Unchained Arias

Performance artist Joey Arias goes well beyond any preconceived notion of a drag queen

Interview by Doug Rule
Photography by Todd Franson
Published on March 29, 2012, 2:59am | Comments

Joey Arias is one strange fruit.

That's true not just because the gay male performance artist gained some fame a couple decades ago singing – in drag – a spot-on tribute show to Billie Holiday, called ''Strange Fruit.''

God bless the child, he got started early. If his military family ever expected him to join the Army, they were quickly dissuaded. ''As a kid,'' says Arias, ''when they saw me going off doing strange things, I think it was like, rolling their eyes, 'Forget it, don't even go there.'''

Joey Arias

Joey Arias

Arias moved with his family from North Carolina to Los Angeles when he was only 5 years old. The entertainment industry beckoned early, before he was even legal. He sang in a short-lived, major-label teen rock band called Purlie, then he joined the now-famous-but-then-fledgling improv group the Groundlings, where he worked with many future Saturday Night Live stars as well as Paul Reubens, better known as Pee-wee Herman.

But it wasn't until Arias made the cross-country trek to New York in 1976 that he really started to develop his craft as an uncompromising, unclassifiable, incomparable singer and performer. He joined a nightclub act called Strange Party. He befriended and performed with eccentric German countertenor Klaus Nomi, including most famously as support act for David Bowie on Saturday Night Live in 1979.

And he became a fixture on the downtown nightclub and art scenes in the '80s and '90s, including the launch of a cabaret show at former West Village club Bar d'O. That show featured fellow gender-bending, genre-blurring singers in drag, including Raven-O, Sherry Vine and Flotilla Debarge.

''I got involved with the drag community,'' says Arias, ''but I morphed it. I took it to a different world. That's not what I'm doing [now].''

Arias's is more sexually charged but androgynous art, you might say.

Last decade, Arias could be found in Las Vegas, as the emcee for Cirque du Soleil's adult-oriented cabaret Zumanity. He's also appeared in a number of films over the years, from Big Top Pee-wee to Elvira: Mistress of the Dark to Wigstock: The Movie.

''If I had a gun to my head, I guess I would say Too Wong Foo,'' Arias says, when prompted to pick one film highlight. Too Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar was special because of its late star. ''Patrick Swayze was really amazing, an amazing actor who kind of fell in love with me,'' says Arias. ''He saw my Billie Holiday show. It blew his mind. We got very close.''

Arias is hoping to revive a Bar d'O-style cabaret in New York soon, but for now, he's helping L'Enfant Café establish a D.C. offshoot. For the past couple months he's organized and co-hosted the Adams Morgan venue's popular SpeakEasy Sunday cabaret.

Arias is forced to take next month off from L'Enfant, though, since next week sees the D.C. premiere at Woolly Mammoth of his hit New York show Arias With A Twist, created with puppeteer Basil Twist [interview].

I'm kind of nervous about how I'm going to protect my voice,'' he says of the show he created with puppeteer Basil Twist. (See profile.) ''It's a very intense show. You will not see me anywhere the whole month except onstage. I will do the show, and [then] go back to the hotel and not talk.''

Arias is generally a loquacious type – though he is vague about certain basic details of his life, from his age, to whether Joey Arias is his real name, to exactly what kind of education other than the Groundlings he's had. ''I like to keep my life a bit of a mystery,'' he says, coyly.

The mystery of a man. It's a big part of what keeps us interested.

METRO WEEKLY: I understand Arias With A Twist started as a result of you playing with Basil Twist's heirloom dolls?

JOEY ARIAS: I've been a big fan of Basil's for a long time. I met him through a dear friend, Bobby Miller, when they were boyfriends. My friend [drag queen] Sherry Vine would have these great shows, and all the special effects, puppetry work – which you didn't know was puppetry work – was all done by Basil Twist. And so I was like, "What? How did those hands crawl up the wall?"

I'd been wanting to work with him, but it wasn't until I came back from Cirque du Soleil that Basil said, "I think we should do something together. What do you want to do? It could be anything."

MW: Twist encouraged you to just let your imagination run wild?

ARIAS: Oh, I always let my imagination run wild. Even when I'm talking to you. [Laughs.]

MW: The show, Arias with a Twist is you and just several inanimate objects onstage, essentially.

ARIAS: I'm the only thing with a pulse on the stage.

MW: And yet, Basil says you have chemistry with the puppets.

ARIAS: Of course! I mean, they're very magical. The history, of when people make things and touch things, they become talismans. It's not just a piece of wood. There's life in those beautiful little eyes. When you look at them, their clothes – I'm sure another higher form of life looks at us like we're puppets and looks at us like, 'Oh, look at her.'

MW: Is Joey Arias your real name?

ARIAS: Yeah, for you. [Laughs.]

MW: It's not the name you were born with?

ARIAS: I'm not going to tell you.

MW: Okay. When were you born?

ARIAS: I was born when the sun was going down and the moon was high. I'm a Libra.

MW: And what year?

ARIAS: I'm not telling you. I don't think it's necessary.

Basil Twist and Joey Arias

Basil Twist and Joey Arias

(Photo by Steven Menendez)

MW: But you were born in North Carolina?

ARIAS: Yes. I'm from an Army family, an Army child. My father was a paratrooper.

MW: Do you have siblings?

ARIAS: Yes, I do. I had a brother that was a year younger than I was who died of cancer years ago. And there was a gap, then my sister and two more boys.

MW: Do they know about your work?

ARIAS: Oh yeah, oh yeah.

MW: And they're supportive?

ARIAS: Oh, yeah, yeah. I mean, my father, when he saw me on Saturday Night Live with Bowie and Klaus, they just knew that, okay, Joey's – at first they thought I was like a junkie or some kind of weird whatever. And then when they saw me, like I was actually doing stuff, for real, I wasn't lying to them.

MW: You and Klaus Nomi were Bowie's back-up singers for the show.

ARIAS: We did ''The Man Who Sold The World,'' ''TVC 15'' and ''Boys Keep Swinging.'' We were together for a week, about 15 hours a day. We got to know each other very well. Bowie was very, very impressed. And he kept saying, "I wish I had met you guys earlier. 'Cause I don't want to perform anymore. But you guys are genius. I don't have to say anything 'cause you guys are just right there for me." It was a great time.

MW: Tell me about Klaus and who he was to you, and who he was in general.

ARIAS: Klaus was a baker, Klaus was an opera singer, Klaus was a strange man that lived in the East Village. Very funky. Wearing chinos not stylish at all. Had interesting taste, and I found him very interesting. I met him my first day when I came to New York, in '76. And we became friends immediately. We talked and traded music. He talked about opera and I talked about jazz. Told him what I was doing. He was not the Klaus Nomi you knew, he was just like Klaus, Klaus Sperber, the baker. Just a very interesting guy. We just had a very good time. I think he found my friendship very honest and real. And then eventually he [took on] a punkie look and started doing things, and one thing led to the other.

MW: Was it hard to recover from his death?

ARIAS: You never recover from a death. It still hurts. A lot of people have died that were close to me. You never really recover. The past gets long and memories are there, but it will always be with you.

MW: Is it true that you're working on a film about Klaus?

ARIAS: We were working on something with some people, and that kind of fell through. And so my partner, Juano Diaz, who is also a writer and painter and actor and model, we're actually writing a screenplay right now. I'm not going to tell you too much about it, but yeah, we're working on something right now. I want to tell the real story of our friendship.

MW: The partner you mention, is that your life partner, or just a business partner?

ARIAS: Well, he could be. I mean right now it feels like it. We met like three years ago and he's very much. He's from Scotland. I've never met anybody like him before. He's very unusual, he's a beauty. He looks like Nijinsky, but then he's also this fawn, this homeboy, this talent. He's younger than I am, but we're the same though. It's very bizarre.

MW: So it's romantic, the relationship?

ARIAS: It's fulfilling. And if life is romantic, it's romantic. I just love him in every respect.

MW: Tell me about your cabaret act, or art. It's different than most cabarets out there.

ARIAS: People use the word cabaret very loosely. Cabaret these days mean all these different things… Cabaret [originally] is a really very decadent, very political and very -- it's a lifestyle. And a lot of people don't perform like that. A lot of people just use the [term] cabaret. I'm the real thing.

MW: Do you consider yourself a drag queen?

ARIAS: No. I call myself a Z-chromosome, trans-dimensional being. A little kid saw me recently and went, "Mommy, is that a man or a woman?" And I looked at the child and I went, "Yes." The kid looked at me, and didn't know what to say. And the mother looked at me and said, "We don't know, honey."

When I first started, yeah, I got into the drag world. It's the element of drag that I use, but you cannot use the word drag queen in my shows because it gives you the wrong identity of what I'm doing. Because when you say drag queen, you think of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – glitter kits, crazy costumes, three-foot lashes. I don't do that. I have to be very specific. That's why with Woolly Mammoth, when I saw in an early draft of the program they'd' written, "Large drag queen falls into a little tiny jungle," I was like, "Okay, that's not happening. Please, get rid of that, otherwise, I'm not going to do the show."

MW: Do you consider yourself transgender?

ARIAS: I consider myself a trans-dimensional being. [Laughs.] I'm teaching you. I'm giving you new language, my good man. Please put that down because that's very important that you say that because we don't grow until we learn. And so you're still thinking of transgender/tranny/trans. No, we're moving into the 21st century – trans-dimensional beings.

I also call myself the Z chromosome, because there's X and Y but the chromosomes multiply, man and woman, and I'm the Z. I'm the last of the alphabet. I'm like the last standing creature, that's either or neither.

MW: In your everyday life, do you wear makeup? Do you wear women's clothing?

ARIAS: My clothing is really mixed up. I buy women's clothing. Women's clothing fits me better than men's clothing.

MW: So it doesn't take you more time to dress for a performance than it does in the daytime?

ARIAS: No, it's the same thing. I don't really put makeup on in the daytime – I put powder on maybe. And sometimes I just throw my hair up and put my clothes on and walk out the door with big glasses on.

MW: You've moved far beyond the drag scene over the decades, but still you must have some thoughts about how the drag community has changed.

ARIAS: There's a whole bunch of new drag queens that are coming out. It's kind of funny because they're dressing old school to me, like old ladies from the '60s or something. Where I'm doing complete futuristic -- it's just different. I don't know. I don't really hang out in the drag community that much.

MW: Do you watch RuPaul's Drag Race?

ARIAS: No. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. No, I'm not into that. I mean, it's good for her, it's the way she markets herself, but I think it's like watching pigs being slaughtered. I don't like it. [Laughs.]

MW: How did you get started as a performer?

ARIAS: I was signed to Capitol Records when I was a kid. I had that kind of fame, like Teen Magazine. Then I was with the Groundlings, the improv group. Then I was in fashion sales. Then I started working with Klaus. The Billie Holiday show was another part that was more like a self-discovery of what I really wanted to be – vocally, where I wanted to be. Because her tonality and tones are what I wanted in my life and my songs.

MW: What is your range technically?

ARIAS: I don't know. Five octaves? Six octaves?

MW: Do you think you'll collaborate with Basil again after this show?

ARIAS: We've already started collaborating on something anyway, but I'm not going to tell you what it is. I'm working on a Mugler Follies for next year. That's going to take two to three years of my life, or more I don't know.

MW: That's Thierry Mugler, the French designer and director who helped create Cirque du Soleil's Zumanity, which you starred in. Will his follies feature a big cast?

ARIAS: I think 25, 30 people. A big band and the whole thing.

MW: Are you the star?

ARIAS: I don't know if there's going to be one star. I think it's going to be a lot of celebrities involved.

MW: And where is this going to be, New York?

ARIAS: Paris.

Joey Arias

Joey Arias

Todd Franson

MW: Let's talk about your time working with Mugler in Cirque du Soleil's Zumanity in Las Vegas.

ARIAS: [Cirque's creative director] Andrew Watson called me and said, "I'm doing this new show, it's going to be an erotic cabaret, and I want Mr. Mugler to direct it." And I was like, "Well, if you're doing a cabaret show, who's your emcee?" And he goes, "That's you!" I just said, "That's impossible. What does that mean?" "It means one year in Montreal, and a two-year contract in Vegas." And I said, "No." But he sucked me into the machine and that's how it all happened.

MW: You were the Mistress of Seduction?

ARIAS: I was the emcee, uh-huh.

MW: And you sang in that show too?

ARIAS: I wound up writing half that script, and I wound up writing three songs in the show. I was cast as the emcee/singer. And eventually they hired two singers, and so they got involved as singers. And so I would sing sometimes, and then sometimes I had to sing all of the show because both of the girls were gone, sick or something. So I would sing the whole show. So yeah, I sang my ass off in that show.

MW: Before Zumanity, you created a very famous cabaret at Bar d'O, a small club in New York's West Village in the '90s. How did that come to be?

ARIAS: The Bar d'O owner said to me, "Oh, I've got this little bar and nothing's happening, and I want to do something with it or otherwise I'm going to get rid of it." We went there one afternoon – I brought [fellow singing drag artist] Raven-O with me, and I went, let's try it. Let's do a Tuesday [night show]. New York magazine came and they were like, "Wow, this is fantastic. It's live singing." Before you knew it, we had lines around the block. We had to add nights. Eventually we brought Sherry Vine in.

MW: Do you wish there were more drag queens singing and not just lip-synching?

ARIAS: There are actually. There's Justin Bond, there's Lady Bunny, there's Raven-O, there's Sherry Vine. There's a lot of people that are singing. But I don't know the ones that are lip-synching because I've never lip-synched. I don't know how to lip-synch.

MW: You've never even given it a second thought?

ARIAS: I just can't. I'm like the worst lip-syncher in the world. I can't even lip-synch to my own songs.

MW: Who were your role models, or idols, when you started out?

ARIAS: Billie Holiday. David Bowie. The devil. [Laughs.] I always loved Lucifer, the image. Because he was like the punk of the angels. I loved horror films as a kid. I always loved those kinds of things. Not the dark side, like mean and evil and black magic, but like something that lives in the dark. That's not of the sun. I'm not really good in sunshine. That's not my world. I'm more like the moonlight child.

MW: How has being gay or queer informed your body of work?

ARIAS: I think being who you are – that's why I call myself Z chromosome, because it's beyond gay. Yeah, I'm gay, but then you put me in Chelsea, I don't fit in with that gay crowd. But yes, I'm gay. Queer? Yes. So you can use all of those elements -- yeah, it's part of my life. And I am who I am.

Sometimes, the gay world can be straighter than straight. Gays are not sometimes the most friendly of people, I think.

MW: You've also seen a lot of changes in gay culture over the decades.

ARIAS: Yeah, I've seen people come together, I've seen people fall apart, I've seen people come together. The disease AIDS, everybody comes together. And then once people get righteous and there's money, people separate again into their little clans. You know, it's the classic, what goes around comes around. I just kind of go with the flow. Everybody's everybody to me – straight, gay, whatever, black, white. When you get older you start seeing it differently.

MW: Is there anything that you haven't done yet that you'd like to do in your career?

ARIAS: I want to go to the White House and do my Billie Holiday show there for President Obama. I think this man is a genius. I tell people, he's futuristic. He's modern, a modern man that's a modern president. He made the world fall in love with America again. When Bush was president, wherever I traveled, people would throw rocks at me saying, "We hate you and your president." Now people come up, "Oh my God, I love Obama." Obama is a very special person.

MW: You don't necessarily have a 20-year plan, I'm assuming?

ARIAS: I'm not a 401K – my life has never looked anything like that. My life, like they say, life is cabaret. Life is real. My plan is to be always performing, make people happy. Be the best at what I'm doing. Work with the best people in the world. Keep learning, searching, growing, finding, doing, transforming. That's my goal. And that's a timeless goal, it's not a "10 years I better be there. And five years, I better have that. I better have a house in two more years. My boyfriend better marry me in three years." No, I don't think like that. Because it's all-relative, time really. Before you know it, you're 18. And the next thing you know, you're 45. It all goes quickly.

MW: So you don't think you'll retire?

ARIAS: I don't even know the word, what that means. I'm not an old tire on a car. Re-tire. No, I don't believe in that word. Retire is for people who are tired of it and just want to sit back and play with the sand and have their days come and go. No, there's no such thing to me. I retire at night, and I wake up in the morning.

I don't know how to do anything else but this. I'll keep going until you find me in my dressing room dead.

Read our interview with puppeteer Basil Twist, too.

Arias with a Twist opens Wednesday, April 4, and runs to May 6 at Woolly Mammoth, 641 D St. NW. Tickets are $30 to $55. Call 202-393-3939 or visit woollymammoth.net.

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