Jeffery Roberson Loe plays all the parts, including his drag persona, Varla Jean Merman, in the circus-inspired howlfest Under A Big Top March 9 at the MATCH.
But if Varla Jean has run away to join the circus, at least this tour brings Loe through his hometown, where he was born in 1969 at Hermann Hospital.
“I was only in Houston for a few months,” the actor explained by phone from a beach in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. “Then my father got stationed in San Diego. My parents are from Arkansas and Louisiana. I’m a Southern boy.”
And a hairy Southern boy at that.
“I used to shave (to do drag), but now I’m ‘a woman of a certain age’ so I cover up,” he says.
Loe created the character of Varla Jean while living in New Orleans.
“I have always had the same drag name,” he says. “I read Ethel Merman’s autobiography and got to the chapter ‘My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine.’ You turn the page and it’s blank!” (The union lasted just 32 days, or 40 days less than Kim Kardashian’s marriage to Kris Humphries.) The Merman-Borgnine nuptials inspired Loe to imagine: what if they had a long-lost love child who was sent to live in an orphanage? He named her Varla Jean Merman.
Loe says that his “John Waters-inspired” short videos, which he filmed in New Orleans, helped make his name in drag when he moved to New York City. His videos ended up being shown at bars around the country, so Loe was surprised when he saw them playing at a gay club in the Big Apple. He revealed that he was “that girl,” Varla Jean Merman, and his drag career was revived.
“I did one drag pageant,” he says. “I came in dead-last in evening gown, but first in talent. I sang ‘Fever’ live—I never lip-synched.”
Dressed as a lion, Loe sings Ted Nugent’s rock classic “Cat Scratch Fever” in Under A Big Top. As the bearded lady of the circus, he croons a song about a hairy woman. He also plays a magician. Then, in clown drag, there’s “Send In the Clowns” by Judy Collins, as well as Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown,” which Judy Garland and Gene Kelly sang in the 1948 movie The Pirate.
Other songs range from “Carousel” from Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris to “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” by The Police, and “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman.
The show also features “jaw-dropping videos, awe-inspiring songs, and death-defying wigs.”
It might sound like good clean family fun, but not in Loe’s hands.
The Boston Globe warns that the comedian has “a taste for raunch that would leave the most jaded of libertines sputtering.”
Loe adds, “Step right up and prepare yourself to be amazed, dazzled, and possibly disturbed!”
Portraying Varla Jean, he says, “has nothing to do with sexuality at all,” noting that many drag queens are tops in bed.
“I remember back in the day, in the ’80s and ’90s, nobody wanted to date a drag queen,” he says. “I would meet a guy and call my roommate so he could de-drag my room before I brought the guy home, so I wouldn’t have to talk about it.”
He feels the social stigma of doing drag has faded, thanks mainly to the success of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
“I just got married!” says Loe, “I was performing on a cruise and I met him in the gym. I did three shows on that ship, and he had no idea it was me.”
In 2011, Loe starred opposite Leslie Jordan in the off-Broadway musical Lucky Guy. A critic at the New York Times wrote, “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.”
MATCH executive director Chuck Still says, “We are thrilled to welcome an otherworldly talent like Varla.”
What: Varla Jean Merman’s Under A Big Top
When: Saturday, March 9 at 8pm
Where: MATCH, 3400 Main St.