December 6th, 2009 | Interviews

charles mallison

One of the most colorful souls to visit planet Earth, former altar boy Joey Arias is the harbinger of the Z chromosome! Since her first performances singing choir at Latin Mass, Joey Arias has toured with Madonna, performed with David Bowie, and commanded the stage of Carnegie Hall. Taking a break from a blazing run of “Arias With a Twist”—Arias’ collaboration with third-generation master puppeteer Basil Twist—Arias describes bathtub revelations, recalls being born, and advises the young & queer. This interview by Drew Denny.

Joey Arias: Go for it, baby—I’m all yours!
I am very excited right now.
Joey Arias: Oh my wordness!
What’s the Z Chromosome?
Joey Arias: The Z Chromosome is the new chromosome! In the 21st century we’re talking about, the gays are out of the closet, the blacks have their rights, everybody’s equal but there are the transgendered—the women becoming men, the men becoming women. People always look at me on stage and say it’s drag, but not really. I just thought, ‘There are the X and Y chromosomes—the male and female chromosomes—I’m the Z! The last of the alphabet!’ Like the Mayan calendar—it’s not just the end. It’s the beginning of the new! The new sexuality! This new gender! Whatever the new gender is—not necessarily male or female, this new cross-breeding—so I had to go with Z. Z what you get?!
What about the term ‘pansexuality’?
Joey Arias: Eh, I don’t go for that one. I just say ‘Z chromosome.’ I’m going for my own story! Pansexuality? That’s bullshit! Either you’re doing it or you’re not.
When did you start wearing women’s clothing?
Joey Arias: Ever since I was a little girl! I never look at clothing as women’s clothing or men’s clothing. I look for clothing that looks good on me. I like the way things flow and the way things move. Look at the ancient Greeks—they never wore pants! They wore togas. It wasn’t until the 18th century when people started wearing pants.
Fuck pants.
Joey Arias: Yeah. When I look at clothing, I want something to dress it up!
What’s your favorite item of clothing or your favorite costume that you’ve worn?
Joey Arias: So many things I possess and have worn—especially from the archives of Mugler! The Zumanity costumes are the most spectacular outfits I’ve ever worn—costume concepts by Mr. Mugler. It’s not fashion design—it’s costume concepts and art direction that’s genius! He would look at me and say, ‘You’re like this. You need this image to make you go there, to make you be that.’ When you dress like that, you naturally go that way. Like a policeman—if you see a cop on the street and he’s not dressed in his uniform, you don’t care. But as soon as you see someone dressed like that, you stand erect, you get nervous. When you see a fireman, you know he can come and turn off the fire. You see these costumes—you know you’re going to be entertained!
What was it like working with Cirque du Soleil?
Joey Arias: It was an unexpected dream come true!
Let’s go way back—
Joey Arias: Go ahead.
You sang in bands in New York?
Joey Arias: Various bands. The big one—I was with the Klaus Nomi Group, then the Nomi Group that left Klaus, we started a group called Strange Party. I was with Man Parrish. We had a song called ‘Hip Hop Be Bop,’ and that was a big big dance hit! That’s the point where I met Madonna when she first started out, and we went on tour together.
How did you fall into this group? Where are you from?
Joey Arias: I’m originally from North Carolina! I was born there and at 6 years old I moved to Los Angeles and went to school in L.A. Pretty much after high school I left and came to New York. That’s when I really became who I am. Everything else was just like going to school—literally. I keep going through life in stages—you start one place and wind up somewhere you’re supposed to be. I’m really a New Yorker by heart and spirit. It’s nice to be back in L.A. but it’s not really my life anymore. When I’m here I’m really confused—I don’t even know where I’m at anymore!
What was the scene like at Club 57? I’ve heard so many amazing stories about you and Klaus Nomi, Basquiat, Keith Haring, Bowie—
Joey Arias: Ann Magnuson! That whole group you know—it was just all of us downtown friends who were doing things and always seeking a place to have fun and create our own magic. We found this little Ukranian place where they had their Sunday coffee meetings. We started this monster movie club—once a week on Tuesdays we’d congregate there. This was before video! We’d have beer and smoke pot and drink and get crazy and watch these films and pop popcorn. Then Ann Magnuson created this club—almost every night a party was going on. Like our own clubhouse! They would put on themes and say, ‘Let’s have an art show!’ ‘OK—next week, Basquiat and Keith Haring!’ And all these other artists who didn’t become as famous but were equally talented would show and do performance art and blah blah—we were just there to hang out and have a good time! We didn’t think, ‘OK, we should do this and we’ll be discovered and become famous!’ It was just lots of fun!
What about that ‘Saturday Night Live’ performance with David Bowie?
Joey Arias: That was great! He was my superhero and Klaus’ too! He is a god! We all grew up with David Bowie and Andy Warhol. Every time there was a Bowie sighting, we would start hanging out there. One time at the Mudd Club, David Bowie was just sitting around having drinks with some friends, and someone brought us up and introduced us and that’s where it all started. Bowie had just gotten back from Berlin and knew some of Klaus’ friends, and we hung out for a week together like ten and twelve and fifteen hours a day talking about life and art, and we became friends after that!
Whose idea was the pink poodle?
Joey Arias: David Bowie’s—isn’t it great? He wanted all these things, and we would just work it up!
In one of my bands, I sing out of a pink Pegasus!
Joey Arias: Gorgeous! I love it!
You’re famous for your Billie Holiday—how did that connection come about?
Joey Arias: I was just singin’ along, I was just doing my thang. My parents had all these records! They had the Billie Holiday album—I think I was 7 at the time and taking a bath when the music was playing. My mother would play music all the time, and I heard that voice and I thought, ‘Oh my God, there’s something in that voice that blows my mind!’ It touched me. I thought, ‘I wanna sound like that!’ Not imitate or channel her, not be her— but have that same feeling. When I did Carnegie Hall a friend of mine said, ‘It’s not that you’re channeling her or impersonating her. What you channel is what Billie channeled—it’s a feeling that she got that now you’re getting.’ I’m never gonna imitate her! I can go there a little bit to really give you a twist in your mind, but it’s really something else. I read this amazing book called Wishing on the Moon … Our lives are so in parallel it just cracks me up! She went to Catholic school. I went to Catholic school! She sang Latin masses. I sang Latin masses!
But she had a tragic story, no?
Joey Arias: No, not at all! That’s a common misconception everybody has. She was a real good-time girl! People took advantage of her at certain points in her life, but this woman was a real crazy bitch! She was out there drinking, knocking the shit out of people. Nobody fucked with her. She took care of a lot of people. There was a period where she was fucked-up on heroin, but it was a very short time—maybe a two-year period in her life in the ’40s when she was hanging with all these cats doing heroin ’cause it was the beginning of the bebop era and that was what they were into. But then she stopped the heroin. Basically what killed her was alcohol. Louis Armstrong—all those jazz musicians—drank and smoked and did coke and they just did it. People say Billie Holiday was down and out, but she wasn’t down and out. She just did it and did it to the highest level!
So you sang in church?
Joey Arias: I went to Catholic school and sang Latin masses! I used to be an altar boy for a little while until they threw me out ’cause I used to walk around and thought I was a nun! I was 7 or 8 years old.
Were those Latin masses your first performances as a singer?
Joey Arias: You know what? Probably! I started choir when I was like ten …
Does that experience inform your work now?
Joey Arias: Oh, everything does! When you’re a kid, everything becomes part of your life when you grow up. Everything you did as a child starts to pan out, you know? If you had a really bad childhood, you just gotta look back and remember and see things and realize what happened. Like—I hate overhead light bulbs. I can’t go to a restaurant or anywhere with overhead lighting, and I can’t stand anything cold on my back. If you put something cold on my back, I would probably stab you without even thinking twice. Once someone put cold on my back, and I slapped the shit out of them and they freaked out. I was like, ‘Don’t ever ever!’ but I felt really bad after that. I was thinking, ‘Why did I do that?’ I regressed. I remembered when I was a baby, when I was born—I was born on an army base and they weighed me on one of those cold things on my back with those neon lights over my head! I was screaming and crying—I couldn’t deal with the neon lights as I was being born onto planet Earth into all those overhead lights and cold things. … I went that far back. Must’ve been that acid I was on.
You were born on an army base?
Joey Arias: Yeah. Some people think I was from Roswell!
It’s amazing that you do what you do considering you came out of an army base and a Catholic church!
Joey Arias: Yeah, well—you gotta fight these things! I know my father wanted me to be a sportsman—like a baseball player or a football player or a boxer. I use all those elements but for what I need. I got the Z chromosome!
What advice would you give to a young queer artist just starting out?
Joey Arias: Advice for someone who wants to do what I’m doing? Max, my boyfriend, says, ‘Don’t even try ’cause you can’t.’ I say, ‘If you wanna do that, you gotta really believe it.’ You can’t fake it! It’s gotta be real! My parents knew that since I was a kid—I was always drawing and performing. I had friends really help me out—when I couldn’t pay rent they supported me. It’s always a struggle ’cause I like to push the limits. I still belong in subculture even though I did the crossover with Cirque du Soleil in Vegas. Some people think they can look down on me like ‘that weird gay crazy person,’ but other people think, ‘Joey is a national treasure! That artist that just keeps going!’ So believe that. Be strong. Get ready for the punches ’cause it all comes with it. Get ready to eat a bag of potato chips for a week and make it work! It is noooot eeeeeaaasy at all. Period. There’s a lot of suffering that goes on with all this. My family wasn’t poor—we didn’t live in cardboard boxes—it’s a good family. My parents were blown away when they realized that I created a niche, you know?
Was there ever a difficult moment with your parents figuring out who you are and what you do?
Joey Arias: Right before I moved to New York, they sat me down. I mean, they knew. At one point my father was sitting in the bedroom-slash-living space, and my father said, ‘We wanna ask you a question. We wanna know if you’re gay.’ I just looked at them—I been running around this house sashaying in high heels and you’re asking me this question now? I looked at them and said, ‘My answer is that I love all MANkind!’ And my father looked at me and said, ‘That is not what I asked you!’ and I said, ‘That’s what I‘m telling you!’ He said, ‘That’s a smart-ass answer’ and I said, ‘Take it or leave it.’ I took off and didn’t talk to them for at least six or seven months—they were freaking out thinking I was in New York doing drugs or whatever. One time I called and said, ‘I want you to watch “Saturday Night Live.”’ They knew I used to hang out with Laraine Newman ’cause I was in the Groundlings so I was always on set with Laraine. Years later, I told them to watch ‘SNL’ and they wanted to know why, and I just said, ‘Trust me!’ and they saw me with David Bowie—who my mother couldn’t stand! She’d be like ‘this faggot’ but when they saw me perform with him, they were blown away. They realized I was living my dreams! After that, everything became clear for all of us.
So now they’re supportive?
Joey Arias: Yeah. My mother passed away in ’85. I was very drag—drag drag—until ’91, and I came to L.A. to do the Billie Holiday show. Madonna and Pee-wee and Elvira were there—so many celebrities … I saw my dad and I was like, ‘Hi Dad, here I am—in a dress.’ And my father was looking around and I was like, ‘Here—Dad, this is Madonna. Madonna, this is my dad.’ And he didn’t smile. But then after the show he was like, ‘Oh my God, you know everybody!’ I never think about stuff like that—who knows who—but yesterday we went to Disneyland, and as we were running around we got on the Haunted Mansion ride and this guy sat us and he was like, ‘Oh my God oh my God oh my God, are you Joey Arias?’ At first I thought it was part of the ride! Then my boyfriend, Max, and I just started laughing! It was hilarious. But it made me smile ’cause I just want to turn people on to dreams! People have used a lot of our ideas too! The American Music Awards—like Rihanna’s opening thing was actually pinched from our show! That whole alien abduction thing with the spinning table—but not even near as good as ours! That shows you when you have a lot of money, it doesn’t always work. Sometimes it’s almost a blessing to scrap and scrimp to make things out of nothing. That actually works in your favor. We have a budget but it wasn’t like we could just rent stuff and buy things! Basil made these puppets-—we created this show!
Wanna tell me about the show?
Joey Arias: I don’t want to talk too much about the show because Basil Twist and I like the audience members to be surprised ’cause it’s a journey, and people don’t usually know about journeys in their lives. You know where you wanna go but you end up taking a different road than you expected. This show’s like that. It starts off one way—you come in with expectations but it goes somewhere different. It fills your mind with ideas and inspiration—it’s a journey!
You’ve said that you followed the wrong path until it became the right path—is the show like that?
Joey Arias: Yeah! I always say, ‘It’s never a bad day, just a wrong turn.’ That’s how life is. The most important thing is that you get to where you’re supposed to go. Even with the ancient Greeks—like Jason and the Argonauts—there’s always a story where you’re supposed to go somewhere but all these things happen. It’s never a straight line!
How did you meet Basil?
Joey Arias: I’ve always loved puppetry! I grew up watching ‘Sesame Street’ and puppet shows. I used to make my own puppets but Joey-style—I’m not a puppeteer, I’m a singer! I would see my friend Sherry Vine’s Theatre Couture shows in New York—kind of downtown where they would put these productions on. Lots of special effects, and I was sitting there watching going, ‘Oh my God! How did this happen?!’ and Sherry told me that Basil had done a lot of the work. So I met Basil through the Sherry Vine shows and through my dear friend Bobby Miller and just going out in New York and crossing paths. It wasn’t until I saw his show ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ at the HERE Arts Center. The entire show was performed in this underwater tank—the curtain opened up and this unbelievable underwater show happened!
I’ve seen video of that—it looks absolutely spectacular! Feathers, bubbles, fabric …
Joey Arias: And there was a kind of museum of puppets where marionettes that were like the band members that were used in the show, and I was looking at them and at Basil thinking, ‘I want to work with them!’ They were his grandfather’s—antiques, you know—and he wanted to keep them on display. But here we are years later, and they’re in the show!
Do the puppets ever creep you out?
Joey Arias: Puppets? Oh no.
Can anything scare you?
Yeah—a telephone bill!