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Mommie Demented

By |2003-04-03T09:00:00-05:00April 3rd, 2003|Uncategorized|

Move over Christina Crawford. Stand back Bette Davis Hyman. There’s a new, bewildered celebrity offspring on the block and her name is Varla Jean Merman. OK, so she’s really not the daughter of Ethel Merman. In fact, very much a man, she’s nobody daughter at all. But still, her act and the colorful character she’s created are a whole lot more fun to watch than a late-night commercial-ridden rerun of “Mommie Dearest.”
So how did it all start? How did this simple Baptist boy from the outskirts of New Orleans come to think he could be the daughter of a diva from New York?
“I had the Ethel Merman disco album that I’d found in a garage sale, and I was so intrigued by it,” explained 32-year-old Jeffery Roberson, the man behind Miss Varla.
“So I read her autobiography, and she has ‘My marriage to Ernest Borgnine’ and it’s a blank page. They were married for 38 days. So I decided to create this character who is somebody who at least thought she was the child of somebody famous, and then forgiving her mother because obviously the marriage was so painful she didn’t want any reminders. So the character kind of came out of that.
“And, also, at the same time, on all these talk shows they had, like, Barbra Streisand’s sister and Frank Sinatra’s son, and there was sort of this tragic element of someone who sort of looked a lot like their parents or sibling but was never going to be that famous or always going to be in the shadow. And I found it funny,” Roberson revealed with a roar. “I found these tragic lives funny. So it just spawned from that.”
Roberson’s own life was suitably tragic as well. Growing up in a conservative Louisiana family, little Jeffery’s artistic ambitions were not nurtured as a child.
“I always thought I wanted to sing, and I remember my mother just didn’t think we were musical in our family, so she wouldn’t allow me to sing,” he recalled. “I always wanted to sing the song ‘Tomorrow’ from ‘Annie.’ And I would sing that and my mother would say, ‘That’s not right for you. You should be singing “Buttons and Bows.”‘ My mother did not encourage me. So to get her back, I now wear women’s clothes.”
Roberson got his start when a friend started filming his act and found an audience for it at local video bars.
“We started making these little videos. We made a 45-minute video of me in drag being chased by a plastic rat, and people watched it for 45 minutes. I would do crazy things, like me just going across the city drinking a gallon of milk. And that’s how I started to be known.”
Nowadays, Roberson’s act is far more sophisticated. “Bay Windows” described him as “a voice that suggests a happy collision of Shirley Bassey and Barbara Cook … Imagine it in a lounge act of a much younger Ann-Margret as conceived by John Waters.”
He’s won a host of awards for his shows and has performed in Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall and the Alice Tully Hall of Lincoln Center.
And aside from Varla, Roberson had a starring role in the touring production of “Chicago” and recently landed a role on “All My Children.”
“I play a transvestite hooker,” he said. “So it’s sort of a recurring role, but not all the time. I’m not Erica Kane yet.”
That doesn’t bother Roberson, though, cause his heart will always belong to Varla.
“This is the most fun – even when I’ve done other things, this is the most fun and the most rewarding,” he said. “Then, I’m the boss, too.”

About the Author:

Jason A. Michael
Jason A. Michael earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Wayne State University before joining Between The Lines as a contributing writer in 1999. Jason has received both the Spirit of Detroit Award (presented by the Detroit City Council) and the Media Award from the Community Pride Banquet & Awards Ceremony for his writing and activism. Jason is also an Essence magazine bestselling author having written the authorized biography "Strength Of A Woman: The Phyllis Hyman Story," which he released on his own JAM Books imprint.