Long before drag was mainstream and creating a gender-blurring self was an activist act, Joey Arias was doing both. The singular diva, singer and artist-entertainer, who performs Friday as part of Fundarte’s Out in the Tropics festival, is a legendary founding figure of New York’s art/music/nightlife underground. A word he scoffs at, one of the many reasons he was and remains so cool.
“Whenever I hear that word it cracks me up,” says Arias from his apartment of 30 plus years in Greenwich (not the East or West) Village. “It’s just you being yourself.”
Arias was part of the group of antic creative misfits who made up Club 57, one of the places that gave birth to the downtown New York scene in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Club 57 will be memorialized in a show at the Museum of Modern Art this fall, a sign of the cultural establishment’s interest in that era. But back in 1978, it was just a group of friends gathering in a Polish church basement at 57 St. Mark’s Place in the East Village for trashy sci-fi and monster movies, wild theme parties riffing on cheesy pop culture, and ironically amateur shows and art exhibits.
Arias was already a figure at Fiorucci, a clothing store that was the locus of new wave style, where he and best friend Klaus Nomi, a singer who combined opera and pop with a sci-fi Kabuki image, were performer-attractions. But the East Village, with its cheap and abandoned spaces, was where they could let their imaginations fly. At Club 57, Arias joined the likes of actress and queen bee Ann Magnuson; John Sex, a kind of outrageous gay alter-Elvis star with towering platinum pompadour; and future art stars Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
“All the artists would start bands even if they didn’t play instruments,” Arias remembers. “Kenny was the painter and Keith was more like a poet. And Jean was scribbling around high on pot trying to sell these little cards, charging $20, and we were all starving. I said I can’t afford a $20 card, what are you talking about? In the end I bought one. Which I can’t find now. It’s probably worth a fortune.”
Arias and Nomi were early celebrity breakouts from the scene, thanks to singing backup for David Bowie on Saturday Night Live in 1979. But for them, and most (though not all) of their compatriots ambition and the hunger for fame came later; initially, it was mostly about creating a fantasy refuge for yourself and like-minded cultural outcasts.
“Fun, that was the key word,” Arias says. “We were all having fun. We were living in a bombed out New York City almost for free and you could create and make things happen.”
Artist Oliver Sanchez and wife Min Thometz, whose Design District venue Swampspace recreates that feeling of a community bohemian playground, were part of the Club 57 circle. Sanchez and his brother Adolfo, sons of Cuban exiles, left Miami in the late 70’s for New York, and became part of the downtown scene. Sanchez met Thometz at Club 57, where she was the bartender.
“We all got very close,” says Sanchez. “We were like-minded people – we were all misfits. We were all brought together in a unique and magical time and place.”
Club 57 was the template and predecessor for the Pyramid Club, where drag as art form and mainstream entertainment was launched with the likes of Wigstock, RuPaul, and Lady Bunny; Danceteria, and Area, with its lavishly imagined, changing themes.
Arias was unique even in an era of outsize personalities and performers. As drag swept downtown in the 80’s, he was a holdout. “I remember going to an Andy Warhol party for Halloween, you had to go in drag, and I was like I can’t, I hate it, but I want to hang out with Andy and Truman Capote!”
Since then, Arias has made a name for himself as a singer/performance artist/cabaret diva, still a hybrid, indefinable figure. During the 2000’s, he spent five years as the MC on the erotic Las Vegas Cirque du Soleil show Zumanity, and later was the center of the surreal puppet-performance fantasy Arias with a Twist (for dark puppet master Basil Twist), which got rave reviews in New York.
Perhaps his best-known act is singing – “channeling” he calls it – the songs of Billie Holiday. For a while, he did this in a suit and blonde wig, until he found that he could get more money and attention if he dressed like the jazz chanteuse. “I started getting offers to do a Billie Holiday show in drag, and the money was ten times more than if I was a guy,” Arias says. “But it was great. I would put on gowns and get all dolled up, and the respect you got, the way people looked at you – people were like wow this is a classy broad.”
But his core attraction is to the tragic jazz legend herself.
“I’m not there to impersonate – I don’t do Judy Garland,” Arias says. “Billie is my only person. I feel like our lives are very parallel. I’ve read many books on her, known people involved with and close to her. She was a very classy lady who helped a lot of people. And they took advantage of her too. I just feel like whatever made Billie made me.”
Arias hasn’t decided yet what he’ll sing in Miami; a little Billie, some originals, some remakes of psychedelic 60’s pop. (He’ll be joined by two of his favorite musicians, a guitarist and bassist. “They’re so out there and amazing, they’re both heterosexual good looking guys who love working with me. We have a ball cause we’re all in tune musically.”) Or how he’ll look – he’s experimenting with a new, decadent Weimar cabaret inspired image, an alternative to the Bettie Page and jazz diva personas that have been his standbys. never happen. People are too aware – they’re not going to go back.”
(Out in the Tropics, which showcases LGBTQ artists and performance, will also feature La Shica, a Spanish activist, fusion-flamenco singer, on Thursday and Krudas Cubensi, a lesbian hiphop duo from Cuba living in Austin, Texas, on Saturday.)
And he’s still coming up with new ideas – like the show he’s formulating with fashion designer and longtime friend Thierry Mugler – a beyond-drag fantasy with sci-fi elements. “We’re looking for producers,” Arias says. “It’s going to be ahead of its time!”
He’s aware, but unafraid, of the return of bigoted and homophobic attitudes in the age of Trump.
“There’s still hateful people who see queens and freak out,” he says. “But I never believe in going backwards. It’s the 21st century. I tell people I’m from the 23rd century. We’re out there. No one’s going to go back in the closet, ever, period. That will
Despite frequent visits from a MOMA curator about the Club 57 exhibit, which promises to bring a burst of attention for him and that scene, Arias doesn’t indulge in nostalgia.
“This new generation coming through, you have to accept it and love it,” he says. “This is a new thing – let’s have fun with it. If you start going back “oh it wasn’t like that in my day, in my time we did it this way” you’re done. I never talk like that.”
Joey Arias performs at 8:30 p.m. Friday at the Gleason Room at the Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets $30 at fundarte.us. ($5 discount for students, seniors, and Miami Beach residents with ID, at box office only.)