RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 4 winner Sharon Needles, the queen of darkness, is sitting at Yahoo Music in the glorious Joan Crawford drag from her buzzy new video for “Battle Axe,” the title track off her third album of “audio nihilism,” released just in time for Halloween. The video, which also stars her Drag Race nemesis turned good friend Phi Phi O’Hara in a hilarious Dynasty-spoofing catfight scene, is one of the best of the year, but when we joke that it ought to be up for some MTV Video Music Award nominations, Needles quips frankly, “Yeah, I’m not going to get a VMA. The VMAs will use drag queens as puppets. They’ll use us as decoration. … I’m sure lots of millionaire, million-hit artists will pander to gay and trans culture, because we’re ‘cool.’”
Needles may be referring to last year’s VMAs, when the Drag Race All-Stars 2 cast walked MTV’s red carpet dressed in different iconic VMA fashions, or the VMAs from two years ago, when host Miley Cyrus closed the show with a cast of 30 Drag Race contestants. But Needles clarifies that she has less of a problem with the ceremony’s 2015 host than with Katy Perry, who handled 2017 VMA emcee duties and also performed with drag queens on Saturday Night Live this year.
“I think Miley’s more of an ally than, say, Katy Perry, who most definitely panders to the gay community,” says Needles, quoting some of what she thinks are Perry’s more offensive lyrics. “‘I kissed a girl and I liked it.’ ‘You’re so gay.’ I mean, the somewhat problematic ways she speaks about the gay community, and people with mental illness, just totally turns me off.”
Drag queens, and Drag Race alumni in particular, have become MTV regulars thanks to their appearances in music videos by everyone from pop divas Lady Gaga, Kesha, and Little Mix to indie-rockers Spiritualized and Jack White. But Needles is disappointed that’s it still so difficult for musically inclined queens like herself, Jinkx Monsoon, Alaska, Courtney Act, and Adore Delano — all of whom have released albums of original material — to break into the pop mainstream.
“It’s like, ‘Oh, great, drag queens can excel!’ — but then the ceiling is so low. You’re only allowed on the first floor; you’re not allowed to go play with the big boys upstairs. Even RuPaul, who’s a massive success, has been limited to where her music career can take her. … It’s still going to be a white man’s world for much, much longer.
“I think the reason people are propping up drag queens is because it’s popular with the fans that identify with them, so we’re great for marketing. We’re not allowed to be the Christmas tree, we’re just allowed to be the decorations, and I still think we’re looked at as clowns by a majority of the society. I’m not saying that we’re not clowns, but I think everyone [should have] the opportunity to try and succeed as high as they can in the entertainment industry.”
That being said, Needles realizes that fame is a double-edged sword, and she has struggled with being in the spotlight since winning what was arguably Drag Race’s most game-changing season.
“I love celebrities, and I love the concept of fame, but it took me getting fame to realize that it doesn’t exist, which was kind of a bummer. Fame is great if you’re not famous, because it seems like this elusive impossible dream world. And it’s not. It’s a fancy word that managers and producers make up so they can keep hawking you for more money. It most definitely comes with its benefits, but it’s not real. It’s Santa Claus.
“I realized that I don’t like the feeling of going in somewhere and being noticed and recognized by everyone — and that [used to be my] goal: ‘Oh my God, could you imagine if I walked into the bar and everyone knew who I was, and I’d have to take all these pictures and autographs?’ But that’s not a good feeling for anybody. It’s invasive. No one would like that. Why did I think that? I’m a pretty smart person — I know God doesn’t exist, I know Santa Claus didn’t exist — but I was 29 years old, still thinking fame was a real thing, a tangible thing, like you could touch it.
“When you work in this industry, and you are paid in not only money, but you are paid in attention,” Needles continues. “From any star in Hollywood who says they don’t do this for attention and for exposure, they’re f***in’ lying. If we wanted to be real actors, we’d be working in theater, but no. We want to glow in your living rooms. We want to live in your TV. And that’s because we want, for some sick, disgusting reason, we need to be validated by people we don’t know, like f***in’ Beth in Boise, Idaho.”
Still, Needles appreciates her true fans. “If you were to come in to my house, I have archived every fan letter I’ve ever been given, boxes and boxes and boxes and boxes of them,” she confesses in a rare moment of sentimentality. “Don’t read them when you’re drinking, or it will just ruin your night! I mean, they’re very inspiring and they’re sweet, but my fans have an extra kind of damage to them. I think all RuPaul’s Drag Race fans have a little bit of damage, are a little bit dented cans, but I tend to attract those ones that remind me a lot of myself when I was younger. So if my art lifts you up or does anything, that’s great.”
And Needles believes Battle Axe, which was inspired by “strong, aggressive electronic records” of her misfit formative years (Marilyn Manson, Lords of Acid, Ministry, Revolting Cocks, Electric Hellfire Club, KMFDM, Pigface, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult), is “the record that I think people have been wanting from me.” She’s excited to keep pushing herself artistically, even if she never ends up on the pop charts next to Miley and Katy, saying, “I didn’t want to lip-synch two numbers a night in clubs for the rest of my life [after winning Drag Race], because I don’t believe in heaven — I believe in legacy.”
(And, just to put it out there, Needles says she’d happy to fill in for her idol Marilyn Manson while he’s recovering from his recent onstage injury: “I did have my people call their people, just in case anything happened to Marilyn Manson. I did happen to say that I knew every word. Adam Lambert is to Queen as I am to Marilyn Manson, so…”)
While Needles insists that she’s not a role model, the voracious music aficionado — who listens to everything from Carly Rae Jepsen, Justin Bieber, and Noah Cyrus to the Jackson 5, Dr. Dre, and Candi Stanton, and from L7 and Babes in Toyland to Bette Midler’s The Rose soundtrack — absolutely loves educating her fanbase about musical herstory.
“That’s what I use this platform for, you know? I don’t want to be so obvious about gay rights and say, ‘Let’s all save each other!’ — because what saved me was art and music. So if you watch any of my videos, if you listen to my lyrics, if you read my interviews, I am always sneaking in what they now call ‘Easter eggs.’ I’m always just sneaking in pieces of knowledge.”
Battle Axe is out now. Watch Sharon Needles’s full Yahoo Music Facebook Live interview below.