JOEY ARIAS | New York's answer to Cher and a Time traveler
by Carol Coombes
photos by Heath McBride & Scott Ewalt
Born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, he was six when he moved
with his family to Los Angeles. After singing with the rock band
"Purlie" on Capitol Records and a stint with improvisational group
the Groundlings, in 1976 he and his best friend Kim Hastreiter -
who would go on to co-found Paper - drove across country in a
pickup truck and moved to New York City. Arias eventually got a
job at the Fiorucci designer clothing store. He and other store
staff famously performed (danced & modeled clothes) in the shop
windows. While working at the store he became friends with
alternative musician Klaus Nomi, singing backup and designing
sets and costumes. On December 15, 1979, Nomi and Arias
appeared on Saturday Night Live accompanying David Bowie for
a live performance of three songs: "The Man Who Sold the World",
"TVC 15" and "Boys Keep Swinging". While in New York he also
performed with Ann Magnuson in a band called Strange Party
which recorded and performed in various night clubs. Upon
Nomi's death, Arias became executor to the Klaus Nomi
(Sperber) estate. A tribute to his friend is held in Berlin every
year, and the documentary film The Nomi Song was released
in 2004. A film on the life Arias shared with Nomi is currently
in development with Alan Cumming slated to play Nomi.
Arias is married to Scottish artist Juano Diaz
FUNDarte is presenting Joey Arias in Concert as part of Out in
the Tropics on Friday, June 23rd at The Gleason Back Room at
the Fillmore. Can you tell us about your own history with Miami
I have been coming to Miami for years, and I have many good
friends here. Most recently I've been coming down on a monthly
basis with Susanne Bartsch for her Bareback Follies, and I've
been part of Susanne's New Year's Eve parties at The Delano.
A few years ago I was here with my sister in crime, Sherry Vine,
at the Spiegeltent. I've performed at a birthday party for Madonna
here in Miami... It goes on and on!
It’s common knowledge that you have lived in New York for
many years what is less known is your own background and
heritage. Can you talk about how your own upbringing and culture has shaped you.
I was born in North Carolina, but I grew up in Los Angeles. Most people don't realize this, but I'm half German, half Mexican! And I'm
almost certain that I have some indigenous background.. Maya, Aztec... I'm not certain, but my profile bears a strong resemblance to that
of K'inich Kan B'alam II and other rulers of Palenque, a Mayan site in present-day Chiapas. Google it! You'll see. (Laughs.) Perhaps that
has something to do with my becoming as 'The Goddess" of drag.
You’ve been described as downtown New York’s answer to Cher and a time-traveler drawing on the musical styles of Billy Holliday to
Madonna and Lady Gaga. If you had to give an elevator speech for 30 seconds how would you self-define your musical inspirations.
I've loved Billie Holiday since I was a child. I would listen to her records and become mesmerized by a quality in her voice, and I wanted
to do that with my voice. But my inspirations are wide ranging, everything from the psychedelic rock of Zeppelin and Cream to girl groups
like The Ronnettes. And of course I'm a big fan of The Beatles. I include in Beatles song in nearly every show I do.
You’ve also been described as a cabaretress, chanteuse,
actress, fashion icon, songtress and inspirational performance
artist. As you look back over your long career what have been
some of the iconic moments that have shaped and defined you
as an artist?
Certainly my relationship to Klaus [Nomi] was hugely influential.
He was my best friend. We had such great times together. I still
miss him terribly. Our appearance with Bowie on Saturday Night
Live was a pivotal moment in my life and career. It was for both
of us. David told us, "Everything will change for you after this,"
and he was right. It did. Not overnight, but things changed. We
spent a week in rehearsal with David, and I learned a lot from
him during that brief, intense time. And of course there's
[Thierry] Mugler, a friendship and creative collaboration that has
spanned nearly two decades We were both teenagers when
we met! (Cackles) He directed George Michaels' "Too Funky"
video and asked me to appear in it. That was the beginning.
Then there was Zumanity and Cirque du Soleil. He did the
costumes, and I originated the role of the Mistress of Seduction.
I learned a lot in that experience. I learned how to be a
professional performer. 8 shows a week to an audience of
3,000. That was rigorous training, and it was transformative.
How many gowns do you have in your closet? Is there a good-
luck outfit that you like to travel with?
Gowns!?! No disrespect, but I'm not a pageant queen. (Laughs)
I have a Mugler suit that I travel with. I love drag. I embrace drag,
but I think sometimes people can't get beyond that. I am a jazz
vocalist. I've hung out with great jazz musicians like Ornette
Coleman. I've played with old school jazz cats, and at first they
look at me with an arched eye, suspicious. Then I start to sing,
and they come around completely. I'm an improviser. I was an
original Groundling, the youngest member ever, the famed
improv troupe in Los Angeles. I was in class with Paul Reubens
(aka Pee Wee Herman), Cassandra Peterson (aka Elvira) and
Laraine Newman (Saturday Night Live). I bring that improvisation
into music... which is at the heart of jazz. So, yes, I perform in
drag, but that shouldn't define me.
Heels or flats? What are you more comfortable walking in?
Is there any question? If someone tells you heels are more
comfortable, they're lying!
Name 3 things you never leave home without.
A splash of Mugler's "Angel" perfume, house keys and gum.
If we gave you a magic wand and a limitless budget which 5 artists would you like to perform with and where?
I'll bend time and space and see myself performing in concert with Billie Holiday, John Lennon, Marlene Dietrich, Jimmy Scott and Eartha
Kitt in a cabaret in Weimar Berlin – or better yet, the ballroom of The Titanic! (Cackles)
What would you tell a younger “Joey” just starting out in the business? Advice?
Stay true to yourself.
In your long career you have performed in many cities and in front of many fans. What can audiences expect from your show in
Miami Beach on June 23rd?
I'll be performing with two incredible musicians... Ben Allison on upright bass and Brandon Seabrook on guitar. They guys can play!!
They're just incredible. The arrangements are mind-blowing, and we really jive together. People can expect incredible musicianship and
my intense connection with the audience. I love people, and I love performing. I want people to take a journey with me, to have an
experience that is beyond time and space, beyond politics and the challenges of the day-to-day.
What have you learned as a performer through the years?
Be grateful. Be gracious. Be present.
We know there is no stopping you…what’s next for Joey
I'm going to be part of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern
Art (MoMA) in New York that is focused on Club 57. I've been
meeting with curators from the museum and showing them
works of art, films and other things in my archive. Paintings
by Haring and Basquiat. Pop up books that Klaus made by
hand. They're gagging. So some of those things will be in
the exhibition, and there will be some live performances. My
dear friend Ann Magnuson has been very involved, and we're
talking about reviving some of our performances from that era...
Dali and Gala... Andy and Edie. It's all very exciting. I've also
recorded a new track with Mann Parrish that will be coming
out on his new album, and we're planning to release a live
recording of my Billie Holiday Centennial show from a sold
out run of shows at the REDCAT in Los Angeles.
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