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.
Watching that video, it was like a completely different universe than what you see now. It was just people being like, I am from another planet, your laws can’t touch me, your social mores can’t touch me.
Ha! Everybody used to wear these crazy pants, you know, the ass hanging out, and you know — there’s something humorous about that, and I still get a kick out of it, but some people should not be wearing stuff like that, if you know what I mean. I see people a little bit past their prime, past their expiration date, they shouldn’t be wearing pants where your crotch is hanging out. But I’ve done it, I’ve done it. I’ve done it tongue in cheek, with like my girl’s panties and a bra and my jeans hanging halfway down and heels, and people just fucking freak. And so you want your ass hanging out? I’ll show you a little ass hanging out, okay.
And similarly to Klauss, do you have divisions between your performing look and how you look getting up and leaving the house for coffee everyday?
Yeah. It used to be all together, always dressing up in the daytime, done up. Now I keep it for show — I do get done when I go out at night, I mean, I look really good. But I try to keep my drag persona for stage, and if I have to go out and be seen, it’s kind of like a brand, sort of that Joey Arias brand look, so people see it and go, Oh my god. So it’s still not stage look but it’s… And then, there’s the big show stage look now, which is really intense.
I was also reading about your book called The Art of Conversation.
Tell me about it.
Well, it comes out of Berlin. I don’t know if they’re still printing it there, or if they’ve stopped. I haven’t gotten in touch with them for a while. It started with Paper Magazine — Kim and David — their magazine gave me a column years ago, and it started as a joke, doing a little chit chat with Elvira, who’s a friend of mine. I really liked it so I said, Why don’t we do it next month, next month, next month. And 12, 13 years later, it’s like all these interviews and chit chats. So a friend of mine in Germany was an art publisher — art books and whatever — and we’re just sitting there one day and she says, Let’s do something, I want to do something with you. And I happened to have what was to be the cover and a couple of chit chats, for whatever reason — I don’t even know why I had them on me. I said, Why don’t we do this? And she was like, Oh my god, I love this, let’s do this, it’s great! Just get it compiled and put it together and we’ll do it. And that’s what happened! It was like a shake hands — very Berlin, very arty and fun… And then we had a big arts, you know, book signing, I did a lot of chit chatting with Chi Chi from Mother and Elvira and I think Debbie Harry. We did a chit chat on the phone, like live. And then we sold the books, and then you know…
Well it just adds to the illustriousness if it’s hard to get. Now it’s a rare collector’s item.
Ha! Yes, totally.
You seem really busy and prolific — I’m wondering how you relax, and how constantly performing and creating leaves you time for a personal life or if you consider them the same thing.
Hmmm. At a certain point I’m just going, going, going, and when I chill it’s just literally no phones, I put the television on, just lay back, chill out. I have this guy that I’m seeing kind of, which has become this long distance affair, but anyway, we got a dog together, her name’s Grumble, she’s a little French bulldog. But I’ve never had a dog before so she makes me relax, you know? I just like chill out, I don’t listen for the phone, I just turn off — nothing. I put the television on and get lost in it. I like to watch sci-fi, history channels, put movies on, and literally just get lost — I could watch four movies a night easily.
Sometimes also, though, something hits me and I’ll just jump out of bed and start writing or have to sing a song — it’s just that creative thing, when it hits you, you gotta just go with the flow. You can’t suppress it.
Well, and likewise, you can’t just try to turn it on. If you’re going to watch four movies in a row you’ve just got to sit down and do it, and not try to be creative if you feel like vegging out.
I also want to ask about how you got started with drag and fashion and makeup, and how young you were when that really started appealing to you, and you started going there.
As a kid, I started playing around like from watching movies, and I loved these Harryhausen movies like Sinbad and all these crazy fantasies. And so I’d emulate them in my backyard, you know, with my family, and I’d play and get dressed up and do these crazy things. And my parents thought it was fun! They weren’t like, Stop doing that! Sometimes they’d question it, and I’d be like, Why not? All the men play the parts! So, I was kind of just having fun. I never did drag until 1991 — or 1990? — no! The first time I actually did drag, it was like eighty… It was a party that Andy Warhol threw, a Halloween party for all these artists and everyone had to go in drag. That was the first time I was in drag, and everybody went, Oh my god, you have to be in drag, you look incredible in drag. And I was like, Oh no! And they were just, you know, they pushed me to be in drag: “I’ll pay you $1000.” And years ago that was like…What?! So I’d do things, and before I knew it, it was just like, you know… Certain people — Manfred Thierry Mugler (also art directing Joey’s Town Hall show) was like, I don’t ever want to see you in men’s clothing again — you’ve got to only wear gowns and dresses, and bra and panties only, no — none of that stuff. And so, I kind of just fell into it really. It wasn’t something I wanted; I couldn’t stand drag in the beginning. And now it’s just part of my—[the buzzer goes off] Ooh! Part of my life. Hold on a sec. Hello? Oh I gotta go!
Thank you so much, Joey.
That makes sense right?
It was fantastic. I hope everything goes perfectly with the show.
Mwah, thank you so much! Just tell the people, spread the word.