Caustic, vulgar, outrageous, funny, charming, honest, insightful, successful, tragic, Sharon Needles could be described by any of those terms–and she could also be called a Pittsburgher. You may not be aware of it, but Pittsburgh is home to one of the most famous drag queens in the world: Sharon Needles. For a person who admits that she doesn’t feel welcome most anywhere, Needles is comfortable making Pittsburgh her home.
How Needles came to call this city home is not your average relocation story. Needles, who gets as gussied up as Dolly Parton in an over-sized blonde wig, layers of makeup, skimpy dress, and skyscraper heels, was raised in Newton, Iowa, and recently spoke at a CreativeMornings/PGH event about risk-taking where she stated that being a drag queen is a huge risk and quipped that “as a man in high heels, you learn to run before you can walk.”
Needles said she was a happy kid when not in school and was raised by a “single parent” whose name was television. Needles loved TV characters like Elvira and Peg Bundy and was enraptured by the glamor of the small screen, trying to emulate what she watched on television.
The year 1996 was a turning point for Needles, which was when Marilyn Manson, her idol, came to Des Moines. Seeing that show prompted Needles to shave her eyebrows, dye her hair hot pink, and make a vinyl outfit out of her mother’s raincoat, something that did not quite make her blend into the crowd.
Needless to say, her high school and her family didn’t know how to deal with this new persona, and it was recommended that she leave school. Needles dealt with hatred face-to-face. She dropped out her freshman year, very angry at her treatment, saying that she was dealing with so much hatred and anxiety that, like a sponge, she absorbed that anger, and she wrung out that rage on her family. At 15, Needles began to use methamphetamine and ran away to Des Moines, where she hung out with “other homeless, teenage, gay, misfits on the streets.”
At 18, she left Des Moines and spent some time living what she termed a “punk, transient, hippy” life in Colorado and New Mexico until her outrageous behavior got her into trouble, and she was faced with the prospect of going to “prison or Pittsburgh.” She chose Pittsburgh and arrived here in September 2004, living in Garfield, squatting in an abandoned house. Needles immediately took to the city. “No place makes me happier than Pittsburgh,” she claims. “Pittsburgh is like Portland, but we don’t brag.”
In addition to finding a home here, she also found her calling. “I attended my first drag show here, and I realized then that I wanted to be a drag queen, but not your usual type of drag queen. I wanted to be an anti-drag type of queen.” She wanted to highlight politics, misogyny, racism, ageism, and body-shaming. She reasoned that “as a drag queen, we already deal with a world that hates you, why not make fun of it for three minutes on stage.”
Acceptance of her style of drag was met with resistance even within the community. “When you are gay, you already don’t fit in, and when you are gay and you don’t fit in with other gays, that’s like double elimination on how you feel about yourself.” But Needles and her troupe of other queens eventually found a home at a bar called the Blue Moon in Lawrenceville where she honed her act.
During that time, Needles met her former partner (whose name is an expletive) and she suggested that they try out for RUPaul’s Drag Race, a reality competition to discover America’s next drag superstar.
Needles entered on a lark, thinking she had no chance, but ultimately captivated the audience and became the “Season Four” winner. Her success on the show has led to appearances all over the world.
Sadly, fame, which Needles sought for most of her life, was not what she thought it would be. She sounds philosophical when she says, “Fame is a great idea, but it’s not a great thing. Fame is all I wanted; I believed that fame was the ultimate Xanax. How stupid was I, working so hard to be recognized, loved for no reason, and to be hated even more for no reason? Fame can strengthen a relationship or destroy it.” Unfortunately, her relationship with her partner became a casualty of her fame, but it has also led to an amazing career. In 2012, Pittsburgh’s City Council declared June 12 Sharon Needles Day. Her success has been compounded with the recording of two albums. She has played Dr. Frank-N-Furter in the Rocky Horror Picture Show and is the face of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Needles has found a home in Pittsburgh and has studied the human condition, pondering what makes us all the same, and she has concluded that two things unite all people. The first, she says is “that we’re all going to die.” But she knew that there had to be more than putting up with each other for some time on earth and then never being bothering with each other again and has concluded that there is another glue that binds us together: “It’s love.” And for someone who has taken risks all her life, she advises, “If you’re ever really going to risk anything, risk it on the ones you love.”