Kevin Aviance is Still Cunty
As a fierce drag performer and house diva who served up bangers like the iconic “Din Da Da” and “Cunty,” Kevin Aviance transformed lives and flipped perspectives for generations of legendary children, including that of our editor-in-chief Mel Ottenberg. Here, they meet again.
MEL OTTENBERG: Okay. It’s 1992. I’m 15 years old, in the tenth grade, and I’m grounded because I got busted for sneaking out. I was going to the clubs, had discovered the D.C. house scene, and was very aware that you were the fierce and ruling diva of the club world. Anyway, my parents had motion detectors on the first floor, so if someone walked into the house, the alarm would go off, but it also works so a kid can’t sneak out, right? My best friend Elsa Reyes was also grounded with the same motion detector situation. But we had to go to your new party Life at Fifth Column, which was opening that Sunday. There was no way in hell we were missing that party because we just knew that you were going to be turning it so hard. So we went to the hardware store, and got hardcore rope that can lift a boat or whatever. Elsa made these rope knots for footholds, and we each tied them to our bedroom radiators, threw them out the window, climbed out, and went to Life at Fifth Column. Elsa snuck out first and came to mine and picked me up. She was in a royal blue babydoll dress and red lips and a pound of makeup, very Yasmeen Ghauri with Blonde Ambition–inspired corkscrew curls. It was so cold outside, like zero degrees. We went to Life and took acid. It was the first night at Life, and it was 30 years ago, but I remember how vibrant and wild it was. The scene was really on and packed and people were really turned out, literally hanging from the rafters. And you were the main event, performing drag for hours and hours nonstop, fully on with these huge projector screens behind you, and there were all these really horrific snuff films on the screen. Well, in my mind they were snuff films. I was on acid, they were at least very low-budget and violent and seedy. I’d never seen anything like this before. Do you even recall this?
KEVIN AVIANCE: Yeah.
OTTENBERG: I can still see it in my head. It was so sleazy and nasty. You were doing your drag show, I was 15 and on acid, staring at you all night, and then went home. Elsa got busted, I didn’t. But the point is that was the beginning of glamour for me, my first hit where it’s evil, it’s violent, it’s fab. Then Elsa brought you to prom.
OTTENBERG: We were all partying. You and I were the only ones going in the men’s room. All the other girls and drag queens were going in the girl’s room. We got in trouble, but we didn’t get expelled. It’s really fun to talk to you about it.
AVIANCE: Oh my god. That’s incredible.
OTTENBERG: [Laughs] We really were dedicated to your party, Life. It’s not just that I was 15 years old. D.C. was fucking mega then.
AVIANCE: Yeah. D.C. was major, man. So much stuff going on there, like the Black clubs, and all the club-kid clubs, and the bougie-ness, which was incredible, too. All the rich kids sneaking out and going to these parties, it was just amazing.
OTTENBERG: And anything old school house now, that was the new song in the club back then. I remember it was the Black Party in D.C. at Tracks and you were in black chaps and black bikini bottoms, and you were doing runway by the volleyball court and “100% of Disin You” by Armando was on. I’d never heard it before, it was brand new. Everything was new. It was good for me to grow up there because the club people were so fucking mean to me that by the time I ended up in fashion I was like—
AVIANCE: You could do it. [Laughs]
OTTENBERG: [Laughs] They were so much meaner in D.C. Are you from D.C.?
AVIANCE: I’m originally from Richmond, Virginia.
OTTENBERG: Right. I feel like, at that moment, you ruled D.C. When did you move to Miami?
AVIANCE: I moved to Miami in 1991 and then I left in ’93 to move to New York.
OTTENBERG: Amazing. I mean, you were always a legend, but you’re really back. The “Cunty” comeback is real, hunny.
AVIANCE: It’s real.
OTTENBERG: You’re having a good year.
AVIANCE: It’s so much fun. I feel we’re all having this renaissance, especially the Black kids, the Black boys. They talk about the Harlem Renaissance, the art, it’s the same thing that’s happening right now. They’re calling it Black boy joy. There’s so much art, we’re in Fire Island doing shows for BOFFO and these kids are amazing.
OTTENBERG: The kids today are way cooler than the kids in my era.
AVIANCE: Yeah, I wasn’t this cool. I wasn’t this aware. I wasn’t this productive. I just did it. These kids are so conscious about the future, what their responsibility is to help other kids move forward. I feel like they have all taken a class at the university of life for the faggot. They have signed up for the one-on-one class with their realness, they know what they have to do so they can move forward. Are they dangerous? I don’t know. Are they unaware? I don’t know about that either because we were dangerous in our own way.
AVIANCE: I know that they’re cautious, but I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Instead of being like we were, where we just came out of our houses and were gay, they sit and have a discussion about it first, they plan what they’re going to do, and that’s really fierce. I didn’t discuss it with anybody, girl. You know what I mean?
OTTENBERG: Yeah, you were just doing the thing. The future feels so dark and depraved and scary, but I’m always interested in how fab young people are.
AVIANCE: But it’s not as scary as it was when we were doing it. When I was doing it, that was scary. This isn’t scary like that. All I see is sunshine around them.
AVIANCE: I see happiness around them. I don’t see them sucking something out of it. I don’t see negativity at all. I’ve been working with a lot of kids and my whole resurgence started last year when I did Sustain-Release upstate. I went to Honcho, I went to all these festivals, and I was like, “What is everybody complaining about? The kids are carrying on.”
OTTENBERG: Anyone that’s complaining just doesn’t get it. There are so many fab things going on and the people are cool, the clubs are throbbing.
OTTENBERG: And they’re not Sound Factory, U.S.A., Arena-type mega-clubs because that’s too obvious. They can bust you there. People today know to be nameless, it’s a secret.
AVIANCE: They’re protecting it.
OTTENBERG: Yeah. But the party is on.
AVIANCE: Even the ballroom’s like that now. It’s very protected. They’re not allowing just anybody to walk up in there. You can be whoever, but you’ve got to come with a name, and you better come as who you are, and if you are 007, and you don’t have a name—
OTTENBERG: Maybe our reintroduction will get me back into some real fucking balls. I just need to know the right one.
AVIANCE: You have to go to 3 Dollar Bill on Monday night.
AVIANCE: Because those are the babies, and the older kids are there to look for the new kids.
AVIANCE: They’re scouting for that 007 to come to get snatched and get put in the ball. It’s really interesting.
OTTENBERG: Now that drag is understood and loved by the world, and voguing is respected, where are we at? Where are we going?
AVIANCE: The ballroom is still hardcore. Not everybody gets their tens and they keep it very structured. Those that are legendary are legendary and iconic for a reason— because they brought it. They still have the same rules.
OTTENBERG: Talk about mean. It’s rough.
AVIANCE: It’s hard.
OTTENBERG: Since you’ve been DJing a lot and you’re going out and you are giving mother in the school of the faggot to everybody who’s lucky to get it from you, what do you think is the hottest place in town?
AVIANCE: I think the Carry Nation are really turning it, I think they’re the top of the top, the cream of the crop. And Nita [Aviance] and Will [Automagic], I’m just so blessed to be connected to them. I’ve opened up for them about six times already, that’s been really great for me.
AVIANCE: Nita Aviance has been an amazing person in my life. She’s really guiding me on this next journey, she’s been a pinnacle in advice and stuff like that and it’s been really, really important.
OTTENBERG: Nita is very special.
AVIANCE: At the same time I rely on my mom, my house mother, Mother Juan Aviance. We connected again because I needed to trust again. I knew that she—he loved me. And when the whole Beyoncé stuff happened [Beyoncé sampled the song “Cunty” on her album Renaissance], it got really— they didn’t call me at first, so I found out on the fly. I was ready for it, but legally I wasn’t. I just had to get it in shape and make sure that this seed I planted was going to grow into a flower and not get stepped on. And sure enough I’m not going to be stepped on, so everything’s great.
OTTENBERG: You’re growing your garden.
AVIANCE: Yeah. It could’ve gone another way, because, to be honest with you, Strictly Rhythm is closed in the U.S., and the song’s 25 years old, and there’s this whole legal thing about it being fair use. Which is not the case so that’s good.
OTTENBERG: I’m so happy for you. I have a few other questions. Oh, wait. I’ll show you this when I’m styling you on Wednesday, but it’s my favorite thing on YouTube. It’s the closing day of Arena from August 1997 when you pushed everyone out the way and did the runway to that “Arena” song.
OTTENBERG: I was not at that party, but I live for that video, and I also love the screaming kids over the Junior Vasquez music. What was the best New York party ever?
AVIANCE: It was a night where they had allowed me to start using the main stage, and they put a triangle opening on the stage—
OTTENBERG: Where is this?
AVIANCE: Arena, at Palladium. I had just gotten the Actor’s Fund. I got inside a society, and I was now considered an artist, I was someone who had a main stage in New York City every week. I was performing, people were paying for tickets to see me, it was that whole thing. And that stage is very respected in New York. That night was so magical for me because I felt real. I felt like everything that I wanted had come to life. It was no longer me struggling with Junior, because I used to struggle with this man. We never rehearsed, it was all impromptu, I knew the songs already and we knew each other, but Junior and I never planned one thing at all for that party. All the outfits, everything, I paid for it. No one gave me a budget, I made a certain amount of money, that’s just the way it was. It was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. Junior was not always a nice person. I had to deal with a lot and then keep the job on top of it. I worked with him for 22 years. I never got involved with him. We weren’t friends at all. Somehow I taught myself to be that way and to deal just so I could have a stage to perform on. It was the biggest stage in the world as far as I was concerned, and to be a drag queen and to do what I was doing, it was huge. I think about it now, it was so much work for my part, so much I had to deal with every weekend. I had the barricades up on me, it was crazy.
OTTENBERG: And what time would you usually go on?
AVIANCE: I got to the club at four, I would go on at five. But, once I stepped into the club, the show started.
AVIANCE: That was my first outfit, so by the time the night would end it would be like 10, 12 outfits.
OTTENBERG: Yes. Okay we’ll be watching that one together on Wednesday because it’s the best thing on YouTube for me. Do you miss that whole time and that scene? Or you’re just in the now?
AVIANCE: I miss the way the music made me feel. The music was so intense for me. I miss that natural reaction my body got. I miss everyone seeing me go through it. That was real. All that convulsion and dancing, going crazy, that was a reaction to what was playing. That’s what I miss.
OTTENBERG: All right, two more questions. What are you spinning these days? What’s really getting you going?
AVIANCE: Mike Dunn is really turning me out right now, everything he does. Honey Dijon’s turning me out. [Laughs]
AVIANCE: Whenever I go on sites to find music I literally treat it like I’m in the record store, I just go track to track to track, every genre, and just see if I feel it. That’s all I really know how to do. I can trust my body, just the way I feel about it. And then I sit there and I get to know the song for a while. God, there’s so much good, new music out there. House music never really died. It was always there, it’s just that the guard has changed.
OTTENBERG: I love it. Kevin, will you ever retire from nightlife?
AVIANCE: That’s a really interesting question. I can’t stop what’s in me. I tried doing that once, and it made me sick. I don’t want to be like a root with no water. I don’t want to be out in this world knowing that I can’t have joy. I can’t imagine being sad or being old or being a has-been. I mean, I hate the word legendary sometimes because I think it’s a curse. It doesn’t allow you to just be who you want to be. I have breath in me, I’m alive, I’m healthy, I’m good. It wasn’t always like that, things were kind of crazy at one point, so I just—I know what I can do. And if there’s somebody else that comes and turns it out I’m there to support them. I know I’m not going to be the belle of the ball all the time, but please allow me to come through, please let me try. Don’t give up on me.
AVIANCE: That’s the one thing I don’t appreciate, when some of these grown folks that have lost it themselves because they can’t deal with it, or got family, or got old or whatever—that’s life. When you drive cars you make sure you drive that car. Am I going to do this for the rest of my life? Well, this is what I know how to do, so let it be what it’s going to be, do you know what I mean?
OTTENBERG: Listen, as the classic house anthem says, “Keep pushing on, things are gonna get better.”
Makeup: Darvell Freeman
Fashion Assistant: Ava Van Osdol
Production Assistant: Domenic Nadal