Leslie Jordan and Varla Jean Merman
Together in Houston!
by Donalevan Maines
Well, well, well, so much to say, so little time.
On Saturday, May 10, Leslie Jordan plans to “yammer and carry on” in a dishy show in the Hobby Center’s Zilkha Hall that’s bound to be hilarious.
However, the diminutive actor/writer shares the evening with opening act Varla Jean Merman (who was born in Houston), “so it doesn’t give me time to do any of my one-man shows,” he says. “Fruit Fly, which I did in London, for example, has 55 light cues. So this is just me and a mic, and I take a little from here and a little from there, and of course I like to stay current
“I haven’t had a complaint yet.
“Varla is filthy,” he adds. “God, her show is dirty. Have you ever seen Varla Jean Merman??”
He explains that Varla is the fierce and fabulous drag character created by actor Jeffery Roberson.
When the pair starred off-Broadway in a musical, Lucky Guy, a critic at The New York Times raved, “If Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman had stood in front of the right pair of funhouse mirrors, they might have resembled Ms. Merman and Mr. Jordan in stature as well as comedic talent.
“Alongside these two forces of nature,” their co-star “wisely and charmingly underplay[ed] his material,” the Times continued. That co-star was Kyle Dean Massey, the out hunk who in April assumed the title role in Pippin, which won best revival of a musical at last year’s Tony Awards.
Roberson, aka Merman, is something of a hunk himself, assures Jordan. “He’s a big ol’ muscle-boy. When we did that play in New York that flopped, I got to see him in the dressing room, putting on all that foam rubber and fake titties and things getting taped and tucked. You wouldn’t think he was a drag queen, to look at him; you wouldn’t even think he was gay.”
It’s been a few years, says Jordan, since anyone’s questioned his sexual orientation—except for Gabourney Sidibe, that is. When he and the Precious star filmed Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story: Coven last year in New Orleans, Jordan says, “She asked me, ‘Are you gay?’ I said, ‘Are you black?’ I haven’t been asked that in years. Am I gay? I said, ‘I’m as gay as you are black.’”
Tell-all tales from Coven, as well as behind-the-scene stories from RuPaul’s Drag Race, are included in Jordan’s current standup routine, Show Pony.
Of Coven’s sorority of famous actresses, Jordan says, Sidibe was his “favorite.”
“She’s as big as Dallas and half of Fort Worth,” he allows. “I had wondered, ‘How do you raise a child without much going for her in the looks department?’”
Jordan shrugs, “She doesn’t give a shit.”
About two-time Oscar winner Jessica Lange, he says, “I was just in awe, just to stand there next to her. She’s been breathing that rarified air for so long.”
Jordan mistakenly thought that another Academy Award winner, Kathy Bates, was “making fun” of him when she asked him, “Where are you from?”
Taken aback by her Southern accent, Jordan explains, he responded a mite brusquely, “Well, where are you from?”
“I thought she was making fun of me,” he says. “But they told me, ‘She’s from Memphis. Didn’t you hear her talk in Fried Green Tomatoes and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean?’ I said, ‘She didn’t talk that way in Dolores Claiborne or Misery.’”
Jordan was born April 29, 1955, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “My mama still lives there,” he says. “I just bought her a little condo. I’m the one who keeps the ship afloat. My mother thinks I’m a millionaire.”
Jordan has been in high cotton since winning an Emmy Award in August 2006 for Best Guest Actor in a Comedy Series for his portrayal of “Beverly Leslie” on TV’s Will & Grace. One of his signature lines was“Well, well, well” in an enchanting Southern drawl.
However, he says, his “big break” was his appearance as a substitute secretary on Murphy Brown. “Everybody in town saw it,” he recalls. “That was it for me. I was set.”
RuPaul’s Drag Race was his foray into “reality TV.”
“That’s a long story,” he says, promising to go into it further in the May 10 show at the Hobby Center. “One queen had a falling-on-the-floor breakdown.
“It is low-budget,” he adds. “I’m used to a director calling ‘Action’ and ‘Cut.’ There were cameras everywhere. You’re fair game from the moment you get out of the parking lot.”
Roberson has won acclaim as both an actor and in his drag persona as Varla Jean Merman.
For example, he performed at Long Wharf Theatre in Hartford Stage’s production of The Mystery of Irma Vep in the roles originally made famous by Charles Ludlam.
As Varla Jean, he had a cameo on TV’s Ugly Betty in the final season of the show and was featured on Bravo’s Project Runway Season 5 as the winning model for its drag challenge. He played Mary Sunshine in the revival of Chicago on Broadway and Rosemary Chicken on All My Children. He shared the Outfest Film Festival “Best Actor” Award and the Aspen HBO Film Festival “Best Actress” Award with his costars Jack Plotnick and Clinton Leupp for his featured performance in the cult classic Girls Will Be Girls.
Jordan and Merman appear for one night only, May 10, at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at the Hobby Center box office, at www.thehobbycenter.org or by calling 713.315.2525. Prices range from $42.75 to $62.75.
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.