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Christine Ama is a freelance fashion, arts and culture writer. She has contributed numerous articles to ADONE Magazine and SheDoesTheCity.com and worked for several years as a product copywriter for the Hudson's Bay Company. With a BFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an intensive Fashion Merchandising program under her belt, Ama is passionate about marrying her love for creative culture with the written word. In the past, she pursued music as a self-produced electro pop singer/songwriter called Christer (rhymes with "shyster" ;) releasing a full-length album, two music videos and touring internationally. After visiting over five countries in Europe, Ama temporarily relocated to Berlin, Germany where she worked and wrote for over a year. She currently resides in Toronto, Canada.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Sharon the Love

Another Valentine's Day has arrived and while happy couple swarm tables for two in every restaurant in town, I am celebrating another year of singlehood with three handsome homosexual men. Tonight the boys have surprised me with a ticket to the final instalment of the 2013 search for Vancouver's Next Drag Superstar. Inspired by the hit reality series RuPaul's Drag Race, a kind of America's Next Top Model for drag queens, Vancouver has a local addition in which they have cast their latest cross-dressing competitors into the ring. The finals are being held at Shine Nightclub on the ostensible romantic holiday of February 14th, a rather appropriate date for an event that counteracts all notions of amorous normalcy. The gathering is a sea of gay, lesbian, fag-hag and trans-heads dotted with towering figures in wigs, fishnet stockings and size fourteen stiletto heels. Around the barely elevated makeshift stage, anyone past the first two rows can barely see a thing.
          But among all the chatter and lip-synced show tunes, there is one voice that resounds above them all. “Pink and red together are so vile,” remarks celebrity guest Sharon Needles from her perch on the judge’s panel. “And I love hearts because it reminds me that I don’t have one.” The crowd laughs and Needles joins in with her signature intoxicating cackle – a devised amalgam of girlish delight and maniacal evil. This is the queen we’ve all truly come to see - Sharon Needles, whose triumphant win of Season 4 RuPaul’s Drag Race sent her otherworldly persona soaring into tranny stardom.
   “Remember, we’re not impersonating women,” she explains to a contestant. “We’re impersonating the concept of consumeristic beauty.” The contestant nods respectfully.

The first time I saw Sharon Needles was in the aforementioned television show when she debuted her alternative approach to RuPaul and the judges (which conveniently included Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, one of Sharon’s idols.) While her opponents strutted the stage in typical bedazzled feathers and candy-coated colours, Needles appeared looking something like Angelica Houston in The Witches - a decrepit zombie succubus with a bald cap, white contact lenses and an earth-stained body-con gown shredded at the sleeves.

            “The best part was slowly letting out a giant mouthful of fake blood all over my body,” Needles says. “That’s when I really saw Ru’s eyebrow raise.”
And eyebrows continued to rise from both Ru and millions of adoring fans as Needles charged through the series with endlessly entertaining shocks and frocks. This was drag in a whole new context. Not only was she so creative in her darkest interpretations of femininity, but she also possessed more than just a gimmick.  Several challenges on the show verified her ability to deliver more commercial and traditional drag motifs in which she looks as glamorous and womanly as RuPaul herself. Even as I watch her from my fortunate front row barstool at Shine, she as a queen embodies the confidence, presence and poise of a true star. When Sharon Needles is in a room it is nearly impossible to look at anything else. Not simply because she is a man in a dress, or a creepy man in a dress for that matter, but because she has something magnetic, a natural charisma that is owned only by particularly extraordinary performers.
“I wanted to be the button-pusher,” she claims in a GAVoice video interview on YouTube. “I wanted to be the drag queen that made people think, not just some pretty chick doing a pop song.”
With all the button-pushing and provocative imagery, what exactly is Sharon Needles trying to make us think about? During the interview, Sharon Needles is not Sharon Needles. She is a thin blonde man sniffing back tears from behind his black-rimmed glasses. This is Aaron Coady – the male behind the female, the real person behind the persona. Coady is under harsh scrutiny for supposed racist remarks on his Facebook page (allegedly forged by a hacker, according to Needles) and a performance in which he wore a swastika symbol at an Atlanta appearance in June, 2012. “When you’re wearing a Nazi costume and you’re performing a Disney number, you’re bringing up the very true idea that Walt Disney was involved with Nazism…it’s not just these blatant uses of imagery. I’ve always just tried to mock the things that scared the shit out of me.”
Coady’s roots are underground and punk rock: swastikas and corporate sponsorship of genocide are not new ideas for him. So how does he keep this constant questioning fresh? Through drag, and the LGBTQ culture at large. Making light of the darkest things is a recipe for success when it comes to Coady and his physical, mental and emotional embodiment of Sharon Needles. Whether good or bad, dead or alive, banshee or bimbo, a wide variety of followers accept and support her relentless flirtation with controversy. “Real racism hides in the filthiest of places…I take some of the darkest shit in this world and I put it right in the spotlight for everyone to gawk at…We still live in a temperamental climate in terms of race, religion, gender and creed. I just kind of wanted to be the clown that made everyone laugh at our own social anxieties.”
And laugh we do, for the final fundamental idea is to entertain. Drag queens invite us into a world of opposition. They revere women by imitating them and they celebrate masculinity through a tongue-in-cheek redefinition of what it is to be a man. As we watch Sharon Needles, we are amused, inspired and empowered, each for our own personal reasons. If a small-town high school dropout from Newton, Iowa can overcome torment and bullying to become one of the new leading icons in gay culture, then (and I would like to inflect this with a sighing sentimentality) there is no limit to what any of us can do.
I always dread Valentine’s Day. “Don’t give it that kind of power,” a girlfriend said. We can disable the things that hurt us by taking their power to a different place. Tonight, the queens reminded me of that. Sharon is onstage now singing “Drink Till I Die” from her new album, PG-13. She wears a skintight nude mini-dress adorned with black feathery epaulettes and an awkward black crown leaning on the left side of her blond bombshell wig. She raises a bottle of Corona to the crowd and inhales half the contents into her heavily-painted mouth. Then, she sings. We love every minute of her breathy, rudimentary timbre. With lyrics like, “Some call it a hangover, I call it a morning” and “I fall in love like I fall down,” it is no wonder why so many members of this audience can relate.  

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