Remembering the 1980’s New York Performance Scene with Joey Arias

It’s 1976, and best friends Joey Arias and Kim Hastreiter are driving across America in a pick up truck. Travelling from LA, their destination is New York City. For both, the allure of Hollywood could only be eclipsed by its edgier, colder cousin.

Situated almost 3,000 miles apart, these two iconic cities embody the hustle, glamour and belief that anyone must have to become a star. Hastreiter would go on to find immense success as the co-founder and Editor-in-chief of Paper Magazine, a bi-annual fashion publication that famously “broke the internet” with Kim Kardashian on it’s cover. Arias would go on to create a glittering legacy as a drag artist and cabaret performer. Starting on the New York scene in the 1980’s, Arias’ career would also become deeply entwined with popular-culture. But for now, they’re following a long and endless road towards their dreams.

This wasn’t the first time that Arias has had a brush with world of show-business. As a teenager living in Los Angeles, his neighbourhood band were signed to a two-year contract with Capitol Records, an industry giant who now represent Katy Perry. Still, after being brought up in a military family, Arias felt like he wouldn’t truly be himself until he flew the nest, saying, “I never felt fully complete. I was looking at Andy Warhol and all the crazy creative people working in New York City, so one day I packed my bags with my friend Kim (Hastreiter) and we drove cross country and I never looked back.”

After settling in the trendy Greenwich Village neighbourhood, Arias befriended Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali, co-founding a performance venue called Club 57 with artist Keith Haring. Arias describes this atmosphere fondly, recalling the simpler time before telephones and computers: “we wanted to get together and have fun, it was all based on fun. We wanted to do our own shows and performances. We kept getting rejected from Broadway auditions, so we thought, ‘let’s start our own shows and put on our own performances!’”

A year into his New York adventure Arias was working at Fiorucci, a designer clothing store where he and his colleagues famously modelled clothes in the shop windows. While working at the store he became friends with alternative musician Klaus Nomi,, singing backup and designing sets and costumes. In the December of 1979, Nomi and Arias appeared on Saturday Night Live accompanying superstar David Bowie for a live performance.

Despite being surrounded by the flamboyance of the New York performance scene, Arias hadn’t yet discovered the passion for drag that would go on to inspire his long career. He explains, “I used to always get taken to drag bars and I used to think, ‘oh no, I don’t like drag I can’t do this!’ In the late seventies early eighties I was always thought, ‘eughh! that’s not my thing at all!’”

But this would soon change. Arias displays how his love affair with drag happened by complete coincidence at a party: “I didn’t dress in drag until I went to a Halloween party that Andy Warhol and Truman Capote were throwing, and it was a drag Halloween party. Of course I was dreading it, but I had to go because everyone else was going, so I created this character called Justine. When I walked in everyone was like, ‘oh my god, who is this girl?!’ Andy Warhol came up to me and said, ‘you look incredible, who are you?!’ You need to stay in drag!”

After taking on his new alter ego, Arias began singing in clubs to enormous acclaim. With encouragement from fashion icon Thierry Mugler, he branched out to include Betty Page and Billy Holiday in his musical repertoire. But it wasn’t all glitter and tiaras. The 1980s brought with it the devastating HIV/AIDS crisis, which massively affected his creative circle. He explains: “it was a terrible time and everyone was dropping like flies. Into the nineties it was a reflection of the eighties, but the emphasis was on how to be safe while having fun. The way to be promiscuous and fun became about dressing up and having fun. People wanted to go out again and start celebrating.”

Nowadays the drag industry is followed by a global audience. Although it was RuPaul who smashed through the glass ceiling in terms of drag representation on television, a certain amount of credit has to go to Arias and his boundary-breaking friends. Still, Arias is supportive of the RuPaul phenomenon, saying, “It’s great that people accept you and when they see you on the street they love it. There will always be the subculture but I think that it’s really moved into the twenty-first century. Nowadays women and becoming men and men are becoming women – it’s all so fluid”

One of the perks of the meteoric rise of drag is that Arias and other queens are now able to perform in venues across the world. After starring at iconic London venues including the Southbank Centre and Soho Theatre, Arias returns to the capital this February in Valentines cabaret show Love Bites. When speaking about the show, you can tell how thrilled he is to be performing in London once more: “the show is a metaphor about Love and hate. Love really does bite! It’s not always a soft kiss. It can be aggressive sometimes. Valentine’s I a funny holiday because I think we all need to remember to pick up the phone every day and call our friends and say ‘I love you!’”

Joey Arias will be performing his Valentines special show ‘Love Bites’ in The Crazy Coqs from 11th to the 14th February, as part of Live At Zédel.