The downtown legend comes to Town Hall for one night only.
Tue Apr 12 2011
Photograph: Michael Doucett
Mention any gay icon of the past three decades—Madonna, David Bowie, Pedro Almodvar—and Joey Arias has a funny story about hanging out with them. Hell, he once even met Marlene Dietrich! But the drag chanteuse isn't name-dropping, he's just recounting a fabulous life lived outside of mainstream fame. Of course, to anyone who's spent time on New York's nightlife scene, the Bettie Page--coiffed Arias—known for "channeling" Billie Holiday—is a star. He danced in the windows of Fiorucci in the '70s; sang backup for Bowie alongside his late friend Klaus Nomi on Saturday Night Live in 1981; held nightly soirees in the '90s with drag queens Sherry Vine and Raven O at Bar d'O; emceed Cirque du Soleil's Las Vegas spectacle Zumanity for six years; then made a triumphant return to NYC in the 2008 Off-Off Broadway extravaganza Arias with a Twist. After all these years and projects, the ageless Arias (he's rumored to be in his sixties, even though he could easily pass as younger) is stepping into his brightest spotlight yet, as he pays tribute to the singers who've inspired him in a one-night-only concert at Town Hall on April 21.
Has playing Town Hall always been a dream of yours?
Of course! But when I was first asked to do it, I turned it down. I felt I wasn't quite ready, that I needed more time. I still feel like a novice in the world of music. But I've got great people behind me, so I'm really excited. My concert's going to be a musical conversation, an homage to all the greats who've played Town Hall. I'm going to do Billie, of course, but also Dylan, Cream, the Ronettes, the Supremes, the Beatles—but everything with a twist. I like being pushed into another part of my musical journey.
Is there a set script, or will you be winging it a bit?
I usually have an idea of where I'm going to start and where I'm going to end. The songs determine the story of the show, so in between; I just get a vibe from the audience and that's where the improv starts.
Opera singer and performance artist Klaus Nomi was a close friend of yours. Will you be singing any of his material?
I'm going to do "Nomi Song." I've never done any of his songs before and we're trying to figure out how to do it. I'm not a countertenor [like Nomi was], but I can go pretty high. So I'll hit those notes, I'll hit them for Klaus.
Your old Bar d'O cohort, Sherry Vine, recently told us she believes there's a drag renaissance in the city. Do you agree?
There was a certain group of queens who really set the tone and are now in that legendary space. And a lot of them disappeared or couldn't hang on; too much partying, whatever. And with us leaving, there was this whole new generation of queens, and I think it's great! They're young and they're trying and they're experimenting. I love meeting them.... I just can't remember any of their names right now! But I try to check them all out. Whenever I can, I go to a bar and see what they're doing. I've got to give moral support.
Do you have any drag daughters?
No, I'm not a drag mother. I'm known as the goddess, and the goddess has never had any children. When I was in Vegas, there was a best diva on the Strip contest, and they put my name in and I won! So they came and presented the award and I said, 'I should not accept this. It really belongs to Celine Dion because she is a diva: She's got the house, the money, the kids. I'm the goddess. The goddess doesn't need anything. She's on top of the mountain with her legs crossed sending her blessings to everybody and inspiring the world.' That's how I feel about the drag scene. I inspire, I don't mother.
Do you ever think about retiring?
Never. I'm already working on a new show with [longtime collaborator] Manfred Thierry Mugler. He's directing it. It's called Z Chromosome. What I'm doing at Town Hall is kind of like the musical part of that show. And I think Cirque wants me back for rotation. I'm just starting, really. I feel great, I look great, I've got more energy than most people who are 20 years old, and more inspiration. So no retirement for me. I'll literally be in my dressing room one day smiling and I'll say, "I'll be right there," and I won't come and they'll find me dead in the chair looking in the mirror like one of those Egyptian mummies. There's no stopping me.