“A Superfan Is Born”
My story begins in the spring of 1994 on the evening of my eighth grade graduation. There’s a dance in the St. Peter’s gymnasium. My mother took me dress shopping at the Dillard’s Juniors Department in Ward Parkway the day before. Being the chubby little funster I’ve always been, nothing seemed to fit. Nothing, except for a light blue flannel babydoll dress. I was feeling myself in that dress at that dance. Especially when “Supermodel (of the World)” by RuPaul came on the loud speakers. Dancing my heart out as St. Peter’s own resident Tracy Turnblad, the gymnasium became my catwalk to sashay and shantay, shantay, shantay, shantay, shantay. No matter how relentless the other kids were in making fun of me for being fat and weird, no one could tell me I wasn’t a superstar when I danced to that RuPaul song.
I grew up a latchkey kid of the MTV generation. Annie Lennox, David Bowie, Prince, Boy George, Grace Jones and all the other gender-bending video stars not only normalized queerness for me, it exposed the performativity of gender roles when I was barely old enough to read Judy Blume, let alone Judith Butler. The first time I laid eyes on RuPaul the drag queen, I thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. Black Barbie doll with legs all the way up to her asshole, a heaping pile of blonde hair and a face like a young Faye Dunaway. Suh-woon.
By the time high school came around, I became a punk rock alterna-girl. And while drag is the epitome of railing against the patriarchy, my love for Ru was put on hold during my teens and twenties, until RuPaul’s Drag Race. The reality competition premiered on Logo TV in 2009. The first three seasons of queens vying for the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar were entertaining enough, but it was a season four contestant that made me really go gaga for Drag Race. Her name was Sharon Needles. A punk rock princess from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Sharon’s subversive “spooky” drag was unique, uncompromised and whip smart. She had a tattoo of Tammy Faye Bakker on her arm. Oh, what else. She was just really fucking cool and smart and funny okay? I wasn’t the only one who thought so; Sharon won a record breaking four challenges in her season and went on to snatch the crown.
Initially, I couldn’t articulate why I felt what I felt about Sharon Needles. My feelings, while completely nonsexual, were squishy and ucky and beyond the scope of human verbiage. Maybe a dolphin could understand what I meant when I said that Sharon Needles made me feel DOLPHIN NOISE. So, yeah, I was a fan. A superfan even.
As a straight lady in her mid-30s, I didn’t quite know what to do with my newfound obsession for drag queens on a TV game show. I figured if I was going to have this much passion for something, I needed to find a way to make it my livelihood. I quit my job in the music industry to go to grad school and write a thesis about RuPaul’s Drag Race.
One plus about being a superfan of a reality television personality is that there is a level of accessibility that you wouldn’t encounter with your Beyoncés and your Britneys. After Sharon’s season, the show really exploded in popularity. Drag Race sponsor Al & Chuck Travel announced the Drag Stars at Sea Cruise where fans could sail the Caribbean on the Carnival Glory(hole) alongside their favorite queens. I’ve never looked more happy or beautiful than in the photo I took with Sharon, my husband and all around good sport Mike, and Sharon’s ex, the equally fierce queen Alaska Thunderfuck 5000. During the photo I briefly exchanged words with Sharon, nervously telling her I was going to write a Master’s thesis about her. “You’re gonna read me for filth,” she said. “Gurgle, gurgle, nervous laugh, barf noise,” I replied.
As the years progressed, there were more shows and more meet and greets. Sometimes Sharon would like a comment I posted on the Sharon Needles Facebook fan group. Sometimes I’d screenshot her likes because I’m a total fucking psycho. I didn’t know why, but I needed Sharon to know me. I needed Sharon to know seeing her on TV inspired me to leave my career in the music industry to wallow away in academia. After much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth, I finished my master’s thesis “That’s Ru-Volting: How Reality Television Reimagines Perceptions of American Success” in May 2016. Spending two years pouring all that energy into 100 pages of academic writing about drag queens on TV took a toll on my psyche. But the universe soon rewarded me.
For a lot of us 2016 was a total shit show. But it was also my year of magical synchronicities. After I finished my thesis I met RuPaul at Drag Con in Los Angeles. Not because I’m special or anything, I was just willing to spend $60 for a photo. In the short whirlwind of the photo op I managed to tell Ru the show inspired me to start a career in academia. Ru’s big brown eyes pierced deeply into mine, and after a brief silence, Mama Ru rubbed my left earlobe for a good ten seconds. It was like being blessed by the Pope.
A month later, Sharon Needles came to Chicago for the Battle of the Seasons live tour. Since my friend books Battle of the Seasons, I always get meet and greet tickets for free. I’d met Sharon enough times that she recognized me. Mainly because I brought her weed. But that night in June was like my own fan fiction story come to life (for the record, I do NOT write Drag Race fan fiction). That night after the show I rode in the back of an Uber with Sharon and her boyfriend to L&L Tavern, a Chicago dive bar that was a regular haunt for John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer and also me. We shot whiskey and smoked cigarettes and she disclosed to me that fame isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. After the bars closed we took to the streets, skipping arm in arm and singing “We’re Off to See the Wizard” in Boystown at 3 in the morning. I had to pee really badly and she created a distraction so no one saw me squatting on the sidewalk. It was punk as fuck! She told me I was beautiful and that she liked my walk so she filmed a scene of me strutting and put it on her Instagram where 35,000 of her fans either complemented or body shamed me. It was everything!!! Finally it was time for the night to be over. We hugged goodbye and she went back to her hotel, concluding one of the most magical nights of my sometimes serendipitous life.
If you would have told 2012 me that I was going to spend a beautiful, dream come true drunken evening with Sharon Needles I would’ve been like shut the fuck up no way. After that night I was finally able to articulate why I was lovestruck over a drag queen I met on TV without resorting to dolphin speak. As a self-professed pop culture aficionado, I consider growing up a latchkey kid raised by TV as a personal source of pride. But it’s also a painful reminder of feelings of adolescent neglect and alienating cruelty from peers who bullied me for liking weird things. Sharon was also a latchkey kid raised by TV. Being the same age, we shared similar tastes and predilections. While her fellow queens often remarked that her punk rock aesthetic was strange, her pop culture savvy was rewarded episode to episode. Watching a singular quality that made adolescent me feel out of place being rewarded instead of ridiculed was truly transcendent. Loving RuPaul’s Drag Race is a celebration of that chubby, queer loving little 14 year-old superstar dancing on her own in the St. Peter’s gymnasium who, like a drag queen on TV, was uniquely special even when she didn’t always feel that way. So I guess I’m actually a superfan of myself is what I’m trying to say. Afterall, “if you can’t love yourself how in the hell you gon’ love somebody else can I get an amen? Now, let the music play.”