After watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, I’d thought I knew Sharon Needles, yet calling her yesterday, I certainly didn’t expect to be greeted by the über-chipper secretary of Sharon Needles Incorporated. The things you learn!
Sharon Needles, like her television mentor RuPaul and idol Amanda Lepore, has transcended underground drag queen and gay community phenom – strutting her way into the blogosphere with her larger-than-life character, and both humble and cocky musings that seem almost too real for any drag queen. Forget underground – Sharon Needles is pop culture at its best; “an example of current social anxieties” as her Twitter states.
Releasing her debut album PG-13 (think Marilyn Manson or Alice Cooper making a dance-pop record) in January, Needles is currently in Australia on her PG-13 Halloween Ball Tour. I chatted to the Drag Race season 4 winner and reigning high priestess of drag ahead of her Adelaide stop at The Garden of Unearthly Delights.
“Hello, Sharon Needles Incorporated. This is Sharon speaking!”
That sounded almost too good. Were you a secretary in a past life?
“I always wanted to be one! Ever since I was a little boy, I loved them. Beautiful women who would wear high heels and have long hair and acrylic nails and would always just answer the phone.”
Just like Dolly Parton in 9 to 5?
“I love 9 to 5, in fact I love any 80s movie where a woman is trying to get a job. All I ever wanted to do was to get on the bus and be a strong, powerful woman trying to find my own way. But now secretarial work is too hard, it’s not just answering phones anymore. I know how to look up porn and check my Facebook but that’s about it!”
I hope you’re enjoying Australia!
“It’s been a real pleasure! I’ve been touring heavily, but I’d be lying if I said all I want was a f***ing break. I really like Australia, I don’t feel that heavy pressure that tours usually have. I’m even considering getting myself a summer home in Sydney. I’m having my Priscilla, Queen of the Desert moment.”
I’ve read in interviews that you loved that movie as a child.
“I did! I say it all the time. Most kids kept porn under their mattress; I kept Priscilla, Queen of the Desert under mine. I think why I loved that film so much is America would never make an honest drag queen movie. American filmmakers attempted to make the same film a year later called To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar and it was a very unrealistic portrayal of drag queens. Priscilla really hit the nail on the head – it’s not all roses. For every glamazon, there’s a dented can, a piece of damaged goods behind it.”
I played PG-13 from start to finish last night and loved it.
“Thank you! I went to some gay bars last night and I didn’t hear it playing once, but I heard Willam’s song get played about 10 times.”
Please don’t tell that was ‘Boy is a Bottom’?
“Yes! How did that queen get so much radio play?!”
She doesn’t hold a candle to you.
“[laughs] Oh, she’s a good friend and I wish her all the success in the world. As long as I can trump her.”
You must be proud of your debut album and all the positive buzz it’s getting?
“Of course! I knew that when I made an album, I didn’t want to talk about high heels or feather boas or runways. It’s not my style. The reason the album is called PG-13 is because, let’s face it, in the real world, I’d probably be making a punk record. But I also wanted this record to sell, so I made a pop record, and I made a compromise that if I was going to make a pop record, it’s going to be dark and reflect everything that made me me. It’s a total compromise between me and the industry, and if they’re willing to meet me halfway, I’m willing to meet them halfway too.”
I love the line in Dressed to Kill that says “It’s not a f***ing costume, it’s a way of life”.
“It’s so funny you say that because I nearly cut that song at the last minute!”
No! It’s so good!
“That song took me 3 f***ing days to write. Songs like ‘Ouija Board’ took 5 minutes, they just vomited out of my mouth. But Dressed To Kill, that one was killing me. The lyrics… ‘My accessory’s a cigarette, no I don’t need your Heatherette. These leather boots kick off my St. Marks look’. I mean that line has so much sh** for kids to look up. Those little nuances that keep kids Googling things other than Lady Gaga.”
On that subject, how do you feel about Lady Gaga becoming so synonymous with drag queens?
“Well, of course I tell the press that I hate being compared to Lady Gaga but really I love it. She rules the world. She is the queen. But it’s almost like life imitating art and art imitating life. It was queens like Leigh Bowery, Divine, Amanda Lepore, these great underground artists that stars started ripping off and now the drag queens are taking it back, but it gets diluted every time it’s recycled. But as much sh** as I talk about Lady Gaga, if she called me on the phone and asked if I wanted to work with her, I would be on a plane right now, f***ing off your festival! [laughs]”
You worked with Amanda Lepore on the album which must have been a huge deal for you. That song [I Wish I Were Amanda Lepore’] sounds like something you’ve always wanted to sing.
“Amanda Lepore has always been my idol. I wrote that song when I was 21 as a poem. It was when I had such a desire to be famous and underground and to be considered extreme. Being on RuPaul’s Drag Race has given me the chance to work with my idols. I’m not Chad Michaels, I don’t want to meet Cher. I’m not Phi Phi O’Hara, I don’t want to meet Nicki Minaj. My idols are pretty tangible and easy to get a hold of! I wrote that song as a love song to the impossibility of perfection. It’s hard for me to realize that I’ll never be visually perfect, but I can still worship it and idolize it. ‘I Wish I Were Amanda Lepore’ is my favourite song on the album, hands down.”
And I doubt think you ever considered cutting it from the record either!
“No, no no no! I just want DJs to remix it over and over and over and over again. The best thing is that when I’m in New York, Amanda and I get to perform it together. It’s one of those rare moments where I step outside of my body and I become my own fan.”
When you were making PG-13 were you thinking subconsciously about the songs and the live performances and how they would all translate on stage?
“I have the ultimate fear of disappointing. I don’t know how to do backflips, I’m not the best vocalist in the world, but at the same time I’m given the opportunity to give the best show on earth, and a lot of people get the opportunity in this business and the second they get it, they let it go. They rely on the fact they’re famous for it to be enough to be an exciting show, but I’m too afraid of bad press and I’m so scared of disappointing fans. I always get nervous that when fans meet me, that I’m not going to be who they think I am. I try to make up for that with the great shows. I want great lighting, snow machines, fog machines, coffins, mourners, dancers… anything that you can pile up on that stage to hide the fact that I have no f***ing talent is always appreciated.”
As soon as you were on RuPaul’s Drag Race and in the public eye, you were touted as the “future of drag”. Did you feel pressure to live up to those standards?
“If I’ve ever said something I regret more, it’s that statement. When I said I was the future of drag, what I really meant in my heart was that Drag Race is allowing a certain kind of drag queen that’s been around forever to have a voice. It’s nothing new, in fact what I’ve been doing is the founding fundamentals of drag. Drag queens have always been designed to be politically aware, socially offensive, visually abrasive and fashionably terrorizing. These are the fundamentals I grew up with. I grew up with Divine. My idol wasn’t Nicki Minaj, my idol was a 400 pound drag queen that ate dog sh**. It’s an image that rattles you. That’s what drag queens are supposed to do. We’re the rock and roll people of the gay community. We’re supposed to be the ones that scare people, we’re almost like the protectors.”
I was reading some past interviews of yours and I really admire you for not calling out your detractors and people who bullied you in the past. Do you find it grating though that the press will always try to fixate your artistry to negative experiences?
“Most artists work derives from pain and I think most drag queens are dented cans whether they want to admit it or not. I would just rather be honest, I don’t want to give you a Beyonce answer. I don’t want to give you the answer that I’m supposed to say because the second I get caught not saying it, it’s a scandal. I’d rather tell you right now that I do f*** and do cocaine, and I drink a lot and I swear a lot and I do things I’m not meant to do. We don’t have to pretend we’re these perfect people.”
It’s something more celebrities should do. Like how some artists preach anti-bullying and love but will then attack another artist on Twitter and have their fanbase go after them. And there’s your scandal!
“I like that you mention anti-bullying. In America, we had something called It Gets Better. It’s run by Dan Savage who tells young gay kids that the second you turn 18 ‘things will get better, stick it through, stick it through’. I like to be honest. It doesn’t get better. You turn 18 and you’ll still get called a faggot. The only problem is you have to pay your own rent and your mother’s not doing your f***ing laundry. I just want to remind everyone that people are going to pick on you regardless, but you can turn that into something artistic, something exciting. Or it can f***ing destroy you. I don’t believe in God but I definitely believe in Darwinism, so keep your head up and realize that adulthood doesn’t fix the problem but you definitely have the power to decide how it affects you.”
That’s the most real thing I’ve ever heard. Much more real than Beyonce.
“You say that, yet aren’t drag queens meant to be the touchstone for everything fake and artificial in the world? [laughs]”
Sharon Needles brings the PH-13 Halloween Ball to the Garden of Unearthly Delights at the Pardiso Spiegeltent on Sunday, March 10. Some tickets still available via Adelaide Fringe.
PG-13 is in stores and on iTunes now.