Arias, whose 40-year career began as a “window dancer” at New York’s Fiorucci designer clothing store, started his rise to fame when he connected with fellow queer performance pioneer Klaus Nomi. The two became collaborators, with Arias singing backup and doing visual designs for Nomi’s shows, culminating in a now-famous appearance on Saturday Night Live in support of musical guest David Bowie in 1979.
In the years since, he became a staple of the New York cabaret and performance art scenes, evolved a drag persona inspired by Billie Holday, performed with Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas, and toured in “Arias With a Twist,” an acclaimed adult-themed marionette show conceived with puppeteer Basil Twist. He still performs regularly at cabaret venues around the country.
According to Harvard Theatre Collection curator Matt Wittman, the materials donated by Arias include correspondence, artwork, posters from shows, audio materials, and almost 70 boxes of photographs. Materials from Nomi’s archives, which Arias held as sold executor of the late singer’s estate, were also included.
“Joey’s archive illuminates aspects of the performing arts that haven’t previously been represented in our collection,” Wittmann told the Gazette. “Part of my impetus here has been to reflect the diversity of American life and orient the collection more toward current interests.”
As for Arias himself, he admitted, “I don’t know what’s even in some of the boxes.”
Nevertheless, he went on to say, “My archives show a career that’s not just drag. It’s drama, movies, performance art.”
“When you hit the top, there’s nowhere else to go,” he added. “I like to go sideways, where you can transform again and again. I want to still be something unexpected, someone who you’re not sure what you’re going to get.”