Arias with a Twist’s Joey Arias in the Raw: Home is Where the Hard-On Is
After experiencing the LA debut of performance artist/chanteuse Joey Arias and designer-director Basil Twist’s knockout much-extended and heralded off-Broadway hit Arias with a Twist at REDCAT on a thankfully added Wednesday that did not conflict with my own performances in The House of Besarab at the Hollywood American Legion, I was brought back to where my friendship with the outrageous (and outrageously talented) drag diva began: when he debuted in 2003 as the Mistress of Seduction in Cirque du Soleil’s still-running Zumanity in Las Vegas.
The first time I met Joey was opening night of Zumanity at the spectacular all-night gala party the Cirque threw on the parking lot rooftop of New York–New York, which prompted me to return a few months later to see the show again and interview the show’s notorious “hostess” for a magazine. Unfortunately, my friend Penny’s infamous brownies didn’t seem to be kicking in that night, prompting my friends and me to keep taking small bites more. I of course should have known better. By the time Zumanity’s 7pm show started, the brownies were more than doing their trick and, by the time I was led upstairs to interview Joey between shows, I was totally and completely blithered.
Since the Cirque’s PR people hadn’t provided me with much actual background information on Joey’s career, I was definitely winging it anyway, but when he walked into Zumanity’s rehearsal room still in full Thierry Mugler-designed dominatrix drag, I was, shall we say, a tad overwhelmed. Geometrically overwhelmed, I might add, as though on one of those fondly remembered old mescaline highs I have always missed so much.
Uncharacteristically stumbling for words, the first thing I asked Joey was if his Zumanity character had been created for the show or if the show’s creators had worked it out around a character he already played, which Joey later told me was named Mitzi La Mouche. He laughed heartily and said, “Character? No, honey, this is me. This is how I live. I have dressed and lived like this for 20 years!”
I was suitably embarrassed, devastated that I had asked a transsexual to explain his… er, her… “character.” Coupled with the simple fact that I was too stoned to remember to turn on my tape recorder, after I returned home and got up the courage to admit my blunder, I humbly asked to return to Vegas a few weeks later and conduct another interview in a more professional state of consciousness. Joey graciously agreed.
The next time I met Joey was in late morning outside the Zumanity Theatre. He wore no make-up and was dressed in jeans, a white t-shirt with no boobs showing whatsoever, and his hair pulled back in a bun. Puzzled, I said, “I thought you told me you had lived in drag fulltime for the last 20 years?”
“I said that?” he asked, puzzled. I told him he had. “When?” he asked incredulously. The last time I’d interviewed him, I told him. “OH!” he howled, dissolving into rich throaty laughter. “No wonder! You can never believe what I say in interviews! I love fucking with writers’ heads!”
For the fun of it, as Joey’s and collaborator Basil Twist’s amazing Arias with a Twist continues to sell out and add more shows, I thought it would be fun to offer the text of that fateful interview in 2004 which appeared in Gorgeous Magazine and began a cherished friendship:
There’s something rather surreal about all this, talking with Zumanity’s omnipresent “Mistress of Seduction,” infamous New York drag performance artist and torch singer Joey Arias, for Gorgeous. Seated on one of the red velvet loveseats that make up the front row of the show’s Paris-in-the-20s-inspired showroom at Las Vegas’ New York-New York Hotel, my subject stays busy drawing his profile on the back of my t-shirt with a Sharpie as we speak. Joey, whose longtime Thierry Mugler-clad alter ego Mitzi La Mouche resembles a cross between Vampira and Betty Paige, is without make-up as he draws.
Seeing him for the first time in the “raw,” his long black hair piled on top of his head in a haphazard bun, he instantly recalls the inexplicable earthy beauty of Anna Magnani squinting into the sun as she wipes her glistening brow after a day in the fields—but never forgetting exactly where the camera is located.
“This is my home,” Joey says as he reverently surveys the lovely stage looming just above us, created especially for this production’s debut last September. “I really love my job. I love being a part of this show.” Still, aside from the splendidly erotic and exciting world Joey and the Cirque create twice nightly for 1,500 astounded and often visibly aroused patrons, he feels a bit conflicted about living in this notorious adult Disneyland smack-dab in the middle of the Nevada desert.
“I literally go back to my hotel room, eat, sleep, watch TV, go to the gym right in the building,” he admits. “That’s my life. I don’t go out. I get headaches in the sun. Everything’s too hot, too flat, too bright. It’s a mind-fry here. I stay inside or in the dark, like some vampire, you know? But see, Lady Bunny pulled me aside before I left New York and said, ‘You are so wild, but when you go to Vegas, use the time to refocus that energy and write and leave all that behind—it’ll come ‘round again someday.’
“So I thought, coming from Bunny, you know, that’s gotta be, like, profound, right? And then Thierry Mugler told me, ‘Don’t go anywhere. Do the show, go home. When you get to the theatre, that’s your party.’ So that’s what I do. Honestly, this is the last place I would have chosen to live, but I’m doing this show and it’s nowhere else but right here. I still choke up with nerves backstage each time, then I hit this stage and…” Joey takes an elaborate but heartfelt intake of breath, recovering remarkably fast.
“I’ve only been here a year,” he snorts, “and I’ve been kicked out and banned from every gay bar in this city already, so my entire world is Zumanity and my friends are my Cirque family. But hey, I’ve been traveling all my life bringing me to the world, now I’m here in this beautiful house, so the world can come to me for a change. And you know what? They do!”
Joey finds himself in a unique position in Vegas, starring in a continuously sold out show that markets its rampant celebration of human carnality in a town where Linda Rondstadt was booed off a stage for dedicating a song to Michael Moore. “Being gay and outspoken and doing drag on top of that, it’s amazing what I can get away in Zumanity.”
This is something which included, the last time I attended, Joey asking two young straight farm boys in the front row if they were lovers. “They were in that big spotlight and they were freaking out, weren’t they?” Joey laughs heartily, throwing his head back at the memory. Still, he finally that night managed to persuade the boys to tentatively kiss before he moved on to other prey, quipping into his microphone as walked away, “Well, I guess there won’t be a pearl necklace in it for you tonight.”
He also at one point suggested to another hunky patron that he’d like to [insert popular slang expression for oral copulation here] him. Zumanity isn’t a sing-along Sound of Music by any means—and Joey Arias would scare the hell out of those Von Trapp kids anyway.
“I realized early on, though, that I can’t go too fast and I can’t say too many really clever things. One night, there were these two really, really old ladies right off the bus, you know, sitting right here where we are,” remembers Joey. “I asked the first one if she liked orgies and she answered, ‘Depends.’ I said to the other one, ‘How about you?’ and she says, ‘Depends’ too. So I said, “Well, I’ve got a box of ‘em in the back if you want to borrow some.’ I waited for the audience to get the joke, but it took a long, long time. Most people aren’t used to my kind of humor. It’s gotta be pee-pee and poo-poo and ka-ka-doodle-doo. And I have to be, like, the bad child for them to accept me.”
But for all the delicious abandon of his onstage freedom, Las Vegas remains a conundrum for Joey. “They call it Sin City, they say ‘Everything in Vegas stays in Vegas,’ but I haven’t seen that side anywhere, especially at gay clubs. They say, ‘This isn’t New York or Berlin, you know—we don’t do those things in Vegas. It’s all such hype! Our show is the only one doing what we say we do, not kinda doing it, you know?”
Often, however, it’s the audience members who are the bad children. “I swear, women take their tits out all the time and guys you’d never expect to do such a thing lift their jackets and show me their hard-ons. All the time, all the time! And in those back seats where it’s really dark back there, you’d be amazed what goes on.” According to Joey, the best thing is that Andrew Watson, the Cirque’s innovative Director of Creation who spawned Zumanity, “wanted that vibe.” It’s something meant to conjure Paris in the days of Toulouse-Lautrec or the sexual abandon of the late 1960s.
“In the beginning, when we first opened, some people walked out before they knew what it was going to be about—hell, before we knew what it was going to be about. But now the word is out. I tell people to think of it like a garden. There are weeds, trees, roses, gardenias. It’s like sexuality. Everything doesn’t grow the same.” Put all the elements together, Joey points out, and a garden’s variations can be a thing of great beauty.
“I’m just happy to be gay, in these times!” Joey suddenly screams with a mad Tullulah-esque skyward sweep of his green-glitter polished nails. “I love that the envelope is still being pushed and I’m helping to do the pushing. There’s always someone’s eyes you can open up.”
And now, five years later, nothing pushes that envelope more than the magically-designed, gloriously silly hit Arias with a Twist, which makes Zumanity look like Mary Poppins. Don’t miss it while it’s here—it’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences you’ll never see again.
Arias with a Twist plays through Dec. 13 at REDCAT in the Disney Hall, 631 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles; for tickets, call 213.237.2800 or log on at www.redcat.org.