A tête-a-tête with Joey Arias, from Cirque de Soleil to ‘creative incest’

‘I get charged up when I see you and shy when I talk to you. I like to feel like a groupie.’ The iconic performer speaks with Scissor Sisters's Jake Shears for Document's Fall/Winter 2012 issue.

Joey Arias is probably single-handedly responsible for keeping the New York art of drag afloat—and vice versa. The muse of the late Klaus Nomi reflects on the power of creative incest in his favorite place in the world.

Joey Arias: I’m in New York City

Jake Shears: Oh, I’m jealous! I’m on a golf course somewhere outside of Lisbon, Portugal. It’s like a resort and I’m waiting to play a show. Have you been traveling?

Joey: I was on the West Coast and down in Mexico. I also did Central Park SummerStage with a seventeen piece band, strings and horns!

Jake: What does it feel like to play in Central Park in the middle of summer with a seventeen piece band?

Joey: Fantastic! I would say it reminds me of my childhood, everything from Woodstock to seeing all my favorite pop stars, like the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park and Diana Ross in Central Park. Now, it’s me performing, out of the bushes this time—last time I had my ass hanging out!

Jake: When you were a teenager what were your fantasies about? Who were you going to turn into?

Joey: I was an army child. When I was six years old we moved to Los Angeles, California. So, you know, I would watch movies and look at pictures of Hollywood and think about how much I wanted to be in a movie and how they got made. I also watched music on TV. I would picture myself on Ed Sullivan Show. With records playing  oh my god, I’m dating myself I would pretend I was the Supremes or David Bowie. I would do the choreography. When I was seven years old, people would ask, ‘aren’t you supposed to be out there playing baseball or football?’ Instead, I would stand there with a paper bag on my head for a wig. It was crazy. I could always see myself as Bowie. I was so fascinated by him. “Boys Keep Singing,” was my favorite song. Years later, I am actually with Bowie singing “Boys Keep Singing” on Saturday Night Live. There was a commercial break and he said, “Get ready your childhood dreams are about to come true.” He gave me a big hug. I could have screamed!

“Driving into Manhattan, back from a trip, I’m literally shaking and exhausted. But, the minute I get out of the car I’m like, I gotta go somewhere, go for a drink, call someone. It’s electrifying!”—Joey Arias

Jake: When I was eight years old, I had my first fantasy of performing while listening to “Let’s Dance.” That’s also the first album I ever owned. I distinctly remember one night dreaming I was Bowie and performing that song. He’s always been my number one rock n’ roll hero.

Joey: Have you ever worked with Bowie or met him?

Jake: No, but he saw us play at Irving Plaza once. I found out he was there after the show and I’ve never been so upset. You know, there are those people that you don’t necessarily want to come in contact with… He sent me a very cryptic but sweet email a couple weeks later. He said that he liked the concert. It took me two weeks to write him back.

Joey: He’s the sweetest. I mean we sat there for maybe a week of rehearsals. We talked about everything. It was insane, mind boggling. To turn things around, I was doing Cirque du Soleil when I first heard Scissor Sisters. DJ Scott Ewalt was sending me recordings of your music. I was dying to meet you. You have fantastic energy when you perform.

Jake: Being a performer and loving what you do, is something we have in common. I think we really enjoy connecting with creative people. It’s really exciting to and we are like-minded spiritually and can pick each other out in a room: you can always find your sisters.

Joey: [Laughs]

Jake: Cirque du Soleil is one of the best things I’ve ever seen. I would go, like I was sitting at home. It rocked me so hard. I would either take mushrooms or bring a bottle of tequila. I remember one night I ate a fistful of mushrooms. I was tripping so hard. It was exquisite, one of the coolest, trippiest, most amazing theatrical experiences. “Arias with a Twist,” was one of those shows that changed my life.

Joey: I was at ground zero of the show. Andrew Watson, the creative director of Cirque du Soleil, who came up with the idea, was key. I told the producers the show could not happen without him. There’s nobody in the world that can take you on a journey that is so outrageous and scary, you think your life is going to fall out of you, and yet you return home unharmed.

They dragged me into this thing (I was actually running from them) It was mind boggling; they had never dealt with this kind of sexual, sensual show. We went back and forth for a year and talked to them about cabaret and what I was doing. It was amazing. I remember the first time I walked out and thought, ‘here I am at a Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas along with everyone from the big fat Midwesterner, to the most extreme European.’

Make Up Kate Lee at Starworks Artists using Chanel. Hair Shin Arima using Redken for Frank Reps. Manicure by Dawn Sterling at Starworks Artists using Chanel.

Jake: I love Las Vegas. I fucking love it. I go there at least twice a year. I go for 48 hours, but I could go for 48 days. I love the cross section of people you’re talking about. You’ve got working class Americans living their idea of glamour next to filthy rich Europe fans blowing tons of cash. There’s no place like it in the world.

Joey: It can get naughty but I had to restrain myself. I would look at people in the audience wearing shorts and ip- ops while I’m in a twenty five thousand dollar gown. I’m just staring at them thinking, ‘I need to talk to you after the show,’ and they’re looking at me thinking, ‘I love your shoes.’

Jake: I can’t imagine. It’s one thing to be on Broadway doing ten shows a week; you’ve got New York. But, what got you through in Vegas, because that’s really intense?

Joey: My friends got me through. I dragged in a friend with whom I had been touring all over the world, to be the musical director. My other buddy became the second MC. We had each other to hold onto. Of course, I had my dear friends in New York who I talked to every day, dearly, and they would come visit the show. Everyone from Bette Midler to Joan Collins to Brooke Shields, and they would do the limousine thing, waiting for me out back.

Jake: I’m sure there were tons of glamorous folks gliding through.

Joey: I could only do so much of that, because of the nature of the show. I felt like a high priestess…and then I locked myself away; I worked out and watched a lot of movies. It was very hard.

Jake: You’ve got to take care of yourself! It’s something I’m still trying to learn. It’s hard when you’re playing shows all the time and people are coming through, friends and family you love. I’ve never been cautious about my voice. But, last year, I got socked in the face a couple of times— I walked out on stage and it didn’t come.

Joey: Definitely. I think we did fifteen songs and they caught up with my voice. I just sang my ass off on “House of the Rising Sun,” with all the different styles it demands. I came out for the encore, the strings and horns came on, and my voice clipped on me. I couldn’t get a certain note out. It freaked me out. The muscles were dry. When there are no backing singers, especially, and you’re performing all alone, it’s scary.

Jake: A year and a half ago we were getting ready to do another gig, and I lost my falsetto, for four for five months. I did a whole tour with no falsetto. I seriously didn’t know if I was ever going to get it back. It was just gone. There are moments you realize how fragile you really are.

Joey: It’s happened to me once or twice, I think, and when it does you skip that bar. People are like, “Ew, what’s up?”

Jake: As successful as you are, traveling as you do, you’re a main stay of New York. I moved to New York in 1999 and you were one of the first people I was introduced to — at the Roxy. It’s funny, how the city changes but stays the same. How do you view the city now? What’s your relationship to it?

Joey: I got here in ’76. I was awestruck. I was in my late teens and had a lot of city watching to do. I followed the vibe. I never thought, ‘I’m going to take over the city.’ I just let it guide me, and respect it. The city naturally changes; it’s like the seasons. It was falling apart. It was crumbling. Times were terrible. The city was bankrupt, robbing plagued the streets and yet it was an exciting time for artists. Then everything changed and Giuliani started the cleanup. I love it, because otherwise I don’t know what it would look like. New York would be like Babylon. But, I wish the rents weren’t so high. It would let the creativity back in.

“Madonna said, “New York is dead.” If you think it’s dead, get the hell out of here! It’s not!”—Joey Arias

Jake: Sometimes it feels like this island is a place just for rich people and its frustrating.

Joey: I think the city will change again because it can’t sustain this situation. I never wanted to be part of the scene. I wanted to go through the cracks a little. To me, it felt like all my peers made it— the footprints are there. Never like JOEY was part of the 70’s or 80’s or 90’s. And then Manfred Thierry Mugler told me years ago, “You’re never going to be a star. You’re always going to be walking on a staircase and every step you take will be a new adventure, a new position.” And it’s true. You take a new step and everything changes. Take another and everything changes. I just accept it. I trust in the universe. You have to work. You can’t just be lying down. You need to get out there. You make yourself available; people have got to see you. You go to lunch or something. You have to support each other; like right now I’ve been going to shows and things downtown, any kind of act. Just as they want to see me, I want to see them. People are supporting each other. I think its part of the magic of the city.

Jake: I was just down in D.C. to see “The Normal Heart,” which I missed on Broadway. It was such an amazing show. You moved to New York in ’76 and were part of the creative community. I still can’t get my head around what a devastating time New York must have had in the 80’s with AIDS. It’s something that I think about a lot. I write songs about it and talk about it, but I don’t think it’s something I’ll ever understand.

Joey: You are supposed to go to funerals for someone who is 80 or 90 years old, but in this case it was our friends who were 20 or 21 dying, caravans of friends who are gone. At one point, we couldn’t cry anymore. It was very hard. Safe Sex. It was like 9/11. It’s something you never get over. It sits there in your heart. At the same time you still have to get up, sing a song and keep going…

Jake: That’s the crazy dichotomy, when you think of the ’80s. It was also super creative, really fun, downtown and all these things were happening at once.

Joey: Exactly, that was the hard part. Everything was exploding. Creativity. Death. It was all hand in hand. One day a painting would sell for half a million dollars and the next day someone was dying, that same artist. It was terrible.

Jake: You keep close all the people that have shared these experiences, like the Paper family. Kim Hastreiter and David Hershkovitz. There’s a really amazing multi generational group of people that I found when I moved to New York and can still count on. Those tight groups, families that are self created, are one of my favorite things about New York.

Joey: Exactly. Take Tim and I. We met in Los Angeles, and hung out for a good year; and then we drove cross country on the bicentennial in a covered wagon. Tim is one of my oldest friends, a painter, a keeper of the faith for the new and the up and coming. Let’s put out a hand and give everyone a chance at their ‘ fifteen minutes.’

“Manfred Thierry Mugler told me years ago, ‘You’re never going to be a star. You’re always going to be walking on a staircase and every step you take will be a new adventure, a new position.’ And it’s true.”—Joey Arias

Jake: I love that he’s still doing it, that it’s still strong, even though New York is constantly changing.

Joey: I’m working with Manfred Thierry Mugler, who wants me to be in his brand new show in Paris, the “Mugler Follies.” We’re also working on a whole new solo performance with a persona called “Z Chromosome.” There’s also a short lm that plays in the show that turned out to be a mini movie that cost like five million dollars. It was beyond. It was Mad Men. It was an incredibly visionary shoot.

Jake: I look up to you so much. I think you have to keep making dreams for yourself and successes. I hope that I stay as busy, creative, and as relevant as you.

Joey: You have! Your eyes are sparkling, and you let me into your home. You’re so inviting.

Jake: Those are just the bath salts!

Joey: It’s like a dream— you come to New York and we become friends and have the same fucking birthday, October 3rd. You’re a volcano of good dreams, loaded with so much good energy. It comes through in your performance.

Jake: That means a lot. Thanks.

Joey: It means a lot to me. I get charged up when I see you and shy when I talk to you. I like to feel like a groupie.

Jake: Don’t we all.

Joey: I got so dramatic being a groupie as a kid. I used to work in this super hip store in the garment district and every pop star was in there. I became a good friend of the group “Humble Pie.” What was their song? And then we had the group “Small Faces.” We actually became boyfriends.

Jake: Oh my god that’s scandalous.

Joey: It was very scandalous. And I used to hang out with the Mamas and the Papas, going to their house in Beverly Hills. I used to hang out with Sly and the Family Stone. I was in the studio when they recorded “Family A air.” They couldn’t get Sly to wake up. He was so out. They bumped him and bumped, and I thought, “Oh my god this is going to be a op.” Of course it became a direct hit. Yeah it’s crazy, I love being a groupie—your groupie.

Jake: This was a really great talk.

Joey: Let’s get together when you’re back in town. Sing your ass off and show them exactly what this world is about.