Ever since he stole his mom’s makeup and clothes to perform “I Will Survive” in front of a stunned audience of fellow fourth graders, Kevin Aviance has lived for the stage. All grown up, at six-feet-two-inches, Aviance carved a successful niche for himself in New York’s downtown nightclub scene. If he hadn’t gained the wider fame of a RuPaul, he had managed to parlay his gender-fuck shtick—bustier, boa, six-inch fuck-me heels, shaved head and basso profundo voice— into chart-topping dance hits such as “Din Da Da” and “Rhythm Is My Bitch,” as well as an underground cult hit, his self-explanatory signature song “Cunty.”
When finally he made national headlines a year ago this month, it wasn’t for anything he had done onstage or in the recording studio. Beaten senseless by four young men in the East Village, Aviance found his image changed overnight from that of an oversize black man with an outsize drag persona to that of an invalid stuck in a wheelchair. Not only couldn’t he sing, he could barely talk through jaws wired shut. Aviance became a poster boy for acts of violence targeting gay men. It was the hardest gig he’d ever played.
“I asked myself, ‘Will I just be known as the person who was beaten in 2006?’ ?” he recalls. “It’s not like I was America’s ‘Idol’ or drag queen. I was the American black queen who got beat down. I was getting awards and honors—not for the music, but for that.”
What began as a reluctant parade through a new kind of limelight soon turned into a descent into the personal hell of drug addiction, followed by a hard climb into recovery. Tough as it was to grow up as Kevin Aviance, he is now having to do it all over again.
On the night of June 10, 2006, Aviance was walking on air. He had just finished a photo shoot for the cover of HX Magazine‘s Gay Pride issue and had been out celebrating with friends at the Phoenix, a bar on East 13th Street. Heading down the sidewalk at about 1 a.m., he heard someone shout, “You’re not Diesel,” a reference to action-film star Vin Diesel. Other voices yelled “Fucking faggot,” “Goddamn queer,” and “Who do you think you are?”
Aviance says he was dressed in street clothes: a shirt with a hoodie, shorts (“cutoffs but not Daisy Dukes”), and boots. He was carrying a bag with clothes from the shoot. “I just waved my hands,” he recalled. “I was used to these comments. I looked back and they were heaving trash bags at me.” Someone hurled a spray-paint can, leftover from an earlier tagging, and missed, then started pummeling Aviance. The others jumped in.
After that, Aviance says, his recollection gets hazy, but he does remember them “kicking me in my head over and over again. They were wearing [Nike] Air Force sneakers. I can still hear their feet in my head.” Later reports said that people saw the attack but did nothing. Finally, someone named Tim pulled him off the First Avenue pavement, yelling, “You gotta get up. It’s dark. You’re dark. A car’s going to hit you.”
Aviance couldn’t speak. Tim (the rescuer was never fully identified) left him at Beth Israel Hospital, where, dazed and bloody, he waited in the emergency room. And waited. And waited. According to Len Evans, Aviance’s publicist, “Kevin called me from the hospital on Saturday morning and said, ‘They’re not believing me. They’re not treating this as they should.’ There are a lot of homeless who go there. They thought he was trying to get a free room. They dismissed him and told him to go home.”
It was only after Evans alerted a reporter friend from WNBC-TV, who interviewed Aviance—via remote; the performer didn’t want to appear on TV bloodied and bruised—that the hospital took his wounds seriously.
So did the rest of the world. First the wire services picked it up, then the all-news cable channels. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn stopped by. Mayor Bloomberg expressed his outrage in an impromptu press conference at the Puerto Rican Day Parade.
“Then he started getting the VIP treatment, when they found out he was a celebrity,” said Evans, who added that the hospital tried to make amends by comping his room. With head trauma and a broken jaw, Aviance wasn’t going home anytime soon. Worse, this was Gay Pride Month, his busiest season.
It’s also the busiest season for gay bashings, according to Clarence Patton, executive director of the Anti-Violence Project. “We’re more visible,” he said, “and the warmer weather brings more people out on the streets.”
The police were initially skeptical of Aviance’s
story, but the next day they rounded up four suspects: Gerard Johnson, 16; Jarell Sears and Akino George, both 20; and Gregory Archie, 18.
It’s not clear whether they went out that night looking for a fag to bash. Often, young men are looking for respect, not trouble, said Cheryl Paradis, a criminologist at Marymount Manhattan College. “They need to show how macho they are,” she said. “What do they have? The respect of their peers, street cred, a reputation. It’s pretty fragile.”
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.
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 Atlantaboy.com, 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.
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.
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 .blogspot.com), 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.”