Article by Marty McSorely
I can convince almost anyone to come see almost any shitty band, but in years of attending drag events I have only ever been able to convince one straight male to attend with me—and I think it was the free vodka that convinced him. I catch some flack for being a straight dude that is a fan of drag culture, reluctantly and loosely identifying as a post-hetero-retro-sexual (if you need a label).
But it’s easy to explain my enthusiasm for the performance stylings of men in dresses. These artists are not just manipulating paints and brushes. They are manipulating their bodies to create illusions and performances that will stay with their audiences long after they wash off their make-up and take off their heels. More than that, drag is one form of performance art that still has the ability to freak out the most conservative of squares, but also make many members of supposedly “progressive” art communities think twice before attending. And for those that question drag as an artform: they give Oscars for make-up and costume design, and as a whole these queens have a much quicker wit than any of the masses in improv classes. Plus, these gals put it all together and then dance in heels with their dicks tucked up between their legs. Now that shit, I’m guessing, takes some practice.
Taking it a step further is Sharon Needles of Pittsburgh’s Haus of Haunt, who lives by the mantra “when in doubt, freak ‘em out.” Sharon is challenging long-held standards of beauty not only in the drag community but in the world at large. I got to sit down with Ms. Needles at Barefoot’s Pride Week launch party last week, where she affirmed her role as America’s Next Drag Superstar. This night, while other queens imitated Aretha and Cher, Ms. Needles gave us a Peggy Bundy that channeled the Cramps’ Poison Ivy. This isn’t just a lip-sync or a dance performance; this is commentary.
We could talk at length about Needles choosing to impersonate the lazy, channel-surfing, bonbon-stuffing icon, but it’s the little things that make me love Sharon. Instead of flipping though a TV Guide on stage, she is flipping though the latest issue of Time Out New York as she clicks the remote at the audience. Sharon isn’t bored with what is on TV. She is bored with pop culture as a whole and is looking for something more. “There is no reason not to know what is going on in the underground. You don’t have to listen to fucking Madonna or Lady Gaga… I grew up in my record store. I grew up in my video store. Today, with the Internet, people have no excuse not to be informed of other options.”
Sharon and I are members of the last generation to grow up without the Internet, but we did have TV. “I was raised by a single parent, and that parent’s name was TV.” This night’s performance was a love letter to that parent, and it was pretty tame compared to her others—considering this is a girl whose first runway look for RuPaul’s Drag Race was a ghoulish zombie with blood pouring from her mouth. I have seen Ms. Needles rock Nazi arm bands and upside down crosses on stage (looks that she has kept in the club and off television). As a brown boy that grew up in a town known first for its surf, second for its Nazis, and third for its Surf Nazis, I had to ask about it. “Sure I’ve worn swastikas, I have a Klansman’s robe, I’ve torn up Bibles on stage, burned Qurans. When portraying African Americans, I have been known to paint my skin brown... I’m not a real Satanist; I just play one on TV... There are too many great books out there to only hold any one sacred.”
While some take it all at face value, this is a girl who describes her drag as “somewhere between Amanda Lipore and GG Allin.” Sharon is not a Satanist or a racist (regardless of what someone spray painted on her house). She is a magic mirror and she is the fairest and fiercest of them all—taking no prisoners and reflecting society’s issues back at us. Sharon is not about portraying the average idea of unattainable physical perfection in drag, like so many that have come before her. Instead she pushes the envelope, force- feeding you a version of drag that is more subversive and more culturally relevant. If she does offend, she tries her best to offend everyone equally. “I may not have graduated from high school, but I graduated from Fuck U!”
Some of the biggest fuck-yous she dishes out directed at the idea of conventional beauty. And Aaron Coady, the performer behind these insightful fuck-yous, doesn’t only deliver them through Sharon Needles. Coady performs his clearest subversion of beauty through the pageant queen/chemical burn victim alter-ego that is Jordan Vasquez. Jordan teeters along the line between determination and delusional despair. She cakes eye shadow onto her peeling, scarred skin graced by small tufts of hair hanging from her mostly bald head, all the while delivering a powerful monologue that gives us a peek into what might be going on deep inside the mind of Aaron Coady. “I’ve talked with several men... You see I’m Jordan Vasquez... I’m on the road... I don’t really have all the time for that, but believe you me, they stare. I can’t go anywhere... The store, in the bar... Anywhere I go, they be staring at me.” I am sure they stared back in Coady’s hometown of Newton, Iowa where he was on the receiving end of countless taunts, “I wasn’t just gay, I was gay and weird.” He could have gone Columbine, but instead he chose a path of escape, leaving high school and ending up in Pittsburgh’s underground performing community.
Today Sharon counters her “weird,” hard-edged looks with a light, soft voice that channels Marilyn Monroe while threatening to turn into daggers at a moment’s notice. It is in that voice that she is not only critical of traditional American values but also of the audience that has furnished her newfound fame. She likes to play dumb, but she is the smartest broad in the room. “Let’s celebrate Pride together, but let’s be sure it’s more than just a celebration of our collective alcoholism. Not that I have a problem with alcoholism. Living in this backwoods, bigoted, Bible-thumping country we are all going to need a few drinks. Not that it really matters anyway. As I see it, this is our last year here anyway... so let’s have a drink!”
Sharon isn’t all doom, gloom, and angsty nihilism. She is a humble and gracious, and even though she crosses all sorts of lines, she is a classy queen who still knows when to draw the line. After her win on RuPaul’s Drag Race, the City Counsel of Pittsburgh declared June 12th 2012 “Sharon Needles Day.” In an address to the counsel and fans in attendance, she had these words: “I’m a little embarrassed. Today is called ‘Sharon Needles Day.’ If you understand the joke on my name, it’s a little inappropriate. I wish they would have called today ‘Get Weird Day.’ This day is for everyone that challenged society... A win for Sharon Needles is a win for any kid out there—gay, straight, bi, whatever—who has been judged on anything as silly as their race, something as silly as their creed, how much money they have in their pocket, and most importantly, how they look.” When asked why she thinks she has connected with more fans than the previous winners of Drag Race: “I have flaws and I am not afraid to show them. Previous winners have been beauty queens. I am a new type of beauty queen. I have flaws just like everyone else, and I think that is what people want to see, that anyone can be anything.”
I think Sharon wants to be seen as an artist first and foremost. “We are still seen as gay artists and gay performers. Our work should not be defined by what we do privately behind closed doors, in the bedroom, for 20 minutes, every five days that no one else even sees.” I don’t know if one person can change this perception, but if anyone can, Sharon will most certainly try. One thing Sharon plans to do with the influence that comes with her new crown is to “break down the idea of a single gay culture. We are a wide-ranging, amazingly diverse, thriving community of people and despite what the media tells you, we don’t all like Madonna.”
Sharon told me there has been no bigger influence on her drag than Jayne County, and as the original punk rock drag queen asked, “Are you man enough to be a woman?” I’ll ask if you are man enough to stop labeling something as gay or straight and just see it as art and entertainment. Get outside of your comfort zone and your circles, or you will just keep running in them. Check out Sharon Needles’ tour dates, or maybe if you are lucky you’ll run into her at the Olive Garden, or catch her in cameo appearances at the next No Bunny or Scissor Sisters shows. “There is a reason drag is preformed at night. Happy Halloween and Hail Satan.”