Joey Arias is a legendary performance artist who has pushed the boundaries of music, fashion, art, and queer culture throughout a career that spans more than five decades. Throughout, Arias has collaborated with some of the biggest names in entertainment, while always pushing to reinvent himself and remain ahead of the mainstream. He likes to, as he says, “keep it a little strange.” Writing about the 2019 acquisition by Harvard’s Houghton Library of Arias’s archives, Anna Burgess of Harvard Library Communications notes, “Arias got into drag in an era when it was still primarily underground, and the venues he played were small nightclubs in progressive cities like New York and Berlin… Thirty years later, Arias was on Broadway, his show advertised with dazzling full-color posters instead of grainy photocopies.” Although Arias’s story is one of success, and he has opened many doors for a new generation of performers, he is careful to distance himself from what he calls the “McDonald’s Corp.” version of drag that proliferates our culture today. Arias has always emphasized the importance of maintaining his underground status and unpredictability. When speaking about his archives, he hopes people will see his ability to “go sideways.” “I think the collection shows that I’ve evolved through persistence, challenges, taking chances, experimenting,” he said. “It shows the creativity of my versatility and fearlessness over the decades.” As a prominent figure in the downtown New York art scene, Arias has had an outsized impact on a huge range of fellow performers. Recently, during the development of a documentary about Arias’s career, stars like Debbie Harry and Rufus Wainwright, to Mathew Modine and Kenny Scharf, all came forward to describe the affect Joey has had on their own life and work. Indeed, he was more than a muse to the late and great Thierry Mugler and David Bowie. Alongside his best friend, German experimental artist Klaus Nomi, his 1979 appearance on Saturday Night Live with David Bowie is still remembered as a groundbreaking moment in the history of the show. The three of them on stage singing live in Mugler-designed dresses certainly exposed (and maybe scandalized) a whole swath of the country to Arias’ and Nomi’s singular art-pop affectation. In addition to his work as a performance artist, Arias is also a celebrated singer and musician, noted for his powerful voice. His vocal instrument exudes a rare blend of sensuality, vulnerability, and raw power that transcends the boundaries of genre. Although he was signed to Capitol Records in his teens in Los Angeles, in typical Joey fashion he dropped out of the contract in order to head out to the wild and burgeoning scene of New York City with his complete artistic freedom intact. In the early 1980s, while performing at a party for Andy Warhol, Joey decided to “channel Billie Holiday,” inadvertently creating a persona that would go on to captivate audiences and sellout theaters across the world. A master of interpretation, Arias infuses each note with a palpable sense of authenticity, inviting his audience into a world where music becomes a conduit for profound human connection. This “high-art” approach to the character would change, challenge, and ultimately pave the way for an entire generation of drag culture: precisely the culture we find almost ubiquitous today. And, although the album Arias on Holiday was released in 1987, he still currently conjures Billie to great acclaim. His centennial tribute to the legendary singer was staged at Lincoln Center and met with admiring reviews. As The New York Times noted, “More than most, Mr. Arias understands the risks and rewards of playing with fire.” The 80s through the aughts found Joey firmly planting his freak flag in new and ever-expanding territory. From operatic rock band Mermaids on Heroin, to starring in Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas, to his infamous collaboration with Basil Twist resulting in a very R-rated puppet show, Joey continues to reveal his singular vision. Writing about the aforementioned puppet show, The Advocate pretty much summed up the gist of seeing Joey, whether on the big or the small stage: “At the intimate spectacle that is Arias with a Twist, you really feel like you’re in the presence of something that’s not happening anywhere else on earth.” The breadth of his work has always defied one medium. As an on-set mentor, and as a cast member alongside RuPaul, Arias is featured in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. He even created a character, Shim – Half Man-Half Woman, specifically to bring to a kid-friendly audience in Big Top Pee-Wee. Putting all of this into perspective, Harvard curator Matt Wittman says, “The opportunities for drag performers in 1985 versus now, you can see how that world changed through [Joey’s] papers. Yes, Joey himself got more successful, but the world around him also changed, the reception to him changed.” Today, Joey remains the ultimate guardian of the avant-garde, playing shows with his jazz ensemble in the US and Europe. His newest album, “Past. Present. Future.” will debut on Beige Records on October 31st. Look for him performing live this fall in a city near you!