Merman to Man: An Interview with Jeff Roberson aka Varla Jean Merman

Varla Jean Merman. Photo via Facebook.

Behind every great drag queen, a man is standing in her shadow.

In the case of Varla Jean Merman, that man is Jeff Roberson. A seasoned professional and a fixture in Provincetown, Roberson's credits span stage, screen, and street corner. He starred in the musical “Lucky Guy” (opposite Leslie Jordan), played the role of Mary Sunshine in the revival of “Chicago” on Broadway, and even the title role of Giancarlo Menotti’s opera “The Medium” in New York. His screen credits include appearances on Bravo’s Project Runway, All My Children, and Ugly Betty. As Varla Jean, Jeff has filled cabarets and concert halls across the world.

He brings his latest show, "Stand By Your Drag," to Sunshine Cathedral on Friday, Jan. 5.

Gregg Shapiro: Jeff, I’m sure you’ve been asked this a million times, but for the rare, uninitiated reader, how did you come up with the moniker Varla Jean Merman?

Jeff Roberson: As a kid, I always loved the name Darla, one of the characters in “The Little Rascals.” Oh, my God [laughs]! Talk about an old reference! Thank God, many of my fans are "mature" [laughs]! Anyway, so when I was introduced to the character of Varla in the Russ Meyer cult movie “Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” I knew that had to be my drag name. Around the same time, I read Ethel Merman’s autobiography, and there is a chapter titled “My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine.” When you turn the page IT’S BLANK! Wow, more dated references [laughs]! I decided that if Ethel Merman had a baby from Ernest Borgnine, she would’ve hated it so much because it would’ve reminded her of him and their disastrous 38-day marriage, so she shipped the baby off to an orphanage in Louisiana. That is where the character of my Varla was born. And I added the middle name of “Jean” because it just sounds innocent and Southern…well, at least I’m Southern [laughs].

GS: Where does Ethel Merman rank in your personal list of divas?

JR: I was obsessed with her as a child! As I grew older, my tastes changed, and I became obsessed with Barbra. However, the most amazing voice I have ever heard live is Broadway star Kellie O'Hara, who is also in "The Gilded Age."

GS: I think my first exposure to your work was on the 1996 “God Shave The Queen!” on which you performed a cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” alongside other artists including Joey Arias, Lady Bun in ny, and Anohni (FKA Antony). How long had you been performing as Varla Jean Merman at that point?

JR: I met a guy in college at LSU in 1988 named Timo, who always had a video camera with him, filming. Back then, a video camera was about the size of a small microwave. He introduced me to the films of John Waters, and I instantly fell in love with the drag icon, Divine. Timo and I began filming videos that we would give to all the gay bars in the New Orleans area to play while they were playing dance music and that is how Varla was born. The videos were ridiculous, like 30 minutes of me screaming while being chased by a plastic rat through the streets of New Orleans. A few years later, in 1992, my best friend in college moved to NYC. One day he calls me and says, “Last night I saw the most amazing drag queen who did a monologue to Wagner’s ‘Liebestod’ about how she triumphs over a bitchy salesperson in the classical section at Tower Records.” I was a huge opera fan and couldn’t believe someone was combining opera references with drag. That drag queen was Miss Coco Peru, who would one day become my good friend, and it was my goal then to move to NYC and meet her and become a part of the New York drag scene. In 1993, I moved to New York and when I was out one night at a bar in the East Village, they were playing my videos from New Orleans! I asked the bartender how they got the videos. He did not know, but he asked me to perform at a benefit at the legendary Pyramid Club for the 1993 Gay March on Washington. After that benefit, I got booked all over New York, and later was booked several times at the hottest night at the time "Squeezebox," where "Hedwig" was basically born. It was from those performances that I was added to the roster of "God Shave the Queen."

GS: Being a singer, an actor, a comedian, and even a ukulele player, how would you rank these talents in their order of importance to you?

JR: The order has changed over the years! I used to consider myself first a singer. When I sang soprano and was even in the Broadway show "Chicago." But when my "balls dropped" at 45, I became more of a comedian, followed by acting. I only played the ukulele so that I would have a valid excuse for not wearing nails – which I deplore!

GS: The title of your new show, “Stand By Your Drag,” has multiple meanings. For example, in August 2022 you suffered a serious injury during your show, resulting in a fractured kneecap and detachment of your quads at the tendon. Is it a wonder that you’re standing again?

JR: During my show in Provincetown, I slipped on a TicTac during my dance break in “Anything Goes” and had a bone break! I used TicTacs as “pills” and every night they would be all over the floor. Usually, I would just crush them, but that night I decided to do a fancy pivot, and the TicTacs were like marbles from “Showgirls.” Someone said they saw Miss Richfield with an empty bag of marbles fleeing the scene [laughs]! I fell so hard, my knee bent completely the wrong way fast and hard and I snapped my quad tendon and fractured my kneecap. The bigger the girl, the harder the fall. I was rushed to the hospital, which is actually an hour and a half away, with my kneecap sticking up through my pantyhose! After surgery, the next night alone in a hotel room in Hyannis Massachusetts, I felt defeated that my show and my season were over. But then I started to think of the jokes and how I could work this accident into the show. I have always used comedy in the most tragic moments of my life, I guess, to survive. I thought, “Fuck this! I’ll just do the damn show in a wheelchair. It will be hilarious, with a hint of desperation, which really works for Varla!” The audiences were amazing! And I never broke a sweat! I think I’m gonna do my shows in a hospital bed next year. The people in Provincetown brought me to tears every night, showing their support! They even brought TicTacs and shook them as they applauded, making the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard. So, part of my new show is about having to relearn to stand again!

GS: “Stand By Your Drag” also sounds like a reference to the right-wing attack on drag, including what’s happening here in South Florida, where we each live.

JR: To have the government try and cancel my life and career as a political stunt made my blood boil. Not just where I live in Florida, but also in Tennessee and Texas, places I perform. But this is not only an attack on drag, and my sisters. It’s an attack on gay culture. Back off!

Drag is about love, laughter, and fun, and they wanted to villainize it. Yes, there’s a darker side of drag that’s edgy, and I love that too, but the whole point of my show “Stand By Your Drag” is to make people laugh. It is political as well, and there is a whole patriotic section that I do. Even though our country may not be perfect, I am still very proud of my country, and I will fight to keep the rights that so many before us fought for before us. These laws are unconstitutional, and even though some have been temporarily shut down, don’t fool yourself. The fight is not over.

GS: Does performing “Stand By Your Drag” during Drag History Month have any special meaning to you?

JR: Yes! In fact, I have an entire video dedicated to drag throughout history, and it is my favorite piece in the show.

GS: What makes Jacques Lamarre, with whom you’ve been co-writing your shows for several years, such a good collaborator?

JR: I know many performers are territorial over their writing and credit, but I just want to tell the funniest jokes possible, and if someone else helps write it, thank God! And Jacques is that person. I often call Jacques "Too-Far-Lamarre" because he can write some pretty shocking stuff! And in private we throw around hilarious but unusable jokes. And that is what I love about him! He is fearless and disgusting! An amazing combination!

GS: You’ve been living in South Florida for a while. Do you have any favorite restaurants or hangouts that you’d like to share with the readers?

JR: My husbear and I go to Jalisco Mexican Cantina every Sunday night after Scandals, and it is my favorite night of the week. I will even take a red-eye from travel gigs the night before so I don't miss our Sunday Funday!

GS: We’re speaking shortly before New Year’s Eve. Are you the kind of person who makes New Year’s resolutions, and if so, what’s your track record in keeping them?

JR: Yes, I make them! And yes, I suck! Maybe this year I will make a resolution to never make another resolution. Oh wait, I did make a resolution: NO TIC TACS ALLOWED ON STAGE!

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