Varla Jean Merman AKA Jeffery Roberson took a few minutes from the lounging on the beach in Puerto Vallarta to talk to Equality365 about the new “Bad Heroine” show coming to The Triple Door next week. Varla Jean Merman is a one-of-a-kind talent you don’t want to miss. The show is February 7th at 7:30pm. Get tickets here.
Tell me a little about your new show “Bad Heroine,” I love the double-entendre.
I came up with the idea after the election. People just had these hopes of breaking the glass ceiling. The whole thing was just shocking. A lot of people were hoping that we would have the first woman President. I wanted to pay homage to female role models. The first half of the show is all real historical figures. The second half is all fictional heroines. Since the election the entire #metoo movement has really empowered women as well. I have been able to shift the show a little toward that as well. I just want to show how powerful women are today. There have just been so many inspiring women throughout history. Of course, I can only do a few of them. The intention is there though.
Have you been to The Triple Door before?
No, I have not. It looks amazing though. I haven’t performed in Seattle in quite a while.
You are kind of this muscle-bound stud muffin and also a drag queen. What do people say to you when they see the difference between Jeffery and Varla?
You know, I used to not want anyone to know what I looked like out of drag and then I realized it is sort of a marketable thing. The thing now with shows like “Drag Race” is that people sort of know both sides. I never really wanted to spoil the illusion before but being an actor I should be able to play a character that is a woman. You sort of just lose yourself into the character. I mean people watch Meryl Streep in a film and just see the character. I mean, I am not comparing myself to Meryl Streep. Okay, I really am (laughter). Down here in Puerto Vallarta, I have been following the guys around that deliver the flyers for the show. Sometimes at the last minute, I will just tell the people ‘come to my show and see me in a dress.’ People really have no idea. They just can’t believe that I could be Varla. It is just amazing sometimes. With costumes, makeup and just how you act, you can totally disguise yourself. I love it. I do feel like Clark Kent/Superman sometimes.
How did you originally get started in drag?
When I lived in Baton Rouge, I met this guy Timo. He didn’t even have a last name at the time. He filmed a lot of videos. Video cameras were huge back then. It was like carrying a small refrigerator on your shoulder. He just loved John Waters and sort of introduced me to John Waters’ films. I decided I wanted to try out drag and do some John Waters type things. We would film these thirty minute videos. This was before they really started showing videos in bars because there weren’t that many to show in the late 80s. We would make these films of me running around the city of New Orleans being chased by a plastic rat and just screaming. They started playing the videos underneath the music at the dance clubs. People would just stop and stare. They would watch them for the whole thirty minutes. There were videos of me just drinking a gallon of milk on a public street. People would just walk by and stare at me and we recorded the whole thing. That is when I started doing drag but I didn’t really start performing until later. When I started performing a little bit, I realized I could sing kind of high notes and just started putting it all together. I moved to New York in 1994 and worked for a big advertising agency as an art director. I starting performing a little bit because I went to a bar after work and they were playing those videos from New Orleans. I told the guy that was me. He said that I should come and perform in their benefit show for the March on Washington. Well, I performed in the benefit and ended up getting booked all over the city. The character of Varla developed a little bit slower. At first I started out as just the crazy drag queen but ended up being more of a character. That took a couple years to realize that is what I wanted to do. I started getting out of the bar scene and writing a cabaret show.
Then, I became an understudy in the Broadway show, “Chicago.” I kept my day job but whenever someone needed a vacation from the show, I would come in as the understudy. I finally went on tour with the show. I took a leave of absence from work and went to Japan and all over the world with the show. When I made it back to New York, I just didn’t want to go back to work. I decided I just wanted to do drag all the time. I ended up in Provincetown for the first time in 1998. In fact, I am celebrating my twentieth year in Provincetown this summer. It is just wild.
Have you thought about being on “RuPaul’s Drag Race”?
Of course I have. I would be absolutely terrible on that show. On the first episode of “Drag Race” they talked a little bit about drag legends and I was one of them. I think it would be fun if a lot of us “old girls” went on at the same time. That would be really fun.
Would you rather be a contestant or a judge?
Oh my god, I would rather be a judge. Are you kidding me (laughter)? I just can’t imagine, at this age trying to be like I am in high school. They would want me to be mad at someone and rip my wig off. I am just too old for all of that. I just want to have a beer and relax.
I know you created an interesting back story for Varla Jean Merman. Could you tell me a bit about it for people who might not know?
Originally, Varla was supposed to be the illegitimate daughter of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine. Obviously, those people were known a lot more twenty years ago (laughter). They were really married for thirty-eight days. In Ethel Merman’s autobiography, she has a chapter named “My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine.” You turn the page and it is completely blank (laughter). I always thought that was just so nasty and wonderful. Well, I thought that if she accidentally got pregnant from him at the time, she would have just gotten rid of the kid. She wouldn’t want the constant reminder of his face. That was the storyline I developed. You just never knew if it could be true or not.
“Bad Heroine” is one night only! Don’t miss out! Get tickets and more info here!
You can connect with Varla Jean Merman here: