Twelve Rehabs, Twenty-Three Detoxes and Three Deaths

Sophie Gallagher interviews Rayya Elias

Rayya Elias has been clean since 1997. The Syrian-American lesbian is an ex- junkie, an ex-con, a post-punk rocker and a hairdresser, who has experienced everything from homelessness to record and book deals. In 2013, spurred on by her best friend Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame, she wrote Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk, from the Middle East to the Lower East Side. Here, she tells Honi about her life of extremes.

HS: You immigrated to America from Syria when you were seven years old. What was different about America, and what challenges did you face?

RE: The first and biggest challenge for me was that I didn’t speak English when I moved to Detroit. I was born in Syria in 1960, and it was pretty lavish there. We had money; we were Christian Arabs and not Muslim Arabs. In the late 1960s, nationalisation started and they were going to take my father’s land, so he decided to move to Detroit. It was great, but I was always the darkest one in the room. So it was very chaotic, and not speaking the language amplified everything by a thousand.

HS: Why did you move from Detroit to New York?

RE: I moved to New York in my 20s. I was already very rebellious, which was the reason I moved there. I always say that New York was the city of lost souls; I felt like such a lost soul at the time and such an outcast. I fit right into the scene in New York, but that was the scene that I chose: the punk rock music and art scene. The chaos always followed me around, or I brought it with me. I went headfirst right into it.

HS: Back to Detroit. How did you discover your knack for hairdressing?

RE: In Detroit in 1979, I was playing in a band, and this kid came up to me wanting a mohawk. He had knicked these clippers from his parents, and I refused. He was like, “Come on man, everyone knows how to cut a Mohawk. I know you could do a really good job.” So I plugged them in and gave my first mohawk in a bathroom at a club called Todd’s, and that was it. People started calling me, like his friends, saying we want this and we want that. I just found that I could do it, and I was being paid $5 a haircut in my basement. I thought, “God, this is something I can do seamlessly”. So I dropped out of University, went to hairdressing school, and I loved it.

HS: While you studied hairdressing, did you also pursue your music?

RE: I was in beauty school, and I was going to punk-a-billy clubs, because punk-a-billy was really happening then, and in hairdressing school everyone was gay, into music, into fashion. So I feel like that was the border that took me over into the techno, new-wave and post-punk club scene in Detroit. I saw bands that were really cool but could hardly play. Like I remember seeing U2 one time at this small little biker bar called Harpo’s in downtown Detroit, and they could hardly play their instruments but they sounded amazing because they were just kind of making noise. So we would get bands together where we had the same musical taste, nobody knew how to play, but we just used to like hanging out together and make sound, make noise. Pretty soon, we all kind of learnt how to play together. I found that that was my love.

HS: In Harley Loco, you write about realising that you were a lesbian. Did you struggle to come to terms with your sexuality?

RE: Being from a Syrian family, it was very hard. I hid it for the longest time. I was with a guy for like seven years because I loved him and I thought I could do it. I just couldn’t anymore. That was one of the biggest reasons why I had to move to New York, because I realised it was somewhere I could be free. It was very shameful, I had to keep it to myself for years, and a lot of the drug use came behind that, trying to hide and not feel uncomfortable in my own skin. That was a way of numbing out the edges and being able to dissipate into who I thought was me.

HS: Have rebellion and addiction been significant themes in your life?

RE: Absolutely. But the biggest theme I think, underneath that, was feeling uncomfortable.When I am uncomfortable,  I am rebellious.When I am uncomfortable, I get loud. When I am uncomfortable, I get really raunchy. Growing up, that was the only way to deal with it, as most know.

HS: Can you share with us some of your most vivid memories of New York?

RE: Oh god, so many. I remember being homeless. I remember sleeping on a park bench. I also remember being at the Area club, standing in between Andy Warhol and John Cage and doing drugs off the bar. I remember doing the hair for an Armani show at the Armoury, and then running down copping dope on the Lower East Side and going to a shooting gallery with a woman that had no teeth. I paid her five bucks to go in and use. The juxtaposition of the memories covers a wide spectrum of it all back in the ’80s.

HS: What was life like at those low points, and what were you feeling?

RE: I wasn’t. I was doing everything in my power not to feel. I went out of my way to completely exorcise feeling from my mind, my heart, my body, and that’s the whole thing. That’s why, unless we have been literally taken to the end, we usually don’t come back unless we really want to. Not because we have to, because we want to.

HS: What made you want to come back?

RE: I had woken up after basically trying to kill myself after a lot of drugs in one shot, and I couldn’t do it correctly. I just remember looking around and thinking, ‘oh my god, this is what my life looks like?’ This thing that started happening out of being an artist, and partying and being social, has only ever landed me in one place, and that’s on a bathroom floor or in a room, alone, with a needle on my arm and shit all over the place. And it’s funny, because after 12 rehabs and 23 detoxes and jail and institutions and three deaths, I didn’t need to go anywhere. I just basically picked myself up, shook myself off and took about a week’s worth of Vicoden just to get rid of the ache of withdrawing, started going to meetings and got clean.

HS: Reflecting on your life, what message have you lived by?

RE: The constant message in my life back then was you’re a fuck-up, get over it, be more, be strong, be bold, be brave. And now, it’s you are enough. Be bold, be brave, be strong, be love. It’s the opposite message, but it’s still the same.

Rayya Elias will be in conversation with Elizabeth Gilbert in ‘Sex, Drugs & Hair’ at the All About Women Festival. The event will be held at the Sydney Opera House, Sunday 8 March at 10am.