Joey Arias has been a staple of the New York City gay nightlife and cabaret scenes for over thirty-five years. His life story sounds like a dream come true: after ditching the West Coast for the Big Apple, he became best friends with the avant-garde musician Klaus Nomi, who changed his life forever. He went on to create a cabaret act and received rave reviews worldwide, channeling the late songbird Billie Holiday. His work has even brought him to Las Vegas, where he spent many years as the first openly gay emcee for a Cirque du Soleil show.
Now he will bring his talents to South Florida, where he is the headlining performer at the inaugural Diversity Honors event. This special evening, which will recognize Judy and Dennis Shepard as well as South Florida’s forces of change, is presented by the Harvey Milk Foundation and The Pride Center at Equality Park and will be held at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood on Saturday, May 9. Tickets are $150 per person and can be purchased by going to diversityhonors.com.
It was a very big honor to get the chance to talk to Joey Arias for this exclusive Hotspots interview before he comes to Florida to headline Diversity Honors.
How important is it to you to be a part of Diversity Honors?
I think it’s very important, especially in the 21st century, because diversity means a lot to a lot of people. It’s what it’s all about now. As we progress in this world, moving forward in this century, diversity really is what makes the world go round.
Looking back, how do you honor the memory of Harvey Milk and his activism?
I’m from New York City, and so was he, and I was just blown away by what he did, going off and fighting for a group who was struggling, shining a light on them and showing the world that diversity really is important. I was saddened by the way his life ended. Then, meeting his nephew, Stuart Milk, was a highlight of my life. I was so honored to talk to him, and he said to me, “It’s an honor to talk to you too!” He’s smart and funny and most importantly he continues on Harvey’s legacy and that is so important.
What’s the one thing you like the most about the gay scene in Florida?
I love that…I think it has to do with the weather down there…[laughs]…but I love that the gays came down to Miami and pulled everything together and rebuilt the city, and once their work was done, the straights took over and then many of them moved on to Fort Lauderdale. I haven’t been to South Florida a whole lot recently; I made many trips down there in the ’90s, but I just love that the scene and the gays are so happy. I think that’s fantastic.
I read reviews of your performances in The New York Times and they had trouble classifying you with a label: performance artist, drag queen, or singer. Do you believe in labels?
When you go grocery shopping, you always look at labels. You want to know what’s in the food. So, unfortunately people like to look at labels. I like to surpass labels, though. I think that’s what my job is, to go past the label.
You were very close with Klaus Nomi. How did his presence change your life?
I met Klaus after I moved to New York in ’76 and my friend introduced me to him. When I saw him, I asked about him and she said, “Oh, that’s my friend Klaus. He’s a baker and he’s an opera singer.” I thought, “Wow, he’s kind of cute!” He was such a special man. I always found myself fascinated by his…German-ness. The first time we met, we became best friends and I never left his side until the day he died.
How did you come up with the idea of channeling Billie Holiday in your cabaret acts? Was this a talent you were always good at?
When I was a kid, my parents would play a lot of music, and I remember hearing this magical voice and I found out it was Billie Holiday. And I thought to myself, “I want to sound like that. I want that same tone. I want that same voice.” It’s not like I wanted to be her or act like her, I just wanted to have those…[imitates Billie Holiday] dulcet tones…singing…
So later on, I would perform these rock shows and I would try out a Billie Holiday song and people would come up to me and say, “You sound just like Billie Holiday! That’s a trip! You sound incredible!” And that’s when I started working on Billie Holiday shows.
Now that gay marriage is more or less a settled topic, what or whom should the LGBT community advocate for next?
I would definitely say banning LGBT discrimination. I think that’s the top priority on my list. Because you’re right, gay marriage is settled. I married my Scottish partner and he got a green card. Discrimination against anyone for any reason is major, and that’s something we should all be concerned with.