Known as Varla Jean Merman, Jeffery Roberson (his birth name) is an actor, singer and drag performer who hails from New Orleans. As sexy, red-haired siren Varla, he won both the 2003 Outfest Film Festival “Best Actor” Award and the Aspen HBO Film Festival “Best Actress” Award for “Girls Will Be Girls.” As Varla, he was featured in the documentary “Dragtime.” And as Roberson — not Varla — he acted in “Chicago” on Broadway and appeared on “All My Children” as lady of the night Rosemary Chicken.
LEO caught up with Varla by telephone last week as she was en route from Los Angeles to Puerto Vallarta, on tour with “Varla Jean Merman is Anatomically Incorrect.”
LEO: How did you get started in show biz?
Varla Jean Merman: I never thought I’d be doing it for a living. In high school a guy named Vidkid Timo started making videos of me in the style of John Waters. In one, I was drinking a gallon of milk while walking around the city in drag. We gave the tapes to video bars, and everybody’s eyes were glued to the screen.
I didn’t do shows until I moved to New York. I had an advertising job. One night I was at a bar and they were playing one of my old videos. After touring with “Chicago,” I didn’t want to go back to work! I just don’t understand how people can work all night on an ad campaign and then the next day, someone trashes it.
LEO: Like Darrin in “Bewitched”?
VJM: Exactly! Later, I played Honey in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” and a girl in drag played Nick. She was about 4 feet tall. I weighed 300 pounds. I was a very big Honey.
LEO: Who are some of your influences?
VJM: Carol Burnett, Ann-Margret, Shirley Bassey, Dusty Springfield, so many others.
LEO: Varla believes she’s the love child of Ernest Borgnine and Ethel Merman. What does Tova (Borgnine’s wife) think about that?
VJM: Oh, Tova knows! Ethel Merman was married to Ernest Borgnine for 38 days. In her autobiography, that chapter is blank. Really, it is! Borgnine is aware of Varla. I tried calling him and they said, “Borgnine is on a cruise.” … I thought, “He’s cruising more than I do!”
LEO: What can the audience expect from your show?
VJM: I enter singing “My Humps,” riding a spitting camel and wearing a burka. The show asks the musical question, “Is your hole greater than your parts?” Mine is. I have a very big hole. Every song is about a body part.
There are 14 songs. You’ll see Sal Minelli, a raw chicken that sounds like Liza Minelli and wears a wig. I do a song all about feet, and one about the Heimlich maneuver to Barry Manilow’s “Weekend in New England.” I end the show dressed as a giant squirrel. But I don’t want to say too much. I don’t want to scare people away!
LEO: You’re often compared with Divine. How does that make you feel?
VJM: My videos are more innocent and girly now. I’ve gotten away from gross-out humor. It’s hard to keep shocking people.
LEO: Why is network television so afraid of drag? In theater, drag is ever popular.
VJM: Yes! A straight thin black man can play a fat black woman, but TV doesn’t support drag. They think it’s offensive … politically incorrect. Drag’s been around since Shakespearean times. I can see how some drag can be offensive to women, but many drag queens are playing characters. It’s about acting — playing a part.
LEO: Will Rosemary Chicken reappear on “All My Children”?
VJM: They haven’t called. I think I’ve been killed off. I was on for about eight episodes. They have a serious transsexual now.
LEO: How long before you get back to Broadway?
VJM: You have to be in New York or L.A. to audition. New York drives me insane now. It’s more fulfilling for me to create my own material now. What I do is specialized, and it’s more fun to perform as a woman. I recently did a show called “Shut Up Sweet Charlotte” in New Orleans.
LEO: What’s your dream role?
VJM: Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd.”
LEO: Where do you see yourself in 20 years?
VJM: Playing mother roles. Doing more theater. I have that New Orleans “laissez faire” attitude — I’m not going to have any goals! Although I can’t wait until I have someone to pick up my bags for me when I travel.
LEO: What can we Louisvillians do to prepare for Varla?
VJM: There’s nothing you can do to prepare!
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