Varla Jean Merman, the carrot-topped chanteuse with a penchant for terminal ditziness, is a woman on the verge of a mental breakdown in Ready to Blow. This international drag superstar, portrayed by actor Jeffery Roberson, brings the thrills, spills, and a few nerve-calming pills to Houston on March 11. His all-new show is filled with hilarious songs, dazzling costumes, and more excitement than a panic attack—a slight case of art imitating life, Roberson admits.
“I had a lot of anxiety attacks after COVID. I started realizing that a lot of people were experiencing anxiety, too. I decided that I would do a show about my anxiety attacks [to let people know] that everyone experiences anxiety—just on different scales,” he says. “It did take a while to make it funny at first, because anxiety is not innately funny. COVID made our baseline anxiety go up, and then monkeypox, and then everything else [happening in the world] further increased our baseline of anxiety. Eventually, minor things just push [people] over the top. But I’ve wrapped that all together and found a way to make it funny.”
Comedy is just one of the ways that Roberson has dealt with his anxiety. Another form of therapy came in the form of his service dog, Jasper, who will be making his Houston stage debut.
“Jasper is a psychiatric support animal. I do a big scene in the show about emotional support animals and psychiatric dogs, and he’s so amazing. He’s also in the show because he’s a big part of how I personally calm myself down and work through my anxiety.”
For Roberson, performing comedy is something that he has always been drawn to. “When I was young, I was obsessed with The Carol Burnett Show, but I didn’t want to play the Harvey Korman parts—I wanted to play Carol Burnett’s parts! Also during that time, there were a lot of variety shows like Barbara Mandrell & The Mandrell Sisters, and they would do vaudeville humor,” he adds. “Growing up watching that made me want to make people laugh, and the drag developed because I wanted to play the female roles. I thought they were funnier.”
By the time he started college at LSU, a friend introduced him to John Waters’ underground films, which captured Roberson’s attention and inspired him to develop his own brand of zany videos.
“My friend videoed everything. He’d always carry his camera around, so we started shooting videos. I would kind of be in drag, but I didn’t have any money at the time, so it was really bad,” he says. “We would do these videos of me running around New Orleans with a plastic rat following me, and I’d be screaming, and it would go on for about 20 minutes. My friend gave my videos to the bars, and they started playing them while they were playing dance music. I noticed people would just stop and stare at the videos the whole time.”
It must have been fate—or good timing—because when Roberson relocated to New York City for an advertising job, he noticed that his drag alter ego had a gay following there, too.
“I went to Wonder Bar in the East Village, and they were playing my videos from New Orleans. I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s me!’ The bartender there couldn’t believe it was me. He said, ‘Well, you should come and do a big benefit at The Pyramid Club. They’re having a march on Washington,’” he recalls.
That benefit performance, which raised money for the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation, is what launched Roberson’s new drag career. “So many people saw me [perform at the benefit] that I got booked almost every night in New York—and out of the city—for years. [And all of that was in addition to] holding down my day job.”
As Varla Jean began growing in popularity and demanding more of Roberson’s time, he decided to quit his day job. Embodying Varla Jean full-time allowed him to fully embrace what he loved to do: perform and make people laugh.
Hollywood and Broadway noticed, too. Roberson started receiving contracts for film, television, musicals, and more. Among his many notable appearances, he starred in Lucky Guy opposite Leslie Jordan at the Little Schubert theater, guest-starred in Ugly Betty, played the Mary Sunshine character in the Broadway revival of Chicago, and portrayed the recurring role of Rosemary Chicken, a lady of the evening, on All My Children.
Roberson shared the Outfest Film Festival’s “Best Actor” award (and the Aspen HBO Film Festival’s “Best Actress” award) with his costars Jack Plotnick and Clinton Leupp for his featured performance in the cult-classic film Girls Will Be Girls (Sundance, 2003).
As for the future, Roberson says he’s enjoying life and notes that Varla Jean still has some kick left in her, even if she isn’t the most notorious drag performer.
“I am married, and I have the most wonderful family and dogs. I’m so happy now, just traveling all the time. I just love performing and touring, and that’s all I’m going to keep doing,” he predicts.
“I had giant aspirations when I was younger to be the world’s most famous drag queen. As you know, someone else beat me to it! So instead, I tour and write shows every year. I used to do a lot more theater, but of course COVID changed that. I want to go back to doing more theater. I’m currently planning a show with my friend Peaches Christ from San Francisco.”
What: Varla Jean Merman’s Ready to Blow
When: March 11, 8:00 p.m.
Where: Midtown Arts & Theatre Center Houston (MATCH)