Introducing much of Planet Earth to a darker, edgier aesthetic of drag via her epic “RuPaul’s Drag Race” Season 4 run and eventual win, Pittsburgh (by way of Iowa) queen Sharon Needles has become a drag household name inspiring a generation of queer, fringe creatives. Her unfiltered point of view and unbridled expressiveness often put her at odds with… well, everyone… and she’ll be the first to tell you that the notion of “drag queens are role models” is just flawed logic. But Sharon is foremost an entertainer who wants everyone to be happy–even while they’re scared out of their wits! Halloween in her season to shine, and thanks to her musically-inclined pal Greko and a Club Cumming-sponsored virtual homage to classic queer TV she’s hosting, Ms. Needles is back with all new tricks and treats.
Thotyssey: Hello. Sharon! Thanks for taking the time to chat with us! I know that you are the Queen of Halloween, so this would normally be your busy season–
Sharon Needles: This is actually the slowest Halloween I’ve ever had! For the last ten years, I’ve toured the world for Halloween. But it’s actually kind of nice, for once, to have a chance to watch Halloween happen.
Will you have trick or treaters this year?
I don’t know, but I’m prepared! For the first time I have all my jack-o-lanterns carved and I have all my decorations up, and it’s kind of nice to just sit back and enjoy my favorite time of year. The only holiday I like more than Halloween is Arbor Day: “no tree, no shade!”
Lol! Have you gotten a chance to watch the Dragula Halloween special on Shudder?
I haven’t yet, but any opportunity to take outsider drag that is expressive and punk and push it through the barriers… that has always been kind of the synopsis of [what I do]. To watch other people flourish, whether it’s Drag Race or any other platform to shine, I just think it’s gorgeous. It puts the “gore” in Gorgeous!
You used to go from Pittsburgh to New York a lot to perform pre-Drag Race.
Yes… I think I started in about 2008. Me and my drag sister Veruca la’Piranha, we’d take a bus to New York and go to Susanne Bartsch parties, hang out with our idols Kenny Kenny and Amanda Lepore. And we would lie and say we lived in New York, but we didn’t really know the city. They’d ask, “what part of New York do you live in?” We would say “West,” and they would say “where?” “Really west! Real, far down west! Pittsburgh West!“
I remember Veruca being a New York queen for bit! She’s back in Pittsburgh now, right?
She’s back! I just talked to her last night. If you ever want to feel rich and successful, just hang out with Veruca!
Back to Dragula for a sec… do you have any thoughts on the dueling Drag Race versus Dragula Halloween specials? Some folks are making this into a thing!
I won Drag Race… so I don’t care, lol! I hit the top, and the only place from here to go is down. But, watching other people succeed brings me joy! I grew up hiding the Wigstock VHS underneath my mattress like it was porn, worshiping people like Lady Bunny and Jackie Beat and Mistress Formika. And to watch their style of drag entertaining the masses once again? I think we’re in the Golden Age of television. Are there some downsides to it? Is the tail beginning to wag the dog? Of course. But the upside is that queer culture is being shoved down the throats of people all over the world, and I think that’s positive.
But nothing is entertainment anymore unless you are tearing someone down, so I always try to lift them up! And speaking of “lift them up,” check out me, Greko, Amanda Lepore, Peppermint and Deborah Harry’s song “Lift Them Up,” and [the remix] “Lift Them Up 2020” done by the House of Aviance! All proceeds go the Black Trans Travel Fund!
Tell us a bit how “Lift Them Up” came about.
It was coming on to the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. Me and Greko co-wrote that song together, and what we wanted to do was share a universal experience that could actually be uplifting, which–this might come as a shock to you–was very hard for me to write (I tend to write pretty dark)! But it was a great opportunity to send a message of love with great disco and house. We took this repertoire of different queer people: a trans woman of color; a punk rock idol and ally to LGBTQ community; myself, who’s more of a transgressive, button-pushing punk; and the living, walking piece of mannequin art that is Amanda Lepore. When you take people that come from so many different backgrounds, blend them together and make magic, it really shows that the one thing we have all have in common is that we’re gonna wind up six feet under in pine boxes. So now is the time to live and excel.
Truth! Besides this one, what’s your favorite song that you’ve recorded?
I’ve done four studio records. If I had a favorite song, it would be off Taxidermy, my second album: “Dead Dandelion.” I wrote it for my husband. I went through a divorce last summer, and it was like I had written a prediction–my Sylvia Browne moment. But yeah, “Dead Dandelion!” Great song! Available on iTunes… stream!
Music gets us gets us through the darkest times.
I’m glad that you say that. Queer people typically do not have a great relationship with music–they kind of absorb whatever is sold to them. If you look at music from disco to soul to funk to rock & roll… [queer people] have played a monumental role in creating great music. And right now, that’s lacking. That’s why I’m so glad I [know] Mike Greko, who has such an encyclopedia of music in his heart, brain and soul. It’s great to be able to create music that isn’t just light and dancey… I hate stupid music, and there’s a lot of it!
Queer kids, and basically all young people in general, seem to have little interest outside of what’s commercially fed to them… even though they now have access to basically all the music and pop culture that’s ever existed.
Exactly. I used to go the record store and pine through the records to find an Amanda Lear or Penny McLean or Giorgio Moroder. And now these kids have access in their pocket to find every fucking piece of queer history… but they’d rather listen to “Rain on Me” on fucking repeat.
Well… Miley Cyrus is going to record an album of Metallica covers!
Is she not killing it!? Her “Heart of Glass” cover just knocked it out of the park.
Who would’ve thought that Hannah Montana would be the one to save rock & roll?
Um, I wouldn’t go that far…
So, since your legendary fourth season win on RuPaul’s Drag Race, the show’s popularity keeps spreading; now it’s basically a cultural zeitgeist. Is it shocking to see how that little TV drag competition has changed over the years?
Well, the formula is still there. But to watch a show [in its early years] filmed in the basement of World of Wonder with nine queens, and–it’s not actually Vaseline on the lens, it’s on the viewers’ eyes! It’s like the Rocky Horror Picture Show: if you love it, you are obsessed with it. Or, you’ve just never heard of it. Now, it has left cult status and is true [mainstream entertainment].
It’s a funhouse mirror of every reality show competition: America’s Got Talent, America’s Next Top Model… it became a joke. This show is a fucking joke! But the difference [now] is, these new audiences are not in on it. Queer people had always looked at drag queens as pseudo-celebrities in smoky bars in the middle of the night. But now this massive fanbase doesn’t have that historic sense of what drag really is. So instead of looking at us as models, they see us as role models. And drag queens are coke snorting, shoplifting, boyfriend stealing, cock sucking, alcoholic monsters. The show has kind of put the glossy sheen of Hollywood over that, so now we’re expected to be something that we’re not. And that’s what’s changed: the viewer looks at us like we’re superheroes, and we’re just… not.
Young drag queens today might also be unaware of that history.
In my day, we didn’t do drag because we wanted to… we did it because we had to. There was that weak, bullied “us,” and there was that inner female Joan Collins that forced us to create a visual representation of extremes to protect us. Now, the kids today watch a tutorial and are like, “I’m gonna do drag!” That’s the formula, and that’s unfortunate. In my day, you wanted to not do drag because you weren’t gonna get laid. And now, [the queens] multiply like jackrabbits!
You just finished shooting your new digital Halloween special “Club Cumming Presents Sharon Needles’ Mask It Or Casket: A Halloween Spooktacular” (that’s quite a mouthful, so to speak!) at said Club Cumming. It’s already being compared to 1976’s TV camp classic The Paul Lynde Halloween Special. I’m guessing you’ve seen that?
Well you know, I was born in 1981… so I am far too young to have seen it. That being said… I’m not a fucking idiot! Of course I’ve seen it! It’s the first time KISS was ever seen on TV, and it starred Witchy Poo and Margaret Hamilton from The Wizard of Oz! There is no excuse for young faggots to not know what the fuck is going on, lol! [This new show is] so very inspired by The Paul Lynde Halloween Special. Here’s my favorite Paul Lynde joke ever, by the way: “Paul Lynde, why do bikers wear leather?” “Because chiffon wrinkles!”
I’ve been on the road for Halloween for the last ten years, never taking a break. And like I said earlier, I was actually looking forward to not working. But there’s only so much you can take, and my inner need is for attention and to make people happy. I realized I couldn’t let Halloween [pass unnoticed] because I’m the reigning Queen of Halloween next to Elvira (the only difference between me and Elvira is about 8 and a half inches).
But [this year was] a lot: my divorce, my mom’s cancer, cancel culture, not working, Covid-19, cultural unrest, Donald Trump… I knew my fans needed me [this Halloween] probably more than ever. So I got together with Greko and after several, several bottles of vodka, we decided to do something like You Can’t Do That On Television meets The Paul Lynde Halloween Special meets The Lawrence Welk Show.
We wanted to bring the music, the jokes and the fun. I did a Halloween special at the Laurie Beechman Theatre every year, and they were mostly focused on being very dark. But this year I thought, “you know what? Let’s slap a PG-13 label on it. Let’s bring the humor and the camp of what Halloween is. Because there’s no way in Hell that the people who supported me for all these years aren’t going to get exactly what they deserve.” So I just reached out to huge megastars and [local] stars, and said we should all have a good time. Through all this bullshit, just have one good time. I think I needed it more than my fans needed it!
We made sure the sets were perfect and that everyone was taken care of, and I even had a bunch of candy corn on set… but then we realized it was just Jiggly Caliente’s old teeth.
Yum! And your “Mask It or Casket” guest stars are the greatest! Joining Greko and yourself are your Drag Race sisters Aja and Alaska, plus Drag Race UK winner The Vivienne; comedic drag legend Jackie Beat; local columnist and singing scenester Michael Musto; magical stage virtuoso Michael Carbonaro; current reigning Miss Paradise Olivia Lux; gothic glam nightlife lord Michael T—
I really wanted to get Michael T involved, because I really wanted to throw a bone to stars that have never been heard of, lol! And I wanted to bring in Real Housewives‘ Countess Luann for the crossover appeal, to bring in that different type of audience. And most importantly, my childhood idol Amanda Lepore–[it was great] to be with her on set and say “not only are you an idol, not only are you an icon, you are a friend.”
And our local girl Jada Valenciaga was representing as well!
Jada was sweet as candy, and so talented! I even told her, “thank God I’m famous, so that I don’t have to try and beat you at your own vocal game!”
This might be Virtual Halloween’s most must-see event… I’m so excited for it! Okay, so here’s the closer: your Drag Race co-star, friend and TV enemy Phi Phi O’Hara is quitting drag (or has already)! Do you have any thoughts on that?
The only thoughts I have on Phi Phi O’Hara is that… Donald Trump is like a jack-o-lantern: hollow, orange, and needs to be thrown out on November 3rd. So go vote! And I have no thoughts on Phi Phi O’Hara, sorry. I heard she’s working at a local Party City, though… maybe I should shop there for my look!
Lol! Happy Halloween, Sharon!
Check Thotyssey’s calendar for Sharon Needles’ upcoming appearances, and follow her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. Also, visit her website. Watch her digital Club Cumming Halloween show (October 29th and 31st) here.