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10Qs: Varla Jean Merman on Bette Davis, New Orleans Drag Culture, and Hairy Forearms

Varla Jean Merman

The bear/drag queen answered our 10 most burning questions.

Southern man Jeffery Roberson has a charming, masculine sensibility about him. If you'd just met him, you'd never guess that he's behind one of the best character drag queens of today. When Roberson puts on a wig and some makeup, he becomes Varla Jean Merman. She's known for her parody music videos and movies like Varla Jean and the Mushroomheads and Girls Will Be Girls.

Roberson's most recent film is helmed by writer/director, William Clift. In Hush Up, Sweet Charlotte, a campy homage to Bette Davis' 1964 black-and-white thriller, Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Varla Jean stars as an evil twin after her family fortune. The film is a follow-up to Clift's 2010 parody of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, simply titled Baby Jane?.

We caught up with Roberson while he prepared for Mardi Gras in the Big Easy to ask some of our most burning questions.

Out: You're a southern boy, so are you a fan of the old southern movies like Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte?

Roberson: Oh yes. I remember seeing that as a kid. It was on TV or somewhere. I remember thinking it was terrifying because that was before I really knew Bette Davis. I sort of got an education on that later. But I remember seeing that and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and I just thought she was a frightening person, you know? She was really scary.

How did you come to be involved with Hush Up, Sweet Charlotte?

Many years ago, Matthew Martin and I did a stage version of Hush Up, Sweet Charlotte in San Francisco. It sort of was very true to the movie. And I said, "Why don't you come to New Orleans and we'll do more of a short version of it that wasn't so true, that was inspired by the movie but changed a little bit?" So we had worked on that and he actually wasn't able to come to New Orleans, but I ended up doing it anyway. But Billy [Clift] also just so happened to love the movie as well, so he wrote his own version. So it's so strange that I've done three totally different versions of the same movie. I mean the characters are all the same but a lot of it is completely different, especially in Billy's movie. It's definitely his own.

#varlajeanmerman #hushupsweetcharlotte

A photo posted by Varla Jean Merman (@varlajeanmerman) on

In the movie, you and Matthew Martin are so hilarious together. What is it like to work with him?

Matthew Martin is so amazing. He's also a wonderful person to hang around with, a very generous actor. He's just hilarious. When we did the stage version, it was like we never stopped doing it. He's just a wonderful person to work with, and we're really good friends too. So it's just really nice.

So you play an evil twin, which involves a lot of campy personality. Is that you on a daily basis or do you switch that off when the wig comes off?

Yea, I'm not. It's funny because there are two different styles of drag queens. There are character drag queens that become a totally different person. Even like Dame Edna is a totally different character. Then you have drag queens who are onstage who they are offstage. You know, like Bianca Del Rio, she's always that way. I saw him last night; he's always funny.

You also make a cameo out of drag. Do you perform out of drag often?

I don't do it that much. No one hires me. And it's so much easier. You know, I have done plays where I didn't have to do drag and you're like, "Oh my god, this is so easy." You don't have to put all that shit on. Like you can get there 10 'till. You know, with drag it's always like 6:30 for an 8:00 curtain to start getting ready. And you do that everyday, and that time adds up. It's a lot of time to put on all that face. You know, my makeup is pretty simple, not like Bianca Del Rio or Jackie B who have these amazing sort of airbrushed faces. It must take hours for them to do that. I already spend enough time.

My brother, Herman Merman!

A photo posted by Varla Jean Merman (@varlajeanmerman) on

From your cameo, you look like a pretty hairy guy. So how much time does it take to groom all those areas?

Oh my god, I didn't even know I was hairy until about four years ago. I started doing drag right out of high school and college when I went to LSU in Baton Rouge. I was shaving my body until I was 40-something. And suddenly, I was like I can't do this anymore. This is a young boy's game. It's a lot of upkeep. So I was like, I don't wanna shave anymore. I have to be careful because I think there's even a scene where I have hairy forearms...and I play a hairy foreman.

Drag is seeping more into the mainstream. How do you set yourself apart?

I was just saying that the other day. There are just so many entertainers now. Don't get me wrong; I would love the exposure that television could give you. But when we started, us old girls, you just had to make a name for yourself without TV or any help. And the way you did that was by having a gimmick or doing something entertaining that people wanted to see or talk about. Don't get me wrong; there are some amazing talents that have come off of TV like Jinkx Monsoon and Bianca Del Rio of course. These are people who already have a show, who are theater people. Then you get to the other type that don't really have a show, they're just personalities. And people don't necessarily want to see them perform, they just want to take a picture with them, which is a whole different thing that's happened in the last five or six years. People don't really care what you do onstage. They just want a picture with you. That's what people want now. But there definitely are some of those girls who have a lot of talent. I mean a lot.

What's the drag scene like down in the south?

When I started, it was very sort of pageant drag. And I know things were happening in Atlanta. I even entered a drag pageant when I was in college. And I was more like a Divine character. And you know these girls were not pleased with me because they thought I was making fun of them. They were very serious. I even wore garbage bags for my evening gown. I had an elaborate gown made out of garbage bags. I didn't even have a wig; I had a towel on my head. So I got like dead last in evening wear, but I got first in talent, oddly, probably because I did something crazy. I can't even remember, because back then I had to drink so heavily just to get onstage. Now I have to drink so heavily to get offstage. So it was just a different time. Now the drag's sort of changed. People are inspired by other entertainers and there's just a lot more going on. A lot of people just aren't really entertainers; they just like to dress and be seen. It's more of a costume. There's a lot of costume drag for people who just like to go and hang out and not really perform. There's a lot of that down here. You don't really see that up north a lot. That's how I started; I'd just go to the bars and dress in crazy housewife drag. And I had a baby in a baby carriage and I'd lock it up outside the bar like a bike and have people watch the plastic baby. And people would watch the baby for hours, just playing with him. It was so bizarre. I love New Orleans.

How exactly did you get into drag?

I met this amazing videographer who always had a video camera. This was late '80s so they were big video cameras. And he made videos and we sort of started making these shorts together, very sort of Divine inspired, very inspired by John Waters. You know, drag but it wasn't supposed to be drag, it was supposed to be a woman. Divine in these movies was always supposed to be a female character. So we did these Divine inspired things that were really dirty and they would play them at the bars. That was before MTV, before there were video bars. They would play these videos. They would be like 30 minutes of me being chased around the city by a plastic rat. And they'd turn the sound off and I'd just be screaming and there'd be a plastic rat like on a fishing wire just chasing me. There was one we did where I just drank a gallon of milk all over the city. It was so weird and so fun to do these things. And then I really realized the power of video. If you put a video on at a bar, I don't care what it is, people are gonna stare at it. They're just naturally drawn to it, no matter what it is. That's how I really started doing videos. Then I started doing songs. Then I sort of found my own character. Varla sort of came out of all of that. My friend, Vidkid Timo, we made so much stuff together. He really inspired me to do drag, because I was just sort of a party boy in college.

Me! 1990! Oh dear!

A photo posted by Varla Jean Merman (@varlajeanmerman) on

My last question is marry, fuck, kill: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Olivia de Havilland?

Oh my god...I guess you'd marry Olivia de Havilland. She's very sweet. And I guess you'd fuck Bette Davis and kill Joan Crawford.

Hush Up, Sweet Charlotte is now available on Vimeo On Demand. Watch the trailer below:

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