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A question of drag

Keri Glastonbury

It’s long been a Mardi Gras tradition to program a New York drag performer. Back in the 90s, being more a stalwart of local queer shows like Performance Space’s cLUB bENT, I never made it to the imported divas, who seemed primed for a more exclusively gay male audience. So come 2005, with the more humble and ‘sweet hereafter’ feel of the New Mardi Gras program, I wondered: Who goes to drag now? And does New York still hold sway? Or has everyone moved to Massachussets, where gay marriage is legal and "you should see all the masculine couples walking down the aisle in matching tuxedos, and that’s just the lesbians"–boom boom.

The audience for Varla Jean’s Girl With a Pearl Necklace was primarily middle-aged gay couples, the mood one of familiar camp cabaret, the central theme the search for love. Out here to look for her "very own Peter Allen", Varla has always "wanted to perform in Austria." Standing on the small Studio stage, she remarked that the Opera House looked so much bigger from the outside. Relying heavily on New York shtick, she showed home video shot in Provincetown (where she had lobster cunnilingus) and Coney Island (involving obligatory jokes with Nathan’s hotdogs). The sausage theme continued with a yodelling wiener ("the wiener takes it all"). Reworked numbers, such as If We Could Talk to the Genitals ("Are you speaking clitoris? I’d say no shiterous, can’t you?"), were interspersed with shlocky video footage, including an 80s Heart power ballad.

Varla’s persona is a lisping, Southern big boned belle, who reminded me of Marcia Cross (Kimberly of Melrose Place and now Desperate Housewives). Famous over the years for her ‘fat’ drag (she has been compared to Divine) you get the sense that Varla’s alter-ego, Jeffrey Roberson, has lived the experience of being outside the buff gay culture, which is then paralleled in drag through engagements with celebrity diet culture. In her current incarnation, however, Varla is far from frumpy and was resplendent in bright campy frocks, making it clear to Vermeer that pearls are nature’s bling bling. Classically trained, her Crazy in Love medley coupled Beyoncé with Puccini. And a Hello Kitty obsession took her to Japan where she discovered a vending machine selling "beer water." There wasn’t a single Scarlett Johansson reference, and, rather than Girl With a Pearl Earring, the show became Lost in Translation, as Varla showed footage of herself wandering around the Tokyo subway to cheap cultural effect. The show’s piece de resistance, however, was an act in which she yodeled while tipping her head back and downing the contents of an aerosol can full of cheese (only in America).

It’s funny, yes. A very crafted camp. Loony and tightly-timed. And weirdly virtuosic. Yet grating. It’s ‘bad’ drag, but somehow conventionally so. Nothing deeply queer, or underground, it’s more surface bad taste. Being in the audience felt a bit like going to a cultural zoo to see some exotic endangered species. Is drag now a requiem for a dream?

In a documentary on cross-dressing my partner saw, she told me there was footage of 18th century ‘pansies’ running around in dresses and giving birth to rounds of cheese. The birth theme was there in Varla’s opening number–it seems the drag repertoire has always been pretty set. So why hope for more?

Perhaps context is all important. Once drag is taken out of the drag bar, club act or toured, what happens? Perhaps the most interesting insight for me was how heavily the show relied on the parochial side of New York life, and that in a globalised world this is what travels.

Varla Jean Merman–Girl With a Pearl Necklace, writer Jeffery Roberson with Jaques Lamarre and Michael Schiralli, performer Jeffery Roberson, director Michael Schiralli, The Studio, Sydney Opera House, Feb 19

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 46

© Keri Glastonbury; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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