lot of work down when it’s in a direction that’s not for me. And I mean shit, the cheque’s already cleared, so I’m not really clamouring for coin right now. But yeah, I’m doing great things right now that’s outside of nightclub work, and I’m working with idols of mine. I’m working with Peaches Christ at the end of the month, doing Silence of the Trans at the legendary Castro Theatre, which is a parody of Silence of the Lambs. I’m playing Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show in a San Antonio three-week-running production that I’m really looking forward to. I just did a photo shoot with the first transsexual of punk rock, Jane County, in New York. And hosting parties with Susan Barge and Amanda Lepore. So there’s just all these great things are opening up, and the great thing about me, if they’re not dead, they’re pretty eager to work with me as much as I’m eager to work with then. Like Chad wants to work with Cher -- not gonna happen. Phi Phi wants to work with Nicki Minaj -- not gonna happen. But I want to work with Amanda Lepore and Jane County.
When did you meet Amanda?
I’ve worked with her for years. She’s been a huge idol of mine. And even my look and my voice is based very roughly on her, that kind of inflatable sense of surgical beauty mixed with that kind of “I don’t know where I am.”
You’re so fascinated with plastic surgery. Have you ever had work done?
I don’t know.
Because you do it with makeup.
I like to think of myself as the John Waters of plastic surgery. Like John Waters is the connoisseur of weird things and serial killers and drag queens -- but he’s not one. A great drag queen in LA, Detox, told me, If you’re 99 percent sure you want plastic surgery and one percent unsure, you don’t want it. It has to be a call from inside to do it, and I don’t have it. But I was recently in LA and I had my face casted by a special effects team who are going to make me, like, appliances. Like prosthetic lips and prosthetic cheek bones, because I do love my privacy, and once you dive into the deep end of silicone you are kind of very recognizable 24 hours a day. And I kind of love the act of scraping it off and being a sensitive well-educated dude.
June 12 was made Sharon Needles day in Pittsburgh --
[Crackles] Isn’t that retarded?
What does it feel like?
Embarrassing. Yeah, Pittsburgh -- we’re the city of champions, as we’re called in the States. So I think I was being applauded because I had won the reality competition. But at the same time we lack so much in gay rights and marriage rights. I’d still rather have a day where we’re applauding gay rights being recognized than a day where we’re applauding a clown. It was also really great that the city I love was applauding me. And it was the first time I was in a courthouse where I wasn’t being charged with something, so that was nice!
Are you still close to the girls you were on the show with?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, we work together a lot because clubs like to see us girls together.
And it’s friendly?
Oh, yeah, there’s no animosity amongst our dysfunctional sisterhood. We’re 13 men who dress like women for a living who have basically been scraping by our entire lives because it’s something we love so much. And as different as we are, the one thing we have in common is our fascination and our devotion to this art form. And we went through something no one will understand. I mean, we could tell everyone we know the story over and over again, but you don’t know what it’s like to be in drag prison until you’ve done it. So we share that connection. So yeah, if your follow-up question is how are me and Phi Phi doing, we’re uhm --
I actually wasn’t going to ask that question. I thought, this bitch has been asked about that so much!
Well, that’s so sweet! The great thing about it is now I’m in the industry, so I’m dealing with some real monsters and some real bitches. So Phi Phi was a cakewalk compared to some of the people I deal with now.
And how are you dealing with them?
You know what a great philosopher once said: “What other people think of me ain’t any of my god damn business.” And that philosopher’s name was RuPaul. And that resonates so true with me now, more than it ever has in my entire life, because now with social media and such high exposure, everyone has an opinion. Sometimes you just have to step back away from that and remember that before I was on RuPaul’s Drag Race I was probably RuPaul’s Drag Race’s biggest fan, and I had a razor-sharp tongue when it came to what came down that runway, what I personally thought about those girls. And now, it’s really given me a life lesson that if you’re going to sum up your opinion on someone by a blog or a photo or a reality show, then you really need to rethink the way you judge other people.
So this is your first time performing in Canada, or your first time post-win?
I’ve never performed in Canada. I have been in Canada several times. I used to come up for New Year's. But this is my first time as Sharon.
What can we expect?
Canada can expect an adult male embarrassing himself live in front of a sold-out audience that probably paid far too much.
And we can’t fucking wait!
Yeah, you know, I feel like I’m not conventionally beautiful and I don’t give a conventional drag act. So I guess you can just prepare for a big mess. Blenders, coffins, Bibles . .