Dragged into Debate: Reality-TV fame puts spotlight on Sharon Needles' controversial act

"I'm an artist and I don't ... have to answer for my work."

| June 20, 2012
Sharon needles performing outside City Council on "Sharon Needles Day"
- Photo by Lauren Daley
Sharon needles performing outside City Council on "Sharon Needles Day"

Real TV — the kind they air on Pittsburgh's governmental television channel — is generally much less interesting than reality TV. But the two worlds collided June 12, when Sharon Needles, the Bloomfield-based drag queen who won national fame on the Logo network's RuPaul's Drag Race, came to Pittsburgh City Council. 

And it's still not clear who the real Sharon Needles is.

Wearing a bleached blonde wig, jet-black lipstick and a flowing black gown with feathers around her shoulders, Needles arrived just as Council President Darlene Harris was discussing Flag Day. "If there's anyone on time, it's not a drag queen," Needles proclaimed. Later, Councilor Patrick Dowd presented a proclamation declaring June 12 "Sharon Needles Day"; when Dowd referred to her hometown in Iowa as flat, she caressed her breasts. 

Dowd's proclamation praised Needles, whose legal name is Aaron Coady, for "intending to spark discussion that breaks down barriers created by discrimination, as well as stereotypical portrayals of members of the drag community." It lauded her as "a fearless but humble artist, sharp-witted social critic, and just one example of the diverse range of citizens that Pittsburgh is proud to call its own."

Some aren't so sure. Needles' rise to fame has also brought criticism, including charges that her own work traffics in bigotry and stereotypes. Eli Kuti, a bartender at Lawrenceville's Blue Moon, where Needles often performs, recalls one performance in which Needles and another drag queen donned one-piece bathing suits emblazoned with swastikas. The two "were hailing Hitler" and calling crowd members racial epithets, Kuti says.

"I was in complete shock. Some people left," he adds. "It's been done before, it's stupid and we don't want that shit in Pittsburgh."

 In May, the online publication Huffington Post posted a video in which Needles appeared, out of costume, speaking after an episode of Drag Race. In that video, Needles acknowledged that she didn't "know how to tip-toe around gender rules or queer politics," and mocked a critic who faulted her for "paint[ing] myself brown" — presenting herself as black — and "us[ing] language that she found offensive." 

HuffPo writer Brandon Thomas called her out, writing "What you did is known as ‘blackface,' which has its roots in white supremacy."

The blog "Queering the Game of Life" (queerandpresentdanger.tumblr.com) thundered, "[N]ot only is Sharon Needles now being unapologetically racist, she's ... denouncing ‘queer on queer violence' without recognizing EVERYTHING SHE IS DOING IS VIOLENT. Does she not know her racism is harming Black queers? Or does she not give a fuck?"

Needles is unapologetic.

 "They have all this angst and all this energy and we're living in Southwestern Pennsylvania where there is some real hate, some real fucked-up shit going on," she says. "And they are focusing on a social-commentary midnight clown" whose drag performances they are free to ignore.

Supporters, meanwhile, say the things that make drag shocking are the same things that make it effective as social commentary ... and that Needles is one of the few drag queens whose performances make a political statement. 

"Ninety percent of drag queens are only female impersonators," says Eric Shiner, director of The Andy Warhol Museum and a friend of Needles. "Very few take it to the extreme, take it to be a political voice or a social critique."

Needles accepting her city proclamation - PHOTO BY LAUREN DALEY

"I didn't grow up listening to the Spice Girls," Needles told City Paper in a brief interview following the June 12 council event. (Needles, who faults CP and other local media for not paying attention to her until the RuPaul show, declined to discuss in detail the accusations and criticisms.) "I grew up listening to Marilyn Manson and the Sex Pistols and G.G. Allin, who were really pushing barriers and doing things that made you give a double-take. The reason I prefer transgressional art is because it's the kind of art I like to watch."

Similarly, she says, "When I first started doing drag, I saw the most powerful drag queens as this aggressive, kind of angry, thing." So her own onstage persona was modeled after "borderline misogynistic '80s bimbos" like Elvira and Peg Bundy, the razor-tongued wife in on TV's Married With Children. 

There's little question that Needles takes pleasure in tromping on social norms. In a music video for a song she titled "412/724 Whore," Needles takes the role of a prostitute, walking the streets of Pittsburgh while singing a song in which she regales the viewer with tales of giving blow jobs to various local celebrities, and having sex at landmarks including Frick Park and the Warhol. There are also references to various enclaves in Squirrel Hill and Uptown, where "their horse dicks make me gag."

Needles has been performing drag in Pittsburgh for the past eight years, often at the Blue Moon bar, as part of the drag troupe Haus of Haunt. Her on-stage persona is "a mixture of current social anxieties and a nitwit." It's all about taking "really dark issues and forcing them into the spotlight so we can all think about it, create dialogue and laugh at ourselves."

Not everyone is laughing. 

Kuti says he stopped working at the Blue Moon on the nights of the drag shows because the shows were offensive and intimidating. It'd be one thing, he says, if Needles were explaining the message behind the symbols she uses on stage. But "they're trying to do some kind of shock thing," Kuti says. "You're not proving any kind of point if the only dialogue is, ‘You're so wild and crazy, you do whatever you want.' There's no dialogue on racism at these things."

And Kuti says the discussion has led to fierce divisions within the city's queer community. He's lost friends who are angry for his vocal criticism of the drag queen; he, in turn, has turned away from friends who continue to attend the shows. 

Meanwhile, complaints about Needles using racial epithets both on- and off-stage have been circulating online, along with a photograph in which she appears to be wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a swastika. 

Locally, public criticism has been muted. Dowd confirms that when he issued his proclamation, he did receive "some calls of criticism [telling] me how wrong I was," and City Paper too has spoken to locals who were upset. But few wanted to speak on the record, in part because of fears that doing so would play into the hands of anti-gay bigots, or lead to harassment from Needles' fans. 

"Most people I've seen critique this have done so quasi-privately," says one local critic, a black man who has tussled online with Needles' supporters — and who didn't want his own name to be used. Part of the reason, he says, is concern that criticizing Needles would "play off homophobic feelings. We don't want to use society's homophobia as a tool against things we find problematic for other reasons." If Needles "were a straight person" engaging in this behavior, he adds, "people would feel more comfortable" criticizing it.

It is difficult to verify some of the behavior attributed to Needles. Much of online commentary has since been deleted. Some of it — including a pair of alleged Facebook posts that touched off some early criticism of Needles — may have been faked, or intended as satire. Needles has said the Facebook pages are forgeries, according to LGBT blog Queerty. But while she doesn't deny having worn swastika-bedecked apparel, for example, she largely turns aside criticism. 

"I can't give [critics] press," she says. "I've tried to create a humane dialogue with them before and it never works."

Dowd says he learned of Needles through colleagues and his own children. He says doesn't watch television and acknowledges that he hasn't seen Needles perform, and that he isn't "standing here to defend everything she does." He was, he says, unaware of the complaints about Needles until the day the proclamation was issued. Still, he says, even in light of the controversy, he'd award Needles a proclamation again. 

"What we do with proclamations is honor the good work people do," he says. "It doesn't mean we believe everything Sharon Needles says, or that we support everything Sharon Needles does. But we respect that she puts herself out there and that she won Drag Race." What's more, "She carries a message about bullying and channeling into a positive direction something that was negative. ... There are people who do things to provoke a response ... and the reason is for more people to ask questions, to think, to re-evaluate and reposition themselves. That helps bring change."

"I'm so proud of [Sharon]," says Marsha Monster Mellow, a stalwart of the local drag scene who encouraged Needles to relocate to Pittsburgh from Iowa eight years ago. "Drag is a hard lifestyle. People don't realize the battles we have to fight." 

Needles is "not a racist, she's an opportunist," stresses Mellow, who is white. After all, she says, if Needles were truly a racist, she wouldn't have done a show hosted by a black drag performer. 

"Drag is all about pushing buttons," Mellow says. "Being gay is about living life and pushing buttons and a lot of people are still afraid. ... If you don't understand something, ask questions. Don't point fingers." 

When Needles has come out in black make-up, "it was as a character," Mellow says. And in creating such a persona, Mellow adds, makeup is as carefully considered — and at times as outlandish — as any other aspect of the performance. It is "not slapping black shoe polish on," says Mellow. "It's all about how much effort you put into a look."

In any case, Needles isn't alone in provoking these questions.

As Zach Stafford, of Huffington Post, wrote about the Drag Race champion, "There seems to be a constant tension between drag and racism." As an example, he cites Shirley Q. Liquor, a drag persona created by Charles Knipp, a white male from New Orleans who plays at being a sexually promiscuous black welfare recipient. Asked Stafford, "Why is drag sometimes racist, and why do drag performers occasionally do arguably racist things?" 

Shiner, of the Warhol, says the reason is "to deconstruct those stereotypes. Pushing buttons to draw attention to social ills is a good thing." 

But Needles herself seems a bit more ambivalent. On the one hand, speaking before council on June 12, she said she was proud to be a "voice of positivity for gay people," and trumpeted her Drag Race victory as "a win for every single kid in this city who's still being bullied, who's still being judged for who they are." Instead of talking about her critics, she says, she'd rather focus on the hundreds of letters she receives from kids who saying she's been an inspiration. 

On the other hand, when asked afterward if she were trying to use her performances to discuss specific issues, she said flatly, "No. That's not my problem. I'm an artist and I don't fucking have to answer for my work."

Comments (16)

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Ah, Pittsburgh you hokey little po-dunk haven for racists where even erudite museum directors give other white people a hall pass for racism. It's deeply disappointing that the director of the internationally-known Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh doesn't see a problem with blackface or white people calling black people the N word. Someone send that boy a Tim Wise DVD. It's also deeply disappointing that queer African Americans who approached Needles in a club to talk about her act, who were called the N word to their face, didn't talk to City Paper about that direct experience, one undeniable horrible part of the Sharon Needles story.

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Posted by electriclemur on 06/20/2012 at 9:13 AM

http://s1254.photobucket.com/albums/hh605/pittsburgh-anti-racist/

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Posted by Pgh Anti Racist on 06/20/2012 at 1:02 PM

Well electriclemur your comments to this article are more racist than this whole pathetic witch hunt on Sharon. This sad attempt attack is both tired & totally out dated its 2012 so stop with the N word shit Sharon, Veruca and myself have been called Cracker by uneducated people and we laughed and walked away because we are all human and make mistakes.. Wake up and see that Trash comes in every color, race, and gender and belongs in the same bag on the Curb!

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Posted by Marsha Monster Mellow on 06/20/2012 at 4:20 PM

do words scare you, electriclemur ? maybe you should move back to the land of make-believe where things don't upset you so much.

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Posted by Bill Mull on 06/20/2012 at 5:24 PM

Some of this, frankly, sounds like concern-trolling. God, how many punks and rockers have used Nazi imagery to get people outraged and angry?

OTOH ... the fact that she seems willfully, gleefully ignorant that people are offended by her blackface routines is troubling. Or, maybe it's just a sign of shallowness and immaturity. (I was going to say the "callowness of youth," but she's 29. Not exactly a kid.)

I guess what I'm saying is, maybe she's not a racist, she's just an immature punk who's using one of the lowest forms of discourse (insults and slurs) to shock people --- and hey, it's working!

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Posted by P.M. on 06/20/2012 at 5:45 PM

I think being a drag queen is an art form and expressive but she does this to shock people and get a reaction. When she's confronted as to why she does these things, instead of giving people an intelligent answer or explaining herself very well she acts like it's no big deal. She really doesn't even give a shit what anyone thinks! To me that's crazy, you don't have to care about every single person but the audience got her to where she is now.

I think there are more people in Pittsburgh doing inspiring things than Sharon Needles that show us diversity and artful performances where they deserve their own day, not her. Putting on black face and nazi uniforms doesn't really make me or many of my friends feel like she's dealing with real issues.

Last note, why would any of the papers interview Sharon before Drag Race? What the hell did you do that was so important?

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Posted by Andrew Jacobs on 06/20/2012 at 8:36 PM

I have a lot of problems with this article. It seems poorly researched (I''m sorry Eli, but I don't know what show you were at that you are describing, but Sharon does not own a swimsuit with swastikas on it, much less two. I've been to a lot of drag shows and have never seen a scene like what you were describing.) Also, all this stuff that is being dredged up about Sharon is at least 2 1/2 years old, much of it a good deal older. If people insist on judging someone, why don't they judge them on who they are now, and what they are doing now, because what Sharon is doing now is a whole lot of good for disenfranchised folks and folks who are looking for a role model who helps them believe in being themselves even if its different or weird. Finally, Sharon has not done "blackface". The picture that floats around the internet is intentionally misleading, and the people who like to post it know this. Sharon was doing a performance of the begining of Rocky Horror Picture Show, where its just red lips against a black background. She even had a little movie stage she held up in front of her face and everything. This photo was taken in someones bedroom many many hours later. She has done her make up somewhat darker when doing an homage to Ru Paul, and also during a night honoring Beyonce, but in my opinion, a drag queen using makeup (which is part of her artform) to honor another performer or drag queen is not blackface. Blackface includes playing up racially based stereotypes and biases along with exaggeratedly dark makeup. This is not what Sharon has done. This article seems inflammatory, poorly researched, and biased. And using a picture as the lead picture where Sharon looks angry and scary? I was there that day, it's not an accurate representation of her demeanor or performance as a whole.

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Posted by malachi727 on 06/20/2012 at 9:05 PM
Posted by Randy Gentilē on 06/20/2012 at 9:11 PM

Dowd is lying through his teeth!

His chief of staff had this video posted to her facebook wall a full 4 days before the proclamation. (Of course it has now been conveniently removed)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bcEyihTYh-A

Watch this and tell me that this is a person who deserves to be honored by our city.

Dowd is political opportunist who spends more time working to get his name in the paper than tackling the real corruption and problems that the city faces.

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Posted by Larryville on 06/20/2012 at 10:04 PM

I find it extremely interesting that local government is supporting and recognizing a drag queen, while the local "alt" paper and Pride celebrations have turned their backs. I would suggest that Ms. Daley actually go see a performance of Ms. Needles' show for herself, but that will be rather difficult as Sharon is performing in pretty much every other US city but Pittsburgh these days.

Fairly disgusted with CP's "reporting" on this issue. More responsible use of your media outlet would have been reporting on the bullying that Mr. Coady/Ms. Needles has experienced, or outside the Needles story altogether, talking about some of the *truly* hateful things that could be heard outside of the Pride in the Street event, or on the corner before/during PrideFest.

Perhaps it is a sign of the times. Your next cover should read: "Shock" drag queen mainstream enough for city government, too mainstream for "alternative" press.

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Posted by Jessica Skye Davies on 06/21/2012 at 4:16 AM

I love the attention drag is getting from all forms of media from local to international. Laura did get one piece of info wrong when Sharon was looking to relocate she looked up drag queens on the internet from several different city's and my pic and info on myself came up. She tells the story much much funnier and Sharon has a full schedule touring but she has done shows at the Blue Moon as well as the Brillo Box and has up coming bookings in the city she loves and adores.... When I was referring to her do a black character I was talking about when she did Rupaul and it was on point not The Rocky Horror Show pics lol... no matter what any of us post or say about Sharon she is just carrying on a long legacy that traces from Rupaul, Lady Bunny, Jim Bailey , DIVINE and Charles Pierce ....That Legacy is. DRAG QUEENS Pushing buttons ....

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Posted by Marsha Monster Mellow on 06/21/2012 at 2:34 PM

Red face exists as much as Black face.
Red face is when non- Native people dress up and “play Indian”. We see it at Halloween, Thanksgiving and mostly at sporting events; when one team has an “Indian” for a “mascot”. Chief Wahoo, the Tomahawk chop and that craazzzyyy guy that dresses like a Washington Redskin, are all Red face. In which one exhibits the worst traits associated with group of people, a cartoon stereotype that has little basis in historical fact. Red face is very offensive to actual Native Americans.
BUT when a drag queen dresses like Cher (a performer with Native heritage), no one screams Racism! Because it is generally understood that this is a tribute to a specific person, and not a negative caricature of an entire race of people.

SO…..
when a drag queen dresses like RuPaul (a performer who is African American) is it:

a.) a tribute to a specific person?
b.) a negative caricature of an entire race of people?

cause something about Brandon Thomas’s accusation of Sharon Needles being racist and nothing said about Chad Michaels….. seems inconsistent to me.

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Posted by samthor on 06/22/2012 at 10:51 AM

Well if your into her doing a white xmas in a kkk outfit having sex with a crusifix,degrading the bible, coran,911 and other things then shes for you not me.I find her offensive! She now is a role model and should act it,its one thing to be an actor and activist ,but people interpet what you do and act on it. Sharon lead by example.

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Posted by gender queer on 06/27/2012 at 2:18 PM

drag ITSELF most (not all) of the time delegitimizes and mocks trans women AND cis women. why is "blackface" offensive and "woman face" isn't?

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Posted by transfagforlife on 06/27/2012 at 3:55 PM

um I have pics on my phone of the swatika pics,I was there I saw along with 100 others.Im done with the convo.I have pics ?duh

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Posted by ELI on 07/03/2012 at 12:08 PM

Being called "cracker" is unpleasant, but to equate that with the N-word is incredibly ignorant and, yes, racist. Most racism is subtle and unintentional, but still very harmful. If you don't understand why, then you need to read up on systemic racism and white privilege. After all, you can't be a good advocate for queer rights if you don't stand for ALL queer people.

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Posted by MG on 05/13/2013 at 3:39 AM
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