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.