Becoming Kevin Aviance, Again

A year after he was bashed in the East Village, a New York diva is ready for his second act

Britt Minshall, a former cop turned inner-city pastor in Baltimore who has counseled young toughs, cites a "mob psychology" that can overtake older teens traveling in a group. "They're like five or six Rottweilers," he said. "They're always trying to prove themselves in one way or another."

Minshall said he wasn't surprised that at least one of the men, Gerard Johnson, would float the classic "gay panic" defense. Johnson claimed that Aviance had called him a "sweetie," setting off what amounts to a violent heterosexual alarm. He's the one who apparently threw the paint can and missed. Johnson had lived with his mother in nearby Stuyvesant Town, where he reportedly had been getting into trouble ever since she died after being beaten in front of him two years before. He had a previous arrest for robbery and was allegedly a member of the Bloods.

Jarell Sears, who lived in Newark at the time of his arrest, was contacted in jail by a reporter for an interview. "What do you have to offer me? What can you pay?" he asked. With nothing on the table, he hung up the phone.

Kevin Aviance, drag performer, Billboard star, proud survivor with his new line of shoes
photo: Willie Davis/Veras
Kevin Aviance, drag performer, Billboard star, proud survivor with his new line of shoes

Akino George lived in the Bronx but attended Boys and Girls High School, a notoriously tough campus in Bed-Stuy, where he was on the track team. There were reports that he also belonged to a gang.

Gregory Archie used to live around the block from Johnson in a well-kept working-class tenement on East 21st Street. The head of the tenants' association remembered Archie's mother as having been "constantly at work" and said Archie got into trouble, some of it violent. Finally, he said, "We got them out. They moved to Jersey." In person, Archie is shockingly tiny, oftentimes swimming in oversize T-shirts and baggy jeans that hang off his five-foot frame.

The police asked Aviance whether he'd press charges, and he asked them whether they would protect him if he did. His question proved a smart one.

Recuperating after surgery on his jaw, Aviance was visited by a young woman carrying flowers. As Evans tells it, she breezed past hospital security and "threatened Kevin, telling him, 'Don't press charges or we'll kill you and your family.' ?" Quinn and the Anti-Violence Project, which monitors gay bashings in the city and counsels victims, arranged to have Aviance moved to a hotel under 24-hour guard.

Meanwhile, Aviance was fielding phone calls from friends like Janet Jackson and Tyra Banks. Jack Fitzgerald, a fan, set up a tribute website where hundreds of fans sent notes. Others, like, which held an eBay auction for a portrait of the singer, raised money to help cover his medical expenses.

Six days after the attack, he made an appearance at a rally protesting the beating. Through a jaw clenched shut, he told the crowd, "You can't keep a good queen down. We can't fight any of these people with arms and drama. We have to fight these people with love."

As he was preaching love on the outside, on the inside Aviance seethed with resentment and shook with panic.

His jaw healed, but the intense pain continued. He had panic attacks. He crossed the street whenever he saw a group of young men. His memory went in and out.

Worst of all, he couldn't perform. Instead of taking bows on the stage, he was being wheeled out for protest marches and demonstrations. "I live for applause," he said, "but I was getting the biggest praise for this!"

For a natural entertainer like Aviance, being forced from his craft was sheer torture. Born Eric Snead in Richmond, Virginia, he was the sixth of eight children. His entire family had been supportive of his career. His dad, an electrical contractor, used to tell him, "Whatever you want to do, just be the best you can be." His mother, to whom he was especially close, would just say, "My baby's artistic."

He met his second mother in 1989. Mother Juan Aviance was just then founding the House of Aviance in New York. It would grow to include more than 500 members from as far away as Turkey and Israel. After a brief sojourn in Miami, Kevin joined her in New York. Today, Mother Aviance calls Kevin "my first big daughter."

Kevin caught the tail end of the golden age for Harlem voguing competitions. Paris was still burning, and every Sunday morning, the queens ruled the dancefloor of the old Sound Factory (subsequently Twilo, then Spirit, and now shuttered). DJ Junior Vasquez, with his pumped-up house beats, set the perfect ambiance for showing off moves in front of an eclectic crowd of Chelsea muscle boys and ravers.

From the beginning, Mother Juan Aviance recalls, Kevin stood out. "He's a big guy," Mother Juan said. "He doesn't look like a girl." One morning, he was lip-synching the song "The Pressure" on the dancefloor when he found himself literally in the club's spotlight. Vasquez took him under his wing and started to feature him at his gigs. After a talent agent put him in Madonna's "Secret" video, Kevin became more widely known. He opened for Cher at the Roxy and performed with divas like Lil' Kim, Mary J. Blige, Whitney Houston, and Bette Midler. On Tyra Banks's show, he judged "Transsexual Top Model," a spoof of America's Next Top Model, where he was also a guest.

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