Enough with the chit-chat — let's make a baby!"
Channeling someone between Ann-Margret and Lindsay Lohan, Varla Jean Merman is dressed in clear high heels, black yoga pants cropped short enough to reveal a bulky alcohol-monitoring ankle bracelet on her right leg, and a fuzzy powder-blue shirt with an anti-shoplifting sensor tag visible. (New Orleans stage actress Mandy Zirkenbach, sitting nearby, says the shirt looks like an item from the "Jim Henson collection for Target.") Varla's got wide eyes and a batty smile plastered across her face, and all her sentences evaporate into girlish giggles, but she is up to no good. Her goal is to con a couple into paying for her services as a surrogate mother so she can raise funds to produce, of all things, a children's television show. (Varla, it turns out, cannot actually get pregnant. And the constant drinking doesn't help.)
Varla Jean and the Mushroomheads is in post-production, and the crew and some cast members are reshooting scenes and filming additional ones at a Creole cottage in Treme. "I like to call (the scenes) 'inserts'," says Jeffery Roberson, the man behind the drag queen, who wrote the movie with frequent collaborator Jacques Lamarre. "'Reshoot' sounds like something bad happened."
The shoot is a few days before the close of 2010, but it's already looking like 2011 is going to be Roberson's year. Besides the movie, born from successful runs of his Varla Jean and the Mushroomheads stage show in New Orleans, San Francisco and Provincetown, Mass., there are solo Varla shows in New York and New Orleans slated for later in the year, as well as a sequel in the works for the 2003 drag-cult film Girls Will Be Girls, in which Varla starred as one of three actresses trading barbs and bulimia jokes while living together in a Hollywood apartment. In April, Roberson will shed the Varla persona — although he will be in drag — to star in Willard Beckham's off-Broadway musical Lucky Guy, as a country music one-hit-wonder scheming to get back in the spotlight.
But for now there's a film to complete, and the movie's low budget necessitates filming as soon as possible. Varla continues the grift: "Come here, tiger!" The husband (played by Matthew Carroll) pounces, suggesting this surrogacy is going to happen the old-fashioned way. Varla's legs pop in the air, showing off the alcohol anklet and some incredible flexibility.
"Shouldn't we do this upstairs?" Zirkenbach's character implores.
"Honey," Varla responds, "if you want to watch it's going to be an extra $40."
After a pause, the barren wife solemnly responds: "I'll put down some newspaper."
When not in Varla costume, Roberson resembles a Marine more than a man who makes a living performing as a woman. The 41-year-old is tall, muscular and broad-shouldered with good posture. His personality is also a departure from his alter ego; friends and co-workers invariably describe Roberson as quiet and modest.
"I ran into Jeff on the street ... and I had no idea who it was," Mark Cortale, Roberson's manager for the past 10 years, says of meeting Roberson for the first time after seeing him perform as Varla. "I didn't believe that was the person I had seen the night before. The transformation was so impressive and extraordinary that it made me appreciate the character even more, how I really didn't see any of Jeff in that. It is a really brilliant creation."
Roberson acknowledges the differences between himself and his arresting stage persona.
"I hate auditioning," he says. "I'm not good at it. Trying to convince someone how I would appear in drag is always horrible. I go in and I look like this, and it's just disturbing to hear me singing high, because I don't look like her. It's always so weird when people recognize me, because I don't really see how they see me."
Fans might not recognize Roberson absent the ginger wigs, makeup and sizeable breasts, but Varla Jean Merman is certainly a familiar face in the drag world. Roberson achieved cult fame after playing Varla in Richard Day's loved and reviled Girls Will Be Girls, but he first gained a following through live performances around the country and the world. The live appearances showcase Roberson's entire repertoire. Audiences can expect homemade video skits predating FunnyorDie.com/SNL Digital Shorts, original numbers and rewritten versions of pop classics, physical comedy and, inevitably, something zany, like Varla dressed as the queen from The Magic Flute while singing an operatic version of Lady Gaga and Beyonce's "Telephone" accompanied by music from an iPhone's flute application. Some drag queens may lip sync, but the big draw of a Varla show is Roberson's singing voice. (A testament to Roberson's vocal ability is a slightly nauseating scene in Girls Will Be Girls, in which Varla sings a lovely soprano tune while spraying Cheez Whiz directly into her mouth.)
Roberson grew up living in several small towns in Louisiana because of his father's job as an FBI agent. For high school, he eventually enrolled at the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts in Natchitoches. Roberson, whose family is very conservative, planned to study chemistry until the school's chorus director recruited him because of his high speaking voice.
"If it wasn't for the Louisiana School, I wouldn't have gone into the arts at all," Roberson says. "It changed my life." Roberson says his father died when he was a boy, and his mother, who lives in a tiny town in Arkansas, doesn't acknowledge his career.
After graduating from high school, Roberson attended Louisiana State University on a vocal scholarship, and there he became acquainted with fellow Louisiana native Vidkid Timo, a filmmaker who would become known for his horror spoofs and adult movies.
"We did these videos, and we would just film kind of John Waters-y, silly things," Roberson says. "This was before they were playing videos in bars, and we would make these videos — like, 30 minutes of me being chased down the street by a plastic rat — with no sound and we'd give them to the bars, and they would play them underneath the music. And people would just watch it, for 30 minutes, me being chased by a plastic rat.
"Out of one of the videos we came up with Varla. Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine were married for like, 30 days, I think. One of the guys (in the LSU music school) gave me her autobiography. There's a chapter called 'My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine' and it's a blank page. And I thought, 'Oh wow, she hated him.' So I thought if she had a baby, she would have given it up for adoption and that's who Varla thinks she is, but she's not. That's just who she created herself to be."
Roberson ended up leaving the music school ("[Opera] didn't really interest me and took a lot more dedication than I had," he says. "I have to have a good time. You can't have a good time to be an opera singer ... it's like being an athlete. And I like to have a daiquiri and a martini.") and graduating with an advertising degree. He worked at an agency in New Orleans before moving to New York in 1997 for a position at the agency Ogilvy and Mather. The job wasn't the only draw; Roberson also was enticed by the city's drag scene, which boasted many performers with considerable vocal talent.
"In New Orleans, everyone was doing lip sync," he says. "When I moved to New York, there was a big drag renaissance happening. It was right before RuPaul, before (the movie) To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar — it was a big happening in the mid-'90s. A lot of people were singing with their own voice, and I sort of rode that wave."
Roberson got into the New York drag scene with the help of his friend Clinton Leupp — aka Miss Coco Peru, a drag queen who co-starred in Girls Will Be Girls. Roberson worked as an art director at Ogilvy during the day and performed drag shows at night. Eventually his soprano landed him the role of Mary Sunshine in the Broadway revival of Chicago. Roberson quit his day job after he was offered a role in the touring production of the show, and after the tour he decided to focus on performing full time. "I thought, you know, I don't want to go back to work," he says. "So I kind of put a show together and started traveling around."
While performing at the club Josie's Cabaret and Juice Joint in San Francisco, one of his first Varla gigs outside of New York, Roberson met a drag queen who invited him to perform in Provincetown, Mass., the small Cape Cod town known as a favorite gay resort spot. Varla's show would become a summer staple in the town for the next 11 years, and Roberson would begin to book shows as Varla in venues all over the world.
"Once I started going to Provincetown I thought, 'Wow. This could be a career.' And it has been," he says. "And then I went to Australia and performed at the Sydney Opera House and thought, 'This is really bizarre now.' It's just been amazing."
Those not familiar with the world of drag entertainment may recognize Roberson from some of the more mainstream gigs he's taken on over the years. Logo, a LGBT-oriented cable channel owned by MTV Networks, approached Roberson in 2007 to create a Schoolhouse Rock-style video short about the Stonewall riots of 1969 (the network sought Roberson for the job because of a Schoolhouse Rock spoof medley he often incorporates in his Varla shows). He also appeared in the HBO documentary Dragtime, on the ABC shows All My Children and Ugly Betty, and the competition-based reality TV show Project Runway, on which Roberson was paired with one of the competing designers to create a costume for Varla. The finished product — a "Love Boat meets Ann-Margret" pink nautical jumpsuit, complete with an anchor belt buckle that, in the words of judge-designer Michael Kors, "hides the candy" — made designer Joe Faris win the challenge.
Although his resume includes everything from a Broadway gig, to sharing the bill with Sharon Stone and Naomi Campbell at Vienna's Life Ball charity event, to Heidi Klum saying he has a great body on Project Runway, Roberson still appears in smaller productions locally and around the country. He lives in the Faubourg Marigny and performs in New Orleans frequently, often with local writer, director and performer Ricky Graham. The two recently appeared together in runs of Scrooge in Rouge and Auntie Mame at Le Chat Noir. Roberson isn't afraid to take underground gigs — literally: He recently earned the prestigious Boston Critics' Elliot Norton Award for his role in Phantom of the Oprah, which was performed in the basement of the Boston nightclub Machine.
"I've been disappointed many times by the bigger, more successful gigs, because someone's trying to fit me into something," he says. "It's interesting when the more legitimate things turn out to be not really as fulfilling as performing in the basement of a leather bar."
The Varla Jean and the Mushroomheads crew, squeezed in with lights and computer equipment in the Treme cottage's small dining area, has been filming a picked-over roasted chicken off and on for nearly 30 minutes.
"I didn't know this, but part of the process of moviemaking is you see what you don't have and try to fill it in," Roberson says. "There's this thing in the movie, there's a chicken that is served. But we never filmed the chicken, in the plate, all eaten. ... We have to film the chicken, get the same bowl. It's just so crazy, all the things you have to film."
Roberson has film experience from Girls Will Be Girls, but being a writer and producer of a full-length feature has proved to be an entirely different experience. Besides the expected challenges of filmmaking — working with a limited time frame and budget, long hours of re-edits and reshoots, making sure Roberson's facial hair is well-hidden from unforgiving HD lenses — film production began with what has become a common but unfortunate occurrence in New Orleans.
"On the first day of shooting we were all ready to go, the script was written ... and one of our cast members was shot (with a gun) on the way," Roberson says. "It's 5 a.m., we're about to shoot at 6, and I get a call from Ricky (Graham, who acts in the movie) saying that (the cast member) was shot."
The cast member recovered, and Brian Peterson, a mainstay of the local theater troupe Running With Scissors, stepped in at the last minute to take over the role.
"That's filmmaking in New Orleans," Roberson says. "It's kind of shocking that I know four people who have been shot."
The day's shoot marks the end of filming. The next step for Varla Jean and the Mushroomheads involves finding a distributor and entering the film into festivals so it can have a commercial release — Roberson is aiming for a fall 2011 release — and there are plans for a New Orleans screening of the film in March. In the meantime, Roberson will keep busy with productions of the solo Varla show The Loose Chanteuse in New York (Feb. 17-27 at the Ars Nova theater) and New Orleans (March 11-13 at Le Chat Noir), right before starring in Lucky Guy at New York's Little Shubert Theatre opposite actor and playwright Leslie Jordan (best known for his role as the diminutive but flamboyant Beverley Leslie on Will & Grace). Also in the works is the sequel to Girls Will Be Girls, which is happening because the film's fans donated enough money — more than $35,000 — on the fundraising website Kickstarter.
2011 looks like it's going to be a dynamic year for Roberson, but his manager Cortale — who is producing Varla Jean and the Mushroomheads alongside Roberson — says working nonstop is just the performer's nature.
"What I have grown to admire most about Jeff over the years is that he's the hardest-working performer I've ever met, and he's a perfectionist," Cortale says. "He will not stop working on something until he thinks it's perfect, and even then it's hard for him to stop."
Graham concurs. "Jeff shares my compulsive work ethic. It's a pleasure to work with someone who not only is extremely talented and creative, but also continues to refine a project even after it opens.
"Jeff is no mere drag queen ... he is more than a pretty face," Graham adds. "He is a brilliant comic actor, writer and director. His branching out into writing and editing film — as well as playing some more challenging acting parts — shows his great range. I love everything about him, and I'm so proud to be considered a colleague and friend."
Roberson attributes much of his success to the power of positive thinking.
"It's funny, because somebody told me 'Write down your goals.' So then in the past year I wrote down my goals, and like, four out of five of them have come true: the Broadway show's happening, the movie's happening. ... For some reason if you write it down, it comes true. It's like The Secret," Roberson says. "But it is funny, everything I wrote down sort of came true — except saving more money. That didn't happen."