Exclusive Interview: Joey Arias Keeps It Real

By: Michael Matson

Joey Arias is not what I expected.

When meeting a performer who is commonly referred to as a “living legend,” one expects to encounter an individual with an adopted air that is somewhat regal or posh. Arias, after all, has toured with Madonna, sung with Bowie, appeared on screen with De Niro, and headlined at Carnegie Hall. Even the location of our interview—trendy downtown L. A. hotel, The Standard—is an establishment so aware of its hip factor, visitors and guests alike are issued colored wristbands to weed out the unworthy. Arias was in town for the final West Coast performance of his Looking Back at the Future tour with drag superstar Sherry Vine. Over the course of our conversation, the Manhattan resident came across more like a wonder-filled student of art than a seen-it-all celebrity who's been wowing audiences for the past three decades. I was surprised and delighted by Arias’ openness and accessibility.

Photos: Peter Fehrentz


The tour was originally scheduled to start in Europe, right?
We were gonna start in Amsterdam. And then the volcano blew. So I guess Björk laid a big fart and stopped that tour from happening.

How would you describe Looking Back at the Future?
Well, it’s a show of our friendship. Sherry and I both love singing, the gift of gab, comedy, and stories of real life experiences. To me, it’s kind of like an homage to drag. I don’t really do that too much anymore.

You appear in Sherry’s “Telephone” video parody. What are your thoughts on Lady Gaga?
I think Lady Gaga is, first of all, Sherry’s inspiration. But I think Lady Gaga is great for the new generation. She has sprinkled life on the music and art worlds. It’s great to see a performer come out and pay homage to the gay scene and be a drag queen herself. In some of her interviews she credits me, and [singer] Klaus [Nomi], and Bowie as inspirations, so I think she’s great. She’s a great performer and a great singer. And she’s crazy.

How did you and Sherry first meet?
I met Sherry through a boyfriend of mine years ago who said, “I want you to meet Sherry Vine. I think you two will be great friends.” So we went to see her perform. Afterwards he introduced us, and I said to Sherry, “You sounded great, fantastic. Maybe you want to come join us at [weekly cabaret show] Bar d’O sometime?” And that’s how it started. I think Sherry is very talented. She sang “La Vie En Rose” that night.

Any plans to reschedule the European shows?
Those will probably happen in the fall now. Sherry and I are way too busy. She has her own shows. I’ve got my own shows—solo shows. And I’m getting married also. To a Scottish man. 

Wow! Congratulations! Will the wedding take place in Scotland?
Yes. We’ll probably do it in the summertime, late summer. And then again back here [in the U.S.]. Maybe in Connecticut. His name is Juano Diaz. He’s an actor in independent films and an amazing artist. He’s also a model for Pierre et Gilles. He’s mind-boggling. He’s probably the most real person I’ve ever met in my life. He’s inspiring, funny, and he’s an amazing lover. And he’s my best friend. Juano’s already said, “I’m not gonna let you go.”

Are you planning to move to Scotland?
No, no. My apartment is in New York. I’ll live in Scotland and New York. Since I work in Europe so much, why not have a base in Scotland? I feel like Madonna now [laughs]. God, it’s crazy!

You’ve been a dual-city dweller before, like when you were doing the Cirque du Soleil Zumanity shows. How was it living in Vegas most of the time?
I would say I worked in Las Vegas and lived in New York. I stayed in a hotel the whole time in Vegas. I would fly back to New York every week for the weekend or even a day, then wake up the next morning, get back on the plane, and do two shows a night. I did that for six years. At the end of the day, it was really all about the work. I had a great time, but Las Vegas is not my scene. I don’t like the sun, I don’t like air-conditioning, I don’t gamble, and I’m not looking for pussy.

When one surveys your career, it seems that you’ve never really had to compromise yourself as an artist. Have you ever been in a situation where you were offered a lot of money, but walked away because you thought, That’s not who I am?
If it was a lot of money I would be like, “How can I make it work?” Usually if it’s a big money gig like that, they want me for who I am. I can compromise in certain situations, but if they offer me that much money and say “I want you to dress up like a man with a mustache and do this whole thing,” then I gotta be able to put my spin to it.

But you’ve reached this point where people pay you a lot of money to do what you do. And it seems like you got here on your own terms.
Yeah, I got here on my own terms. I always believed in myself. I worked really hard for it. I’ve always worked really hard. I used to have a job at Fiorucci’s, and besides selling clothes, I would go in the window and dance to attract people. So, I’m selling clothes, I’m dancing in the window, I’m ringing the customers up, I’m talking to them. I was running all over that store like crazy. Then after that, I’d meet up with Klaus and we’d do shows. There came a point where the performance was getting stronger and I still had a job and a friend of mine said, “You have to make a choice. Either you get into the fashion world and go do that, or you do the performance thing.” So I went to do the performance and stuck to my guns. There were some points where things were really great and there were some very low points that my friend Tony supported me through financially. People just said, “Don’t lose your focus. Stay focused.” And I did. You have to.

What advice would you give to a young artist?
Keep it real. And don’t just talk about it. But if you do talk about it, make sure you go out and do it. You’ve got to go out and actually physically do it. And you’ve really gotta believe in yourself. But you won’t know until you fall and learn from your mistakes. If something wasn’t right, I learned fast what worked for me. As you get older, you know what’s right and what works. That’s where I won’t compromise. I don’t need a dressing room full of roses and a pink table. Just make me sound good. At the end of the day, for the show to be fabulous, the sound has to be great.

You kind of confirmed my suspicion that at your core, that’s what comes first: the art.
Yeah. Art is so important and that’s my number one love, really. I live my art.

Joey Arias and Sherry Vine perform Looking Back at the Future at Cabaret Mado in Montreal on Thursday, May 20th.