Photos by Edmund X. White
Two weeks after Sharon Needles took home the coveted title of America’s Next Drag Superstar on Rupaul’s Drag Race, she sits on the floor of her room at the Out Hotel—a “straight-friendly urban resort” in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen—across from a psychic named Jesse Bravo, which is at least partially my doing. I had been enraptured by this glam-goth/witch-house/art-sleaze drag queen ever since seeing her on television, and had to meet her. But what would compel a performer known for vomiting blood and accessorizing with Ouija boards to hang with me? What could I propose that would be campy, creepy, and absurd enough to work? One word: séance. And here we are, a tattooed Sharon in a nude-colored lace dress, a rhinestone collar, and cotton candy-like platinum hair piled high sitting among flickering candles, tumbler of scotch in hand, while the psychic tells her he sees stars—entire constellations—all around her.
Sharon kneels down to whisper in my ear: “Ask the psychic if you are going to get raped.”
“No!” I say, “I don’t want to know!”
“What did she tell you to ask?” the psychic asks, smiling, “When you are going to die?”
I consider this. “Well… could you tell me that?”
“No!” Sharon yelps, “You psycho! Ask my question, not that one.”
A few hours earlier, I sat in the bathroom and got to talk to Sharon about her origins while she applied make-up—or rather, I talked to Aaron Coady, the man behind the woman. (I'll refer to Aaron as “Sharon” when he's in drag and as “Aaron” while he’s in mufti.) When he’s not in character, he has an open, easy demeanor, which is what you’d expect from someone who grew up in a small town and escaped to become, officially, a Drag Superstar. “I was too naive to be depressed,” he said of his childhood in Newton, Iowa. He was picked on, sure, but he learned to surround himself with things he loved: turning the back deck into a Broadway stage (“There was no after school dance or theater program in my town”), year-round Halloween dress-up, hanging out alone in cornfields, and, especially, plugging into television. “I was really into the bimbo archetype that filled late 80s-early 90s TV when I was growing up,” he said. “You know, women circling the want ads with nail polish, Rhonda Shear from USA Up All Night, Peggy Bundy.”
A YouTube video from Sharon’s early days depicts her as a blonde hooker in a red satin dress, walking the streets of Pittsburgh drinking a beer. “Maybe it sounds sexist, but I thought there was power in women acting stupid,” said Aaron, “That is why Sharon’s voice is so dumb. She’s beautiful, spooky, and stupid.”
Sharon asks the psychic if we can get the punk rock legend GG Allin on the line… or maybe televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker? (The latter is tattooed on Sharon’s upper arm.) The psychic closes his eyes. Tammy Faye is in some distant, massive city, but she knows Sharon and she has a message for her: She needs to watch her finances. She needs to watch who is around her. She needs to not let things pile up. “I love you, Tammy,” Sharon says. GG Allin also makes an appearance (surely the only time he’s shared a stage with Tammy Faye) and sends the image of a pressure cooker, telling Sharon she needs to “let the steam out.”
After Sharon’s sudden skyrocket to fame—she’s at the level where people take it upon themselves to call her out for “inappropriate” comments—she can use all the advice she can get. And it has all been sudden. “I found out I won Drag Race when everyone found out,” Sharon says. The network filmed each of the three finalists getting crowned, and kept the winner completely under wraps until the episode aired. And for good reason: Each of the previous season’s winners had been leaked online. “Drag queens work in bars—an environment where we constantly guzzle truth serum. And we already have big mouths,” Sharon explains. “Gay people in general, I think, like telling secrets because we have to hide a huge secret for the first half of our lives. Why would we want to keep any more?”
The talk keeps coming back to what Sharon should do with her newfound fame: I learn there is a music career in the works and the psychic keeps seeing a lipstick line, or maybe lingerie? There is definitely travel to Paris and lots of champagne in the not-so-distant future (you don’t need to be a psychic to guess that, however). Meanwhile, although Aaron can’t go to a gay bar in the US without being recognized, his day-to-day life hasn’t changed much. He is still living in Pittsburgh with his boyfriend (a fellow drag queen) and the two are still hanging out with the same crowd. Aaron says all he ever wanted was cult fame, and staying in Pittsburgh keeps him in a tighter-knit artist community. Being a big fish in a small pond is more appealing anyway. “It seems like no one has friends in New York, they just have collaborators or co-workers.” Besides, he points out, staying in Baltimore worked for John Waters.
Then there’s the question of aesthetics, rather than business. Aaron tells me that since winning Drag Race as a goth character who wouldn’t have been out of place in Beetlejuice, he has been craving color. “As soon as I am pigeonholed into something I want to tell it to fuck off,” he says. “I don't think anyone should stick with one look for their entire life.” The only people who should always look the same, according to him, are Pee Wee Herman and Elvira, who are living cartoons. “The great thing about being a woman is the power of reinvention.”
“Can we get Divine?” Sharon asks. The medium mentally telephones the deceased drag queen and a pained expression appears on his face. “Was she a big woman?” he asks. “Because she is trying to come in and my body is killing me!” Divine enters and starts sending excited messages almost too quickly to translate. “She says rip up the fuckin’ runway and cover yourself in diamonds,” Jesse says. “Be fucking you. She is celebrating your fame. But, she says, don’t let them run you ragged.”
Speaking of being run ragged, just before Aaron won Drag Race, he got the news that his lifelong best friend had died. She was the only girl who stood up for Sharon back in Newton and she even moved to Pittsburgh, willing to follow Sharon wherever she went. Dealing with the death on tour has been strange. “For my show, I am brought out in a coffin and I am in there for a half an hour. The first few times all I could do was think about her. I am going to pop out of here like an alive dead woman. And you were alive and now you are sand.” This almost threw him off the idea of doing a séance. “Not that I actually believe in any of this stuff,” says Aaron. “Y’know, I believe in you.”
In light of all that, one of the medium’s final messages strikes a chord: “It isn’t that you believe you are immortal, but you have yet to come to terms with when you are going to pass or what is going to happen,” he says. “The spirits say you rebelled so far that you don’t know what to believe. But I am to pass the message that death isn’t what people make it out to be. It isn’t bad.”
Sharon laughs in response. “Why is it again they can talk to us but we can’t talk to them?”
“Do you believe in astrology?” says the psychic, “There are just these celestial maps and shooting stars all around you.”
Sharon takes a slow sip of scotch. “I believe in everything for a couple of fleeting moments.”
Before we end, the medium tells us that Divine wants to know if she can hang out for a while. “Of course, girl, I love you,” Sharon says. “No Divine, no Sharon Needles.” After the psychic packs up, I turn the video function on my camera and ask Sharon what she thinks. “I still don’t know about the spirit realm,” she says in a dramatic voice. “I guess, here I remain… beautiful, spooky, and stupid.” I turn the camera off and Sharon’s on-camera persona drops. “OK, lets get the hell out of here,” she says.