Varla Jean Merman’s New Inspiration

By Bebe Sweetbriar

She’s done it all. With more than 20 years of cabaret shows, films, television shows, musicals, operas, and play productions under her belt, you would think drag superstar Varla Jean Merman (created by Jeffrey Roberson), one of the most talented theatrical drag queens on the planet, would be ready to hang up her heels and retire. Instead, Merman has found a way to stay motivated and creatively ignited. It all comes full circle. She is inspired now by those new, young drag queens that she herself inspired. When it appeared that the drag movement had moved away from live and authentic stage performances, making room for the professional lip syncer, Merman finds it refreshing that drag has now returned to an art form that she – and many of her veteran peers – have built their careers on.

Though RuPaul’s Drag Race has been credited by many as the force that brought drag out of the closet and into the mainstream, Varla Jean is critical of the shows beginnings. “Not that there is anything wrong with lip syncing, but if you’re not doing anything creative with it, like Lypsinka, then what’s the point?” says Merman. But recent performers to come out of the drag reality show on LOGO have changed Merman’s mind. “With Jinkx,” she says “they are really getting the right idea! Jinkx is so talented.” Varla Jean is now finding inspiration from drag performers and Drag Race alums like Bianca Del Rio, Jinkx Monsoon, Sharon Needles and Ben De La Creme who she says “respects the elders” of drag and are truly theatre people at heart. It is this inspiration that has found this musically trained Louisiana State University graduate returning to the stage with performances in productions of the off-Broadway musical Lucky Guy and the opera The Medium. Varla Jean has also done the Gold Dust Orphan’s production of Mildred Fierce for the past two years.

Coming off her 17th successful year of summer performances in Provincetown, Massachusetts, Merman will be performing most of September and October in New York with only a one weekend break to return for an overdue visit to San Francisco to perform at Feinstein’s in the Hotel Nikko October 3rd – 5th. I spoke to Varla Jean about her debut performance at Feinstein’s, her recent stage work, the talent coming out of RuPaul’s Drag Race and a challenging upcoming role where tucking won’t be required.

As we speak you are finishing up your annual summer gig in Provincetown, Massachusetts. You’ve been doing P’Town for quite some time now. How many years have you been doing performances there? This is my 17th year, can you believe it? Years ago I worked with Jimmy James. I stayed with him the first summer I came here. I remember he had been doing P’Town for 13 years then, and I said I’d never be here that long. And now here I am in my 17th year.

The thing about Provincetown is that you get so many people who come back year-after-year. I am sure you look out into the audience from year-to-year and there are faces you recognize each time. Every year! People have told me they have seen me 15 of those 17 years.

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When you know that you have such a perennial audience, do you feel a pressure to keep bringing something fresh to the shows? Oh yeah! I’ve been very careful. In the 17 years here I did a greatest hits show at my 10 year mark, and I think I have maybe repeated one or two numbers thereafter. But, you can never do the same show again, or you have to have at least 70% new material each year because they come back every year. All performers know that if you don’t have a new show someone else will. And the someone is going to go see a new show before they see a repeat show.

Regardless of the caliber of your show or how long you have been performing, you still have to always sell yourself, so to speak, as if it were your first time in P’Town. Yes. You do! Also, things are changing. There are a lot more straight people who come out to the shows during the day, so if you want to fill an audience you really have to get those straight people in there. You’ve got to find away to do that.

The last time I saw you perform in San Francisco, you were doing the Varla Jean and the Mushroomheads show. Which was a live show before it became a film, correct? It started as a live cabaret show, and we took the idea and did a film of Varla doing a show around doing a show. The movie was about making the cabaret show, which was a children’s show.

The Mushroomheads has since been retired? Yes. It ran on HERE! TV for while.

>>> CHECK OUT THE TRAILER HERE : Varla Jean & The Mushroomeads

I have noticed that over the past few years you have been doing quite a bit of live theatre work. Yes, I’ve been doing a lot of theatre. Well, doing a one person show gets kind of lonely after awhile. <laughs> It’s not always fun being the only one on the stage. I was incorporating a lot of people into my solo shows, but now I just do a lot of theatre because I don’t have to write all the time. I can be in someone else’s show.

And, this hasn’t been campy stuff. You’ve been doing some real serious and “nitty gritty” pieces. I did the opera The Medium which was a serious opera. Now that I look back on it, they billed me as Varla Jean Merman, and it was a serious piece. So people came thinking it was going to be… well, if you said Carol Burnett was going to be in a show, no one is going to think it will be a drama. That was sort of the weird thing. I shouldn’t have billed myself as Varla Jean. It wasn’t me who wanted to do that, but the producers did. It was a very serious piece. I think some people were a little confused coming to see it. In it I played an evil con artist/fortune teller (Madam Flora) who ends up killing one of her patrons.

Sounds like a Lifetime movie of the week! <laughs> Yeah, really!

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Sharon Needles + Jinkx Monsoon

I don’t know if it is because a lot of drag artists coming out of RuPaul’s Drag Race lately have had strong theater backgrounds or not, but I have noticed more and more queens are doing more theatre pieces. Yes, at least the last two winners – Bianca Del Rio and Jinkx Monsoon – were both theatre people. Of course, Sharon Needles is such an all-around performer. It seems that it raises the bar for everybody.

Now, you have been doing theatre for years, but it seems essential now that up and coming drag queens incorporate theatre into their acts if they intend to have a successful career. Has any of this been an inspiration for you to do more of the theatre? When I first thought about RuPaul’s Drag Race I thought ‘it’s not really about drag’ or the ‘drag movement.’ I mean lip syncing? Not that there is anything wrong with lip syncing but if you’re not doing anything creative with it, like Lypsinka, then what’s the point? I mean lip syncing can be entertaining but it’s not going to make you a superstar. Britney lipsyncs but she’s lip syncing her own shit! <laughs> You have to do your own stuff. Then they started picking people like Sharon Needles, and I thought, finally they are picking someone who is different. And then with Jinkx, I said ‘now they are really getting the idea. Jinkx is so talented.’  I’ve seen her in Provincetown all summer and she is unbelievable. As me and Miss Coco (Peru) say about most Drag Race girls, ‘and she is very respectful of her elders.’ Because some of them are not, but Jinkx, Bianca and Ben De La Creme have seen us (veteran queens) work and we’ve inspired them, and now, my God, they inspire me. It seems to have come full circle. The latest girls are superstars. A lip syncer is not going to be a superstar.

Even with Adore Delano, who was in the final three of Season 6, as well as Courtney Act – both live singers.  I’m looking forward to the future seasons of Drag Race to see what this really means. Because this past season’s final three were all top notch live performers. Yeah because instead of just campy and silly challenges, they can have challenges where you can really see their talent.

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The show you will be bringing to San Francisco on October 3rd at Feinstein’s which was the Rrazz Room when you last performed. Same space, but a different environment. The Rrazz Room was, I believe, a bit more diverse in its entertainment offerings, open to about anything that may fill up seats. Feinstein’s has a different expectation from audiences. Since they have opened, they haven’t really booked a lot of drag acts. How do you feel about playing Feinstein’s here? Had you played Feinstein’s in New York before? No, I have not. I know what you mean. You kind of think ‘classy lady,’ so maybe they are trying to branch out <laughs>. They have been trying to book me for awhile so I think they have been trying to book other types of performers. I am excited about being there. I love San Francisco, first of all, and I haven’t been there in a few years. I’ll be doing some classic things where there is about three shows in this one show. I’m taking all the good material. So, San Francisco is lucky they don’t have sit through all the filler (laughs). It will be the greatest of the shows I’ve done over the last couple of years.

You joke when you say ‘classy lady,’ but when I think of Varla Jean Merman, I think ‘classy lady’ — with a lot of wit. So, I think it fits. But beyond the coming fall what’s ahead for you? I’m doing the most challenging role to date… (wait for it)… I’m playing a man! (laughs) What?! I know, shocking, huh? I’m going to be playing Black Stache in a production of Peter and the Starcatcher which is sort of the prequel to Peter Pan. (Black Stache) is based on the Captain Hook character. I’ll be doing that in New Orleans for the month of November.

Well, finally. You can be untucked on stage! <laughs> I know! Right?! What’s that even like?!


Varla Jean Merman with Tom Shaw and Roberta Drake perform at Feinstein’s in the Hotel Nikko in San Francisco October 3rd-5th.

For tickets and more information go to hotelnikkosf.com 

Visit varlaonline.com for Varla Jean Merman’s complete performance schedule.

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