Monday, June 15, 2015

…That was no lady, that was DIVINE [1983 Interview]

Text by Julia Masi / FFanzeen fanzine, 1983
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015
Images from the Internet

This interview was originally printed in FFanzeen, issue #11, dated 1983. It was conducted and written by our Managing Editor, Julia Masi.

Perhaps Divine (d. 1988) is where my respect for Drag Queens began. Though, to be fair, calling Divine a drag queen is not inclusive enough, as she was so much larger than that (pun not intended), including having some hit recordings and being a media darling.  Over the years, there have been a number of books about Divine (including one by his mother), a documentary, and even spoofs.

What I find interesting, in McLuhan-esque rear view mirror thinking is that throughout the article below, Divine is referred to as “him.” To be fair, even John Waters uses the male pronoun in discussing Divine to this day. For myself, I have always called Divine “her” and his male counterpart, Harris Glenn Milstead as “he,” as seems to be the current way to differentiate between the actor and the “persona.” I never met Divine, but did once serve ice cream to Harris in the very hot summer of 1976 while working at a long-gone West Village Baskin-Robbins on 7 Ave South and Grove St. (there is a restaurant there now). A friend  who also worked there, at another time after I left, got his autograph (as Divine) and gave it to me. Yes, I still have it.  – RBF, 2015

Capturing the title of “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World” is no easy feat, especially if you happen to be a 300 lb. gentleman. But as the comic sex symbol in most of John Waters’ satirical films, Divine was defined his own overstated sense of drag chic that has been immortalized in a paper doll book, Simply Divine (St. Martin’s Press), and helped him land a contract with O Records.

His three singles, “Night of Love,” “Shoot Your Shot” and “Shake It Up” have provided Divine with yet another way to win fans and influence critics. Virtually unheard on American radio, Divine’s voice has been saturating the European airwaves for the past year. His move into music began when record producer Bobby Orlando started searching for new talent. “He was a fan,” recalls Divine, “and he thought I had the charisma and stage presence to put a song across.” At first Divine was reluctant. “I was told for so many years that I couldn’t sing, that I started believing it.”

So he made an agreement with Orlando that he would try his hand at recording, but if the demos didn’t turn out to his linking, they’d just scrap them. First they recorded “Night of Love,” which turned out better than they expected. It hit the European charts quickly and stayed there for 22 weeks. Shortly afterward, “Shoot Your Shot” was released to similar reception. Last Fall, Divine was asked to tour Europe because he had a record in the Top Ten, when “Night of Love” suddenly shot up to the No. 3 spot. His latest single, “Shake It Up,” went from nowhere to No. 15 the first week it was released. “It was quite exciting. It was like being the Beatles or Elton John. I couldn’t believe the popularity. They [the live audiences] just went crazy.”

Back on Divine’s home turf, Key West, Florida, he’s best known as a cult move star. His more memorable roles in Pink Flamingos (1972), and the first venture into odorama, Polyester (1981), brought him a wider audience and his first taste of mass-appeal stardom. It also helped cement a bond of loyalty with John Waters.

He called Waters “a realist,” insisting that “he cannot cheat his audience. If something is supposed to happen, it does. If it looks like something is going on in the film, I can tell you it actually does. If someone is supposed to set themselves on fire, then John has found some fool who will do it.

“He’s interested in his career and he’s interested in my career, too. He’s interested in Divine. I’m very lucky to have that. To have somebody that you can really trust.” He feels that their mutual admiration comes across on the screen. That’s one of the reasons the films are so successful. I can take his written word and give it life. I know exactly what he wants without asking. I’d always work for John. The only reason I wasn’t in Desperate Living (1977),” he says almost apologetically, “is that I was doing a play [Women Behind Bars – RBF, 1983].” That play toured Europe and gave Divine his first shot at something he’s always wanted, “to become an international star. I’d wanted to go to Europe. I’d never been out of the States. And the films hadn’t been released there until just recently. To this day, I never know whether I made the right decision. Maybe I did the right thing. I’ll never know, but it all worked out.”

He compares his relationship with Waters to the old movie studios of the 1940s. “They made your career. They got you work – they could ruin you, but they kept you working.” He praises Waters because, “He actually created a star of sorts; in my case out of a complete unknown without he the major backing of a major studio, and without the money.

“They’re very sophisticated films. Some of the new movies that are coming out look like they were made by fools. I shouldn’t say that. I haven’t actually seen them, but the ads and things are enough to keep me away. Of course, the ads for Polyester weren’t that good. But what I’m trying to say is that John deserves more credit for his writing. John’s writing is just so –! I can read [other people’s] scripts and not know whether or not I’m supposed to laugh. I read his scripts and be hysterical.”

His favorite role to date is Dawn Davenport in Female Trouble (1974). “It was fun because it kept changing. It was her whole life story, which allows for different looks and different costumers, which allows for more fun. I’m not saying it was my best part. I was at my best in Polyester, because it was a completely different kind of role for me. It was the exact opposite of glamour and everything that the Divine character stands for.” Film critics also found this to be his best role, and the first where they actually took notice of his acting expertise. “I’ve always been typecast. They say, ‘Oh, well, here’s Divine. All Divine can do is play fat women with big teased hair and tight dresses.’”

Unlike most leading “ladies” he does not mind being called sexy. “I try to be at times. There are all sides to the character.” What he feels makes the character sexy are “the size, the volume, the attitude. You’ve’ got to think sexy to be sexy. To do it, you’ve got to be it. It’s easy to get into.” But the essence of Divine’s sensuality is “the sense of humor. It’s not like,” he lets out a deep animal-like pant, “a maniac who jumps on anything – a fencepost. The sexiest thing about a woman is a sense of humor.

“I’m real, I think. The character makes people laugh. There are no holds barred, says whatever comes out of the mouth. Nonchalant. I think more people would like to be like that.”

The matinee goddess that Divine most admires id Elizabeth Taylor (d. 2011), who he has idolized since he was a child. “I met her at the Roxy Roller Rink in New York City, at a party for her daughter. It was about a year-and-a-half, or two years ago. I don’t know what she thought of me. It was like looking in a mirror.”

Last Winter, Hollywood excreted Tootsie (1982) and began flirting with the ideas of transvestite heroes. More commercial film scripts are called for actors to get dressed up, a trend that is very upsetting to Divine. “They’re trying to ruin my business. He (Dustin Hoffman) didn’t wear one pretty dress in the movie. With their budget!

“And now I hear that John Travolta is dressing up like a girl [I’m not sure to what Divine is referring, but Travolta actually played the Divine role in the musical remake of Hairspray in 2007 – RBF, 2015]. He can’t need the money that badly. Come on, boys! I could understand the feminist movement and feminist consciousness, but there’s no reason for our sex idols to dress up like girls.

“I honestly find it shocking. I’m here and I could do it. Maybe I’m just jealous. It sounds like sour grapes, doesn’t it? But nothing really happens in that movie (Tootsie). At least with a John Waters film, for one-and-a half hours you can’t stop laughing. It’s action-packed. That’s what movies are all about.

“I guess Richard Burton will be dressing up next,” he muses. “I’ll have to play men’s parts. I guess women will have to play men’s parts. I guess I’ll be out of work.”

Unemployment is hardly an immediate threat for Divine. After another brief tour of Europe this Summer, he’ll begin recording an album [My First Album – RBF, 2015]. And there’s a new John Waters film in the planning stage (Hairspray, released in 1988 – RBF, 2015]. “I can’t tell you anything about that except it’s his best one yet. That could start any time. I’m up for three other films, but you never know. We’ll just have to wait and see.”



Bonus video (John Candy as Divine on SCTV):

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