One of New York City drag’s greatest dancers, Aja has been tearing up the bars and clubs of Manhattan, Brooklyn and beyond for years. And she’s only 22! Now with shows in Brooklyn, a fledgling rap career, a growing array of fierce high fashion looks and a shot at the Miss Industry 2016 crown, this no-nonsense banjee/glam performer is about to enter the next phase of nightlife dominance.
Thotyssey: Hello! First of all, can I just say how amazing all of these editorial looks you’re turning on social media lately are? Are you going through some sort of creative Renaissance now, or was this always there?
Aja: Thank you so much! My mind is just juicing out all these concepts and ideas, and I don’t know where else to put them but into fabric and looks! I’ve always been a creative person, but I never knew how to channel that into drag. It wasn’t until the last few years where I realized that I could use drag to turn out my ideas. That’s what I’ve been doing. It’s just me being myself essentially!
How would you describe Aja’s particular style these days?
That’s a hard one! Aja is like a fusion of time-inspired fashion, kawaii (Japanese for cute) and harajuku culture, and straight up urban hood chic. She’s very versatile (no pun intended), and can find a way to kill off almost every look. As for the makeup: I try to make my paint a complete transformation while staying sort of animated. Softer on the face but big eyes, big lips, tiny nose, etc.
It’s very distinctive! Your skin also looks great these days. I heard you state in an interview recently that you were scarred in a greasefire as a kid, and that you were slowly but surely healing. It looks like the healing process is complete?
Honestly, I think that all the aftermath of the burns, including the sensitive skin and breaking out from anything and everything, kind of stopped when I started doing drag more frequently. Doing drag, you’re wearing makeup all the time and you want to make sure your canvas is as clean and smooth as possible. My skin care regimen has definitely changed immensely. I exfoliate daily and moisturize with SPF before I go into the sun at all times. The sun can really mess up your skin!
Speaking of sun, you took a bit of time off in Puerto Rico recently. What brought you there?
I wanted to get away and embark on a spiritual journey to get more intact with myself. Everything had became drag, and I wanted to focus on Jay (me out of drag) a bit more. So I stayed with my godmother in Bayamon. I literally did nothing but rest, and it was really needed. I feel so recharged! It wasn’t my first time and it won’t be my last!
Sounds wonderful. You work in the Brooklyn that a lot of night-lifers know, with the rough edges and body hair and the experimental performance artsy vibe… and the gentrification. But you grew up in a very different Brooklyn, didn’t you?
The Brooklyn that I’m in right now is a complete 180 from where I grew up. It was all urban and very cultured. Also, the drag I knew before isn’t the drag I know now. Brooklyn has exposed me to many different forms of art and I appreciate all of them. Drag is meant to be fun and experimental. A lot of queens make fun of Brooklyn girls and say a lot of mean things, but they have never been here and know absolutely nothing about how we are getting paid the same amount, and having ten times more fun. Every time I have a city girl guest at one of my shows, they gag and at the end they are always like “GIRL, tonight–GIRL, I had so much fun!” And it’s the reason we all do drag. If money is the only reason you do drag, then you shouldn’t do drag.
Well said! When and why did you start drag, exactly?
I started doing drag when I was 16/17-ish, which would be 5 years ago. I’m 22 now. At the time I started doing drag, I found myself confronted with many situations in life that I didn’t know how to deal with. I didn’t start on Halloween or pride. I started at home by myself, trying to escape from terrible anxiety.
Drag was very therapeutic, and I have been mostly anxiety free for 3 years. But it was a lot [of anxiety] when I first started, because nobody knew where I was from or why I acted the way I did. A lot of people in the nightlife were not welcoming to me, and were very judgmental. I get it: we all see new queens sometimes and think, “oh, God.” But because of the drag start I had, I think it’s important to realize that everyone comes from a different background, and some people are doing drag because they are screaming for help. Which is why I will never turn down helping out a new queen, always giving them a platform to showcase their drag. Because I remember what I felt like to be excluded.
I was totally shocked when I first heard recently how young you are, given how many years I’ve known you and seen you out in the bars performing. Were you outwardly hiding your age from everyone, or was it just kind of an open secret? Also, you seemed to have so much confidence and poise then, even though you were probably this scared kid.
I’ve always tried to not be very abrasive. I grew up with a very strict mother who wasn’t too strict on freedom, but [more] about how I handle myself. And I did go through a lot as a teen. That helped me mold myself into a more poised individual.
I hid my age because I really wanted to do drag, and I knew if everyone knew my age I wouldn’t be able to perform anywhere. Honestly, my goal was to accomplish as much as I could to prepare to be 21 and start getting gigs. But I never thought I would have been hosting gigs and performing at almost every venue before I hit that age.
In essence, I do feel older because many queens my age have not been able to accomplish what I did, but it doesn’t mean they can’t. With the right attitude and composure, along with the correct ambition, anyone can do it. I’m a living example that if you really want something bad, you can work to achieve it.
There was a time where I was going to stop doing drag because of many factors. But it was one night at Penthaus at the Copa Cabana back in 2012, where Kizha Carr pulled me to the side and told me that I had a lot to offer to the drag world and that I shouldn’t quit. It meant more to me than she will ever probably know, because that was the only form of supportive advice I had at that time in drag. I will never forget Kizha or those words because if she never told me that, I probably wouldn’t be doing this. I was going through a transition in my life at the time, and I want to say I was going from a victim into a survivor. I was learning to take responsibility for my actions, and stop blaming myself for things that I went through, and use my experiences as lessons to apply to later situations.
A lot of people have mistook my found confidence for a sense of arrogance. But in honesty, I just realized who I was and who I wanted to be. I chose to drop who I wanted to be and just be myself.
That’s beautiful. And you were with your partner-in-drag and life MoMo Shade even before you started drag, right?
We actually only started to do drag together, and then we ended up dating for a few years and were serious. But then we realized that at this moment in time, we would be better off as friends.
You two co-hosted lots of shows in Brooklyn, and made a lot of appearances in Manhattan together as well. I remember another venue you and MoMo performed in, the short-lived Pride Lounge in Forest Hills, Queens. So did Princess Bitch, Lilith LeFae and LeeLee Heavenly. What was that experience like?
Well I was actually there for two years. It was an interesting experience, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. The staff was inexperienced in dealing professionally with performers, but it’s not their fault. All in all I had some great nights there!
So, what motivated you to enter Miss Industry this year? Do you partially feel like you have something to prove to the nightlife community, or perhaps to yourself?
I wanted to do Miss Industry because of the cause. As someone who knows how it is being in a rough situation when you’re part of the LGBTQ+ spectrum, I feel it is important to give back to the youth. We are giving money to the Trinity Place Shelter, and I believe it can help many people.
I don’t really feel like I have to prove anything to nightlife because I feel like I have the right to say that I have paid my dues, and I know where I stand in the community. The thought of competition excites me, and it moves me to work harder to be a better AJA. I’m no pageant queen, but what is a pageant queen? We’re all just queens competing for a crown, but I’m mostly doing it for the experience and the platform to try some new ideas. I’m not going to dumb down my drag, I’m just going to be myself and hope the judges like it!
What will you be doing for the pageant talent category? Hopefully you’ll be busting out your dance moves.
My talent will be paying homage to one of my favorite movies! There will be some props, dialogue/comedy, costume changes, and yes, dancing! We will be choreographing 80% of it because, in all honesty, when I’m competing I need a few seconds to just do me. To let loose, and not feel the pressure of choreography.
I have had a super-packed schedule since my arrival from Puerto Rico, so we have five days to get it together. I will be leaving town on Saturday to perform at Princeton University [for a performance with Merrie Cherry], so I will have to be back Sunday to try our best to slay! I say us because anybody who competes knows that this is a team effort. Without a team, it is very hard to do a pageant or competition.
I saw a video recently of you lip syncing Chris Brown’s “Look at Me Now,” and you flawlessly performed the lightning-fast Busta Rhymes cameo. I’ve never seen anyone do that before, let alone a drag queen. Solid lip sync is probably a great skill for a budding rapper to have, right?
Yes! A lot of people freak about stuff like “it’s a male song” but I say it’s your drag and if you own it then nobody can say anything. I used to get criticized for my lip sync, and that song definitely has taught me to lip sync better.
And now you’re writing your own raps.
I have no idea where it came from. I just said I want to rap and did it. Now it’s something I want to brand with my drag!
Who are some of your favorite rappers?
Tupac, Biggie, Lil Kim, Busta Rhymes, Eminem, Lauryn Hill, Nicki Minaj, Eazy-E, Missy Elliot, Lisa Lopes, Remy Ma, Trina… the list will go on!
How’s writing lyrics for you?
It’s such a fun process because I have so many things I want to say, but I need to format them. I do like to freestyle here and there, but my lyrics have a lot of thought put into them, so I feel they represent me more.
I wish there were other rapping queens that you could battle with.
That would be shows! I know Hamm Samwich raps, but I’m not sure she is still rapping.
Are you recording the album now? Any projected release date?
I’m working on an EP. But no release date yet!
Let’s get back to Brooklyn for a minute.
You host Sh*t Show Fridays, with Momo, alternate weeks at TnT. And on fifth Thursdays there (which amounts to about every three months), you two host Screwball. At another Brooklyn bar called One Last Shag, you and Momo host Banjee Girl, a hip-hop monthly party on last Saturdays, where you get to flaunt your rap sync.
Who is Acid Betty? LOL just kidding. I think Acid is a very talented individual, her attitude is an acquired taste but I respect her artistry. I say let her believe what she wants, because I look fucking good and so do many queens in Brooklyn. Some, yes, are very alternative–and more artists than queens–but it doesn’t exempt them from being in drag. Drag has no binary. If it did, Acid’s (amazing, may I say) drag wouldn’t even be considered drag.
Well, in Brooklyn the competitions are opened up to bearded queens, performance artists, live acts of all kinds. This opens up eligibility to all the queer community. Hell’s Kitchen competitions seem to be a little more filled with more “normal” queens. In honesty, I think it just had to do with the demographic difference between Brooklyn and Hell’s Kitchen. If there were more bearded artists there, we would probably see them competing.
I loved performing at Hardware and working with Shequida. She is very easy to work with, and she showered me in drinks and compliments. Don’t tell her I told you she was nice to me–she might sue me for breaking the NDA. Kidding! She’s great, and I look forward to working again with her.
Okay, one last question: What is one thing the world needs to know about Aja that it might not know already?
AJA is your home girl. Although She may look intimidating, she is always ready to Kiki and have a great time! So next time you see me, say heyyyy!
Aja will be a contestant in the Miss Industry 2016 pageant at Industry Bar on April 10th. She will co-host Sh*t Show Friday with Momo Shade at This-N-That on April 15th and every alternate Friday, and they host Screwball there as well on June 30th and every fifth Thursday. Aja is the door queen for the Dragnet pageant at Metropolitan Bar on April 21st and every third Thursday. She and Momo will be at One Last Shag for Banjee Girl on April 30th and every last Saturday. Aja can be followed on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and Soundcloud,