Joey Arias is an old friend and a brilliant, prolific creator and performer. He’s notorious for his drag and burlesque work, but is just as much of a game-changer when he’s off duty — his fabulous presence in New York nightlife incites a lot of joy, inspiration and turned heads. It’s also rare to meet someone with such an impressive arsenal of achievements under their belt who is as kind, candid and hilarious as he. We wouldn’t call him down to earth; we’d call him astral.
Joey was good enough to take some time to chat with us amidst the chaos of preparing for his show at New York’s Town Hall — save yourself a teary decade of regret by buying tickets here. We’re also running a contest for two free tickets to the show — to enter, send us a picture of yourself in drag, looking fierce, terrifying or gorgeous, preferably in the Ace New York photobooth, but any old photo will do, it just needs to be something you’ve created in response to this call. And remember, in the world of Joey Arias, drag can be a mean snarl, outlandish eyelashes or a hot mess of homemade madness.
We talked with Joey about his work, his larger-than-life friendships, and his downtime (when he can catch some).
This call is now being recorded. (recorded voice)
Oh, okay…. (sultry response)
How are you doing? I know you’re really busy today.
Oh it’s crazy. Today was like, wake up, pay the bills, meet with Richard, then I have a meeting with two back-up singers, then a guy’s gonna come by and pick up some money and start making my outfits for the show — a little bit of a crazy day for the first few hours.
Well, thanks for taking time to talk.
Of course! I love the Ace and the whole gang.
Alex has been talking about how wonderful you are, and what a great friend. Is he going to be able to come to your show?
I don’t know! He’s so busy, running around everywhere.
Yes, he’s a unicorn.
Exactly. I’ll be on a plane and like, oop, there you are! He’s so funny. Or we’ll be like, you know, passing each other at the terminal. It’s crazy.
I saw a video of you channeling Billy Holiday, singing one of her songs. You just have this incredible voice — it’s so malleable. When you’re performing, do you feel like you’re channeling these people, or applying your own thing to it? Where does it come from for you, the creative energy of these amazing women?
It’s one of those things, it becomes a spiritual connection somehow. And, you know, my friends do call it channeling. But it’s kind of like the love of your life, the love of experience, of all the crazy things I’ve done my whole life, from crazy drug times to being put on the spot —- you know, whatever. It just all comes together. That’s why Billy — it’s a life that’s been lived, a living, breathing organism, and it’s real. It’s like talking, but singing, and every word really means something. Every sound of the syllable is just so important. And that’s why I don’t sing songs really fast or scream songs, you know — that’s not my thing anymore, it’s fun to blow out a little bit, but not really my thing.
In another video, you’re dancing with Klauss Nomi at Fiaroucci — it’s kind of an amazing video because it shows all of you dancing in the windows but it also shows the faces of all these disturbed old straight men watching you, being like, “I’m from Tennessee and this would never fly there.” Both you and Klauss Nomi are unparalleled innovators in fashion and in a sort of aesthetic dissent, and I wonder if you feel like fashion and creative expression have become more or less radical and flamboyant these days — if it’s developed or if you think it’s more repressed.
I think it’s more of a cookie cutter look for everybody. It’s like, someone says,This is the look: curly hair, tight skirts, pencil-thin bodies — no one has an individual look. It still thrives — we’re in New York and there’s a lot of crazy people here and still a lot of great looks, but in general I would say that’s not the mode. You know, at that point, I was working at Fiaroucci as a sales person, and Klauss used to come visit me there, so that’s why Klauss was in the window ‘cause one day they said they’re going to film something, so I said, Klauss come on up to the store, you know? It wasn’t just standard dancing like that, I was literally just hustling to sell clothes. So that day was just crazy, and the store wasn’t really like that. It was really all about people coming in, sales, talking — all that dancing was kind of like put on the spot to make it look like, Oh, New Wave, crazy! But it really was like major business going on like usual.
And Klauss had his own style, and in his personal life was really like plaid shirts and jeans and work boots. There were hours when I was working in gold high heels and crazy gold jeans, you know — Klauss was more conservative in that way. But then, you know, he does have his fashion statement or whatever it was — his individual look that was very strong. And it’s an extension of the person really — the person has to be strong, that’s where it all comes from. I don’t about fashion that’s like — I do look at the magazines and see what not to do. You know, it’s like, okay don’t do that, don’t look like that, make sure you go this way, this is what everyone looks like.
Yeah, it does feel like the fashion of the 70s and 80s, there was just this total fuck you. It was just entirely different than what’s happening now, which is much more a kind of fearful desire to conform, but it’s cloaked in this effort to look creative.
Game-changer Janeane Garofalo has been an unwavering icon of chutzpah and authenticity over the last quarter of a century, with too many TV shows and films to count. If you’re of a certain age, you were not so secretly in love with her after watching her dance to My Sherona and forget the first names of her lovers in Reality Bites. Her outspoken expressions of disdain for war and greed have brought the wrath of many down upon her handsome brow, but she’s been steadfast and true to herself, as any artist should be.
I found out that your first big break was Showtime declaring you the “Funniest Person in Rhode Island.”
Yes, which is a testament to the lack of talent in Rhode Island at the time, not to my actual funniness. I cannot take credit for that. I have no idea how that happened.
Do you think you still might be the funniest person in Rhode Island?
No, there’s got to be — that would be a sad state of affairs… I mean, I never was actually the funniest person in Rhode Island. But it was crazy because that was actually one of the first times I ever even did standup. That’s just because, I’m assuming, the other people who performed were even less —
Were having a bad day?
Were having a bad day, I guess, because I do not understand how that happened.
I was also reading that one of your earlier onstage elements was that you’d read jokes off of your hand?
Yes, that was purely — not schtick, that was not schtick — that was before I discovered just writing on a piece of paper. It was on my arm, and I would just look at my arm between things. And then I realized, why don’t we just put this on paper, and bring the notebook or the paper onstage.
I don’t know if you still do this, but you used to carry onstage a notebook of articles and observations — is that still true?
I do sometimes if it’s, like, an article I’ve taken out of the paper or a magazine that’s something I want to discuss that evening. I mean, I don’t always have the articles and the notebook, it just depends if it’s something I want to talk about at that time.
I was curious about that actually, because while comedy shouldn’t be, and isn’t, beholden to politics, it’s often one of the most political arts in the US, and you’ve been really political in your work. I was wondering how much you feel not obligated to but inclined to incorporate current issues — I mean, even all the fear around the nuclear plant in Japan — do you feel inspired to incorporate communal dialogue into your routines?
If there’s something I feel like I want to discuss — ‘cause a lot of times I do open it up to the audience. It’s not every night, and sometimes it’s only a small part of it. Like say I’m doing an hour, it can be, depending on the night, a lot or a little and then sometimes not at all. But it’s not about a feeling of “I should” or “I’m obligated to,” it’s just something that feels right to me, personally. And then, you know, when there are people who have a problem with it, I don’t understand that. What are the rules? Why would there be blanket rules over what a comedian does or doesn’t discuss? The same way there are people who have criticized bringing a notebook on stage — it’s no different than a band having a set list, to me. Because I don’t say the same exact thing the same exact way every time — obviously I’ve repeated things, but I try to discuss different things as much as I can, so I have to bring the notes to remember what I wanted to get to. And sometimes I never even get to the notebook.
But if you do have a microphone and you’re talking to a group of people, there should be some sense of responsibility not to waste the time you have. You know, if there is something cultural going on — some socioeconomic thing, some psychosocial thing — that I think bears discussion, I think it’s a great opportunity to do it. And I don’t always do it well because I get caught up in it, I get emotional about it, or when there’s something that’s going on that’s painful, it’s hard to find anything humorous about it, and it seems disrespectful to try and find something humorous about it. So, in that sense, I won’t try and make a joke out of it.
It seems like a delicate balance, pushing that edge where people want to relieve pressure by laughing about something daunting or devastating, but it’s still really sensitive.
Yes, and there are many comics who do it way better than me. They’re much better at it, they do find the way to do it much more economically than I do, verbally, and they’re much funnier at it. I frequently can’t find the way to do it, and then I’ll see somebody like Paton Oswald, who just hits the nail on the head and I’m like “Oh dammit, that’s how I should have approached it!” And it really kills me when I see other people discussing the same topic much more eloquently than me, which happens all the time.