By Tim Parks
When Varla Jean Merman hits the stage to perform Anatomically Incorrect at Martini’s Above Fourth on Sunday, February 18th for two shows at 7pm and 9pm, get ready to be both entertained and enlightened. Jeffery Roberson, the man literally behind Varla Jean Merman, places a good deal of social commentary within the context of entertaining the masses.
“There are lots of things that I try to put in, especially being gay, but Varla’s obviously not a gay man; but there are things that I can do to say something.” He explained. “Like in this new show that I’m doing now, I’m doing Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable,” but it’s all about having adopting an African-American baby from Africa, and this causes an upset, so I basically replace it with an Asian baby –which is just horrific. I see all the gay families in Provincetown with all these different children, which I think is amazing, but it’s so funny.”
But all kidding aside, Roberson does tackle the very real problem of body image –well, maybe not all kidding aside, he gives it a humorous nudge in the right direction.
“Anatomically Incorrect is really a show where Varla just explores the body.” He summarized. “And every single song has something to do with a different part of the body. And she’s hoping by the end of the show that you’ll be able to answer the question, ‘is your hole greater than your parts?’ Because Varla knows her hole is great, but I guess the audience will have to find that out for themselves.”
While these two shows mark the stage debut of Roberson’s brassy and hilarious incarnation in San Diego, he told the me that he has a connection with our fair city that dates back a few years.
“I lived there as a child, my father was stationed there, which is so funny. One year at Mardi Gras, I met a guy from San Diego, and I flew to San Diego – we sort of started dating, then he was going to move back with me to college. I went to Granada Wigs and found this giant wig, and it was huge and I‘d never seen a wig like that before. I actually drove the entire way back from San Diego to New Orleans with a big, giant wig on my lap; and I got so irritable that by the time we had gotten to Dallas we had broken up, because he was not treating the wig with respect! I realized then that I was married to Varla.” He recanted through gales of laughter.
But to truly get the lowdown of how he and Varla Jean became betrothed, Roberson took us on a trip down memory lane about the genesis of her creation.
“Like every mistake too much liquor.” He quipped before delving into the semantics of how Varla Jean Merman came to be.
“Funny enough, I got out of high school, and I had gone to this gifted and talented high school in Louisiana; which I joke and say that that’s basically a normal high school anywhere else. So I went to college in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, LSU, and I met this guy who had a video camera and he videotaped everything, it was sort of like one of those bad 80’s movies.
“We started making these John Waters inspired little movies with me not in drag, and then I started putting towels on my head pretending to be in drag; I could make a Princess Leia hairdo out of a towel in 90 seconds flat. So we would film these videos, very Divine inspired I suppose, and we’d give them to the bars that were around. And, that’s how I started doing drag.” He reminisced. “I used to enter the drag pageants and they hated me, because they thought I was making fun of them. Because Southern drag, you don’t mess with that!
“I entered a pageant and came in dead last in evening wear, but first in talent and I sang in my own voice. And, I came up with the name Varla just because I had read the Ethel Merman autobiography, and this whole chapter that said ‘my marriage to Ernest Borgnine,’ and then it’s a blank page. I thought what would be really interesting if she would have had a child, and she would have gotten rid of it – she was too old at the time. But, that’s who Varla believes she is.”
A fun fact about Varla’s name is that it originates from one of the characters in the cult film Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
Roberson parlayed his character into big screen success with the uproarious 2003 drag queen opus, Girls Will Be Girls, for which he received the 2003 OutFest Film Festival “Best Actor” Award and The Aspen HBO Film Festival “Best Actress” Award. There have been rumors about a Girls reunion show airing on LOGO for awhile now, and Roberson made this impassioned plea.
“They’ve been trying and unfortunately, Logo, it’s a great network and I’ve done a couple of things for them, I think they are really paranoid about the drag. I think all the gay networks are very paranoid about it, they think that maybe it’s not politically correct, that’s not what the world wants, and that they are offending a bunch of viewers by doing it. Let’s face it, it’s not going anywhere, and it’s been around for years.” He expounded, and then pressed on. “I just don’t understand, I mean who needs another “Queer as Folk?” How many more little gay soap operas with gay men living in a certain town, are they going to do? I just find it funny that no one has gone for the drag, and really, they are avoiding it. They are trying to appeal to the entire gay audience, which is basically saying we are going to appeal to all straight people- there is no way to do that. I think that all of the gay networks in general, instead of playing it so safe, would take a risk and hire a sweet little red haired lady.” He concluded with his trademark humor.
Roberson has conquered many aspects of the entertainment field with a recurring role as lady of the evening Rosemary Chicken on “All My Children,” and a slew of one-woman shows and other theatre productions, including: Girl With a Pearl Necklace, Varla Jean Merman’s Under a Big Top, The Mystery of Irma Vep and portrayed Mary Sunshine in the Broadway production of Chicago to name but a few, that have brought down the house time and time again.
However, there is a plumb role he’d love to get his hooks into.
“Oh, I’d like to do the live action film of Strawberry Shortcake.”
Until that magical day comes we can be happily resigned to see Roberson as Varla Jean Merman on stage here in San Diego.
To keep tabs on Varla Jean Merman happenings, you can visit www.Varlaonline.com
This interview was first published in February 2007.