BWW Interview: Varla Jean Merman Talks Upcoming Show WONDER MERMAN, Inspiring Women, and The Changing Landscape of Drag
Drag artist Varla Jean Merman's new show, WONDER MERMAN, pays tribute to inspirational women throughout history, both real and fictional. The idea that "behind every great man, there's a great woman" feels tone-deaf, at best. But a more arcane expression that may actually hold true is that behind many a great drag queen, there's a great man.
In the case of this legendary queen, that would be her portrayer, Jeffery Roberson. Before bringing WONDER MERMAN to The Green Room 42 on May 4, we spoke with Roberson over the phone about the show, Varla's storied career, and how the landscape of drag has changed over the years.
This interview has been edited for content and length.
TF: Can you tell me a little about WONDER MERMAN?
JR: I wanted to a show--- this was before the election. I thought for sure Hillary Clinton was going to win. Me and plenty of other people. I was going to do an entire female empowerment show, so I'd started fooling around with it, thinking of different role models, all in celebration of our first female president. So, when it didn't happen, it was like, "You know what? Actually, now is probably the time where we need a female empowerment show more than ever." You know what I mean?
JR: And so I said, "I'm just going to keep the idea." The first half of the show is all female role models that were real people, real historical figures, and the second half is all female heroines from movies and from television and things that I've really admired. So, I just put the two together, and, of course, it's all through the eyes of Varla, which, you know, is a little skewed.
TF: I saw the logline, that it's about paying tribute to the "inspiring women who have inspired [Varla] to think about becoming inspirational."
JR: Yes, that's right. I also have a great line: "This is dedicated to the women who made me believe I could put my crack on that glass ceiling (laughs)."
TF: Can you tease some of the women you pay tribute to?
JR: Yeah, I do a Jane Goodall, I do a Josephine Baker, who, you know, was really an amazing, amazing person with civil rights. I actually do a tribute to Melania Trump, believe it or not, and to all First Ladies, and I compare Melania to the other First Ladies. I do the whole GONE WITH THE WIND in four minutes. I do a whole tribute to Amelia Earhart and Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman and Gloria Steinem--- they're all in there. Anyone you can think of is in there.
TF: It's such a perfect title. Did that just come right away?
JR: Believe it or not, I had a different title. It was called Varla Jean Merman IS BAD HEROINE, with an "e" on the end of heroine. But some places, there really is a bad heroin problem, and where I did it, Cape Cod, has a terrible one. Some places are a little sensitive to it. Not that I change my material, but if it's going to make people not come to the show... I don't have a heroin problem, but I guess I need to be sensitive to those who do. Some places, it's fine, but I guess there are some areas where it's a very big issue, so they asked me to do an alternate title.
TF: I saw some of the posters that said BAD HEROINE. So, was it just natural, since you already had the Wonder Woman costume?
JR: The WONDER WOMAN movie came out that same summer, and that was another character that, when I was a kid, I was just sort of obsessed with... Not only was she a strong character, but she was physically stronger than anyone else, too. It's an interesting dynamic, and, in fact, the show starts with sort of me as a damsel in distress. If you remember...the DUDLEY DO-RIGHT cartoons, the girl gets strapped to the train tracks. That's how WONDER MERMAN starts out, and then no one comes to save me. The theme for the whole show is kind of having to save yourself, as well, so I do a whole damsel in distress into Wonder Woman.
TF: Who were women who inspired you when you were growing up?
JR: When I was growing up, believe me, I loved Wonder Woman, definitely. But then I loved
Doris Day. As a kid, I would see Doris Day on reruns on television, and, of course, she had this reputation for being the sweet, innocent one. But then I remember seeing the picture of her...she is a huge animal rights activist, so there's a picture of her with a t-shirt on that says, "Be [kind] to animals or I'll kill you." It's kind of a famous picture, and I just thought, "Oh my god. Here's sweet little innocent Doris Day threatening to murder people if you're mean to animals." I just became kind of obsessed with her because of that.
TF: Do you have a favorite number you do in the show?
JR: I do like my GONE WITH THE WIND because it's the whole thing in four minutes. That's one of my favorites. I like my Josephine Baker number, too. Oh, and I do a DREAMGIRLS tribute, too, because of Effie White. I was real heavy when I was young, and she's sort of the heroine of DREAMGIRLS. And there's nothing more entertaining than a white girl singing those songs (laughs).
TF: You mentioned that the idea for this particular show came from the election. Generally, when it's time to come up with a new show, where does that usually start?
JR: You know, it'll just be something like... this year, I almost did a show because I saw THE SHAPE OF WATER, and then I thought about water and then Barbra Streisand had an album called WET, where all the songs had to do with water, so I was going to do a show all about water. (Laughs) That's so stupid, but, I mean, it could be anything, sweat, anything liquid. But then the circus theme, I thought it'd be a lot more fun. But I'll probably do that water show another time. I did a space show and I can't remember what was going on at that time. The right things will inspire me to write.
TF: Yeah, it sounds very conceptual, so there are a lot of possibilities. You're choosing space versus a particular person or something to pay tribute to.
JR: Oh yeah, and I've actually done themes that I've had to stop because it was too small. After Hillary didn't win, because I already wanted to do [something involving] Wonder Woman, I was going to do a show just about superheroes. But then I thought, how do you do that without special effects? So, I turned that down. I've had many years where I have to totally bail and start over. I wanted to do a show one year about all my failed material, but then what's the point in that?
TF: Well, you know, "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" or something.
JR: (Laughs) Yeah, I haven't done that yet. I also want to do a show one year just of videos because I do a lot of video work in my shows. And I thought, how great would it be to do a show called PHONING IT IN? And then just never show up to the theater and just say, "Watch this video" and then just hear me talking in like a drive-thru on the telephone and just never come to the theater. I don't think people would appreciate that. One day, maybe my last show.
TF: Speaking of video, I was reading that when you were getting your start, you were inspired by John Waters movies and started doing drag in video work. Can you talk a little about that?
JR: I met a guy who filmed everything. This is back in the early '90s, late '80s, and he had a video camera, and he would just make these little movies by putting two VCR decks together. He filmed everything, and he sort of introduced me to John Waters movies. I never knew that world even existed. It was like suddenly uncovering Atlantis. It was just wild. I couldn't even believe because you're kind of sheltered from that as a kid, you know, someone eating their own shit (laughs).
So, we started filming these little videos, and they weren't really playing videos in bars at the time. We would film these videos of me being chased by a plastic rat and just screaming in drag in the city of New Orleans, or me drinking a gallon of milk for like 30 minutes in public in drag and getting people's reactions, almost like CANDID CAMERA in a way. And we would film this, and we'd give it to the bars and the bars would play it, and people would just stop everything they were doing and watch and laugh.
So, that's how I started even doing drag. I just did videos; I never went out in drag. I moved to New York to work in advertising, and I went to a bar called the Wonder Bar, which isn't there anymore, and they were playing those videos. It was so weird. There was no internet. Somebody had to make a physical copy and get it, and I told the guy that it was me after a few drinks. He was like, "Oh, you should perform here." That was how I started performing. I did a couple numbers in New York, and then I started getting booked all over New York, but I only performed a little in New Orleans, not very much.
JR: Yes, nobody did it. And, one time, me and Sherry both showed up to the same event and had the same song prepared. (Laughs) She did "Whatever Sherry Wants," and I did "Whatever Varla Wants." It was hilarious.
No one was singing live, and it was right before RuPaul was about to happen, so there must have been something in the air. I never lip synced because I did comedy and it's hard to lip sync the comedy.
TF: Did you feel like that was something you had to fight for then?
JR: No, I think at the time people were open to it. People just wanted performances and it was different and people were into it. It's New York, too. But back home in New Orleans, no one was singing, and for many years later, it was lip-syncing to Whitney Houston and stuff. People did not sing live. Now it's very common, but back then, no, there was only a couple of us.
TF: How did you transition from the bar scene to more of the cabaret scene?
JR: My friend Miss Coco [Peru] said, "You've got to get out of the bars. If you're going make money, you've got to have people come pay [to see] you, so you have to completely stop performing in the bars. People will come to see you if that's the only place they can see you. If they can see you in a bar and then you have a cabaret show where you want money, they're not going to come to your cabaret show, they're going to come to [the bar to] see you. So, you have to quit cold turkey." And I did. I just stopped performing in bars, and people came. Miss Coco had suggested that to me and helped me get a show together and was really, really encouraging.
TF: You mentioned how, these days, it's not unusual for queens to sing live. How else do you feel like drag has changed over the years?
JR: Well, it kind of reverted for a while. It was "lip syncing for your life" [because of RUPAUL'S DRAG RACE]. So, now, I think young people don't really know that there is a world of drag besides what they see on television. That's the only bad the about that. The great thing about that show is it put drag everywhere, and now that the show's been on longer and longer, people are starting to see that there are definitely different types of drag, not lumping them all together. There's the Look Queen, there's the Comedy Queen. There are all kinds of different drag. And, now, it's a career. You can be a child in school and know that you can do that with your life, whereas, before, you were a degenerate (laughs). It's added some respect to it.
TF: And, personally, how do you feel you've changed as a performer?
JR: I don't know how much I have changed. You know, it is funny to grow into a character, when a character becomes older, because you have to respond to things differently. Something that's attractive on a 28-year-old getting drunk and acting silly is not so attractive on a 50-year-old woman (laughs). Characters change, and my character definitely has changed over the years.
TF: I feel like that definitely plays into WONDER MERMAN, the perception of that character as the character ages. There's a lot to work within there.
JR: Oh, yeah! Varla is definitely an extension of myself. But we were the same person at one time and we slowly became totally different people, so it's been interesting to follow that, as well. I kind of grew up and she didn't, so it's been interesting now to write what I'm not.
Troy Frisby is an entertainment writer and digital news producer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @TroyFrisby.