She’s not just a girl, either — but she is bringing her comic genius to North Texas
HUSH SWEET HARLOT
Eisemann Center for Performing Arts,
2351 Performance Drive, Richardson.
Oct. 29-Nov. 1. Thursdayâ€“Friday ay 8 p.m.,
weekend matinees at 2 p.m. $22.50.
Varla Jean Merman is quite a character — literally. The creation of the multi-talented Jeffery Roberson, Varla Jean is one of the funniest drag personas working today, though if you’re going to use a label to describe her, she prefers "working white woman."
According to Roberson, Varla Jean was inspired by the real 38-day marriage between Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine (mixed with some late-night drinking in New Orleans). And even though she doesn’t have what some may call "proof" that she is their child, she just knows it in her heart.
Roberson brings Varla Jean to life in North Texas with four performances of Shut Up, Sweet Charlotte, a parody he also wrote and directed. But right now, he’s battling a cold.
"I’m single-handedly bringing back bird flu. Just seems natural, since I wear so many feathers," he says, though he assures me he’ll be in top shape for his appearance at the Eisemann.
"I was watching Project Runway the other day, and saw that [contestant] Sharin is from Richardson!" Roberson says. "I can’t wait to go two-stepping. I’ll be a chick who’s rocking kicks. And you know, I was originally born in Houston, so my roots are in Texas."
Dreams of stardom lured away Roberson and his alter ego, resulting in TV shows, movies, even a stint on Broadway as Mary Sunshine in Chicago.
"Believe it or not, I was an understudy for two years and never went on," Roberson says. "Then, I went on tour with the show and played the role across the world, including Tokyo. Finally after another year, I got to do the role on Broadway while someone was on vacation! [For] three weeks. Ouch. Sounds so less grand."
Broadway isn’t that surprising, though, considering Roberson can really sing — though lip-syncing has its place, too.
"It’s hard to communicate through someone else’s voice, but I love a good lip sync number if it is creative and totally unexpected," he says.
Varla Jean’s stint on Project Runway may have given her the biggest national audience. She and her designer won the challenge, which was to create a designer outfit for a drag queen.
"I love that show! I had seen every episode prior to being on it, so it was very ‘trippy,’ as the kids say. I knew I would look good in a pants suit. Let’s face it, I wore a very similar one, but in yellow, in the flashback pool-party scene in Girls Will Be Girls," he laughs. "I think the girls who did best were the ones who were not afraid to tell their designer exactly what they wanted! I just knew that if the outfit looked bad I would have to stand on the runway with the same look in my eyes that a dog has when it is defecating. You know the one."
Varla Jean’s pun-filled YouTube videos are Internet sensations for good reason — you can see her delirious demented sense of humor in action. Or you could try to dig up old episodes of All My Children, on which she portrayed "lady of the evening" Rosemary Chicken.
"The worst part? Playing a prostitute. See, I try not to expand my range, because then one day you wake up with a reputation like Meryl Streep or Judi Dench.
Actually, for some strange reason, I’ve played a prostitute in almost every project I’ve ever been involved in, and in some I haven’t been involved in. Which is odd, because I’ve never charged money for sexual favors. Well, I mean, I’ve never actually received money for sexual favors," he says.
The best part of his All My Children gig was, of course, working with Susan Lucci.
"Believe it or not, Susie and I didn’t have any scenes together. And, because I signed in my contract that I wouldn’t make eye contact with her, it made it very difficult for us to socialize," he says. "I did, however, stare a hole in the back of her head whenever I had the chance. But she loves giving out advice. Well, she didn’t advise me on anything personally. But she did advise security to help me out of her dressing room and then the building, which was so dear of her! Those rumors about her being a horrible, tantrum-throwing egomaniac are not completely true."
In Shut Up, Sweet Charlotte, Varla Jean gets to be the diva — and send-up one of her favorite films.
"I’ve always loved the movie. I loved that Olivia de Havilland, who was always known for being sweet and soft-spoken, turns out to be an evil bitch!"
Roberson tweaked the original version of the script and took it to Provincetown, where Leslie Jordan caught it. "He loved it and told his producers about it, and now we are on the road to Dallas," Roberson says.
Like Varla Jean’s music videos, films and live performances, Shut Up is filled with a vast array of sight gags and groan-inducing puns, a signature part of her routines ("Give us a hand and you’ll lose your head! A lot of fun in one axe!"), but is "naughty enough for the gays, but not too dirty for grandma."
"I love the gays, cause you know they’ve had a cocktail or two before they get there. But believe me, I’ve never been picky about who comes," Roberson says, then pauses. "That sounds dirty."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 23, 2009.