Drag legend Varla Jean Merman will make you laugh about having anxiety this weekend

Varla Jean Merman in a sequined and bejeweled dress with her hand on her hip, a curly naturally red wig, and mouth agape in a sultry smile.
Varla Jean Merman comes to Philly on her way to her 25th year in Provincetown.

If you’re like me, you are constantly searching for sources of joy to offset the dystopian hellscape bulletins constantly crawling cable news chyrons. That’s why I was excited to hear that Varla Jean Merman is coming back to town.

An island of joy amid a global sea of churning resentment and terror, Varla Jean, played by Jeffrey Roberson of Fort Lauderdale, brings that cheery brightness to an otherwise dark world intentionally.  Think true campy humor like Phyllis Diller executed by a large, yet friendly, drag queen with hair as high as the gods and a bodybuilder physique. Merman’s return to Philly promises to be as engaging albeit using an otherwise heavy backdrop, the show touching on the anxiety and universality of all of us having experienced a deadly global pandemic. 

Catharsis by way of another shared experience, seeing a drag show in person with other people, sounds like the exact comforting salve probably everyone could use right about now.

I met her when she appeared here in December for a private event and was touched by both her warmth, effervescence, and side-splitting comedy. She connected with her audience with a variety show that was both timely and light-hearted. Nobody was harmed and yet everyone was laughing. She returns to Philadelphia this Saturday, May 21, for two shows at Tabu Nightclub.

Philly Weekly caught up with Merman ahead of her trip to Philly, something she says she’s excited for ahead of a “super-gay” Provincetown jaunt marking her 25th summer of shows.

Philly Weekly/Karl Michelfelder (PW): Hi, Varla Jean! Tell me, what do you like about Philadelphia? 

Varla Jean Merman (VJM): Oh, my God. I’ve had the best time in Philly, but I’ve only been there a few times. But I originally did a movie called Drag Time that we performed at Pride in Philadelphia in the nineties, and I loved it there, and the audiences were so great. But I, you know, I haven’t really been that many times, so I’m really glad to be coming back. 

PW: What can audiences expect in the two shows that you’ll be doing here?

VJM: Well, you know, I’m doing a lot of part of my “Little Prick” show, which is sort of my response to life after COVID. But I’m also going to be trying out a bunch of new stuff because I have a new show coming up and I thought it would be really fun to sort of debut some material there. My new show is about anxiety and how a lot of people have anxiety now for some reason. And so I’m going to try out new numbers. And my dog Jasper will be making his Philadelphia debut. 

PW: Oh I love a dog addition! Now I’m even more excited.

VJM: Yeah, you know, whatever it takes. Right. 

PW: I know you usually have something exciting happening each summer.  What are your plans for summer 2022?

VJM: Well, I’m going to Provincetown and this is my 25th year. I can’t even believe it’s my 25th summer in Provincetown. So I’ve done 25 shows and this is my “anxiety” show and it’s called “Ready to Blow.” And it is really about, you know, people just seem to have a lot of anxiety now that they’re sort of back together in person. So I just thought of tackling that and how to handle it because I was having these sort of anxiety attacks and I thought, my God, you know, my life is pretty good. Like why? You know? I know it sounds like, for a summer show, Is that really funny to talk about anxiety? Well, let’s hope. But I think it is pretty funny. 

PW: I think you have a way to put levity in things. People laughing right now is important because the world is still going crazy. 

VJM: Oh, my God, it’s crazy. And the politics and just the polarization of the country is just, I can’t even believe it. But, you know, that’s the way it is. So a lot of this just makes people anxious because it’s things that they can’t really control, you know? 

PW: The pendulum swings in a certain direction and I’m sure there’s plenty of material to work with.

VJM: The best piece about COVID, if there was one, was that everybody had the same experience. It’s a common experience, a shared experience that we can make fun of. You know, that’s why the old comedians would talk about airplane food, and all that, because everybody could identify with it. Well, you know, COVID was just great for writing because there was this unifying thing that everybody could laugh at because we all had to deal with the same shit. Rich, poor, everyone dealt with the same shit. So it was really fun to write comedy for that because everybody had the shared experience? And that’s why even this year I’m doing an anxiety theme because, you know, it would be just crazy to do something esoteric, like a fairy tale show. Like, you know, people still are sort of holding on to that shared experience. 

PW: Last question. How long has Varla been alive?

VJM: A little over 30 years. I think ’89 was the first time I ever did something and it was in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And I mostly did videos first. And that’s how people got to know me. I would just do videos. I wouldn’t go out in drag or anything, but I would do these videos and they would play them in the bars, you know, while they’re playing dance music. And that’s sort of how I started because there weren’t even that many videos at the time. So that’s how I started. But it wasn’t till 1998 that I quit my job and that’s when I went to Provincetown. 

Varla Jean Merman Live, May 21, 8 and 10:30 p.m., Tabu Lounge and Nightclub, 234 S. 12th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107. 21+.

    • Karl Michelfelder is a Philadelphia-based journalist, disc jockey, and philanthropist. After attending Temple University with a degree in communications and a minor in journalism, Karl (under the moniker DJ Carl Michaels) immersed himself in all that is Philadelphia. He worked as a label and store manager at the famed 611 Records, toured the country, and […]

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