All her life, actress/singer/songwriter/dancer/flutist/ spokesmodel/superstar Varla Jean Merman has been assaulted with questions: "Where did you get that hula hoop?" "What are you doing with Grandma's wallet?" "Are you really gonna eat that?" "Miss, do you know how fast you were driving?" "What happened to the pizza?" Critics have also attacked the tantalizing celebrity with a barrage of queries: "Where did you get your hair?" "Are you lip-synching?" "Who does your makeup?" "Was that dress on sale?" "Who's your daddy?"
With the opening of her confessional Off-Broadway multimedia mélange, Enough About Me: An Unauthorized Autobiography, Varla Jean Merman is poised to clear the air and dispel some of the ugly rumors that have plagued her since gaining notoriety as a showgirl in New Orleans. "The press is always distorting my family history by writing that I 'claim' or am 'rumored' to be the 'alleged' love child of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine. That's irresponsible journalism!" asserts Varla Jean. "I AM Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine's daughter--and two restraining orders can't stop me from saying so!"
Another controversy to swirl around the buxom beauty pertains to her dramatic weight loss. "I lost 90 pounds," she boasts as if auditioning to replace Monica Lewinsky in Jenny Craig ads. "Some of my fans thought that I was sick. I lost weight the old-fashioned way: diet, exercise and tapeworms!"
It's difficult to imagine the full-figured femme fatale on a diet, especially when the highlight of her act used to be the consumption of a two-pound brick of Velveeta while simultaneously singing. Varla Jean continues to perform her signature number, "Dream a Little Dream of Cheese," but now, the large volume of processed food product is replaced with a more palatable can of Easy Cheese. "I love the taste--and it has the convenience of being an aerosol," she notes.
Food and family are not the only topics dissected by Varla Jean during her 90-minute autobiographical tour de force. Between swiftly edited, polished videos showing her love for birds, and a trip to Japan (where she met the one and only Hello Kitty) the scintillating entertainer examines racial stereotypes, urban legends, narcissism and bad relationships. "This is an edgy, experimental, one-woman show. It's like a parole hearing set to music," explains Varla Jean. "And, it's all about ME!"
Behind every great drag queen, there's a great man. Broadway's Dame Edna is managed by her "agent" Barry Humphries, and Off-Broadway's Lypsinka has her "maid" John Epperson. On the edge of Varla Jean's spotlight, you'll find Arkansas native Jeff Roberson. As a student of Louisiana State University in the late 1980s, Roberson began to experiment with drag. "I wanted my life to be more glamorous than it was," he confesses. "I used to wear outfits thrown together from wigs and dresses I picked up at the Salvation Army. Within a short time, I was carefully planning what to wear on a Saturday night." It was during those Saturday nights that Varla Jean Merman was born. "I started to get noticed when I began creating crazy videos for bars in New Orleans," Roberson remembers. "If you've ever been to a 'video bar,' you know what they're like--lots of men standing around staring at big-screen TVs. They wanted MTV. They got Varla Jean!" Soon, the French Quarter wasn't big enough to hold the boisterous drag creation. With a daiquiri firmly in his hand, Roberson boarded a train and headed to Manhattan.
With impeccable comic timing and a voice that inspired Opera News to baptize the performer "a true artiste," Roberson's alter ego quickly captured the attention of New York's cabaret crowd. Following sold-out runs at Eighty-Eights, Ms. Merman shared the stage with Wigstock legend Lady Bunny in Jingle Belles at The Westbeth Theater. The hit holiday show established Varla Jean as a bona fide star. A few Christmases later, she was singing "Susie Snowflake" and other Yuletide classics on the stage of Carnegie Hall. Briefly shedding the Merman persona, Roberson toured from Tulsa to Tokyo as Chicago's Mary Sunshine, a role he understudied on Broadway.
As Varla Jean, Roberson has been seen in several hilarious TWEED Fraktured Classiks productions, including Lypsinka is Harriet Craig, The Miracle Worker with Charles Busch, and most recently, Varla Jean Merman is the Bad Seedling, co-starring Kristine Zbornik. The actor also appeared opposite Tony-winner Betty Buckley during one of her concerts at The Bottom Line. The unlikely twosome sang "When There's No One" from Carrie, the short-lived Stephen King-based musical. "I think I scared her a bit," admits Roberson who performed dressed as the show's telekinetic title character. "You can't say 'Carrie, you're not like other girls' to a six-foot guy in drag without getting a laugh."
These days, Varla Jean is thrilled to again be flying solo with Enough About Me at The Chelsea Playhouse. "Life is a game," she roars. "And Varla Jean Merman is playing with herself." Since opening last month, fans of the show have included pianist Billy Stritch and superstar Liza Minnelli, who gave Varla Jean a standing ovation. Directed by Michael Schiralli, Enough About Me joyously returns Varla Jean to her cabaret roots. Despite the success and adoration, Roberson recognizes that audiences don't always "understand" the self-absorbed Varla Jean. "If people think Enough About Me is just a bad cabaret act, it's okay!" the star laughs. "That's what it's supposed to be!"
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