Becoming Kevin Aviance, Again

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

To take the edge off the strain of nonstop performing—on and offstage—Aviance leaned on drinking and drugging. "I'd been doing drugs for a long time," he said. "It was a way of life. I was able to have a career, wear the clothes I wanted, get high."

The club scene didn't exactly encourage sobriety.

"There's a pressure there," said veteran DJ Susan Morabito. "While you're getting high, you don't realize you have a problem because everybody is getting high. What's 'heavy' use? We live in a drug culture. I'm not condemning that; it's part of the gay dance scene." Morabito would have a very public falling out with Aviance, after he performed at a party she was DJing on Fire Island and refused to give up the microphone.

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

Even now, however, Aviance insists that he was able to keep his indulgences under control—until the bashing. For the first time ever, he had unwanted time on his hands. His mother had died not long before. He saw the news a few months later about a young, gay black man named Michael Sandy who died in Brooklyn while fleeing men who used a hook-up website to lure him into a fatal robbery. Sandy's death left Aviance feeling guilty that he had survived his own attack. And he was embarrassed that four smaller guys pounded him: "People kept saying, 'Girl, you should have beat them!' But if I had, I would have been dead right now."

It was just too much. Eric Snead could no longer bear the pressure of being Kevin Aviance. "It got crazy," he said. "I was drinking, drugging—shopping to sex to everything. I was trying to fill this void in my life. Crystal meth was the one thing that took me over the edge. I was doing it to keep myself going. I had to get outside my head."

Aviance compares his experience to that of being raped, something Clarence Patton said makes sense. "It's different from being mugged randomly," Patton said. "It gets into your identity and your psyche. Hate-motivated violence digs much deeper into a person's emotions than 'Someone stole my wallet.'"

Fueled by alcohol and any other mood-altering substance within reach, Aviance went on crystal binges that got longer and longer, with "Suicide Tuesday" comedowns that grew worse and worse. Finally, his manager brought in an old friend, Dexter Phillip, to take over his client's business interests. Phillip incorporated the name "Kevin Aviance" and signed a deal to design and distribute women's high heels. Soon enough, he discovered he would have to take charge of Aviance's private life as well.

A former back-up dancer, Phillip had opened a successful modeling studio in the Fur District and was bringing out his own line of cosmetics. "He didn't belittle me; he didn't whittle me down" Aviance said. "He said, 'I want to work with you. But you need to think about this first: We can't do anything until you do something.'"

In February, Aviance left for a clinic in Minneapolis, the city known as Recovery Central. He enrolled at a group home run by the Pride Institute, and now spends his days in meetings, in therapy, and on the phone tracking deals with businesspeople in New York.

He made his first trip back to New York City after 50 days of sobriety. By coincidence, it was the weekend of the Black Party, an 18-hour dance celebration of sexual (and other) excess held at Roseland Ballroom. For the first time since moving to New York 15 years ago, Aviance would not be part of the masculine mayhem. Instead, he performed at the far more sedate Gay Life Expo.

Aviance has returned a few other times—in April, to unveil his new shoe line, and again in May, to help open a West Chelsea nightspot. Last week, he performed at a benefit for the AIDS Service Center and hosted a party. He'll be back for Gay Pride, once again aboard the HX float. He has managed to stay clean and sober throughout, even in the hothouse club scene. "It's hard," he said. "People come up to you with drinks and drugs. The devil comes in different colors and shapes." Instead, he spends time visiting with his beloved Chihuahua, Lola Falana, updating his website (kevinavianceworld, and taking it the proverbial one day at a time. He's also recorded a new song, a cover of Michael Jackson's "Working Day and Night"—an appropriate (if also ironic) choice for a workaholic like Aviance.

He says we can expect to see him sashaying across club stages soon, waving his arms in voguing mode and patter-singing. But this will be a mellower version of so many people's favorite queen. "It's time to let Eric Snead grow up a little more," he said. "Kevin Aviance has to take a break."

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