Varla Jean Merman’s ‘Under a Big Top’ | Hydrate Nightclub Chicago | May 24 – 25, 2019
Varla Jean Merman, the self-described “love child of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine,” has been offering up classic camp and powerful musical prowess for more than 20 years. The alter-ego behind the delightfully perky Merman, is the hunky Jeffery Roberson. Basically unrecognizable out of drag, he is – in my humble opinion – the definition of “Zaddy!”
The multifaceted entertainer’s resume boasts several television appearances, including Project Runway and All My Children, as well as theatrical productions like the musical comedy Lucky Guy, alongside Leslie Jordan and Mildred Fierce.
The actor, comedian, chanteuse and drag queen is no stranger to the silver screen, with starring roles in Girls Will Be Girls, Hush Up Sweet Charlotte and Varla Jean and the Mushroom Heads.
As part of Chicago’s IML Weekend, Roberson will unleash the buxom Varla Jean’s Under a Big Top for two performances at Hydrate Nightclub, May 24 and 25. I chatted with 49-year-old, fellow ginger and New Orleans native to discuss his legendary 25 year career, what’s next and – of course – Ru Paul’s Drag Race.
What will you be serving up at Hydrate this weekend?
I thought my circus show Under a Big Top would be a good theme for IML Weekend. It’s all circus related. I do animal acts, magic tricks – a donkey show. [Laughs] There’s a wide range of material. The show is a lot of fun. You’ll be out in an hour and fifteen minutes. So, you have plenty of time to go dress up as a puppy. [Laughs]
Is this really the 20th anniversary of Under a Big Top?
Yes, I’ve been performing for 25 years but I did this show 20 years ago, which is so wild. This is not the same show. I tweaked it and changed it with more relevant material. I haven’t done a circus show in so long but it’s 20 years since performing it in Provincetown. This is an entirely different show, like the promo says “Same Ol’ Clown, Brand New Show.”
Outside of your show, will you be partaking in any of the IML festivities this weekend?
The funny thing is that I went to IML last year and my [now] husband proposed. We were already planning on going to IML this year when Hydrate called me. So, I figured I’m already going to be there, so why not work. [Laughs]
You’ve been doing drag for more than – 25 years – did you say?
I’m an old woman. [Laughs]
What is your take on the state of drag these days, like Ru Paul’s Drag Race?
I think Drag Race has been amazing for putting drag into the mainstream. There was a big drag renaissance in the 90’s, when RuPaul came out, Too Wong Foo[…Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar] and all these things. Then, it kind of went away but now these girls are household names. I think with reality shows you get a lot of people who are not really considered talented. You have some amazingly talented ones and then you have some… really terrible ones who are just on TV because they cause problems. [Laughs] All the winners seem to have shows in P-Town, like BenDeLaCrème, Jinkx Monsoon and Trixie [Mattel] – but they all had shows before Drag Race. Ben is a good friend of mine. We just hosted the Bourbon Street Awards in New Orleans together, which is a big costume contest.
A lot of these girls go on because they just want to become famous. So, they don’t have anything to show, then suddenly they’re famous with…nothing to back it up. They’re not really artists. The ones that are have some amazing talent. A lot of the [Ru Paul’s Drag Race contestants] I really, really like and it’s amazing drag. There are now sooo many! There’s a lot of girls. [Laughs]
I have an affinity for the comedy queens like yourself, Jinkx, BenDe, Pandora Boxx…
I actually spent a lot of time in Palm Springs this year doing a show. I got to know the lip-syncing girls, which is not my thing, but I have to tell you, they were actually inspiring to me because their job is to be put together. They’re “look” queens. And let me tell you – they Do it! Like Morgan McMichaels and Delta Work; they put themselves together. I was like “Jesus Christ, I better step it up a notch.” [Laughs]
I don’t know. Your transformation is pretty dramatic.
[Laughs] A little bit, yea.
I feel like they should do a legends season and include you gals, like Coco Peru and Lady Bunny, Sherry Vine…
I really hope they do. There’s been talk that they might. That would be amazing! I don’t know, it’s so interesting that the same girls that I started with in New York are still around. Sherry, Jackie Beat, Heklina and I have been around forever. [Laughs]
Have you been asked to be a guest judge?
They don’t usually choose any drag queens. The only drag queen that’s been on is Lady Bunny, but other than that, there’s never been any others. I think they like to keep it separate, which I understand. I would love it.
Ru doesn’t want the competition.
There is no one more beautiful than Ru Paul – are you kidding me?! For almost 60 years old, just beautiful! My god! It would be amazing to just hang out, although I’m sure it would be very stressful. People say that it’s very stressful to compete on the show. It would be fun to do a legends season before we’re all dead. [Laughs]
So, what’s going on with Dead, Dead, Dead Ringer? I haven’t seen any updates in awhile?
Even when we did Hush Up Sweet Charlotte, it just takes funding, then you have to work with everyone’s schedule. I’m still planning on doing it. We just haven’t set a date yet to film. I love Matthew Martin, who plays “Edith Clump.” We have done a lot of stuff together. He’s another person who does drag and is ridiculously talented. I’m not sure what’s going on with [the movie]. I hope it will happen soon because I need to do another movie. [Laughs]
The same goes for Girls Will Be Girls 2 – the last tease was by Coco back in 2015.
We filmed part 2 but I’m not sure what’s happened. So, we’re all waiting. The writer/director had some serious health issues for years. Then, he had to go back to work to pay for those health issues. So, I think it’s been sort of rough. I believe they’ve been editing recently, but I keep thinking it’s going to come out and I’m going to look so young in it. Then, people will see me and they’re gonna say, “Wow, she’s had a rough six months.” [Laughs] It was filmed in 2012. That’s a long time ago.
When I talked with Coco back in 2014, she had nothing but lovely things to say about you and Jack.
Oh, God, I met Ms. Coco in New York in the mid-90s. He was so kind and generous. He heard me sing at a benefit, came up to me and said, “Girl, you gotta get out of the bars and start doing theater shows. That’s the way you’re going to make money.” He was so wonderful and helpful. He was the kind of queen I wanted to be. It’s paved the way I try to help the younger girls find their way, rather than…be a bitch. [Laughs] I always wonder, “What would Coco do?”
You’ve clearly ran the gamut of stars you’ve worked with. Is there a particular performer you haven’t worked with yet with whom you’d like to share the stage or screen?
BenDeLaCreme and I have only done hosting together, but we have talked about doing a mother-daughter show. Hopefully, Peaches [Christ] will help put something together. And I haven’t actually done a play with Jinkx either.
Jinkx Monsoon and I are doing a show together this summer, First Wives Fight Club. It’s a show I wrote with Peaches Christ.
What: Varla Jean Merman’s Under a Big Top
Where: Hydrate Nightclub, Chicago
When: Friday, May 24 and Saturday, May 25, 8pm
Tickets: Click here!