We speak to two stars of Ru Paul’s Drag Race – Sharon Needles and Alaska Thunderfuck 5000 – about women, drag and looking like Britney
Drag queens often get a bad rep when it comes to being "good" feminists, with accusations that misogyny is rife within the gay male and drag communities. Words like “fishy” describe a queen who can pass as a biological woman, while gay culture is often critiqued for fetishizing masculinity above all else. Then you’ve got those who argue drag is just a parody of femininity, mocking women, both characteristics and the aesthetic; the butt of a joke made by men, in an arena that women often feel uninvited.
Some argue that drag has nothing to do with the lived female experience. These queens can hang up their heels at the end of the night, an opportunity not afforded to women day to day. This will ring true for some, but there are plenty of of drag queens who claim that it’s the amazing women in their lives that inspired them to do drag, that drag is rather a deconstruction and a parody of the ridiculous image women are supposed to achieve, and that drag, most certainly, is for women too.
We caught up with Sharon Needles and Alaska Thundefuck 5000, two of the world’s most infamous queens who made their name on Ru Paul’s Drag Race. As they put on makeup prior to a big Halloween party at Revenge in Brighton, we settled down to talk about women and drag.
Is there something innate in drag that’s misogynistic? It’s an accusation that gets levelled at the scene
Sharon Needles: It can be perceived as misogynistic, and I can understand why, but I don’t think there’s any drag queen who intends it to be. Most drag queens dress up as super women, as an over exaggeration of the female form, because we like women, usually powerful women. I think that’s why we are so over exaggerated; we are an amplification of the women who empowered us in our youth. The most powerful woman I know is my mother, and she doesn’t wear any make up at all. We’re exaggerating the western consumerist culture that happens to plague women more than men; and thank god, because it’s so much prettier.
Alaska Thunderfuck 5000: If it’s a mockery of anything, it’s a mockery of consumerism, how absurd is it that right now, as we speak, I’m glueing pieces of plastic to my fingers. Why is this available in a store, why do we encourage people to do it? By exaggerating it and doing it as men, I think we can help highlight that this isn’t what makes a woman a woman.
Take using “fishy” to describe a queen who looks like a biological woman – do you think that it’s important that drag says goodbye to these terms?
Sharon Needles: No! Not at all! Drag queens are themselves a minority; groups like us all over the world have their own cliques, their own culture, language and phrases. Not all drag queens but certainly the ones who empowered me, are people who pushed buttons, and poked fun at society from Leigh Bowery, to Lady Bunny and Divine.
I like socially impolite assholes, and these were my idols. We are drag queens; we’ve already been the butt of the joke, picked on for our whole lives. Our culture is ours, and it’s complicated, let’s fix the shit around us before turning on our phonetics.
But doesn’t it create a perception that drag is merely mocking femininity?
Alaska Thunderfuck 5000: Since I was a kid, I’ve always been skinny and frail framed. I felt powerless as a child, but I always saw so much power in femininity and female sexuality. I was always drawn to beautiful women. We don’t mock anything innate about femininity, but some of the trappings that come alongside.
How have women in your life contributed to your drag?
Alaska Thunderfuck 5000: I’m inspired by Divine certainly, oh, and Britney Spears. I look exactly like her. Please make sure you get that in the interview, I look 22 years old, and exactly like Britney.
Sharon Needles: I think my mother deserves a name check too. Now mum didn’t teach me to how impersonate women; the last woman any drag queen would want to look like is my mother! But what we learn from our mothers is how to be powerful, strong bitches, and know how to get what we want. We both had pretty resilient mothers who’ve been through the wringer themselves. We learnt to be assertive.
“By exaggerating it and doing it as men, I think we can help highlight that this isn’t what makes a woman a woman”
Women have done drag for a long time, but here in the UK they’re finally starting to be taken seriously. Do you think we need more women in drag?
Sharon Needles: Definitely. Women doing drag in the UK is huge, but it’s still often misunderstood back in the States. I get tweeted at least once a day by people saying, “Oh I wish I could be a drag queen, but I can’t because I’m a girl.”
Like you said, some people can see drag as being misogynistic, but the only way we can alleviate that is if we open up the playing field for everyone to play dress up. That means women drag queens, but also drag kings, women who make themselves look like men. You should check out Landon Cider, he’s taking drag king work to a whole new level.
Do you think it’s tough for women to make it in the drag world? Don’t we expect a drag queen to be a bloke in a dress?
Sharon Needles: In the entertainment industry women are often judged. They judge bigger women, they judge black women, and older women too. We just don’t do that in drag. Drag is open to everyone, regardless of gender, body shape or age. Ru Paul, the queen of the queens? She’s like 95 now, right? Lady Bunny is fat, and there are so many black queens on the scene.
Just look at Latrice Royale, who people consider to be the most beautiful thing they’ve ever seen. If she was a biological woman, large, black, and in her 40’s, I’m not sure she’s have had the opportunities that she has through drag.
Your drag is over the top and outrageous; are you intending to poke fun at the expectations society has of women to look a certain way?
Alaska Thunderfuck 5000: Totally. It’s like, why is this pretty? Why is it considered attractive when I glue things to my eyes and fingers? I’ve got paint on my face, why is it pretty? It’s a question I keep asking myself.
But the fact is, when I do it there’s magic, and I do feel pretty and empowered. It’s a question, not a critique because I fucking love hair extensions, but why do I think they’re pretty? It’s something I want people to ask.
Sharon Needles: We’re like a funhouse mirror of society, a distorted and bent exaggerated reflection of what we amongst. We don’t have the answers, we’re just drag queens, but posing questions is what we’re about.
The biggest issue facing queer communities is arguably gender. Being trans or non-binary can often come with a big taboo, both in wider society, but our communities too. Does your drag have something to say on it?
Alaska Thunderfuck 5000: I think drag helps move us in the direction of loosening up the man/woman binary. The idea that you’re one, or the other, it’s false The more that as a society we become a little looser, more open to laugh about gender, that’s the direction the world needs to go in. Some of the most beautiful women in the world have gigantic penises. Get over it. Next!
What is it about drag that keeps you hooked?
Sharon Needles: Look at her, over there, look who you see in the mirror. When I’m fully done and look in there, the real you inside is pushed way back. All it takes is seven days without her, and I need her, she’s a necessity, a part of who I am, and a cross-dressing alcoholic asshole too.
Alaska Thunderfuck 5000: It does hurt though; my body can go through hell for this, but there’s magic to it as well. I can’t quite explain, but something happens when you’re all done up, and it’s more than the sum of just its parts. It’s more than "I’ve just glued shit to me and put on a wig", something chemical happens, and that’s why we do it.