Born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, he was six when he moved with his family to Los Angeles. After singing with the rock band "Purlie" on Capitol Records and a stint with famed improvisational group the Groundlings. In 1976 he and his best friend Kim Hastreiter - who would go on to co-found - Paper (magazine) - drove across country in a pickup truck and moved to New York City. Arias eventually got a job at the Fiorucci designer clothing store. He and other store staff famously performed (danced & modeled clothes) in the shop windows. While working at the store he became friends with alternative icon Klaus Nomi, singing backup and designing sets and costumes. On December 4, 1979, Nomi and Arias appeared on Saturday Night Live accompanied David Bowie for a live performance of TVC 15. While in New York he also performed with Ann Magnuson in a band called Strange Party which recorded and performed in various night clubs. Upon the death of his dear friend and artistic collaborator, Joey became executor to the Klaus Nomi (Sperber) estate. A tribute to his friend is held in Berlin every year, and the documentary film "The Nomi Song" was released in 2004. A film on the life Arias shared with Klaus is currently in development with Alan Cumming slated to play Nomi.
Arias, who is openly gay, gradually became involved in the burgeoning 1980s New York performance art scene, appearing regularly at Club 57 and other downtown venues. During these years he also began crafting a successful career in cabaret, based on his talent for channeling the vocal style and mannerisms of the legendary Billie Holiday. In the early 1990s Arias covered the songs of Lady Day in a show called "Strange Fruit" which ran for over a year at the Astor Theater on Lafayette Street in New York City and received a glowing notice from John Lahr in The New Yorker.
The 90's also saw Arias hold court as the star of weekly shows at Bar d'O, an intimate lounge in the West Village of New York City. With co-stars Sherry Vine and Raven-O, Arias inspired a legion of devoted fans with 3 shows a week over the span of a decade. Regular guest performers at Bar d'O included Sade Pendarvis, Daniel Isengart and Flotilla Debarge. The famed evenings have inspired annual reunion shows each December at Indochine restaurant and became the subject of a 2011 documentary film produced by Bobby Sheehan.
In 2003 Arias moved to Las Vegas, Nevada to star as the Mistress of Seduction in Cirque du Soleil's Zumanity the New York-New York Hotel & Casino. In addition to starring in the show, he co-wrote 2 of the shows songs. After starring in the show for 6 years, Arias returned to New York where he starred in Arias with a Twist, a collaboration with master puppeteer Basil Twist at HERE Arts Center. Produced by Barbara Busackino and Tandem Otter Productions, the show received a rave review from Ben Brantley in the New York Times and played to sold out houses for 6 months. The show has since toured to Los Angeles and Paris and spawned a "docufantasy" film of the same name which premiered at the TriBeCa Film Festival in 2010. "Arias with a Twist: Deluxe," a revamped and expanded version of the show returns to New York for a limited run at Abrons Arts Center from September 14 to October 16, 2011.
Arias' relationship with Abrons began in October 2010 when "Joey Arias in Concert" marked Arias' first concert appearances in New York in over a decade. Presented by Earl Dax and music directed by Ben Allison, the shows filled the 300-seat Abrons theater to capacity at each performance prompting the addition of an added late night performance. Based on the success of the show, Dax collaborated with Josh Wood who produced Arias in concert at New York's legendary Town Hall on April 21, 2010.
Arias is also notable for his portrayal of Joan Crawford in New York and San Francisco productions of Christmas with the Crawfords, an original holiday spoof of Christina Crawford's book Mommie Dearest. The San Francisco based production premiered Off-Off-Broadway at the Grove Street Playhouse in 2000 starring Arias as Joan. Arias also starred in a 2001 revival of the play at the Chelsea Playhouse.