Toronto
2 min

Queen of queens

More than a Billie Holiday channeller

STILL REIGNING. For 20 years, Joey Arias has ruled a bizarre roost in New York City. Credit: Xtra Files

New York City’s Joey Arias is easily one of the top drag performance artists in the world.



He’s best known as that queen who sings Billie Holiday so brilliantly that even jazz purists are amazed. But channelling dead jazz singers is just one small part of his talent as he’s also appeared in almost every major mainstream film that’s featured drag queens over the last two decades including Flawless, Wigstock: The Movie, To Wong Foo, Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark and Big Top Pee Wee.



His recordings include the seminal drag CD called God Shaved The Queen as well as upcoming collaborations with fashion designer Thierry Mugler and The Propellerheads. He’s currently in negotiations with Cirque du Soliel for their third show in Las Vegas. Apparently it will be the first XXX-rated Cirque based on Cabaret but with a more explicit slant on sexuality.



He won’t be channelling Billie Holiday when he appears at the next Vazaleen on Fri, Sep 27; instead he’ll perform a piece he recently did in Berlin that is closer to rock than jazz.



When he came to New York in the late ’70s, it was like everything fell into place. He met Klaus Nomi, worked with David Bowie and fell in with Andy Warhol and the whole art scene.



Before Arias donned drag he was often seen in wild clothes and creature/alien concoctions. Then one night as a joke he went to a costume party with artists Keith Harring, Kenny Scharf and Jean Michel Basquiat. “I came up with this vixen type character that night called Justine and that was the beginning of it all and the rest is herstory.”



He says that drag looks have evolved over the years and that many drag performers are now doing more theatre. “Drag is now part of popular culture and almost any ‘look’ could make it. It’s like buying a car. Which model – performers, drug addicts, hookers or sex changes – brand or colour do you want to see or have tonight?”



Arias first broke on an international level while collaborating with the renowned pop-opera avant-garde singer Klaus Nomi which included a performance with Nomi and Bowie on Saturday Night Live that was an unbelievably wild TV moment 20 years ago. Nomi influenced countless artists in the ’80s, but is probably best remembered as the first celebrity to die of AIDS, back in 1983.



“I buried Klaus and I’m the executer of his estate,” says Arias. “Unfortunately many people only got glimpses of this extraordinary charismatic persona and when things were moving rather quickly he fell sick with AIDS and I must say this was in the beginning and we didn’t know what this new disease was.”



After everything Arias has seen and been through while living in New York, it’s surprising how positive he remains.



“Forget about negativity because it doesn’t lead you anywhere. I always wake up and think, if I can walk and I can talk and I’m healthy, then thank God because you never know what could happen in the next 20 minutes, it could all be over.”



God shave the queen!

VAZALEEN.

$7. 10pm doors. Fri, Sep 27.

Lee’s Palace.

529 Bloor St W.

532-1598.