drag mothers and daughters: sharon needles and aquaria
In celebration of Mother’s Day, we’ve profiled three New York City-based drag mother-daughter duos. Next up: mama Sharon Needles shares how her number one fan — New York City clubland star Aquaria — became her daughter.
RuPaul's Drag Race is not a television show; it is an institution. Fourteen queens crusade to be crowned America's next drag superstar, in a fiercely competitive series of challenges that combines elements of Project Runway, America's Next Top Model, and America's Got Talent. Unlike the diamond-in-the-rough country crooners who come out of the woodwork for American Idol, Ru's girls are already pros — successful working queens with ardent fans in the cities they hail from. Drag Race is the art form's Olympics. Everyone already knows you're sickening; you compete to prove you're a champion.
And in this way, Drag Race has proven more successful than the more mainstream reality competitions it smartly subverts. Where these programs have revealed a few bright stars, the shows often fail to make real, transformative changes in the industries they tap. Drag Race is the exception. Since it first began airing in 2009, Drag Race has brought together queens of all varieties, each one broadening the possibilities of what drag can be, and who it can speak to. In the process, its success has reached supernova levels. Queens who fared very well on earlier seasons return to All Stars in order to reintroduce themselves to the show's ever-expanding fan-base, and show the world a new side of their drag. While Drag Race itself is constantly maturing, it is actively actively advancing the evolution of its own field.
One of Drag Race's most major disruptions was the arrival of Sharon Needles in Season 4, episodes considered a major turning point in the show's history. The Addams Family's answer to Peggy Bundy — like every member of The Cramps at once, possessed by Elvira — Sharon snatched America's wig in 2012 with her fetish-inspired, punk-as-hell, witchy glam. In the five years since, she's become the international star she was born to be. Sharon has been a PETA spokesperson, presented scary films as a horror host on Logo, and recorded Billboard-charting albums — all in addition to reigning as drag royalty.
But even before Sharon claimed the crown, her spooky style was making major waves in the drag world, and her rock-and-roll attitude resonated deeply with a new guard of girls. One of them was New York City-based queen Aquaria. At just 21, she's on the cutting edge of the city's club scene, and commands attention for her artistry, creativity, energy, and ingenuity — particularly when it comes to her next-level makeup looks. A regular fixture at LadyFag's Holy Mountain (Alexander Wang's favorite monthly party, inspired by the cult Alejandro Jodorowsky film), Aquaria has already appeared in Vogue Italia, and is hotly tipped to grace a future Drag Race season. "For a very, very young drag queen, she's made quite the impression on the world," mother Sharon says of her daughter. "And she's still the same kind mama's boy she's always been."
"I never forgot the first day I was announced to be on Season 4 of Drag Race, it was instant applause," Sharon recalls. "And the first one I noticed to change their background, their profile picture, all their social media towards Sharon Needles was this very young boy named Giovanni — this one," she says of Aquaria. "So I always said, 'I'll remember you as my number one fan. And I'll always keep an eye on you.' And I always did." It's something Aquaria says she cherishes most about her mother. "I admire that someone who I was such a huge fan of during her national debut has been able to not only become close friends with me, but also truly respect the way I go about my art, enough to consider me her daughter," says Aquaria. "We truly are a ridiculous pairing and I could not ask for a wiser, funnier, and all around amazing drag inspiration and mother."
Given that Sharon is one of the world's most famous drag queens, Aquaria says their time together can sometimes be short, "but we make the most out of every second." She explains that while some drag daughters learn essentials from their mothers "like how to steam out a wig or how to do a dance move," her relationship with Sharon is different. "I learn more about being an adult from our actions together. Sharon is such a wealth of knowledge; she definitely knows a little about a whole lot, so she is never shy to let me know where her references come from or give me 'homework' to watch when we're not together," Aquaria adds. "We are both always learning new tips and tricks — whether it's with makeup or styling — and we love to grow our knowledge together."
For Aquaria, this aspect of togetherness is central not only in clubland, but in a city that doesn't always love you back. "New York City is made out of people from all walks of life and from all corners of the globe. For a lot of people in the queer community, creating a chosen family is not only important, but necessary for survival in such a vicious city," she explains. "The bond I've made here with my sisters Jordan Stawecki, Harry Charlesworth, and Sussi is unique. We were brought together; our friendship was not thrust upon us like a nuclear family."
She says one "family value" that Sharon and her sisters have instilled is: "the idea of success and lifting each other up. In my chosen family, we have all learned to ask for help with anything if we need it and to help others if we see them struggling with something," Aquaria explains. "This can be as superficial as coming up with a look for a gig or something more serious and personal. My chosen family has tons of strengths, but we also know our weaknesses. We are aware of when to help out in a situation, but also when to stay on the sidelines and let each other experience life as it comes to us."
Aquaria's tribe is united by support and love, but also by the fearless pursuit of boundary-breaking creativity. Sharon's wholly unique drag encouraged a new generation to realize and reinvent the queens they are. i-D faves Harry and Sussi are spearheading the next chapter of NYC nightlife. "The future of drag is forgetting about the boundaries or limits of drag and being unstoppable," Aquaria says. "As someone brought up in the club scene, I don't rely on one specific brand of drag and moving on through the years. I hope people continue to think outside of the box when it comes to what drag is and where you can go with this insanely versatile art form."
Text Emily Manning
Photography and film Barbara Anastacio