For the past 15 years THE GAY UK’s British/American movie critic Roger Walker-Dack has hot tailed it to spend his entire summer in Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod.

A lot has changed since the first Brits landed there when the Mayflower docked in 1620. They only stayed five weeks then before sailing on to their final destination at Plymouth Rock, and they really don’t know what they missed. This captivating beautiful small seaside town has been an artists’ colony, a Portuguese haven, and now it is an enchanting gay mecca that each summer sees the all-year round population of less than 3000 swell to over 60000 people.

In a series we are calling POSTCARDS FROM P.TOWN, Roger Walker-Dack will introduce some of the people and things that create the magic that make this such a ‘must see’ destination for gay people from all over the world.

VARLA–JEAN MERMAN actress, performer, chanteuse and the biggest redhead ever in a dress.

Jeffrey Roberson is a strapping 6’2″ strikingly handsome guy whose addiction to doing ‘Cross Fit’ is clearly evident with his muscle bound body that gets his fair share of attention on the streets of P.Town. What most of these admirers don’t know is at night this adonis straps on stilettos and squeezes into a slinky dress to become the infamous and celebrated brassy redhead chanteuse Miss Varla Jean-Merman who has been making audiences scream with laughter for almost 20 years now. To call Jeffrey a ‘Drag Queen’ is a great misnomer as this multi-talented performer has a star-spangled career that makes one dizzy just reading about it. From sell-out One-Woman Shows that he both writes and performs, to starring on Broadway, singing duets with Betty Buckley, ‘opening’ for Jennifer Holliday, and a recurring role in TV’s All My Children and so much more. And each year he decamps to P.Town for the summer and stars in his latest solo show full of wicked song parodies that he belts out in his operatic voice and that we all lap up. And if that is not enough, on his nights off his appearing in another play or two, as the crowd here cannot get enough of this show-business phenonenon

It helps too that he is an exceptionally warm person and the sweetest of men, something that I found when he sat down with me one day to give this exclusive interview for The Gay UK.

 

RWD: How did you get into performing in the first place?

JR: I was raised by Southern Baptist parents and so any sort of performing was strictly forbidden, but that never stopped my urges. Later on when I was in New Orleans I used to hang around with a bunch of drag queens, and I met this guy who made these somewhat silly and disgusting videos a la John Waters and we played them in the background in bars. And that led to me starting to perform live a little bit, but I wasn’t a good singer or particularly keen on doing the usual old routine. Then a friend from N.Y. told me about a Drag Queen called Miss Coco Peru that he had just seen doing a monologue whilst playing opera diva Éva Marton singing a Wagner’sLiebestod.

I said ‘you’ve got to be kidding me!’, as at the time in New Orleans every single queen was just lip syncing to Mariah Carey, so I really couldnt believe that anyone could do anything other than this in drag.

So I hopped on the first plane out of there and had the good fortune to meet Coco who was performing at the West End Theater doing her own unique blend of beautifully constructed monologues and stories. I fell totally in love with her/him and he blew my mind. I knew I couldn’t do the same, but it put the whole concept of drag performing on an entirely different level for me, and he very generously helped me find my own path.

RWD: And this led to your ‘Varla-Jean Merman’ personna being born?

JR: Not exactly. There was a talent show in Baton Rouge where I went to college and I had just read the autobiography of the Broadway Star Ethel Merman. When I came to the part where she said she had been married to the actor Ernest Borgnine and I turned the page and it was totally blank! (laugh) I thought it was so hilarious and amazing and it set my crazy imagination off. And I started thinking that if she had a child she would have probably given it away as she would not want to be reminded of this relationship in any way. And so I became the ‘lost’ child that she could have had. I’ve stuck to my story even though many people today haven’t the faintest idea of who ‘my father’ was.

Up to that point in my show I had wanted to emulate the great Divine, but becoming Varla got me singing in my ‘mother’s’ loud raspy voice and made me evolve more into a lady a la Merman style.

 

RWD: Varla consumes you on stage but unlike so many other performers you leave her bold brash persona behind in your daily life and are almost the total opposite privately. In fact no-one ever recognises you in civies in the street as you couldn’t possibly look any further removed from a drag performer than if you tried.

JR: Some performers like Bianca del Rio (winner of Ru Paul’s Drag Race) are Bianca off the stage too, as that is who he is. That’s not my style at all and ‘Varla’ never ever comes home with me. I will NOT live with that Lady! (laughing loudly)

I have a very simple rule at home: NO drag in the house anytime anywhere. What is not being used in my current show is in my storage unit in New Orleans.

 

RWD: Many years ago I saw you perform in Joe’s Pub in N.Y. and Kristine Zbornik an actress doing a one-woman show on your ‘mother’ Ethel Merman came in and the two of you spontanteosly performed the gay anthem Enough is Enough totally in character and I literally cried my eyes out. You’ve played in N.Y. many times though, haven’t you?

JR: Yes, my first big ‘showbiz’ break was in 1996 when I played Mary Sunshine in ‘Chicago’ on Broadway. But the one job I loved just as much, or maybe even more, was when I was in ‘Lucky Guy’ on Broadway with Leslie Jordan and I was giving the Stars’ Dressing Room and William Ivey Long (the multi Tony Award winning costume designer) was such a gentleman and treated me so graciously as he fitted me with a wardrobe that cost over $100000!

 

RWD: Did you get to keep them?

JR: NOOOOOO! But I did grab the wigs! (laughs)

 

RWD: And when did you start performing in P Town?

JR: In 1995 I opened for Lypsinka at Town Hall. I was so fat at the time… about 300 lbs… that people actually thought I was a real woman. (laughs) And then Phyllis Schlosberg from The Post Office Cabaret came to see me in NY and booked me for my first season for the following year. By the time I arrive back for that show I had lost 100 lbs, so there I am on stage really thin but showing my videos of the ‘old me.’ I was exactly like Parker Posey in the movie ‘Adam & Steve’ where she was a comic that had lost a ton of weight BUT was still doing fat lady jokes on stage. And that’s when ‘Varla’ really started to kick in as I simply just couldn’t do fat jokes anymore and I needed a new shtick.

 

RWD: Tell me about your love affair with P Town itself.

JR: Coming to P Town, even to perform is being on one long summer vacation like when we were back in school. When you come here nothing else that may have been going in in your life really matters. I can’t wait to get here, but come Labor Day I can’t wait to leave: summer is just the perfect length of time. I have always loved this town no matter how backward it may seem like years ago when there was no Laundromat and we had to drive the 30 miles to Orleans each week just to do laundry, and yet we all still came in droves.

 

RWD: Many of us here still have very fond memories of you and some opera singers performing the utterly unique ‘CLASSICAL VARLA’ Benefit Concerts which were THE highlight of Carnival Week then.

JR: I had a friend who was HIV+ who couldn’t afford any medication at the time and my Manager Mark Cortale and his partner were part of the management of the AIDS Support Group who provided the drugs for my friend, and for many others in the same situation. They desperately needed more donations so Mark suggested the Concert as a fundraiser, and I said ‘why not, it will be fun to do’. Turned out to be TORTURE.

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RWD: But we loved it.

JR: Don’t get me wrong I loved doing it and torturing myself too. But once I set these goals up for myself, I immediately freak out and say why did I do that! But I love classical music and I love the challenge of trying to sing it. And performing with those amazingly talented singers was such a real thrill. I also love the fact that everyone is still talking about it now.

RWD: It was a joy being in that audience with this overflowing feeling of love of people wanting you to succeed and proud of the reasons why you were doing this. It felt good to be part of this sense of community that P Town is so good at fostering.

JR: It was great for the few years that we did it, but it felt right to stop on such a high, and I would actually like to do something else in the future, as these guys still desperately need all our help.

RWD: Your voice training at The Julliard Schooldid you in good stead as you went on (as Varla) to take the leading role in Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera The Medium.

JR: Thank you BUT I was never at Julliard.

RWD: Really are you sure? As the word around town is that’s why you sing so well.

JR: Thank you, then just let the rumor spread. (laugh) But I did so loved getting involved in The Medium and we got to take the production to N.Y. where it was also a great success too.

 

RWD: There is another rumor about you that your show at The Art House this summer is your last? Is this true?

JR: It’s a Farewell Tour in the Cher tradition: hence the title ‘Varla-Jean Relieving Herself’ is billed as my Cherwell Show.

 

RWD: (laugh) So you will be back next year?

JR: Yes, in some form or another. Performing a one-woman show on a stage can be a lonely thing and so I am constantly looking for new challenges. One of the things I will be doing soon for the first time is acting in a play as a man, which I am so looking forward too.

 

RWD: I am curious to know how does your Manager pitch you to people? As an actor, or a singer or as Varla?

JR: I’ve been so very lucky my whole career as I always had people offer me such great opportunities that I have never ever had to look for roles. I love working with Ryan Landry appearing in his wickedly funny parody plays for example. I did ‘The Phantom of the OPRAH’ with him in P Town and Boston, and then last year starred in ‘Mildred Fierce’. I love to do his stuff even though the rehearsal process is very very INTENSE (laughing). We work and work and work and he never stops or even let us take a break… everyone is screaming at him ‘OMG Can we JUST go to the toilet! (laughing).

RWD: And then you go from scruffy Fringe theatres to performing your one-woman show at the Sydney Opera House!

JR: That was totally crazy and a real highlight in my career to date, especially as they invited me back the following year to do a new show.

RWD: Wow!

JR: But London was and is my big love. I’ve been there four times to perform, and I will always remember my debut there for the most inauspicious of reasons. The day I landed was 9/11. It was the most depressing time ever, and then for a complete contrast my 2nd visit was the time of both the Jubilee and the World Cup, and so was the craziest happiest time.

RWD: So you got good word of mouth for people to come and fill the Soho Theatre?

JR: Yes, including a few celebrities like Elton John and Andy Bell. I did a Late Show so I always had to perform my act on whatever stage set was being used by the play that was running earlier. One time is was some sort of Irish Trainspotting drama set in a dingy low-rent apartment, which included a toilet. And for some reason which totally escapes me now, I dressed in full drag I decided to sing the Roy Orbison ballad Crying totally straight but sitting on the toilet, which had Elaine Paige snorting so loud that all her fellow audience members eyes went from her to me and back in disbelief (laugh)

RWD: And then you go from scruffy Fringe theatres to performing your one-woman show at the Sydney Opera House!

JR: That was totally crazy and a real highlight in my career to date, especially as they invited me back the following year to do a new show.

RWD: Wow!

JR: But London was and is my big love. I’ve been there four times to perform, and I will always remember my debut there for the most inauspicious of reasons. The day I landed was 9/11. It was the most depressing time ever, and then for a complete contrast my 2nd visit was the time of both the Jubilee and the World Cup, and so was the craziest happiest time.

 

RWD: So you got good word of mouth for people to come and fill the Soho Theatre?

JR: Yes, including a few celebrities like Elton John and Andy Bell. I did a Late Show so I always had to perform my act on whatever stage set was being used by the play that was running earlier. One time is was some sort of Irish Trainspotting drama set in a dingy low-rent apartment, which included a toilet. And for some reason which totally escapes me now, I dressed in full drag I decided to sing the Roy Orbison ballad Crying totally straight but sitting on the toilet, which had Elaine Paige snorting so loud that all her fellow audience members eyes went from her to me and back in disbelief (laugh)

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