“I love to make people laugh and forget that our world is literally going down the toilet.”
Drag legend Varla Jean Merman—alter ego of Mr. Jeffrey Roberson—makes her triumphant return to the Gateway City via The Monocle with her brand-spanking-new cabaret act, “Big Black Hole.”
Merman’s parody videos of Cher’s “Dark Lady,” Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” and even “Hello” (Lionel Richie, not Adele) are YouTube sensations. Her breakout role as Varla in 2003’s “Girls Will Be Girls” introduced her to the world as a hooker with a heart of gold, and cemented her status of legend in the drag world.
In a world in which look is sometimes favored over talent, Merman managed to rise to the top with her quick wit, impeccable comedic timing, and bubbly personality. This is the kind of queen others look to for inspiration. A trailblazer for decades, Merman is a queen who is creative, unforgettable, noteworthy, and trendsetting.
I was recently granted an audience with the grand dame of drag. I was fully tucked, my lacefront wig was on point, and I was more nervous than an audience member at a Bianca del Rio show.
When did you first start performing? What made you want to become a female illusionist?
I began making videos first in college with my friend Timo, that we heavily borrowed from John Waters’ films. I was a huge Divine fan, and loved creating insane videos that we would give to local bars to play as background. I am also a big Carol Burnett fan, so I wanted to act like her but be in drag. In one video, I was in drag being chased by a plastic rat for 30 minutes, as I screamed and ran down busy New Orleans streets. They caught on, and I eventually started singing live on stage, sometimes while video clips played behind me.
Your look is timeless; your persona is always effervescent and refreshing. How did you create your look and your persona?
I love the late 1960s and films like Barbarella and Valley of the Dolls. And I loved Goldie Hawn’s personality on Laugh-In. When I started doing drag, most queens liked to be shady and bitchy onstage, but I was terrible at reading people, so I decided to be a fun, dumb, goodtime girl instead. Actually, maybe I’m just playing myself!
Your creativity has always been inspiring. Your video spoofs of “Dark Lady,” “Jesus Take the Wheel,” and “Don’t Eat Out: Nelly Fritatta” are legendary. Where do you draw on inspiration for projects like these?
I love reinterpreting lyrics. Pop songs often have weird, vague lyrics, so to put different images with words people already know makes it even funnier. I also love a funny name. One of my favorite videos I’ve done was a about an evil raw chicken that looked and sounded like Liza named Salmonelli.
Who inspires you as an artist?
I moved to New York in the early ’90s and saw one of Miss Coco Peru’s shows. What she was doing was so inspirational, funny, and original, that the drag element had very little to do with it. It was brilliant writing. Although I am nothing like her on stage, the fact that she was being so original and entertaining inspired me to write and create my own work.
You recently did a gig with three other drag icons: Jackie Beat, Sherry Vine, and Bianca Del Rio. Can you share any juicy tales of what happens when such a cavalcade of stars like that get together?
Jackie Beat had me in stitches in the dressing room. She is funny and evil! So many amazing one-liners out of her mouth. And Bianca? Hilarious and evil! But she is also one of the most helpful, professional, and generous queens you will ever meet. She deserves every bit of success she has worked for. And Sherry, who I have known for 20 years, is a hoot, and evil, too! We had a great time and I hope I get to share the stage with them all again. I can’t believe I had all that fun and got paid.
Tell me about “Varla Jean and the Mushroomheads.” How did that come about?
I’ve always been a big fan of The Muppets, Sesame Street, and The Electric Company, so I thought that it would be fun for Varla to create a childrens’ television show. Of course, Varla has no business doing so, and that’s where the disaster starts. I did a stage version that was so successful that someone put up some money for me to turn it into a mockumentary, which I will be selling this summer as a DVD.
“Girls Will Be Girls” is an iconic LGBT-themed movie. The one-liners from that movie will live in infamy. What was that experience like?
A dream come true. Richard Day’s script is so genius, and he wrote it specifically for the three of us. He told me more about my character than I even was aware of! Jack and Clinton are amazingly funny people, so we laughed for three weeks straight making it. When it started getting a cult following, it took us all by surprise because there was not much buzz about it when it was released in theaters. It may be the most fun I’ve ever had in this business.
Along with your illustrious film career, you are also known for your hilarious cabaret shows. Through shows like “Gone with the Breaking Wind,” “The Golden Gals,” and “Twice Upon a Mattress,” you are known for bringing the house down with your unique comedy. What is your favorite part of touring?
The free drinks! And the cute boys! And I love to make people laugh and forget that our world is literally going down the toilet.
Your least favorite?
Waking up at 5 a.m. to go back home. Ugh. I’m on the no-fly list so I have to take a bus everywhere.
Have you ever played St. Louis before?
One time, many years ago. I think I performed somewhere where they were expecting a grand dame of cabaret, rather than the filthy skank they got! Hopefully the right audience will find me this time.
What can audiences expect to see in your latest show, “Big Black Hole”?
My Big Black Hole is huge. And everyone will be sucked in. Varla has realized, like I have, that the world is going down the toilet, and so she figures we have to get the hell out of here. And the final frontier is the only place left to escape to. So it is an exploration of space, from Jane Jetson to Princess Leia.
If you were not a drag performer, what other professional path would you have taken?
A pharmacist? But I bet I would have lost my license by now.
Quick! What are the first five songs on your iPod?
Anne Murray “You Needed Me”; Kylie Minogue “Get Outta My Way”; Helen Reddy “Angie Baby”; Ke$ha “Love Is My Drug”; and Bonnie Pointer “Heaven Must Have Sent You.”
What is the one thing about Varla Jean Merman that even your hardcore fans be shocked to learn?
I am hairier than Alec Baldwin’s ass.
Once the wig and the lashes come off, what does Jeffrey do to relax?
Crossfit. Yes, I’ve drank the Kool-Aid.
What does the future hold for Miss Varla Jean Merman?
Hopefully a paycheck! | Jim Ryan
You can catch Varla Jean Merman in St. Louis March 11-12, as she brings her new show “Big Black Hole” to The Monocle located at 4510 Manchester in the Grove. Tickets for all shows are available on Merman’s website at www.varlaonline.com.
Varla Jean Merman’s Big Black Tour
03.11-12 ￨ The Monocle, St. Louis
03.18-19 ￨ Cruze Bar Pittsburgh
03.25-26 ￨ Seven, Chicago
04.01-03 ￨ Los Angeles LGBT Center, The Renberg Theatre, Los Angeles
04.21 ￨ Broward Center, Ft Lauderdale