White Like Me
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."
Between tapings of the NBC reality show Last Comic Standingfilming down the block at Gotham Comedy ClubVarnado nurses a soft drink and recounts the hassles of growing up different.
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."
Before their children were born, Varnado's folks knew little about albinism, which strikes one in four children of parents who both carry the recessive gene that causes it. It occurs in about one in 20,000 people overall.
"The most common name we'd ever be called [in grade school] was 'albino,' " Varnado notes. "It's not really creative at all, but it still hurts. When the song 'Elvira' came out, it went, 'El-vi-ra.' It caught on like wildfire to tease people with albinism, saying 'Al-bi-no' instead."
Varnado says he heard similar stories from other kids at national conventions organized by the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH). "Every single kid across the country who has albinism was teased for that song," he says.
"Growing up, Victor was more of an introvert, and I was more of the protector," says his sister Cynthia. "Victor always says that when we walked past and people would look at us, I'd say, 'What are you looking at?' "
Albinos are still shunned in some parts of the world where fair-complexioned people are uncommoneven treated like demons in places like Zimbabwe. African Americans, however, are kinder to albinos than white people are, at least according to Brother Ali.
"I definitely had some serious self-esteem issues growing up, and it was really black folks that made me feel like a person," says Ali, a Caucasian albino. "I think it was [their] understanding of being an outsider, of being apart from white society."
Varnado spent most of his preteen days at the local Radio Shack, writing BASIC code for video games. In high school he moved in with his father in Minneapolis, fighting his shyness through successful performances in school plays like The Wiz, in which he played the Scarecrow. "If I was a confident performer, people responded really well to that, and I would do more of it. It changed the way I dealt with life in general."
As a high school senior living in Minneapolis, he nearly lost his white prom date when she "found out" he was black. Says Varnado: "Somebody told her I was black. She didn't know, apparently. She wanted to go with me, but her parents were extremely racist." On prom night, Varnado and a friend pulled a switch: The friend showed up at the racist folks' house pretending to be their daughter's date. Once the two pals got to the event they traded dates, and the parents never knew.
"Race and racism is so arbitrary," he says. "Sometimes people see me and they think I'm 'acting black.' Once, I was in a secondhand clothing store with one of my friends and commenting on the fashion, joking: 'I need baggy pants and long T-shirtswhat rappers might wear.' And this white woman came up to me and said: 'I really find what you're saying offensive.' And then I said, 'I'm black,' and she was like, 'OK. It's fine.' Then she walked away."
Varnado's gold lamé costume features crotchless hot pants, knee-high white go-go boots, a cape, and a gym sock hanging from his unit. He is playing a cybervillain in a pilot called Fat Guy Stuck in Internet. He abducts the fat guy and forces him to transfer files recklessly.
"Victor was hilarious" during the taping, says Curtis Gwinn, who co-created the show along with John Gemberling. "He was always willing to go the extra mile to be funny. It was his idea to wear the sock. At first he wanted to be completely naked. We thought, since he was working with female actors, he should wear clothes."
"Since I couldn't be naked, the sock just seemed like the next logical step," explains Varnado. "Everyone else was in leotards."
Living in Lower East Side rat-infested squalor and working open-mic nights a decade ago during his first year in town, Varnado scored his first break when an assistant casting directorseeking fair-skinned typesasked him to play an angel in an Elton John video.
Clad in wings and a tunic, Varnado concocted improvisations on the set of "Recover Your Soul" that so delighted the video's director, Marcus Nispel, that he brought him on board for End of Days. Though Nispel was dropped as director of the Arnold Schwarzenegger apocalyptic thriller, Varnado's role survived, and that year he also played a rapper in Harmony Korine's Julien Donkey-Boy. Three years later, he won a substantial speaking role in The Adventures of Pluto Nash.
The uninspired Eddie Murphy comedy tanked, but Varnado's connection with actor Joe Pantoliano eventually enabled him to co-write a superhero film with comic-books legend Stan Lee, as well as direct Twisted Fortune, which Varnado co-wrote as well.
Twisted Fortune stars Murphy's brother Charlie as a bumbling crook who wins $1 million from a contest on a bottle cap in the middle of a convenience-store robbery. Carol Alt and Dave Attell also star, and Warner Bros. has picked it up for distribution. Varnado says the film may get a theatrical release in June or else go straight to DVD. (The Stan Lee project is on hiatus while a distribution deal is negotiated, he says.)
photo: Rafael Fuchs
Varnado also hosts the First Sundays Comedy Film Festival at the Pioneer Theater. Unreleased projects include a sitcom-style video game for PlayStation 3, a series of short films for HBO, and a role as a stuttering homosexual in Permanent Vacation, which stars David Carradine and recently premiered at the Garden State Film Festival.
All in all, not bad for someone told by Lucien Hold, Comic Strip Live's legendary talent coordinator, that he would never make it.
"I auditioned for him, and he said, 'You have stage presence, but I really don't know if the jokes are there, and, frankly, I really don't know how black you are,' " recalls Varnado, who estimates he was 29 at the time. "I said, 'What does that mean?' He said, 'I just don't think there's a place for a black albino in the industry.' To his credit, he finally said, 'I stand corrected.' And then I was upset, because I couldn't be mad at him anymore." Hold, who helped discover Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock, passed away in 2004.
"I've actually heard other comics say, 'Damn, I wish I was a black albino,' " says Varnado's friend and fellow comedian Michelle Buteau, who is also competing on Last Comic Standing. "They're like, 'It's so marketable; it's so unique.' Everyone's trying to find their own unique place in comedy. It's so hard if you're a white guy."
Says Varnado: "Other comedians say that to me too, but they should just exploit what they already have. I think, because I'm funny and a good writer, I can exploit [my albinism], but if I wasn't, then it wouldn't matter at all."
Varnado's jokes range from profane meditations on his love life ("I am single, which I find very odd, because my cock is delicious") to impromptu madness. During a recent performance at the Bowery Poetry Club, he joked: "A lot of you out there are probably looking at me and thinking, 'Look at that skinny little guy. After he's done onstage, I think I'm going to beat him up.' But, understand, I may be skinny, but I will kick your girlfriend's ass."
A female audience member audibly objected to the gag, so Varnado took her up on he r request to wrestle onstage. "I went easy on her until she started to talk shit, and then I destroyed her," quips Varnado, who wrestled in high school and is also a black belt in tae kwon do.
Spontaneity combined with a sober-minded work ethic have ensured Varnado's longevity, despite a relatively late-peaking career. Though he ultimately failed to make the cut on Last Comic Standing, he can pretty much write his own comedy ticket locally. A regular at some half-dozen clubsincluding the Laugh Factory and Stand-Up NYhe can call ahead and get on their bills almost any night.
Varnado is sitting in his apartment playing Gears of War via an Xbox console that allows him to talk trash in real time with far-flung competitors. "When I get chopped in half, I hear a 10-year-old from France laughing, 'Ha ha, I killed you!' " he says, cackling.
Varnado is set to move out of his cramped one-bedroom near the Bushwick-Williamsburg divide to a new place nearby, which is big enough for a small film studio. The new digs are more expensive, so he could have used the grand-per-day salary that End of the Line was paying him. But he says he's used to sacrificing cash for principles.
Varnado acknowledges that he landed his breakthrough role in End of Days at least partly because of his condition. But he says there's been an evolution in the type of part he's willing to take, and sees nothing hypocritical about walking off a movie where the producers picked him, presumably, because of his looks.
" End of Days was at the very beginning of my career, and it was a real role in the movie, where I had an impact on the story. [ End of the Line] was later in my career, and not even a real role."
Some members of the albinism community accused Varnado of selling out in Pluto Nash. Soon after the film's release, a poster on the NOAH message board called "fyreraven" described it as "just another movie with a villain being an albino," adding, "we really do have to do something about this especially with Matrix 2 coming out." ( The Matrix Reloaded features a pair of evil albino twins played by Neil and Adrian Rayment.)
Mike McGowan, president of NOAH, says that since 1960 there have been at least 68 films depicting albino characters as supernatural or evil.
"To give the devil his dueif you're looking to make a character visually stimulating, giving a character albinism is a quick and easy way to do it," he says. "But I think it is an overused literary device, by lazy writers. Research shows that if you look at the '80s, '90s, and first years of 2000, the use of this hackneyed device increases exponentially. What that suggests to me is that the supposedly creative people in Hollywood are just looking at what other people are doing."
NOAH publiclyand unsuccessfully petitioned the Da Vinci Code filmmakers not to make the movie's villainous monk character an albino, as he is in the book. Varnado tried out for the part, which went to non-albino actor Paul Bettany. Varnado says he never saw the entire film script, but had he been offered the part and found it degrading, he wouldn't have taken it.
"I don't think there's anything I can do that will not offend somebody in the albinism community," he says. "I even get hate mail because of the name of my website, bestalbino.comwhich is a joke.
"People want me to speak on their behalf, which I would, if I really felt strongly about some thing. But the people who usually reach out to you are the people who are kind of overboard."
Nonetheless, he says he hopes to improve the way both blacks and albinos are perceived in the media. "I'm trying to be intelligent, to be funny and do more than what people expect," he says.
photo: Rafael Fuchs
Varnado's stage presence has evolved. On Premium Blend in 2003 he rocked spectacles, gym shoes, and rolled-up shirtsleeves, slowly and awkwardly shuffling around the stage. For Conan last year he lost the glasses and sported a trendy green jacket. Now he wears whatever the hell he wants, and swaggers through joke after cringe-worthy joke.
"Sometimes it takes me awhile to realize that something is actually racist. I used to love the show Super Friends when I was little, and they had this character named Black Lightning. Black Lightning was a black superhero with 'black' at the front of his namewhich I think is a little wrong," he told a small crowd of open-minded-looking hipsters congregating at Mo Pitkin's House of Satisfaction last month.
"I'm sure when he showed up he probably said, 'Hey, Superman, you got some super powers; they call you Superman. That guy looks like a bat; they call him Batman. I can shoot lightning out of my handsI should be Lightning Man!' Superman responds, 'You've got a choice: You can be Black Lightningor Niggatron. Take your pick. Anything you want, kid!' "
The hipsters ate it up. Who knows why some jokes work and some failin Varnado's case, one thing is clear, however: Racism is an absolute gas.
"Recently, somebody told me this horrible stereotype, that all Chinese people know kung fu," started a joke he told on Comedy Central's Premium Blend. "And I disempower stereotypes whenever I get the chance, so for the past six weeks I've been fighting the Chinese. And what I've found is that not all Chinese people know kung fu. But most of them will hit you anyway, because, let's face it, Chinese people are very irritable. Irritable people!
"Some people hear that joke and say, 'Victor, I'm disappointed in you, because you said you hate stereotypes, but you made this horrible stereotype.' That's what people have said, but most of those people are Haitians, so whatever! C'mon. Who listens to Haitians, right?"
And then he puts his hand to his forehead and raises two fingers, forming demonic horns, and laughs like Satan. And the audience nearly falls out of their chairs.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.