Varla Jean Merman (aka Jeffrey Roberson) Has Not Been On RuPaul’s Show—And She Knows Why
By FRANK RIZZO
I never thought I’d do drag for a living,” says the six-foot-two muscleman wearing a Meat Rack cap, industrial strength necklace, a black tank-top and an anchor tattoo on his bulging bicep.
Jeffrey Roberson had just finished his daily workout at the gym—where he lifted weights, bench pressed 300 and squatted until his glutes cried “uncle”—and was now taking a breather from the sweat and the strain with an iced tea by the pool.
He was beginning his second week of his latest show in Palm Springs—his celebration of immunizing, called “Little Prick”—where he would transform himself from butch to bitch as Varla Jean Merman, his drag creation of meaty coquetterie that after more than three decades in bars, clubs and theaters worldwide has achieved drag pioneer status.
“Varla is truly a legend who achieved her success the old-fashion way: word of mouth,” says Jacques Lamarre, who has co-written many of Roberson’s shows. “Not to diss RuPaul’s queens who became instant international successes, but Varla achieved her success one fan at a time, with person after person saying to their friends, ‘You just have to see this performer.’ ”
Varla’s ingenue days may be behind her—with those sizable guns, sleeveless chiffon frocks are definitely out—but the piercing wit and assassin asides are as dragtastic as ever. She has now aged into one tough dame…yet one who can still giggle, wiggle and shine with a vengeance.
But in RuPaul’s World of Wonder, can a 50-plus-year old gal still make it on her own?
Roberson was born and raised in Louisiana, the son of an FBI agent and a homemaker in a Southern Baptist household. Robertson went to a Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts, a boarding school in which he was to study chemistry, “but when I got there, I liked all the people who were in the arts.”
Roberson eventually changed his major and joined a musical choir where his unique high soprano range made him stand-out.
“But I was shy and very guarded with people I didn’t know—and I still am—though I was wild and crazy with my friends,” he says when asked to describe what he was during his teen years.
Part of the shyness may have been due to his weight. “Obese, really. In fact, I would see ‘morbidly obese’ written down on my doctor’s file and just cry.”
Roberson first slipped on a pair of heels for a high school auction when you could ‘buy’ a senior and make them do whatever you wanted. “We gave these girls some
money to ‘make’ us go to school in drag. We acted like we hated it but we were so excited. We got wigs and everything from the Salvation Army. It was very goth.”
That was also the year he recognized that he was gay. “I didn’t quite surrender to it at that age, but I did by the time I went to college at Louisina State University.”
It was in college on a vocal scholarship in the late ‘80s when he became obsessed with the works of filmmaker John Waters. “They were so wild and it was like nothing I had ever seen. I wanted to do that, too. And I wanted to be Divine.”
With a friend, Vid Kid Timo, who had a video camera (“which at the time was like carrying a microwave on your shoulder”), they began making their own short movie clips. (“Think of it as our Tik Tok.”)
“One was just me screaming in public places, like the French Quarter, while being chased by a plastic rat on a fishing wire. Another had me just drinking a gallon of milk with it spilling all over me and I’m just laughing madly. People loved them.”
His drag persona of Varla first emerged at a college talent contest when he presented himself as the secret offspring from the ever-so-brief marriage of Broadway diva Ethel Merman and macho character actor Ernest Borgnine.
Though he wasn’t doing drag to any great extent, when he heard about New York drag artist Coco Peru performing Wagnerian arias as part of her act in 1993, “I felt the great need to go there. I guess something deep inside me knew I wanted to do that, too.”
Hello, New York
Roberson landed a job in the art department of at a top advertising agency, Ogilivy & Mather. But Roberson’s passion was elsewhere, drawn to the creativity of the downtown scene, led by club kids and drag queens like Lady Bunny, Lypsinka and a tall, dark, charismatic figure from the Atlanta scene named RuPaul Charles.
“I couldn’t believe the artistry,” says Roberson “It was so well-crafted and so beyond what I thought was possible in drag. I was sometimes weeping and laughing at the same time because I found it all so amazing.”
A nightclub benefit in 1993 gave Roberson the opportunity to finally introduce his brand of drag madness, singing “If I Were Your Woman” “and then jumping in the air and landing on my belly—and I was more than 300 pounds at the time. After that I got booked all over New York as Varla.”
The Varla persona was still in its early stages of development. It was very “big-girl brassy and all my jokes were fat-girl jokes. That’s what my personality was based on.”
His career path changed with party promoter Suzanne Bartsch, then-wife of [gym entrepreneur] David Barton. “She would just travel the world—London, Paris, wherever—with a bunch of queens and we were paid to just drink and go crazy. I couldn’t always go sometimes because I’d have an American Express ad pitch due the next day.
“That’s where things changed. Until then, I was just performing in bars and where all you’re trying to do is get people’s attention. I would just do this great bellyflop. Why? Because that’s the only thing to do to get their attention. I also had a bit with a cow’s tongue that I got from Western Beef [butcher shop] and would make out with it—but that got to be too expensive, though I tried bringing it home and freezing it and then thawing it and then using it again, but that didn’t work out.
“That’s how the cheese bit happened,” he says of his signature schtick of singing an aria while downing fromage. “At first I would buy a block of Velveta, and I would eat the entire thing on stage which is just so gross that people would scream. But that got to be too expensive, too. God, you’d think it was gold. Then I discovered spray cheese so I switched to that because it was cheaper.”
Roberson also stood out because, unlike many other drag performers, Varla did not lip-synch but sang live with her uvula flapping and hitting the high notes for all their worth.
Bartsch was such a fan of Varla’s talents that she produced a full theatrical show for Roberson at Westbeth Theatre: Varla and the Man That Got Away.
“It was all about Varla coming to New York City with a friend and you always think ‘the man’ is her boyfriend but it was the male side of Varla. It was a very heavy show.”
It was not a hit.
“There was a hideous review in The New Yorker—actually it was just a little blurb but it was so mean. It said something like: “If she had one glimmer of talent it might be a show worth watching.’ Boy, that was rough. But I was too young for something like that, and I thought, ‘What am I doing? I’m not ready yet for something like that. I needed to start smaller.”
That included his size, and he reduced over time from 300 pounds to around 160, “which was way too thin. People thought I was dying. I weigh 255 now but it’s muscle.”
Roberson returned to small clubs, worked with other performers and learned the ropes, “like how to talk to an audience and craft a real show with a beginning, middle and end. I also included videos back when no one was doing that, and people loved it.”
Expanding Her Gigs
Roberson also put his unique high register to use when he was hired to be standby for the role of Mary Sunshine in the 1996 Broadway revival of Chicago—while still keeping his day job at the advertising agency and also doing her drag act at clubs. “I was exhausted. I remember sometimes sleeping under my desk at work.”
When he was asked to join the first national tour of Chicago in 1997 where he got the role full-time—“Fran Weissler [the producer] said I was ‘presentable’’’—he finally quit his Madison Avenue job and hit the road.
But the extremely difficult song he had to sing eight times a week called for a high B natural and Robertson would be stressed out every night. After six months he called it quits on the tour and returned to New York.
With his reputation growing, work on many different stages and types of shows started to happen for Varla—and for Roberson, too.
Varla first appeared in the 1998 indie film Franchesca Page starring Rossy de Palma. Varla was one of the leads in 2003’s Girls Will Be Girls. “The movie still holds up. It’s a great campy film.” In 2011 one of Varla’s annual club shows was expanded into the indie film, Varla Jean and the Mushroom Heads. In 2015, she joined Mink Stole in the film Hush Up, Sweet Charlotte.
From the mid-90s, Roberson regularly performed in Tweed Theater’s Fractured Classic series, first playing a Honey in a take-off on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe, which further developed Varla’s character where he discovered she could get big laughs by playing her small. “That really changed everything.”
Other stage spoofs in New York and other cities included Pig in Hot Tin Trough with Jackie Hoffman; Wah Wah, a spoof on The Miracle Worker (“I was Helen Keller, and I was off book right away”); The Bad Seedling; The Mailman Always Comes Twice, Mildred Fierce and The Phantom of the Oprah. In Caged she joined Joan Rivers, Lorna Luft, Charles Busch, Isabella Rossellini, and Lypsinka in the cast.
In the early 2000’s Roberson stretched his acting chops beyond Varla and starred with James Lecesne [now Celeste Lecesne] in Charles Ludlum’s The Mystery of Irma Vep which was presented at Hartford Stage, New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre and other venues. In 2012 Roberson was featured in Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera The Medium. Roberson starred off-Broadway opposite Leslie Jordan in the musical Lucky Guy.
Over the past two decades, Roberson has performed his annual new Varla shows in cities such as Boston, Los Angeles, San Franciso, Chicago, Palm Springs, London, at the Sydney Opera House and in New Orleans, where he had lived for many years.
The RuPaul Effect
The subject of how the RuPaul empire has changed drag is an obvious topic to bring up—and one with which Roberson has come to terms.
“People always ask me—not so much now, because I’m really old, but 10 years ago when I was as famous as you could get then— ‘Why aren’t you on that show?’
“I love the show, but it turned away from character drag, which was really popular for years. Think of Kiki and Herb, Miss Coco, Charles Busch, Dina Martina.”
For World of Wonder shows [the umbrella name for all of RuPaul’s media projects], Roberson says it’s about being an all-around singing, dancing, comedy and then-some entertainer. He explains it this way: “If Joni Mitchell goes on American Idol is she going to win?
“RuPaul’s shows, I totally get it. But they totally changed things. All of a sudden, some of us are not getting booked.
“Back then I didn’t want to be on the show, but then you’re looking at the money these girls are making and, oh my god, of course I would want some of that.”
When I suggested that perhaps a “legends” series might be an interesting addition to RuPaul’s empire, Roberson says he would love to see it, but he doesn’t expect it.
“He’s a businessman,” says Roberson, pointing out that most of the contestants on the shows are young, mostly in their 20s, sometimes in their 30s and rarely much older.
“The biggest audience for the shows is teenage and 20-year-old girls—or younger and they don’t want to see a bunch of old ladies. I’m lucky that I can still perform and sell out a house. Still, people would rather see a RuPaul name whether the act is good or not. It’s not who does it first but who does it first on TV. That’s the way it is. TV wins. When I was younger, all I wanted to be was the most famous drag queen. Obviously, someone beat me to it—and then it wasn’t as important as it was anymore.”
Roberson likes his life today. “I’m married now, and I like to stay at home in Fort Lauderdale with my husband Dewitte and Jasper [a mini golden doodle, who has been worked into Varla’s act].
Roberson will once again be performing all summer at Provincetown, his 25th season there with Varla Jean Merman: Ready To Blow, joining a long list of puckish titles such as Girl with a Pearl Necklace, Book of Merman, and Superspreader.
“I have a great fan base, and I still get to do this for a living, and I work all the time, writing a new show every year,” he says. “It’s still the best life ever.”