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A Second Chance To ‘Shine’

By |2013-04-11T09:00:00-04:00April 11th, 2013|Michigan, News|

{ITAL This article was originally published in April, 2013
Rayya Ellias will be appearing at Barnes & Noble in Royal Oak on Aug. 6 at 7 p.m. for her book, Harley Loco’s release.}

Author Rayya Elias says one of her favorite sayings is “the truth has legs, it always stands.”
In her new book, “Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk, from the Middle East to the Lower East Side,” Elias tells the story of her life. It is her truth. “It may not be pretty, but I own it.”
Elias, a Detroit native, launched her book tour this month and is journeying back home to visit the Detroit Institute of Arts at 7 p.m. April 18. “People in Detroit are so wonderful. I’m really excited to visit, especially the DIA. I’ve shared so much with that building,” she said, adding that it was a place where she was able to find solace when her mother lost her battle with leukemia in November 1993.
Her best friend Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the famous “Eat, Pray, Love,” will join Elias for a discussion and a book signing. “Having her anywhere anytime is a guaranteed good time,” said Elias. “We’re like Mutt and Jeff. We laugh so hard together. The depth of our friendship is so beautiful. It’s the most amazing platonic relationship I’ve ever had. We remind each other of who we are.”

So who is Elias?

She is more than a storyteller. She is a musician, a hairdresser, and a filmmaker who lives in Chelsea, a neighborhood on the West Side of the borough of Manhattan in New York City. She lives in an apartment with her pit bull, Little Ricky. Elias found him 12 years ago tied to a bench in Tompkins Square Park where in her past she spent many nights as a homeless woman.
Elias was born in Aleppo, Syria, in 1960. She immigrated to the U.S. with her family in 1967 to escape political conflict in search of “a better life.” She is a lesbian Arab-American in her early 50s, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, and a friend.
She is also Harley Loco, a woman who has been to jail and institutions, and even nearly died a few times. Elias embraced that nickname, taking it with her from Rikers Island Prison Complex to the Women’s Prison Association. “That name will always have a special place in my heart. It represents standing up for and defending myself,” she said.
American kids, who didn’t understand foreigners, bullied Elias as a young girl.
“I knew as a young child that I was different from the rest of my family. I wasn’t sure how, but nothing that I experienced seemed to fit in with their groove. I was always looking for something to light me up on the inside,” said Elias. That something became mescaline or acid, which she used on a daily basis by the end of eighth grade until cocaine became her drug of choice as a senior in high school. She continued struggling to navigate life with a language barrier and cultural differences.
“I guess drugs were the first thing that made me feel that fire, and though misguided, gave me a sense of security and courage to dream big and follow through with my creativity,” she said.
Elias is a natural artist. “Doing hair came easily to me.”
Her talent secured Elias her first job and a chair at Heidi’s Salon in Bloomfield Hills. It was also her ticket out of town to Darien, Conn., where she continued hairdressing. In her book, Elias explains that at the age of 23 she had to leave with only $200 in her pocket, “to go where I could express my talent and my sexuality without the watchful and judgmental eyes of my family and their community.”
Just a 45-minute drive from New York City she “jumped headfirst into everything new and exciting: the hair scene, the music scene, the art scene, and the club scene, which also happened to be a huge drug scene.”
Throughout her book, Elias takes readers back in time to the East Village with vivid descriptions of her experiences finding friendships, struggling in relationships, sharing her first kiss with a woman, writing music, falling in love, having an abortion and dealing with heartache, all while becoming a drug addict.
She hustled on the streets in 1980s Alphabet City, risking her life to score different drugs including Ecstasy, Valium and Heroin. “I had single-handedly taken myself to the depths of misery,” said Elias. “I was looking for a way out of having to feel the reality of life.”
In years of searching for herself, Elias had to confront her demons, weaknesses, strengths and spirituality. “Call it divine intervention, but somebody somewhere saved my ass,” she said in regard to her turning point. Elias has been clean since August 8, 1997.
“Sixteen years later, I continue to get well and had the opportunity to deal with my past and become whole again,” said Elias about her decision to write the book. “The book was cathartic. I’ve been single for four years. The book became my lover. I only wanted my voice to be heard with no influence from anyone else.”
“Harley Loco” contains an introduction from Gilbert, who gave Elias a medallion that she wears around her neck. “There’s a quote from Oscar Wilde engraved on it. It says ‘every saint has a past, every sinner has a future,'” said Elias, who has future plans to go into institutions to talk to people going through the same process today.
“I didn’t know I could do this. I used to run from it all. The things I have personally experienced are not things that I would change because I wouldn’t be where I am now without every one of them. Yes, I behaved treacherously, and it was very painful. I would advise anyone to do the opposite of what I’ve done, but they are weaved into a tapestry that is my fiber now, and I really like the person I am today. I get to experience all the ‘do-overs’ now and, trust me, it’s a blessing,” she said.
“Ride the edge and experience life on its terms. Don’t numb it out. It’s time for people to put their chin up and look forward. I just want to fucking shake people and say ‘shine,’ said Elias. “The biggest message I want to deliver is what I wish someone had said to me. Be yourself. You are enough.”


Reception, Reading, Discussion and Book Signing with Authors Rayya Elias and Elizabeth Gilbert, Thursday, April 18

VIP Author Reception, 6 p.m., Rivera Court
Tickets include a private reception with Elias and Gilbert. Complimentary valet parking at Woodward entrance, cocktails, light hors d’oeuvres, one signed copy of Harley Loco, reserved open seating for public reading and discussion.

Reading, Discussion, Book Signing, Detroit Film Theatre 7 p.m.
Free with advance registration

About the Author:

Kate Opalewski
Kate Opalewski is BTL's features editor and has been since 2015. She has covered a variety of topics ranging from art, politics and community outreach. Recently, she was honored by the Detroit Police Department LGBT Advisory Board for her work for the local LGBTQIA community.