Sharon Needles on Loving the Wicked Witch, Hating Elphaba, and Being “the New Judy Garland”

by Jason LeRoy

When Peaches Christ and Sharon Needles first worked together in 2012, they played among the most iconic characters in movie history in THE SILENCE OF THE TRANS. Last year, they were ‘90s teen-angst witches in THE CRAFT. So for their third annual collaboration, it only makes sense that they’re embodying the most iconic witch story in history, not to mention the movie that single-handedly turned the entire country gay while WWII distracted its leaders.

That’s right: THE WIZARD OF OZ is finally getting the Peaches Christ treatment!

Peaches will embrace her inner Judy complex in the role of Peachy Gale, and Sharon—the high priestess of Party City herself—will go green in a totally non-environmental way (all that hairspray is hell on the ozone layer) as the Wicked Witch. It’ll be a tornado of excitement when we gather at another queer institution beloved by old queens, the Castro Theatre, on Saturday, July 12 at 3 and 8pm—ONE DAY ONLY!

In addition to a screening of the quintessential 1939 movie classic, you’ll be treated to an all-new ADULTS-ONLY pre-show: The Wizard of Odd! An earthquake devastates San Francisco and sweet, innocent Peachy Gale falls deep into the earth, where she eventually lands and kills some queen with flawless shoes. Peachy mops the ruby red Swarovski-covered platforms—only to be confronted by the wickedly terrifying witch Sharon, who threatens Peachy in order to get those shoes… and her little dog too. Peachy’s adventure begins down the yellow brick stage, and her quest to get back to San Francisco is a musical extravaganza.

Below, star Sharon Needles discusses her childhood memories of The Wizard of Oz, her feelings about Wicked, her position on the Trannyshack controversy, and much more.

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What are your earliest recollections of watching The Wizard of Oz?

I most definitely remember the first time I saw The Wizard of Oz. I was four years old, and my family tended to make it a yearly event where we’d all get together and watch it. My reaction to the film was much different than those of my brothers and sisters: I could not wrap my head around why the witch was wrong. If anything, everything my parents ever taught me about morality was completely compromised by this movie. It showed that this teenage girl could come to someone else’s land and steal the witch’s sister’s shoes right in front of her corpse—blatantly not return them—and then when said witch has her goons do a citizen’s arrest, she’s subsequently murdered for something even simpler than shoes: a fucking broom!

I felt connected to the Wicked Witch. I liked her, she was my favorite part: she shows up in a cloud of green smoke, she has green skin, she has a fierce-ass gown… I just think she was misunderstood. As a kid, I was always attracted to evil things and villains. I think it spawned from my mother. [laughs] I’m actually looking at a picture on my fridge from when I was five years old, and I’m dressed as the scarecrow with my mom dressed as the Wicked Witch. I have a huge admiration for this character.

Peaches’ plays are bastardizations of cult-classic films and this one will be no different. When we were talking about it, we wanted to take it to a little bit more of an adult place. I date my prosthetic artist, and he also has a huge admiration for the Wicked Witch; we both grew up with a similar story of loving her. I thought the best way to bastardize the witch would be to make my nose a big green veiny penis and make my chin be balls. But after doing a few sketches, we both looked at it and were like, “If Margaret Hamilton knew, we’d be so ashamed of ourselves.”

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I’m sure she’s screaming in hell as we speak.

So we nicked that idea and figured we’ll keep it all in the dialogue. But in terms of the way the witch looks, it’ll be very classic and just covered in glitter.

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How did you and Peaches decide on this title? It’s definitely one of the most mainstream, well-known movies Peaches has ever done.

The Wizard of Oz is the world’s most beloved movie and Peaches and me are two of the most beloved drag queens, so it just makes sense that we’d do something that’s universally loved like we are! Another reason is just… here it is, the most famous movie of all time. Go back and watch it. It is the strangest, campiest, weirdest movie ever. If you take away the whole concept of it being a classic—let’s say you just found this 1939 film and you’ve never heard of it? You would think you were on acid! It is a total acid trip of a movie, with the worst final message of all time. It basically tells girls, “If you have to find your heart’s desire any further than your backyard, then it was never there, honey!” That’s a great thing to teach our young women.

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And then TLC reinforced that message in “Waterfalls.”

Right! I mean, what were those three letters that took him to his final resting place? I never figured that one out!

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I need to Ask Jeeves.

I’m pretty sure it’s HIV. Or at least that’s how it applies to San Francisco.

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And that’s why it’s a universal song, because you can customize those three unidentified letters to whatever’s happening in your location.

Exactly.

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Last year you played Nancy in The Craft, and now you’re playing the Wicked Witch. What dirt do you have on Peaches that she keeps giving you the juiciest roles in her stage shows?

I think the reason I get the juicy roles is because people want to see me in them! Peaches is kinda like the John Waters and I’m the Divine. She likes to use me in parts I know she really wants. I’m not always demanding the meatiest or strangest roles; people just like to see me in them. I’ve always wanted to play Brad in The Rocky Horror Picture Show but I always get cast as Dr. Frank-N-Furter. I think another reason is that Peaches tends to excel comedically when she plays the innocent role. When you look at something as outrageous and clownish as Peaches and then give her a self-deprecating part, it’s so funny.

I also think Peaches feels most comfortable with making fun of ourselves, which is the first rule of being a good drag queen and a good reader: once you can make fun of yourself, that opens the floodgates to go after anyone else. This play is no different. It actually paints the real Sharon Needles out to be a self-absorbed, fame-went-straight-to-her-head type of character…which isn’t too far from the truth. [laughs] People said I shouldn’t let the fame go to my head, but it was the only empty place I had to keep it!

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This movie is where it all started for Judy Garland. Have you ever felt a gay-icon connection to her, or do you feel like she was too much before your time?

I grew up loving The Wizard of Oz like any gay boy, but I was that different gay kid, so I was really more connected to the witch. But I know that Judy through the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s was this subculture gay icon, and I think my generation really just spawns new Judy Garlands: Barbra Streisand, Cher, Lady Gaga. I think the appeal is that they are caricatures of femininity that usually emerge from fighting adversity.

Judy was not a classical beauty, but all the faggots thought she was the most beautiful thing they’d ever seen. Barbra Streisand is ugly as sin—ugly as sin!—but every gay man think she’s beautiful. Cher looks like Chad Michaels, and we all know what Chad Michaels looks like out of drag. So again, it’s gay men identifying with unconventional beauty and fighting adversity. I think that’s where the love of Judy comes from, and I think that’s why people see beauty in me. I’m not a classic model beauty, but I think people identified with my struggle and my success story and my unconventional beauty. I am the new Judy Garland! [laughs] It’s just hitting me now! That wig is not even going to fit on how big this head is gonna get.

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And of course Judy also had her speed-freak years, which some of us can connect with.

True! I’m better at snorting lines than memorizing them.

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Where would you place your concept of the Wicked Witch on the bad-vs.-misunderstood continuum between Margaret Hamilton’s performance and Elphaba in Wicked?

Well, I hate Wicked. I hate it. I hate that new Maleficent shit too. Listen, we are rearing a generation of children that has to justify evil, and I can’t take it. I need to believe that if true love is to exist on this planet, then true unabashed evil must exist as well, or it’s basically canceling out both of them. I like when evil characters are evil for the sake of being fucking evil. I think it’s therapeutic, especially for any kid who’s going through shit, to be able to see fictional evil. I was obsessed with Freddy Krueger and Jason as a kid because they were basically taking the people who gave me a hard time in high school and murdering them.

It was great escape to watch a melted man do it in their nightmares instead of a 16-year-old goth drag queen doing it in real life. Instead of being the next Columbine story, I’m the season 4 winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race. So I think kids need to understand that there are true evils in this world and that it’s okay to sadomasochistically enjoy them in fiction. I don’t want them being explained! I hate Elphaba. I hate that she’s evil because she was wronged. I hate that Maleficent is evil because she was robbed of her innocence or whatever. I like women to just be evil. And I like those evil women to look like drag queens!

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I was actually going to ask what you thought of Maleficent, with Angie bringing her whole UN Goodwill Ambassador vibe to the whole thing and talking in the press about how it’s a rape allegory.

Yuck. I think she wrote her mission statement after she was paid for the film. How you think you can embody a character in an entire green screen studio is just bullshit. I think these big Hollywood stars just have big fancy answers for what they do…you know, like how I always do! [laughs] “Oh, it’s such a juxtaposition of the transgressive art form of something we all experience through hate!” No, it’s just me trying to piss people off.

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There’s a highbrow reading and a lowbrow reading.

By the way, Trannyshack in my mind will never be turned to T-Shack.

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I hear they’re not quite settled on the new name yet.

Well she can’t go back now! She can’t just pander and then take it back! Well, I guess she could. That’s great press, and she’s getting old. Heklina, just take whatever you can get honey!

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Are there parallels between Dorothy’s yellow brick road quest to meet the wizard and your experience as a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race?

I would most definitely say so. Dorothy had one long road ahead of her, and I did as well. I also had to deal with the Scarecrow stupidity of Phi Phi O’Hara, and I saw a lot of the Lion’s fear in Jiggly Caliente. I also I had the loving Tin Man support of Latrice Royale and Chad Michaels. But unfortunately in my Drag Race story, the Wicked Witch comes out on top. And look at the witch now!

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Follow Jason LeRoy on Twitter at @jason_leroy

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