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Varla Jean Merman on Making Movies

by JC Alvarez
Monday Mar 4, 2013
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In the pantheon of celebrated drag entertainers Varla Jean Merman has endeavored to stick out from the rest of her soul sisters. The vaudevillian vixen has always been a stand-up comedian with one of the biggest personalities. Proving again her talent has no bounds - she’s tackled everything from stage, to screen and now is ramping up for her latest project, a film she’s calling "Varla Jean Merman and the Mushroomheads."

Catchy title for this mockumentary from SethTV that follows a determined Varla Jean (yes...she’s playing herself) as she prepares to launch her own children’s television show. "I’m sure you can understand what could go wrong," she says. "I don’t think I really have to explain - it’s Varla Jean trying to put together a children’s show." Filmed over a year ago in her native New Orleans, the film also features SethTV’s own Seth Rudetsky.

Does it sound like she’s pushing buttons? Is this delicate darling courting controversy? You bet your balls she is! "Yes...there might be a few things that are pushing the envelope," but that happens whenever Varla Jean lets loose with her unique-onto-herself comic flair. "I promise you that no children were harmed in the filming of this movie."


Many Hats, Many Wigs

That doesn’t mean the quick-to-happen, modestly budgeted shoot didn’t have its own share of on-set drama. "One of our cast members got shot. He’s all right. He wasn’t hurt terribly," Varla Jean assured us, "but when you only have five or six days to shoot a movie, you have to film what you need to tell your story. Something like that can set you back." There was also the unfortunate demolition of a building taking place across the street from the set that wasn’t anticipated. "Between the demolition, the shooting and half-empty bottles of water everywhere, I had my hands full." Varla Jean wears many hats - or more appropriately many wigs on the shoot of "Mushroomheads" which she also produced.

"Bottle water is expensive," she now knows. "It drove me crazy when I noticed people were only drinking half and throwing them away. I was having a nervous breakdown." Film is not a medium entirely foreign to the multi-talented performer, who got her start in drag appearing in self-produced short films. "I starred in short films, and didn’t even go out in drag." Varla Jean would appear in bars all over the country in campy, videoed clips. "I love film, and I would do it all again," albeit with a bigger, more flexible budget, certainly enough to keep the cast and crew proper hydrated and her sanity intact. "Believe me...Meryl Streep is not worrying about whether anyone is drinking bottle water around her."

The uproariously glamorous and larger than life Varla Jean Merman has enjoyed an incredibly lustrous career. Jeffery Roberson, the alter ego that has realized Varla Jean Merman - a physical amalgamation of Ann-Margret and Jane Russell, with the comic sensibilities of Lucille Ball, but the bombshell brash of Marilyn Monroe - has more often worked as Varla Jean than any other character in the arsenal.


Working Girl

"There was this huge drag renaissance in the 90’s," Varla Jean recalls. "People were using their own voices. There was a lot of creativity." That led to the appearance and popularization of some of today’s biggest drag artists including Lady Bunny, Bianca Del Rio, and of course RuPaul. "The goals [in drag] have changed," she feels. "It’s a totally different world. There’s a stress on ’the look’." And although a fan of what the kids are doing today, especially on "RuPaul’s Drag Race," Varla Jean Merman has noticed fewer comedians emerging on the scene.

For example, on this week’s episode, contestant Jinkx Monsoon proved she has "funny gal" skills and pulled off a spot-on Little Edie from "Grey Gardens." Unfortunately the rest of the queens had little connectivity to their popular culture and didn’t get the joke, leaving Jinkx feeling out in the cold. "I could easily relate to Jinkx Monsoon and feeling different," Varla Jean admits. "I tried out for a pageant once, and didn’t even own a wig. I went out on stage wearing garbage bags." Varla Jean was dead last in evening wear, but first in talent.

Now properly leading and paving the way as one of our most recognizable drag acts in entertainment, Varla Jean Merman continues to perform and to challenge the conventions of the art form. "People have careers in drag. I’m an actor, but I mostly work as a woman. Varla Jean has all new life experiences - this character has grown."


To properly inaugurate the new flick, Varla Jean Merman and Seth Rudetsky are giving their fans a treat, unveiling the trailer for the film and a few additional surprises. "We’re doing a few new numbers," as well as some of her standards, Varla Jean promises, "including my ode to foreskin - my tribute to the natural look. We all want what we don’t have." Which of course, led me to ask if in our post-world of marriage equality Varla Jean Merman has found true love. "My love life is great! It’s the best ever - but I have a rule: no drag in the house! I refuse to bring my work home."

This Tuesday, March 5th at Industry Bar in New York City, Varla Jean Merman will be performing alongside Seth Rudetsky and premiering scenes from her new movie "Varla Jean Merman and the Mushroomheads" from SethTV (www.sethtv.com). There will be songs and jokes aplenty as well as giveaways from Universal Gear.

Native New Yorker JC Alvarez is a pop-culture enthusiast and the nightlife chronicler of the club scene and its celebrity denizens from coast-to-coast. He is the on-air host of the nationally syndicated radio show "Out Loud & Live!" and is also on the panel of the local-access talk show "Talking About".

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