This week's cover girl Varla Jean Merman first appeared in John Waters-esque videos made while her male alter ego Jeffery Roberson was a student at LSU. Now the fictitious progeny of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine has been seen almost everywhere, from homemade video shorts made with friends in the Faubourg Marigny (check out Roberson's YouTube channel here), to Broadway (Chicago and the upcoming off-Broadway show Lucky Guy), to television (Project Runway, All My Children, Ugly Betty, the Logo network) to movies (Girls Will Be Girls and the upcomingVarla Jean and the Mushroomheads). In our interview, Roberson talked about two of his TV experiences, as well as hs thoughts on RuPaul's Drag Race, making a movie, and the process of transforming into Varla.
On playing model and muse for designer Joe Faris on Project Runway:
Chris March, who was on the show the previous season, I knew him from San Francisco because he and another friend of mine had this theater company and he was one of the actors in it, and he would do all the costumes for all of the shows. So I knew him then. In the Scrooge in Rouge show, the big giant turban I wore? He made that years before he was on Project Runway. He makes giant things. He’s so talented. Project Runway was doing a drag episode, and he got to pick who was going to be on it, and he picked me as one (of the drag queens), which was great. I was obsessed with the show, I had seen every episode, so to go there was so trippy. It's so weird because you know, it’s like a dream, because you know all the rooms from TV, then to see where they’re situated and see where the people are, it was surreal.
They auctioned the outfit off for charity. It was basically hot-glued together at the end. It was coming apart it was so tight.
On the reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race, and also the animated short about the Stonewall riots he did for Logo:
I just think that drag has come so much further than that (Drag Race). It just seems almost like the minstrel show version of drag, in a way. I think some of those girls are very talented. I just think with any of those shows, like American Idol, it’s not so much the artistic part of it, rather than to fit a certain mold. I just find it so funny that RuPaul’s such a big drag star known for singing with his own voice, but then when (the contestants) come to the show, they have to lip sync to him. The next drag superstar I don’t think is going to be a lip syncer. It’s not going to happen. Those girls are good for clubs and things, but I just don’t think it will be. I think the next drag superstar is going to be a comedian. Believe me, there’s young girls coming up, and I think it’s going to be more of a personality. I’m more of an actor, I think, but it’s going to be more of a personality. Someone who’s funny, like a Kathy Griffin type. It could sort of bridge the gap.
One thing good I will say about RuPaul’s Drag Race is that it’s sort of more plays to middle America — the fact that Logo’s putting drag on TV. I think Ru’s very talented, and people find it very entertaining. When Logo first started, they were going to incorporate some drag in it, and they had asked me — because I do a Schoolhouse Rock medly — can you write a Schoolhouse Rock-type thing for Stonewall? I thought, "Oh my God, that sounds great." So I wrote this song and they had people from MTV and Nickelodeon do the animation. I was supposed to do a few of them, but right after that they sort of fired everyone at Logo and wanted to take it (the network) in a new direction, and they completely ignored drag then from that point, for basically five years until they had Ru Paul’s Drag Race. Logo, I think, was doing terrible, but I think they’re doing much better now that they’ve embraced drag. I think they were trying to please everyone and be PC. I mean, drag is a part of gay culture whether you like it or not.
On producing and writing a full-length feature film for the first time:
It’s just so different to do a movie. Plays obviously have so much rehearsal, but in a movie you have very little, and you get on set and you’re like “Oh no, this isn’t right!”
It’s never exactly what you envisioned. I just realized that editing is half the movie. You don’t really think it, but things just don’t play out the way you think they would, or some things play out better — it’s just so interesting. Sometimes, mistakes that were filmed we’re leaving in because they’re so funny.
Before I never had to worry about there being water and M&M’s for the crew — I would just show up. I was producing, as well, with my manager Mark Cortale, and we had to deal with everything. It’s just so much to do. It was hard, I don’t know if I’d ever do it again. I’m not Barbra Streisand … It’s just so difficult. But I had a great director and he made it happen. It was an experience. Cause when I did Girls Will Be Girls, that was so easy even though that was low-budget, too. I just showed up and I didn’t have to worry.
On what it's like to not play Varla in other roles:
I act more as a woman than I do as a man. Oftentimes they’re casting Varla to play this part, so it’s sort of like, I have this persona and she’s playing someone else. It’s very funny. I’ve done plays and I’m sure they cast me because they liked how I did Varla and they want me to bring some of that to the role, and I will. And I’ll do sort of a hybrid with that character. Other characters I’ve done, like when we did Shut Up, Sweet Charlotte, I played this evil person. But still first it’s Varla, because it’s physically her, then you know … it’s so weird.
We did The Mystery of Irma Vep here recently one of the characters was kind of like Varla and others weren’t. That’s easy, because I’ve done her (Varla) so long and she’s developed more into a real person as a character over the years. She wasn’t like that at first — I used to just dance on bars and drink at Lafitte’s for years.
On transforming into Varla:
I can do it in 30 minutes, but it takes years off my life. I like an hour. It’s is sort of tedious because it’s sort of like, Sisyphus. It’s like rolling the rock up the hill every time. That’s the work part of it. I wish I had someone to do my makeup — it takes a long time to get all that shit on. People are like “You work an hour a night!” and I’m like, I work more than an hour.