Drag performer returns with comedy, cabaret

Drag performer returns with comedy, cabaret

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International drag performer and entertainer Varla Jean Mermen will bring female empowerment to Philadelphia in a new comedic cabaret show.

“Wonder Merman” pays tribute to women, both real and fictional, who have inspired the iconic performer.

“It’s all about female role models and empowerment,” said actor Jeffrey Roberson, who inhabits the role of Merman. “The first half of the show is all real people: I talk about Josephine Baker. Melania is in there. I talk about Amelia Earheart and Harriet Tubman ... ”

Hold up. Wait a minute. Pump the brakes!

Did Roberson really just utter Melania Trump and Harriet Tubman in the same breath?

We had to circle back for that one.

“Well, I can’t say that I find Melania Trump inspirational, but I examine her,” he said. “I compare her to other First Ladies throughout our history. I just threw her name out there because there’s a song called ‘Melania’ that I wrote, where every word in the song rhymes with Melania, which is a feat in itself.”

We’re so glad he cleared that up.

Roberson started performing in drag in 1993. In a time when there’s a drag performer on practically every channel, and drag events regularly popping up, he said he doesn’t mind that the medium has saturated pop culture, even if the newer crop of drag stars seems to be in it for different reasons than previous generations.

“I really love ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race,’ but I don’t think performing is their main reason for being on the show,” he said. “Performers from my day became famous because of the performance. Fame is probably more a motivator for the performance. My main goal is not to become famous; my goal is to create and perform. I was an actor and this is just an extension of that.”

That’s right, kids: Roberson was a multimedia drag performer traveling the world long before laptops, iPhones and YouTube made putting on a show as easy as throwing a few gadgets into a messenger bag. 

“I first started in drag on video,” he said. “We’d film video that we’d give to the bars back in the ’90s; for example, a video of me in drag getting chased by a plastic rat around the streets of New Orleans. They’d play these videos underneath dance music.”

Out of costume, Roberson comes across more like a regular at The Bike Stop than some glamazon songbird who dons drag for a living. But lighting and costuming go a long way to camouflaging his imposing figure.

“I’m 6-foot-2” and 240 pounds. If no one else is on stage, people have no idea how tall you are. You just put everything into proportion. The bigger I get muscularly, I just make my butt and hair look bigger. No one ever really knows until you get off stage and they take a picture with you.”  

Pink Stallion Events presents Varla Jean Merman in “Wonder Merman,” 7:30 p.m. May 3 at The Ruba Club, 416 Green St. For more information or tickets, call 215-627-9831 or visit www.varlaonline.com.        

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