Varla takes on the drag bans and the haters and celebrates her art!

By: Apr. 28, 2024
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Broadway World Writer Brett Cullum got to sit down with one of the country’s favorite drag artists. It's Varla Jean Merman, also known as Jeffrey Roberson. He is coming to the Match for one night only on May third to premiere his latest show, STAND BY YOUR DRAG. Varla seems to come to Houston at least once a year and always performs at the MATCH. Varla is known for her stage shows, and her movie GIRLS WILL BE GIRLS came out in 2003. She is trained in opera and was an understudy in the Broadway cast of CHICAGO. 

Brett Cullum: I've been seeing your show consistently each year, Varla. So, it’s fun to welcome you back to Houston! 

Varla: Thank you. Well, you know I was born in Houston.

Brett Cullum: I did not know this.

Varla: Yeah, at Herman Hospital many, many, many years ago, 'cause it's not even Herman Hospital anymore. I was born there. My dad was stationed there, and we lived there for a brief period.

Brett Cullum: Oh, wow, yeah. But where did you grow up? 

Varla: I grew up in Louisiana, which is very close to Houston! 

Brett Cullum: That explains the accent. How did you start this journey into drag? Because you are like an original pioneer in the art form. You were way before Drag Race hit its popularity, and you even came up with RuPaul. 

Varla:  During my time at LSU, I met a guy who introduced me to John Waters movies. I couldn't believe that existed, and it blew my Southern Baptist mind! I mean, I had no idea. And you know, I kind of was just so inspired by Divine, which I think many, many people have been. 

This guy who introduced me to those movies would carry a video camera around with him everywhere. Back then it was like a small microwave, a video camera. And we would film these silly videos. And I, I would be half in drag. Maybe just like with a scarf around my head. We would film these videos, and we would give them to the dance clubs to play.

And they were Divine inspired. It would be 30 minutes of me running around the streets of New Orleans, being chased by a plastic rat, you know, screaming. It would be on a string, and we would pull it by. We'd get people's reactions and all of that. So we would play those in the bars because back then for dance mixes, there weren't videos, and all the bars were starting to show custom ones. This is like like when MTV started!  

That's how I started dressing up in drag. And then we did a talent competition, me and the same guy. We told the story of Varla, and it was half video and half live performance! My friend was a videographer, and no one was using video back then. And that's just sort of how the character of Varla happened. I mostly did videos we would give to the bars, and I would rarely ever perform.

Another friend had moved to New York, and he had done drag in New Orleans. In the south, drag was just people lip-syncing to Melissa Manchester. My friend went to New York, and he said, “Oh, my God! Last night, I went to see this drag queen, and she was doing a monologue over Wagner, a Wagner aria. The drag queen went into Tower Records and tried to buy a classical record and mispronounced it. And the Tower Records person was so bitchy to him. And so then he actually came in with Eva Marton, who was Ava Martin (a drag version). I couldn't believe it! What are they doing in New York City? I was an opera fan! It turns out that was Miss Coco Peru.

There was a huge sort of drag Renaissance. This is what Rupaul came out at out of the early nineties. You know, it was WIGSTOCK and Lady Bunny! I actually was able to get in on that. And you know, people were singing live, and it was just a different time and drag the nineties in New York City, and I purposely moved there to meet Miss Coco, and I did, you know, and now we're friends. I finally quit my real job in 1998 and started going to Provincetown, where I made enough money to live on. So I just, I've, yeah, done drag without another job since 1998.

Brett Cullum: Where did you come up with his name?

Varla: I mean, this is dating me, too. You know THE LITTLE RASCALS? There was a character named Darla, and I thought, “Oh, it's like Carla because Carla's kind of country. Right? So, Carla. But Darla is so exotic. Then I heard the name Varla because my friend who introduced me to John Waters introduced me to Russ Meyer. There is a movie called FASTER PUSSYCAT KILL KILL, and the lead character is named Varla. I just love that name. And then Merman.

When we did this talent show, it was about Varla thinking that she was the illegitimate daughter of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine. You know she had no proof, but Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine were married, I think, for 38 days and in Ethel Merman’s autobiography. She has a chapter called “My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine, and you turn the page, and it's blank.

It is so delicious that she could even get the publisher to print a blank page. I mean, it's so funny and amazing. And I thought, well, if she had had a child with Ernest Borgnine, she would have just gotten rid of it and shipped it off to an orphanage in Louisiana, and that's sort of where the character came from. 

And then there was a drunk drag queen who was always in the bar drinking in New Orleans at a place called Good Friends. She just used to call me Varla Jean, like Norma Jean. So, I'm letting drunk people name me! It had a ring to it. 

Brett Cullum: STAND BY YOUR DRAG on May 3rd. What is this show? 

Jeff: What happened? I live in Florida, and I love Florida; Florida has amazing people and an amazing LGBTQ community, but, as you know, the government really isn't on our side there. When the drag bans started to happen. It freaks you out because suddenly, you weren't allowed to perform outside in Florida, and people don't know this happened, but many of the Pride Celebrations in Florida were canceled.

In Fort Lauderdale, in Wilton Manors, which is arguably one of the gayest cities in the country at Wilton Manners, they call it Stonewall Pride and let that sink in STONEWALL pride. No drag queens were allowed to perform last year. An entire pride was taken away from these girls. We weren't allowed to perform!  

I know I'm very lucky I perform all over the country, but I have friends who only perform in Wilton Manors. My friend, Miss Bouvier, who has this amazing voice, suddenly had no career or job. Just boom overnight. You know what I mean. And then also, it was in Texas, and of course in Tennessee, where I was going. 

So I started to write the show, and then, of course, after a while, it was after pride. They said the law was too vague to be enforced. Even the Supreme Court said this law can't stand how it's written. It didn't say that it was unconstitutional. It is just too vague to be enforced. It instilled hate in people across the country. Basically. Now, our team now hates this. So, let's all hate this, and that has not gone away.

So now I get trolls online. Never had them before this legislation. You put a picture up, and then someone just writes the meanest, most horrible thing, you know, with pictures of John Wayne Gacy dressing like a clown, you know, comparing you to him. I have never done children's entertainment. I'm an adult entertainer.

Just to suddenly say that we should be outlawed was just wild to me and that it could happen so fast. You know what I mean. It just happened really fast. And so the show deals with all of that. It explores the entire drag and now the hate that's been instilled in the culture. I have a video in my show that shows drag throughout our country's history. 

So, for political advancement, people made people scared of drag drag queens. We aren't pedophiles. They aren't groomers. But they were able to succeed in creating this fear. And so that's what the show is about. But it's funny.

Brett Cullum: It's all about persecution and hate. But it's funny.

Varla: I know sounds so dramatic.

Brett Cullum: What has changed in drag over the years? 

Varla: There are rules now in drag, and when I started, there were no rules in drag. That was the amazing thing: you just did whatever you wanted. You didn't have to look a certain way. You didn't have to glue down your eyebrows. And now these new drag artists have to follow certain rules, and if they don't get on that show (RUPAUL’S DRAG RACE), people question their validity, right? I mean they, if you're not on that show. What's wrong with you? 

When I started drag, there was a big thing about character. Drag like Kiki and Herb like she's a character, right? Kiki. Dina Martina, that's a character, Mrs. Richfield, that's a character you can't do. Character drag on RuPaul's Drag Race. Why? You can't suddenly be a character because they constantly interview you in and out of drag. It would just seem like what's wrong with you. You have to be the same person in drag as you are out of drag. Look at someone like Bianca Del Rio, who is amazing. But she is who she is in drag, and who she is out of drag, right? They all. There's no character drag anymore. It just doesn't exist. People aren't characters. They are one person who does both.

Varla Jean Merman will be at the MATCH for one night only on May 3rd! The show is called STAND BY YOUR DRAG and is a celebration of the art of drag and the silliness of trying to ban it. For tickets, click the link below!


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