By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
April 9 began early for Victor Varnado at a Brooklyn warehouse where he was scheduled to perform in a black comedy about a suicide hotline. He walked onto the Star Treklooking set of End of the Line and noticed a horde of extras dressed in lab coats. He, too, was wearing a lab coat. It dawned on him that he had been hired as just another extra. "My lines were like, 'Copy that,' and 'Yes sir, chief, I've got one on the line,' " he says, describing his decision that morning to turn around and walk off the set. "They were going to be paying me about $1,000 a day," he says. "I have no idea why they would spend that much money, for lines they could just give to another extra. I think the only reason I was there was for something visualto be a set piece."
Calls to the set from the Voice were not returned. But it's not hard to see why Varnado might land jobs more for the way he looks than the way he delivers a line. "I don't just want to be in a movie because I'm weird-looking," he says. "I want to be perceived as a person before I'm perceived as a black albino."
Varnado's weird looks, however, have helped him land the roles of a demonic-looking homeless man in Arnold Schwarzenegger's vehicle End of Days and a villain in Eddie Murphy's The Adventures of Pluto Nash. When the Brooklyn comedian performs his stand-up routine on shows like Late Night With Conan O'Brien and Comedy Central's Premium Blend, much of his material savagely mocks his condition. Recently, he directed a $3 million comedy, Twisted Fortune, starring Charlie Murphy and Carol Alt (its fate will be decided by Warner Bros. in June). All told, alongside Minneapolis rapper Brother Ali, Varnado's perhaps the country's most famous entertainer with albinism. (All due respect to Edgar Winter and his brother Johnny.)
Though he's a gifted writer and performer, Varnado's fame rests largely on the rare genetic condition that in his case gives an African-American man pale white skin. Still, he says, he doesn't want to play the freak. But can a guy whose website is bestalbino.com really have it both ways?
"Hi, everybody.My name is Victor Varnado, and I'm a black albino. Anybody else? C'mon, where my black albinos at?" Varnado asks, kicking off his performance last year on Late Night.
"You guys are probably saying, 'Victor, you're a black albino. How come you don't eat babies?' Whoa, no, I don't eat babies! That's a myth and a stereotype," he says. "I don't eat babies, and I don't have red eyesexcept for when I'm feeding.
"I am a black albino, though, ladies. You know what I'm talking about: All the benefits of being black without the disappointed looks from your parents," he continues.
Another perk: "I can catch as many cabs as I want, and the drivers don't even know I'm black until I hop in the back and I'm like, 'To Compton!' 'But that's all the way across the country!' 'I know. And we're robbing stores on the way!' "
When he's offstage, Varnado's patter about race doesn't stop.
"Most black people at one time in their lives have been called 'nigger,' " he says on a March day at a Chelsea pub. "I've never been called that. I hear somebody yell it on the street, I don't associate it with myself."
His skin has little pigmentation and his hair appears bleached-blond. He's not tall, but has an athletic build. He's got a lazy eye, and limited vision requires him to use a magnifying glass to read small print. His eyesight makes him ineligible for a New York State driver's license. When Varnado gets excited, his pupils dart back and forth like pinballs.
"I recently found out that I have 13 siblings," he says, explaining that he thought he only had 12. I was at home at Christmas buying presents for everybody, and at one point someone started talking about Quincy. I was like, 'Who's Quincy?' They were like, 'Quincy, he's your new brother.' I said, 'New? He's eight!' "
photo: Rafael Fuchs
Varnado was born in Gary, Indiana, and spent his formative years in Huntsville, Alabama, with his older brother Phillip and sister Cynthia, who also has albinism, and their mother, who worked in a weapons systems program at Redstone Arsenal. His parents divorced when he was a toddler.
For years Varnado didn't speak to his dad, upset with him for fathering children with eight different women. "There was a big chunk of time when I was angry," Varnado says, noting that his father didn't treat him any differently because of his albinism. "Now I talk to him often becausehe's my dad. He's at the point, now, where he's done everything he's going to do, and he's not going to change."