Though she won the coveted title of “next drag superstar” on season four of RuPaul’s Drag Race, this week it became clear that we only saw the tip of Sharon Needles during her stint on TV. Following Drag Race, she’s found a regular spot on the TV network Logo, as host of Thursday night’s FEARce, a movie night showcasing bad horror flicks, but like most drag queens Sharon understands that drag is at its purest essence a live art form. On Sunday night, in celebration of the release of a brand new album, music video, making-of documentary, and upcoming book, Ms. Needles took to the ballroom of the McKittrick Hotel, the macabre home of Sleep No More, for a tucked-balls-to-the-wall performance featuring legendary nightlife icon Amanda Lepore, the Scissor Sisters’ Ana Matronic, and her boyfriend Alaska Thunderfuck (also a drag queen and a contestant on season five of Drag Race).
Before her set, Sharon was kind enough to speak to Exeunt about her thoughts on drag performance. When asked if drag was a form of theatre in and of itself, she replied: “Good drag is a form of theatre. I think there’s a plethora of different types of drag, and I think a lot of people are used to a type of drag queen that wears a dress and does a pop song, but there are also drag queens that really molest and manipulate their audiences by the way they dress, the things they say, the way they say it, and the music they do it to. There’s message drag – it’s like arts and crafts: some do the crafts, some do the art. But I would consider myself to be a theatrical drag queen.”
Though she’s handy enough with a needle, Sharon’s clearly most comfortable in the second camp as an artist. A self-descriped “beautiful, stupid, and spooky” drag queen, Sharon stood out from the crowd on Drag Race for pushing against the self-imposed limits of drag. On the runway, Sharon took on the roles of a gauze-wrapped ghoul dripping blood from her mouth, an extreme cosmetic enhancement abuser replete with bandages and hypodermic, and a dark-eyed beauty with tentacled fingers. For the fourth season finale show, Sharon performed in the opening number wearing an oversized gold beer mug costume before changing into a somewhat more glammed-out gown with complementary Ouija headpiece.
As with most drag queens, the art of female impersonation is key. Her take on drag, however — unlike glam queens, or even RuPaul, finds beauty in a broader, darker, more inclusive range of visual cues — traditional beauty refracted through the lens of punk and goth, with a rose-tinted layer of glamour that places her somewhere between David Bowie, Marilyn Manson, Madonna, and Jean Harlow. During her set in the McKittrick’s ballroom, Sharon felt equally at home singing dance tracks (“I Wish I Were Amanda Lepore,” performed alongside its namesake, and “Kai Kai,” performed with Alaska Thunderfuck and Ana Matronic) and more rock-inflected numbers (“Dead Girls Never Say No,” “Drink Till I Die”). Clad in a short, skintight black leather dress with an oversized inverted cross necklace, Needles also performed the ballad “Everyday Is Halloween,” a cover of the 1984 song by Ministry, with beautiful, aching subtlety — and vocal prowess. Her well-sung new album, PG-13, skirts the line between dance pop and punk — it’s relatable (dare I say marketable), but with a twisted edge that makes the material distinctly her own.
Since her crowning, Sharon’s toured the U.S. and made appearances in Europe. In the run-up to the season premiere of the show’s fifth season, Sharon appeared last Friday night at the official premiere party at XL on 42nd Street, clad in a sequin crop jacket and Alaska Thunderfuck T-shirt for support. On Saturday, she was in Los Angeles for another album premiere party before jetting back for the event at the McKittrick on Sunday. After the New York release event, she was off to more U.S. and Canadian cities, followed by a string of dates in Australia. Far from content to rest on her laurels, Sharon’s also appeared in two live stage productions, starring alongside underground drag maven Peaches Christ in Silence of the Trans (“a hokey, kooky, campy retelling of the story of The Silence of the Lambs but using all drag characters” — Needles played Buffalo Jill) and as the omnisexual transvestite scientist Dr. Frank N. Furter in a production of The Rocky Horror Show at the Woodlawn Theater in San Antonio, TX.
When asked if she had a dream role following Rocky Horror, Sharon told me, “I wanna play the plant in Little Shop of Horrors. But then they wouldn’t see me. But it’s my favorite musical of all time. I don’t really like Rent or Wicked or anything, but you put a giant plant that sings doo-wop songs and eats people on stage – I’m there! This summer I’ll be collaborating with Peaches Christ for a staging of the film The Craft. And my dream is to do an off-Broadway production of Married with Children so I can play Peggy Bundy [maniacal laugh].”
Drag theatre like Silence of the Trans has long been a staple on the gay theatrical landscape, embraced by practitioners like Charles Busch and the late Charles Ludlam, as well as the Boston drag troupe the Gold Dust Orphans (whose past shows have included Peter Pansy and Mary Poppers among many others). I asked Sharon if she thought this kind of theatre had a place on the theatrical landscape and she was quick to reply in the affirmative. “There’s a place for anything if someone wants to watch it. I mean we’re standing in a building now [the McKittrick] that has done seven hundred consecutive sold-out shows of a fucking live haunted house. I mean, if they’re gonna go see that who knows what they’ll go see?”
To be sure, the McKittrick Hotel proved the ideal venue for Needles’ release party. Aside from being treated to a set by Sharon herself, guests viewed the premiere of a new documentary about Needles directed by Paul Brickman, Sharon Needles: Parental Guidance Suggested, projected on the big screen. Next up was a screening of “This Club Is A Haunted House,” Sharon’s new music video, which was filmed amidst the McKittrick’s lushly designed environs and culminates in a blood-soaked, mostly-leather-clad orgy of epic proportions.
This quadruple release event — celebrating not only the release of Sharon’s album, but also the documentary, music video, and a book entitled This Book Is A Haunted House, which features stills and backstage photos from the making of the video, along with handwritten messages and scribbles from Sharon — only serves to highlight the demand for drag performers, and performers in general, to become a kind of brand. That RuPaul appears as a guest on Sharon’s track “This Club Is A Haunted House” — sending up the intro to her own breakout track, “Supermodel (You Better Work),” is no coincidence. RuPaul may be the first best example of this trend in drag culture, having released an album, Supermodel of the World and a series of music videos in 1993, followed by a book, Lettin’ It All Hang Out, in 1995, along with a number of underground films as the character Starrbooty.
When asked what it was like to be a part of this new cultural landscape, where not only drag performers but pop stars and reality stars increasingly face the pressure of diversifying their talents into a wide variety of media — music, books, film, stage, etc. — Sharon replied: “I like it, because I’m playing the fame game, darling. I’m doing everything famous people do, and it’s fun, because not everyone gets the opportunity to pretend like they’re a supermodel, pretend like they’re a spokesperson, pretend like they’re an actor, and pretend like they’re a musician – because this is all pretend. The industry is a whole bunch of rich people playing house.” If playing house is what Sharon’s doing now, she’s doing something right — and doing it with the right people. Perhaps the most ambitious Drag Race-r to have emerged from Ru’s pantheon of contemporary queens, she appears poised to leave an enduring mark on drag so long as she can keep up with the game and keep freaking people out.
Performance photo of Sharon Needles courtesy of The McKittrick Hotel.
The McKittrick Hotel, home to Sleep No More, can be visited on its website, where tickets are now on sale.