On Point With: Varla Jean Merman

Actual Legend Alert, dahlings! A star of Broadway, TV and film, the incredible Varla Jean Merman (aka Jeffery Roberson) has mastered the combo of camp, surrealism, bawdiness and just pure talent. She’s created an unforgettable drag presence over a quarter of a century ago, and is still paving the way for so many of the queens we love today. On the eve of her second digital “Drop,” Thotyssey dishes with this dynamic diva about her native New Orleans, her famous drag daughter, the cult classic movie she starred in, her Broadway turn co-starring a current InstaCeleb, the impact of “Drag Race,” her bangin’ alter ego, and Cheez Wiz. [Photo: José A. Guzman Colón]


Thotyssey: Varla, thanks so much for chatting with us today! So, how has your quarantine been, and where are you spending it?

Varla Jean Merman: My husband has a house in Fort Lauderdale with a huge outdoor space and a pool, so we decided to quarantine there.

You’re not in your native New Orleans?

I love New Orleans, and miss it so much. But I don’t have a pool there! Although, I always could swim down my block of Rampart after a good rain storm.

New Orleans, of course, is a different world then the rest of the southern US… as is Fort Lauderdale. But do you find in general that it’s still very challenging to be such an openly queer figure in the south?

When I started doing drag, even some gay bars wouldn’t let us in. Drag was not welcome. Remember, in the 90s there was a time when drag was even discouraged in Pride parades across the country. No drag was allowed on LOGO for years after it started. The gays in power at the time wanted to portray to the world that gays were “normal” and just like the rest of the world. Well, that didn’t work, because we are not. Thank God! And now, finally after LOGO allowed RuPaul’s Drag Race to air, drag is a phenomenon. Then Drag Race dropped LOGO like a hot potato! But thanks to RuPaul, drag is pretty much accepted everywhere, including the South.

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You actually got your start in drag being VHS filmed in surreal scenes on the streets of New Orleans–as inspired by John Waters films–where you’re drinking gallons of milk and getting chased by plastic rats. Those videos would then be shown in some of the local bars. In a way, this made you one of the first multimedia queens! 

Yes! I started on video, not in the bars. I eventually would perform, but usually in tandem with a video presentation. That meant, I would travel with a VHS player, a projector, and a white sheet in a suitcase!

Did you find that those skills prepared you for all the amazing online content you’ve made in more recent years?

I used to do a lot more videos in my shows, but now, since people can watch them all day on their phone, I have started to do less and concentrate on live performance, while releasing videos online.

“Varla” is a nod to Faster PussyCat! Kill! Kill! and “Merman” is of course from legendary Broadway belter Ethel Merman. In fact, Varla Jean Merman’s bio has her as the offspring of Merman and Ernest Borgnine during their very short, unhappy marriage! These are all hilarious references, but does it annoy you when These Kidz Today don’t know their pop culture history?

I had to stop even mentioning my “heritage” because people just didn’t know who they were anymore. I met a young queen who didn’t know who LIZA was! Young queens grow up now wanting to mimic other queens, not famous ladies like we did. My original fans still remember my family tree! It doesn’t annoy me that I’ve had to move on from that. You can only do so many jokes about being the daughter of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine, and I did them all.

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You moved to New York in the 90s partially to work in advertising (!), and also to be part of that amazing drag scene that was happening in the small theaters and cabarets. Charles Busch, Lypsinka, Coco Peru, Lady Bunny, Jackie Beat, Sherry Vine, Shequida, Joey Arias, Flotilla DeBarge… all these legendary queens were there, redefining drag. How can you describe what it was like to be in New York at that time?

It was a drag renaissance! So much creativity in a short time. Queens singing with their own voices, and people were open to it. The world became open to drag soon after with movies like To Wong Foo, and a number one pop hit by RuPaul. It was a fad to the world. RuPaul disappeared for a while, but the gay guys kept all of us 80s and 90s girls alive. Most all of us drag girls from the NY 80s-90s scene are still working. You can’t say the same for Sheena Easton and Samantha Fox!

Do you miss living in New York at all, or has the city changed too much?

I loved New York, but it changed drastically in the 90s with the nightlife crackdown by Giuliani. I don’t know what it is like to live there now. I missed having a car and living an easy life. New York is great for the young and the rich, and I’m not either!

Varla’s evolved quite a bit over the years. How would you describe her today for the uninitiated, as far as her look and performing style go?

It’s funny, when I started I was really edgy… and now I’m “old school.” Ha! I just tried to create a character that was so real that I could convince the audience that I existed outside the theater… that I looked like that in the grocery store, or driving across town. Make them believe that Varla was a person. My look is a little Ann-Margret on steroids, and my performing is a little cabaret on steroids.

You’ve written so many stage shows over the years… are you just constantly writing, and thinking like a writer?

I love to write, but it is a lonely world writing 21 one woman shows. I have found more joy writing with partners the last few years. But thank God I’m a writer who created their own material, or I would have hardly worked.

Girls Will Be Girls was Richard Day’s great camp film of 2003 that starred Jack Plotnick, Coco Peru and yourself. It’s like Valley of the Dolls meets Hollywood Wives meets Polyester (meets a lot of other funny shit). I could ask a million questions just about filming that, but I’ll limit myself to one here: how did you do that Cheez Whiz scene without gagging / puking?

I did a song in my show where I did that live on stage, so I had plenty of practice. We did three takes, but used the first. For a while, I loved that cheese. It now makes me gag, yes.

And of course, the ever-popular question: will we ever see that long, long delayed sequel?

I pray to God everyday that sequel still come out. But I also pray for world peace. World peace might happen first.

In 2008, you famously appeared on the beloved drag episode of Project Runway with many other famous queens of the time, and with RuPaul herself as a guest judge, at the height of that show’s popularity. That episode is attributed to being a test run of sorts for RuPaul’s Drag Race, and the pink maritime look you modeled won the night. Were you hands on in the creation of that look at all? And where is that outfit today?

My designer Philip Heckman made me a million jumpsuits like that pink one. Joe on Project Runway was trying to make an ABBA 70s thing, but when the collar was down, I could see it was an amazing sailor suit. Like Mama said, “Nautical is always in.” So yes, I pointed him in that direction. And it was legal for the model to bring accessories, so I made the life preserver belt and the anchor earrings and pin. I still have the earrings, but the jumpsuit was auctioned off after the season aired for charity. I’m sure whoever bought it was shocked to see it was hot-glued together.

And you’ve had a memorable turn in All My Children, and even an appearance on Ugly Betty, among other great screen roles.

Being on All My Children was incredible! And hanging out in a balcony box all day with Judith Light was amazing.

There’s a new show on Starz called Hightown that takes place in Provincetown. Might we see you on there?

I am not on that. But I can’t wait to see it!

You’re basically the main attraction of the Ptown summer season, and have been for a while. What makes that town so great, and how much does it suck that COVID has disrupted the season this year?

The town has an amazing nightlife and sex scene, but it also is one of the most beautiful places on earth. And being on the water is so relaxing. I have been going to Ptown for 21 years, so knowing that this year will be a very short season–if there is one at all–is devastating. I worry about all the amazing townspeople who depend on that money made in three months to last the entire year. And I need to be there for the summer to get through the rest of the year, emotionally. It is where I recharge and connect with dear friends.

Let’s hope they’re able to have some events this summer! The diminutive Leslie Jordan was your co-star in the Broadway musical Lucky Guy back in 2011. Are you enjoying his newfound online megafame?

He is always that genuinely funny, so I am so glad that he is being recognized now with worldwide fame!

And on a sad note, isn’t it unbelievable that Broadway (and likely much of the country’s theater) is dark until at least September?

Yes, it’s sad about Broadway, but it is just as sad for all the arts. I have friends who play in symphonies, who work in operas, who do drag in New Orleans, who paint, who dance. The arts without an audience is just practicing, and most artists I know perform mainly because of the connection they get with an audience. That will not exist for a while.

Now on a lighter note! You are nearly known as much for being a Daddy Stud out of drag these days as you are for Varla, since a big weight loss in the late 90s that you’ve kept off with Crossfit and other regiments. Are you cool now with having those two identities known to the public?

I am a Gemini, through and through! The older I get, the more different my two sides become. I love that people would never recognize me out of drag. It is part of the magic and fun for me.

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BenDeLaCreme is your drag daughter! Were you proud of her decision to self-eliminate in her wonderful Drag Race All-Stars season?

Yes! Ben is an amazing, sweet person who thinks with his big heart, and would never pretend to be something he is not. The show was forcing him to act in some drama that didn’t quite exist, and I think he just didn’t want to be mean and catty to his colleagues for ratings. So, he created bigger ratings doing something HE was comfortable with.

The current Drag Race season has been great TV, but also plagued with bad luck. Do you have a favorite queen of the season?

I love Gigi Goode. She’s a star, and she’s so fucking thin. Jesus! The fact that her mother made her clothes also shows you that things have changed in the world. Mothers are now supporting their child’s dreams of becoming a drag superstar, rather than throwing them out on the street!

Yes! So… digital drag! Queens have had to do this to stay in the game and collect at least some coin for their efforts, whether they want to or not. You just appeared on Digital DragCon recently. How have you enjoyed dragging from home so far?

On the one hand, it’s a relief to not have to wear pantyhose and high heels and do drag from the waist up! On the other hand, there is no response to anything you say or do. So, even though you are performing, you do not feel like you are connecting with an audience. And that is one of the main reasons I perform.

On Friday, May 22nd on your website, you’ll be hosting the second installment of Varla Drops Her Shorts. Tell us more!

I could do 20 shows of Varla Drops Her Shorts, showing some of my long lost video shorts. I have hundreds of videos. People loved the first one because of the back stories with each film, so I can’t wait to do this again!

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Any more online appearances scheduled?

I will be creating a series that I will do over the summer, as well as doing several more Varla Drops Her Shorts.

And I see you have some live autumn show dates still scheduled–here’s hoping! Where might we be able to see you in person when this is all past us?

I was just starting my tour of A Star Is Bored when the world shut down. The show is my love letter to drag. I love that show, and will go anywhere I can! But I will definitely be in LA and San Diego, God willing, in the fall.

And finally: what’s your best advice for a baby queen coming up today?

It’s hard for the young girls. Many of them feel that if they aren’t on Drag Race, that they will not have a career. All I can say is: create what your own voice tells you, not the voice that is telling you what might get you on TV. That will be more satisfying in the end. And then, once you have your own voice, pimp that bitch out on TV!

Thank you, Varla!


Joe Black T-shirt
[Photo: Rex Bonomelli]
Check Thotyssey’s calendar for Varla Jean Merman’s upcoming area appearances, and follow her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and her website.

 

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