Queer icon Kevin Aviance on his extraordinary past and epic future…
By Elio Iannacci
Photos by Thomas Evans Photography
Singer, songwriter, clubland acolyte, fashion icon, queer activist, DJ, drag artist. Kevin Aviance approves of all these loaded labels to describe who he’s been and what he’s been up to for most of his life. Yet what doesn’t befit the undisputable Queen of all Queens in the grand court of global nightlife is a description that penetrates so many of his profiles. It’s one word that the multi-hyphenate performer wants banned from this article entirely.
“You can call me he, she or them – I’ll take it all, but I’m warning you, girl,” Aviance says via Zoom, laughing and then pausing for effect before continuing his threat: “Do not call me a legend.”
Aviance’s tenor immediately takes me back to 2008, when I was fortunate enough to land an interview with the equally-as-intense Eartha Kitt. In the midst of our chat, I foolishly used the L word, and Kitt – then 81 years old with no purrs to give – looked me straight in the eye and said, “Dearie, let’s get something straight. I’m not the stuff of legends and I’m not an antique – I’m forever!”
This same adage applies to Aviance. When he moved from his hometown of Richmond, Va., to Washington and changed his name from Eric Snead to Kevin Aviance after joining the House of Aviance (one of the grand vogue houses emerging from LGBTQ2IA+ ballroom culture), our club scene got disrupted and disturbed in the best of ways. Aviance’s mere presence – he stands six foot two without heels, refuses wigs of any kind, and prefers DIY or couture to pageantry coronation-style workwear – rang in a new era of queer artistry and made a space on the dance floor where the multicultural and multi-critical could live, breathe and party together.
Few can contest that Aviance’s status in pop culture isn’t legendary. Beyoncé reconfirmed this last year when she put the spotlight on Aviance by sampling, interpolating, rearranging and revocalizing his signature hit “Cunty,” his underground dance track of 1999. This all occurred after Aviance left Washington for New York City, was booked in major clubs by Suzanne Barsche and Junior Vasquez and, in 1994 (when Beyoncé was just 13 years old), was given the biggest of breaks by Madonna. It was her foresight in casting Aviance in her video to ‘Secret’ that made him realize what kind of possibilities were out there for him.
Two albums, next-level spectacles at historic clubs such as The Soundfactory, Twilo and Arena, and a slew of singles and remixes followed Aviance’s moment with Madge, all of which is covered in an award-winning 2015 documentaryby Canadian filmmaker Raymond Helkio titled WERK. FIERCE. OVAH. Aviance! Yet with a performer of Aviance’s stature, it is often the stolen, spontaneous moments that haven’t been captured on film or iPhone that convey his epic energy.
I’ve been lucky enough to be a first-hand witness to Aviance’s exquisite extra-ness in multiple cities. I’ve seen him rage on top of an estate home on Fire Island, fearlessly strutting on dangerously angled roof shingles in high heels, and bursting into a lip-synch of “I’m Not Telling You” just before a sour DJ pulled the plug on his performance, claiming it didn’t jive with her “dark” set. I’ve seen Aviance play Halsted Market Days in Chicago, and turn out a gospel-like version of “Alive” in the parking lot of a 7-11, treating the rickety convenience store stage as if it were a pulpit while singing to a wide-eyed, Slurpee-sipping, shriek-filled midwestern gay audience like they were parishioners.
But I’ve also observed Aviance basking at his best: in pricey high-production, swathed in avant-garde lighting and video, surrounded by hundreds of devoted, shirtless men mushed together on the dance floors of Toronto’s now-defunct Warehouse, New York’s legendary Roxy and Montreal’s ever-resilient Stereo. It is in these spaces where I noticed Aviance’s followers were entranced by his every move, gasping in the basslines of songs such as “Din Da Da” and “Rhythm Is My Bitch,” and feeding off Aviance’s every breath, pant and growl.
When listening to the rest of Aviance’s oeuvre, you can hear that the cycle of clubland victories and dramas he’s experienced are the lifeblood of his songs. These experiences are embedded in the language of his lyrics and reflect his own excavation of what it means to be queer, Black and phenomenally fierce (listen to his 2015 EP RAW for proof). Which is why it makes all the sense in the world that he is releasing a family of tracks this year that aim to re-examine his past and reinforce his future under the mirror ball. There is also an in-the-works Aviance autobiography currently getting sorted and slated for a quick release. These two projects – which follow Aviance’s 2022 anthem, “I’m Back,” and his new cover of the historic house anthem, “I Will House You” – aim to further build on Aviance’s already-majestic dynasty.
Moments before he Ubered to the airport for yet another headlining gig abroad, I spoke with Aviance about the peaks and valleys of his empire.
Let’s start with a huge question: what would you say has been your most memorable performance to date?
I have a few. I remember when [DJ] Junior [Vasquez] played “The Pressure” by Sounds of Blackness and the spotlight hit me and I was wearing overalls and platforms and just danced my ass off. The crowd literally went wild – it was just like a scene in a movie. Junior was living for it so much that he came down from the DJ booth and handed me flowers. I also dressed up like a Black Marilyn Monroe for Junior’s birthday party at the Soundfactory, and that was something for the books. We had moments. Big moments.
Which moments would you say were life-changing?
I’ll never forget this one because it was pure drama. Junior could be nasty, too. He made me wait for hours in his club to perform “Cunty” and he had that song before anyone else and held on to it for weeks and wouldn’t play it. Nobody had heard it yet and I was waiting, waiting, waiting, and showing up every weekend expecting him to play it and perform it. One night, someone told me he would finally play the song [but] I’d had it and decided to leave. Just as I was getting out of the club, I heard the ‘Cunty’ beats and ran back inside to turn it out. That song was a turning point in my career. It changed everything.
It is hailed as the ultimate bitch track in music history. What, in your opinion, makes a good bitch track?
A bitch track is a personal testimony of how you really feel at that moment in time. All the rage and the self-confidence, you know? You have to understand that so many were shaming us for being queer. The bitch track was dangerous to the shamers, it plays with gender. Guys were supposed to be masculine and shaking their dicks around, and bitch tracks celebrated being effeminate, Black, femme, gay and holding up that feminine power. To me, ‘Cunty’ is not negative at all; it’s the opposite. It’s an anointment – it is me saying no one can stop me, I’m feeling beautiful, fierce, powerful and I need to be celebrated.
In some ways, it feels like ‘Cunty’ is a battle cry as well. Is it?
Yes. Against all the people shaming us. Shaming us for being queer. Shaming us for being faggoty. Shaming us for having a Kiki. Shaming us for feeling strong among each other. We should be able to celebrate each other, and be anywhere and anything we want to be. I’m glad people want to reuse ‘Cunty’ and talk about it. This track used to be more underground but now people are calling it a classic. It’s become textbook and academic, and I’m in history now because of this shit, okay? So, yeah, there is a kind of revenge that’s happening that I like.
The song, it’s dangerous. Guys were supposed to only be masculine, to have their dicks swinging to be powerful, but then I heard these two kids talking at The Pier in New York and one of them was looking into a broken mirror and I heard him say to his friend, ‘Girl, I’m cunty.’ He was feeling himself and his power. Feminine, masculine, all of it mixed up. So I brought it to the studio.
Your costumes often look like couture and represent eras of queer nightlife. Have you ever thought about curating them for an exhibit?
I kept a lot of the gorgeous stuff, some hats and some feathers, but a lot of it was so spur of the moment – all that spandex is gone. There is some fierce footage of me in a bunch of different outfits which I’m currently trying to find some way to bring it to life again in a way that it’s interesting. But you’re right. It needs to be documented. Right now, I’m searching for videotapes and just asking for [them from] all the people who have taped me that I never knew about. Pictures ain’t no problem – they have been fun to find – but I am all about movement. If you see the way I work the clothes, that, to me, is me living in the design.
What have you worn lately that has made you feel the same way?
I just did a photo shoot with Interview magazine and it was incredible. The stylist pulled this Marc Jacobs dress: it’s like a garbage bag with tulle. It is so intense. You know when you feel like you’re in just the right place at the right time? Like, this is where you should be? This is where my heart is? That is what it felt like for me wearing this piece. It was art on my body and my body responding to the art. I live for fashion. I live for the art of fashion, and to be able to perform in couture and ready-to-wear. Art on art, honey!
Tell me about the energy you feel between the style you see on catwalks versus what you see in fashion shows. Is it the same?
Runway in clubs and runway in a show are two different things. One is future, one is present. One is real. One is a copy. Do you know what I mean? I like seeing all this attitude, this gayness, the fierceness on a fashion catwalk, but we know where it comes from.
I know this is painful to talk about – and we don’t have to – but how has the rapport you’ve had with your fans changed after you were assaulted by a group of homophobic men in 2006 [who were subsequently charged with hate crimes]?
No, I want to talk about it. Listen, I live for applause. I live for that whole act of performance, that whole, ‘yeah, work, girl, work,’ all that stuff. I knew fans were sorry about what happened to me, but it was hard to respond. They were happy that I was still alive, but I’m sitting there with my mouth wired shut because of how bad the beatings were and what those men did to my jaw and face and body. Performing was everything to me, and then I basically lost my career for years. I couldn’t do anything professionally. I went to rehab, I tried to self-medicate, I didn’t know anything about PTSD or all the things that happen to your mind and body after you’ve been attacked. I tried to get help for myself, and I was killing myself, actually…and I didn’t know that. At one point I was 115 pounds, just trying to breathe. I tried to put makeup on my face, and I couldn’t even see but one side of my face. It took way too long to come back and I think I’m still doing it. This next year will be a fresh start because we are also getting out of COVID and monkeypox, so I’m hopeful.
Beyoncé’s Renaissance – which you are sampled on – is a reason to know that you are so beloved. Do you see her record as an homage to queer culture and queer heroes?
Yes. Definitely. She’s celebrating her gay uncle and the way she does it isn’t sad, it’s a Kiki. There is gay lingo in it. There is Black gay lingo in it. Our history is literally on her record if you listen closely. She had some time on her hands and she thought about her gay Uncle Johnny and how she would not be where she is right now if it wasn’t for him. Black gay people are in a renaissance right now. She sees it, and this album talks about how this moment and these people are influencing her.
Now that you’re working on your next album, have you been revisiting your debut disc and looking at your process recording it?
Oh yes. Box of Chocolates started out as a complete blank slate – it was exciting. I was growing as I was working on it. It all happened because a wonderful French fan went to DJ François K and she sold me to him. When I signed the contract, I asked him, ‘What am I going to be?’ He said, ‘Whatever you want.’ That’s when you know you are with a genius. He kept on me. He said, ‘Whatever you need to say, this is the time to do it.’ I think about that now when I’m making music.
When I was doing [Box of Chocolates], I also learned what my actual style was. I thought I didn’t know how to punctuate, I didn’t know how to round my mouth or approach the vocals, but this student at Berklee College of Music was in the studio with us and he told me that my enunciation was already giving him jazz. He said I was already scatting the lyrics and it sounded amazing, so I trusted him and fell in love with scatting. I just applied it to dance music and it became my thing.
The way you sing on the track ‘Join The Chant’ is the opposite of jazz. It’s so guttural and baritone and supernatural sounding. Where did that come from?
It was because I love alternative music so much and I saw Black people weren’t doing any of it so I wanted to do it, include myself in the equation. I love Siouxsie Sioux and The Cure and the dark goth vocals that they were serving, because that was what I was so into. I still am, I live for Siouxsie Sioux. What Siouxsie Sioux did for punk, I wanted to do for dance music: give it dimension, something sexual and sensual, give it personality and soul and give it a Black twist and give it more glamour. I wanted to translate punk for people like me, for queer people…because just existing makes us radical. Just us breathing makes us rebellious. Whether we know or not, we are more punk than punk.
I’m wondering about heroes you came across before and after you became Kevin Aviance. Tell me about the first time you saw Boy George.
I was in ninth grade and I saw him on TV and it was like my life stopped. The voice, the makeup, the moves, the clothes. It was so different to me. The kind of energy coming around that – masculine, feminine, somewhere in between but beautiful and soulful – it turned me on to the idea of what I could do. Watching him turned me on to myself.
Grace Jones is also someone that you’ve mentioned helped you envision your own future. What was it like performing for her?
Intense. She’s my ultimate inspiration and her One Man Show is the pinnacle for me. I remember I got 20 foxtails and made a jacket out of them for the event – it was for her boyfriend’s birthday party at the time. Anyway, I put a record on my head like a hat, and I performed her song ‘Do or Die.’ While I’m doing the performance, Grace takes her scarf and she puts it over her face. I was gagging. I still am.
When you were cast by Madonna for the video to ‘Secret,’ did you leave set with any lesson?
Yes. On how to make sure your vision is executed to perfection. She called me into her dressing area and quickly asked for Wardrobe and restyled me on the spot. She told the stylists to use all the gold jewellery they had laid out for her, for my character. So I wore all of the gold that was supposed to be for her. I’ll never forget it, because she looked me up and down and said, ‘Why are his tits so big? He’s not a hooker on the street. He’s a call girl. There’s a big difference.’ The costume person said they didn’t have a bra for me and Madonna said, ‘Well, make it!’ and said she wasn’t leaving until she saw my full look with the bra. So they had to make the bra in 20 minutes because Madonna was on a schedule and because, well, she’s Madonna.
Being there with Madonna made me know right then and there, if you’re involved in something that is your project, you’ve got to be involved in every detail. I learned that you have to get exactly what you want and you can’t let anyone tell you what you want.
How do you think growing up queer without Grindr or dating apps differentiates you?
First of all, when I started going to clubs, nobody was scrolling on Grindr. We were Grindr. Live. No texts, just talk. I think because of that, I know how to cruise and it is the skill of a lifetime. I can cruise a crowd when I’m on the stage or cruise someone I see who is beautiful to me. It’s all the same. If you are on your phone all day, you won’t learn how to perform or be engaged. That’s why it’s called sexually active! Experience means everything. There’s no way anything’s going to get through to you if you don’t at least see it, feel it, touch it, do something.
What are the benefits of working on your charm?
If you don’t like who you are, no one’s going to. No one’s going to beat off on you, girl. I don’t care what you look like or what you do. If you got the biggest dick or the loveliest lips or whatever…that don’t mean shit.
What do the next few months of 2023 look like for you?
I have a project called Black Queen. These songs are great because they give tribute to the language of Queendom and to getting what you deserve. One song is called ‘Gul Get Ur Life.’ I also have a cover of Michael Jackson’s ‘Working Day and Night’ that I love. This album is a home for all of those songs that didn’t have a home that need a house. I’ll be including new songs like ‘Hold on Me,’ ‘Sushi Darling’ [with The Cucaracha] and ‘Mary had a Little Lamb’ [with DJ Samurai]. Part of the project will be new mixes of older stuff, too, because in everything I do, I love looking back as much as I love looking forward.
ELIO IANNACCI is an award-winning arts reporter and graduate student at York University whose research interests include ethnomusicology and gender studies. He has contributed to more than 80 publications worldwide, profiling icons such as Barbra Streisand, Lady Gaga, Aretha Franklin and Beyoncé. His academic work is supported in part by funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.