In the decade since Sharon Needles shook up the system and snagged the crown on RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 4, she has remained a public, and at times, a polarizing performer. While her music remains revolutionary and filled to the gills with pop culture references, her off-stage headlines sometimes threatened to overshadow her lofty musical accomplishments.
I sat down with Sharon as she released her disco-tastic new album Absolute Zero and we had an extensive chat. Whether discussing her decade of living in the spotlight, her passion for disco music, or her thoughts on Drag Race now, Needles remains one of the most provocative and whip-smart perspectives in the business today.
Michael Cook: Your musical perspective has certainly been missed. What do you attribute the break to? We have not seen you since Battle Axe?
Sharon Needles: Honey, the last two years have been a disaster I think for everyone, particularly for me. Things I will talk about, things I won’t talk about, things I legally can’t talk about. It wasn’t just the big break from work due to the way that we make our money and have exposure through traveling. No celebrity travels more than a Ru-girl and that really kept me grounded at home. I had a huge breakup with my fiancé of seven years, my mom got cancer, my best friend passed away; this all happened in three weeks. I was like Francine Fishpaw in Polyester when her whole life just starts collapsing all at once, tragedy after tragedy.
There are times that I wondered, and this is not a joke, if I died and I was on one slow perpetual Ferris wheel of hell. I did what I think a lot of gay people do and I focused on the things that brought me joy and that were still attainable to me, and one of those things is disco music.
MC: You have always managed to hit on whatever the trend was about to be, and not what it already was. Absolute Zero is no different.
SN: That’s right and I would have beat some of the bigger acts who are doing disco like Dua Lipa. But this record has been a two year labor of love. It has never taken me this long to get product out, but this album was starting to be written in March of 2020. It has been a long time coming, but the break is over, as much as taking a break from the industry that is entertainment. When you have a break, it gives you time to sit back and see that you have traveled all over the world and performed in front of all of those people, you get a little agoraphobic and PTSD. I made this record to not just share my art, but to wake my own ass up!
MC: You are absolutely right. Only now, are many people realizing how impacted they were my the pandemic, even if they managed to escape it healthy.
SN: I think it affects queer people especially, too. We tend to be so ridiculously social and sexual beings surrounded by our chosen families all the time for our own survival. I think we all are going to have some lifelong damage from this.
MC: The video for “Flamin Hot” of course will bring Madonna to mind, but Amanda Lear is so referenced in the video even more-so. What is it about Amanda Lear that you gravitate towards?
SN: I remember finding my first Amanda Lear record in 2007. That is when I started getting into a lot of soul and funk music that kind of pushed me into the much dancier sound of that era which was disco. I had never heard of Amanda Lear, I just really liked the track listing; “Blood & Honey”, and “Queen of Chinatown” and “Amanda Lear’s Alphabet”…I was just drawn to that. I was drawn to her image also. She looked like Joanna Lumley from Absolutely Fabulous. I remember saying that if I had to put money on it, I would say that this was a trans woman, but I knew that no radio station or record company would give a record deal to a trans woman in the seventies, but I proved myself wrong. I am so attracted to the natural sound of her voice. It is like Nico meets Giorgio Moroder. I liked her interesting husky voice and how you could see every tooth in her head, as if she only goes to Farrah Fawcett’s dentist.
I was really attracted to her videos also because she has a natural laissez-faire, a laziness. Even in her voice, it is borderline lazy. It is not these hard punching vocals that you hear so much in disco. Her movements are very lazy and the songs are undeniably good. I knew a lot of people, even kids of my generation, would see more references to Confessions on the Dance Floor than they would to Amanda Lear, but I will take any excuse to correct that reference and to share the beautiful love and secret of Euro disco queen Amanda Lear.
MC: What made you want to cover “Don’t Feat The Reaper”? It is a random, yet welcome addition.
SN: It came from the era of disco, but was rock, I wanted to take a white rock band sound and turn it in to disco. Even though I love 70’s rock, the history of producers and radio stations creating a propaganda machine of saying disco is dead and disco sucks and burning your disco records, which actually happened in baseball fields all over the world, because white rock and roll, they felt was not getting enough radio airplay, they needed to knock out the disco phenomenon. If you grew up in the ’80s, you automatically knew that disco was tacky, disco was manufactured, and disco was “not real music”. No one took the time study how much real instrumentation, how much technology from the move from synthesizers to playbacks were used.
Disco music also invited unapologetically so many black and gay artists onto the radio and took queer experiences and black experiences and you could hear them in Boise, Idaho. I wanted to take a song from the “disco is dead” assault on disco and turn it into a disco song. I love a lot of 70’s rock-n-roll, especially glam rock, because it’s 70’s rock n roll, but way gayer. “Don’t Fear The Reaper” seemed just so far away from disco, but it also kinda had a 172 walking beat which is commonly used in disco music. My producers said that it couldn’t be done, but you know whatever Sharon wants Sharon gets (laughs)!
MC: Your references are so freshening to hear, and your passion for this music and the history are almost unparalleled. It’s refreshing to hear an artist paying homage to the sounds that crafted our music.
SN: I am considered a stupid problematic button pusher and to some, a Rolodex of sub pop culture genius. I feel like I am slapped right in the middle.
MC: RuPaul’s Drag Race was almost a decade ago for you. Are there any lessons or advice that you have taken from that experience and utilized in your career?
SN: It is the ten year anniversary of me being crowned America’s Next Drag Superstar so it has given me a lot of time to reflect. Not to toot my own horn, but I was the first drag queen winner to be chosen by a fan vote. I was the first one to do billboards, large magazine shoots, and to travel multiple countries. I also, with the assistance of many others, created a new frontier of what a drag queen from Drag Race could accomplish. That being said ,I was so busy and so under-slept and pulled in so many directions, that so much of that was so unenjoyable. I guess what I have learned the most is try not to forget the person that walked into the workroom; a shy, sensitive, bright eyed kid, first time in Hollywood.
Also, don’t beat yourself up too much if the fame goes to your head. Because in my instance, my head was the only empty place for me to keep it (laughs)! A lot of queens say to stay humble, and of course, treat the fans and the people that are paying you really well and if you have to yell, yell at management as you are paying them and they usually don’t care if they get yelled at. Know that there is a reason that you are a star and some people aren’t.
MC: There was an unidentifiable seismic shift after you won Season 4 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. That said, is there a world where we could very possibly see you on a season of All Stars All Winners?
SN: Who knows, but I will tell you this … without names being named, there were some pretty disappointed winners for not being asked back. I am very thankful that I was not asked, I was probably in the worst mental place that I could ever be in. I would not have been prepared for the ways that the fans are expecting me to be. In my season, drag could still be pretty green. Now, I just can’t wrap my head around these things. I just watched an episode of All Stars All Winners and people are wearing robots. I wouldn’t know who to call to make me a robot (laughs)! I would have just gone in there and I would have cried all day. I would have sent myself packing first episode simply because of me not being ready for it.
As for Drag Race changing after my win and it going mainstream, in my defense, what we made mainstream was a satanic, button pushing, blood vomiting monster. That shows the true tenacity of the fans. I think World of Wonder was worried at first about how America could handle a boy or anyone dressed in drag. I think my season proved that the fans are clamoring for irreverent and bizarre. I don’t think I changed Drag Race, but I do believe that I turned a beauty pageant into an art gallery. It has opened the doors for Sasha Velour, Jinx Monsoon, people like that. I think when they saw how hard I worked and how much fun it was for an outsider’s point of view of drag to excel, I guess I didn’t reinvent drag, I just pushed it up the hill. And the tire was popped (laughs).
MC: You have referenced everything from Andy Warhol to multiple pop culture references in your video for Battle Axe. Are there any pop culture references that you want to get your hands on but have not yet?
SN: See, I want to say yes, but I really think I have done them all. I don’t just give one or two references. In “This Club is A Haunted House”, I referenced The Omen, Bad Seed, Poltergest, It, Children Of The Corn. In Battle Axe, it’s Dynasty, Big Business, Mommie Dearest, and that’s just two videos and eight references.
MC: It’s been ten years since you were crowned and so much has changed in drag, in your career and in the world in general. What are you proud of right now?
SN: Most importantly, that I am still alive. I’m proud that I took the steps that I needed to take to not implode. Drag queens, no matter what style you do, tend to be dented cans and damaged goods that hide behind the visual vernacular of glamour. I am proud that I can take my eyes out of my head and throw them into the air as if they were security cameras and whether it was my successes or failures, I think that I would be a fan of my own movie. You can beat your head into a wall until your skull cracks over the mental anguish that bad press can give you. If I have realized anything in ten years, it is that I am an entertainer and nothing entertains people more than watching stars fall apart. If I am providing a service to the needs of those who can’t be forced to be cancelled, then I have done my job as an entertainer, because I understand them. As long as the list of my accomplishments in my obituary are longer than my transgressions, I will have known I did a good job.
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