I first laid eyes on Varla Jean Merman exactly 20 years ago at her drag debut in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. At the time we were silly, young college students living it up. I photographed many of her earliest performances, but our paths wouldn’t cross again until now. Unbeknownst to us, we’re both spending the summer in Provincetown, I with my vintage outlet Cherry and Miss Merman performing all over town for the onslaught of seasonal queens. And so, two decades after our sissy Southern romps, we reunited to discuss choosing breasts, appearing on Project Runway and whether a lady spits or swallows…
When it comes to beauty, who’s been your biggest inspiration?
I always loved early Ann-Margret. But now, I’m a huge fan of Christina Hendricks from Mad Men. Now that’s a pretty lady.
If you could make someone over, who would it be and why?
Mariah Carey. When even I question her taste, something is seriously wrong. That Rainbow cover is about as sexy as Barbra Streisand’s notorious Superman cover, with the tube socks and perm. I’d like to force Miss Carey to wear a caftan and turban for a solid year just to teach her ass a lesson!
When do you feel your prettiest?
The moment I put on my lashes. A lady without lashes isn’t a lady.
What’s a make-up look you had to abandon?
How crazy should a gal go with mascara?
I want to let your readers know that mascara ads are bogus! Any time you see a lady in an ad who applies mascara, they always, and I mean always, put the model in a huge pair of fake lashes to make it seem like the mascara is plumping up her lashes. It’s false advertising. It doesn’t work. Just wear fake lashes! Then use any old brand of mascara to color your lashes black to match the fake ones. Don’t waste your money on nice mascara.
Any other make-up tips?
Hire a professional. And here’s a tip for the Southern ladies: liberally apply an aluminum-rich ant-perspirant, like Mitchum, to your face before your foundation. By clogging your facial pores with this metal, you won’t sweat for weeks…well, on your face. It all comes out at the back of your knees. Next time you see me onstage, notice the big wet spots above my calves.
Do you recommend cosmetic surgery?
Yes! But start young. Then nobody notices.
How do you choose your breasts?
Choosing breast enhancement is like choosing a puppy. You don’t pick them, they pick you. The right pair will speak to you.
Who did you have on your walls growing up?
I wasn’t allowed posters growing up. Tape and wood paneling don’t mix.
Give us your fashion trends for fall.
I’m stuck in 1971, so I probably wouldn’t be the lady to ask.
Do you wear corsets?
I used to, but not anymore. I don’t need to now that I’ve permanently deformed my body by allowing my kidneys to share the same space with my lower colon.
How did you learn to walk in heels?
Well, I’ve rarely walked in flats. But as a kid, I used to pretend I was wearing invisible heels, kind of like Wonder Woman’s invisible jet. So I got a lot of practice before I even owned a pair. And for years now, I have worn clear Lucite mules called Clearly Specials as an homage to my youth.
What were your first heels?
Fluevogs. After a trip to New York for my graduation, I came home with the most gorgeous black patent leather pair. Nobody had them back in Baton Rouge, so I was envied by all the other ladies.
What did you wear for your first performance?
A Pucci-inspired catsuit. I wore it for two years straight. And then as it faded, I dyed it, cut off the legs and arms, and it became my summer catsuit. Then it became a rag I kept under my bed.
Do you work with any fashion designers?
The amazing Cecile Casey Covert from New Orleans. I will never forget, years ago, I called her and told her I wanted a life-size camel puppet that I could wear, equipped with a squirt gun in its head to spit on patrons. It also had to have a matching burka with a rip-away panel on the back of my head that would reveal an Osama bin Laden mask, so that when I turned around and danced, it would seem like Osama was suddenly there doing a dance routine. Cecile turned to me and said, matter-of-factly, “What color?”
What’s been your most glamorous night?
I was featured at Life Ball in Vienna a few years ago, singing my rendition of White Rabbit, while the Vienna State Opera Ballet danced behind me dressed as bunnies. I was wearing a red ball gown so huge that when I was lifted into the sky on a hydraulic lift, the bottom of the dress unfolded and turned into a 60-foot-long red AIDS ribbon. I was flown over there in a chartered jet with 30 of the world’s top models, and had a run-in with Naomi Campbell’s security crew. They weren’t there to protect her. I think they were there to protect us.
What’s a look you wish you could pull off?
A macramé bikini.
What was your biggest fashion faux pas?
Duct tape! Oh, dear. Shaping my body with a roll in 1991 turned out to be a traumatic experience. Not wearing it, but removing it. I still have scars, sticky scars.
What’s your position on vaginal rejuvenation?
I feel better about larger penises.
Let’s talk realism…
It’s the evolution of all drag. We all start out as clowns and then there comes a time when we want to be pretty. Unfortunately, it usually happens after your bloom has fallen off the peach and you wasted your pretty years as a mess.
Who do people say you resemble?
When I’m skinny I get Jerry Hall and when I am fat I get Wynona Judd.
What item of clothing makes you feel your sexiest?
My white, see-through, bouncy brassiere!
Have you ever walked in a runway show?
Just that time I was on Project Runway and wore the winning design. Did I mention that Heidi Klum said I had an amazing body? She was pregnant at the time.
Men’s or women’s room?
Depends how big the lesbians are.
Who is your ideal woman?
A hybrid of Doris Day, Kim Novak and Anita Ekberg.
Who’s your ideal man?
A middle-aged Ed Asner. I was in love as a kid.
Should a lady spit or swallow?
Ladies always spit. Well, at least they should always pretend to.