Joey Arias: The Drag Artist Talks Beauty, Bowie, and the Three Things Every Woman Needs
When asked to describe the chanteuse that is Joey Arias, the cabaret legend herself (or himself—deciding upon a pronoun poses a challenge) can sum it up it one word: seductive. Unlike many of the contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Arias understands the art of “simplicity in makeup.” And when she uses the word simplicity, she doesn’t necessarily mean a dash of powder and lip balm (although that’s perfectly acceptable for day or a wedding). For stage, she contours (the last step of her maquillage method) but doesn’t take it as far as your regular drag queen. “I don’t put on any white and brown,” the two pigments typically employed to carve out cheekbones. Arias doesn’t do anything “clown-y,” either, although she would if it meant “getting paid.” Longtime collaborator Thierry Mugler gave the performer a piece of advice that still resonates, which Arias recalled during our interview: “If you’re going to do your own thing, just [put on a] black bra and panties. Don’t start putting all this shit on yourself. No pinks and greens and fluff and feathers. Please don’t do that!” With her perfectly articulated arches, razor-sharp liquid liner, and impeccable red lips, she’s like a forties film star, citing women like Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich as icons. Here, Arias shares some of her best beauty tips and how she continues the magic after the makeup comes off.
The scene: Cabaret lounge-meets-museum. Irving Plaza in Union Square is transformed by MAC Cosmetics to pay homage to Arias—with some of her most memorable ensembles on display, along with her new film directed by Mugler, Z Chromosome. A series of makeup wipes—some reminiscent of the Rorschach test—are also encased in glass in the middle of the room.
Can I first ask you about these makeup wipes? Was it your idea to turn them into art?
It started as a joke years ago. I think it started in Berlin. But it wasn’t until I did Cirque du Soleil Zumanity [Arias was the Las Vegas show's emcee for five years] that I was rushing to get out of the theater—after, like, two shows, I’d throw the wipe on the table and of course they would lay there, and I’d leave and come back and see these wipes and I’d think, Huh, what am I doing here? This is kind of something! So I started saving them and I’ve got probably like two or three thousand wipes now from Cirque du Soleil.
So you’ve been saving them since you hit the stage in Vegas?
Since 2003. Every time I do a show, we do the wipes. My partner, Juano Diaz, is a painter from Scotland. He had an art show in New York about two years ago. It was his art, and people wanted to meet him. And he asked me if I could throw up a little section of some art with him. Because, you know, I went to art school and everything. Juano, he got them and actually framed [the wipes] floating on glass…I had about ten of them among his paintings. I had a row, and it said, “MAC Wipes: Create Your Own Art.”
Is there a technique to how you take off your makeup?
It all depends on how you feel that night when you’re taking your makeup off. It might be a little aggressive or it might be gentle. Sometimes it’s like a rush. It all depends on how I want the eyes to come out, or do I want them to look like more of a mask, or do I want them to marry each other, do I want them to be more abstract like two people kissing or something from outer space? It all depends on how I rub the wipe. People are just blown away.
So what are your go-to MAC products that eventually end up on the wipes?
Well, the MAC wipes, for damn sure! I like their lipsticks and their shadows. All the shadows. I don’t really try too many colors because there’s a certain scheme. I’m not really always like, “Pink lips!” I’m a brand already, so I’ve got to stick to a look. In this video [Z Chromosome], I stretched out and did some different things—I was very Cirque du Soleil. Mugler wanted me to put red glitter on. That was for fun.
Which red are you wearing in the film?
It’s Russian Red with some black liner, and then I put the red glitter dust [on top].
Is the black for depth?
Yes, to give it a shape.
What’s the best beauty trick you ever learned?
One of the most beautiful makeup artists I’ve ever met is Mathu Andersen, who does all of RuPaul’s makeup, and he’s taught me a few tricks…Maybe only four or five makeup artists have [ever] done my makeup, but just the simplicity of makeup and shadowing—it takes time. You can’t rush. Keep it natural.
So you don’t necessarily contour like a Kardashian. What’s your technique?
Look at my cheekbones and just [see] how I want my face to move. On RuPaul’s Drag Race they put white. I just put a little base on, very light, and get a sponge and kind of wipe it off, and then powder to set everything down. Then I draw the eyes, eyebrows, lashes, lips, and then contour. Contour is last.
So Mugler suggests keeping it simple with just a black bra and panties. Is that all a girl needs?
Just a black bra and panties! And stockings. That’s it. Gotta keep it elegant, gotta keep it, as Mugler says, “Classy, classic, and cheap.”
What does your nighttime beauty routine entail?
Well, it all depends. If I’m going to do shows, I have to pace myself. And usually the shows I do now are about eight or nine, so it’s like, prepare, relax, gym, e-mails, feed our little dog Grumble, take a bath, start looking for an outfit, and then get ready.
How long does it take you to apply your makeup?
It could be anywhere from fifteen minutes to three hours.
What about taking it off?
That part takes about three seconds.
At least you’ve found a way to make your hard work stand the test of time with your wipe art. So what is the craziest, best night out you’ve ever had?
My craziest, best night out ever? I’ve got so many of them! But I would say in Paris, with Mugler, having dinner. There were about ten people—I’m not going to say the names. Mugler said, “We’re going to have dinner with Iman and her husband.” And I was kind of like, “OK!” And we were all there and all of a sudden they walked in, and I’m like, “Duh! David Bowie!” I sang with him on Saturday Night Live, so we saw each other a couple of times very briefly. He walked in and he had not seen me [since] I transformed, started dressing up, and we sat there for hours—hours—screaming and laughing, having the best time. It was amazing. And then we walked through Paris and David put his arm around me and said, “You really blossomed so beautifully. I’m so proud of you. You just moved on.” He said, “I wish you looked like this when we did Saturday Night Live!” He probably wouldn’t have worked with me if I did! We were laughing.
What were you wearing that night?
Oh, I was wearing a Mugler suit. Elegant. Very chic. Nothing crazy.
You recently got married—what kind of makeup did you wear on your wedding day?
Seriously, I wore just a powder.
No lashes or anything?
No, no. I just put powder on. Because it was daytime—it was like 7 in the morning. I just wore a black suit and powder…And beautiful black glasses—they’re called mantaray, so they looked very alien.
So no need even for mascara.
No, honey. You put the lashes on when you have a business meeting because that’s when you mean business.