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Underneath the glamour, glitz and mascara of Varla Jean Merman you won’t find a leatherman. That’s surprising, given that Jeffery Roberson, the man behind the woman, is always hanging out in leather bars, whether at home in New Orleans or in other cities while on tour.
”I always seem to gravitate there,” Roberson says.
He created Varla nearly 20 years ago when filming amateur comedies with a college friend’s camcorder. Roberson decided to femme it up by wearing a shower towel on his head as long wavy hair. Not long after, Varla was born, though the exact circumstances remain somewhat obscure.
”I’m sure it had to do with a keg,” he laughs. ”It’s Louisiana — we drink heavily.”
Varla loves her leather, Roberson says, whose convincing drag attire, comedic stage presence and falsetto have made the character a sought-after performer in the gay world, including leather events. And she’s performing at this weekend’s Mr. Mid-Atlantic Leather Contest.
If Roberson’s past performances are any indication, expect something over-the-top, including all of her greatest hits, along with something new.
”I have to keep some things spontaneous,” says Roberson. ”The same show doesn’t always fit. I’m definitely brining my camel [to Washington]…. It’s not real, but it’s real enough.”
A real camel that’s not actually real? That sums up an evening with Varla Jean Merman.
”My show provides an escape for people because it’s completely insane,” Roberson laughs. ”I’m interested in politics and [world events], but I never touch on political topics because I want to create something absurd, something that takes people away from what’s happening.”
It’s been three years since Varla’s last D.C. appearance and Roberson says his act has only gotten funnier. In fact, he’s so into Varla while he performs that everything else becomes a secondary thought. Even the need to pee.
”I consider my act to be like urinating,” he laughs. ”You forget what’s going on in your life when you’re in something that’s very fun, so I want everyone to come to my show having to pee.”
Varla truly came to life during Roberson’s time in New York City, when he worked as an art director with an advertising agency. When he saw his earlier Varla videos playing on television in the bars he visited, he decided to create a live act, and Varla made her stage debut. Three albums, three movies and more than 20 music videos later, Varla Jean Merman has become a household name among gay entertainment connoisseurs.
She also remains a beloved character for Roberson, one he still loves to play. The name Varla Jean Merman was inspired by a combination of The Little Rascals and Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
”There’s a character in it called Varla and I loved Darla from The Little Rascals when I was little. So when I saw Varla, I was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s like Darla, but better!”’
The last name was inspired by the legendary Ethel Merman.
Leaving behind the world of advertising for Broadway, Roberson appeared as Mary Sunshine in the revival of Chicago. When he joined that show on tour, he also had the chance to take Varla on the road as well in the late ’90s.
His diva alter ego’s success has received mixed reactions from his family.
”My younger brother is an artist, really nice. My older brother burns toxic waste and we don’t talk,” Roberson says with a laugh. ”He’s very religious. They don’t understand why I’m dressing up as a woman. My mother tends not to ask me what I do for a living, either.”
Roberson’s love for writing and performing is what has kept Varla on her high heels for so many years.
”I’m not a cross-dresser,” Roberson says. ”I’m basically an actor, but I don’t mind being called a drag queen. [Varla] could have easily been a man … but that wouldn’t have been as much fun.”