Joey Arias would be the first to tell you he isn’t a star.
Arias, whose archives were recently acquired by Harvard Theatre Collection at Houghton, has been a drag queen, cabaret singer, and performance artist for more than 40 years. But achieving the mainstream name recognition of someone like RuPaul Charles has eluded him. And he says he prefers it that way.
“When you hit the top, there’s nowhere else to go,” he explained. “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.”
Arias got his start as a window dancer and salesperson at the 1970s designer clothing store Fiorucci in New York City. Since then, his performances have run the gamut from R-rated puppet shows and a trippy rock band called Mermaids on Heroin to Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas and singing backup for David Bowie on “Saturday Night Live.”
One of his longest-running acts is a cabaret show in the style of Billie Holiday, and at Harvard last month to celebrate the opening of his archives, Arias performed two songs in Holiday’s raspy, soulful voice.
His nature as a performer is to cross genres. “My archives show a career that’s not just drag,” he said. “It’s drama, movies, performance art.”