Divine Media: Achievements of the Drag Queen Who Rose to Fame with John Waters

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Photos: Nate Logsdon/Iowa Informer

Divine was an extraordinary actor and drag queen, the star of John Waters’ legendary Baltimore film company Dreamland Productions, and a gay icon who continues to fascinate and amaze audiences, including me.

“He was my Elizabeth Taylor, always,” John Waters says in the 1998 documentary Divine Trash. “I didn’t think of Divine as a female impersonator, I thought of him as a great character actor: Started his career playing a homicidal maniac and ended it playing a loving mother, which is a pretty good stretch especially when you’re a 300-pound man.”

Female Trouble — 1974, Blu-ray, Criterion Collection

Waters wrote in his autobiography Shock Value that following on the heels of his controversial breakthrough hit Pink Flamingos — which had made Divine a star — he “wanted the ideals rather than the action of Female Trouble to be horrifying.“ But the action is plenty horrifying, too.

The film stars Divine as Dawn Davenport, a troubled teenager who gets in trouble for fighting over a meatball sub, runs away on Christmas, is promptly impregnated (by “Earl Peterson,” also played by Divine), and embarks on a career of petty crime that escalates to incredible extremes.

“I always wanted to be a movie star,” Divine once said, “and now I am and I’m quite happy about it.” Dawn Davenport is similarly obsessed with stardom. When she’s approached by a pair of hair salon owners to appear in their art experiments — and help prove their theory that “crime is beauty” — she jumps at the opportunity and doesn’t hesitate to commit heinous acts in pursuit of art and fame. Her eventual arrest leads to the shocking final moment of the film, one for the ages.

The film stars a stacked cast of Dreamlanders including Edith Massey, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller, and Susan Lowe. It features iconic costumes and makeup by Van Smith and trash-beauty art direction by Vincent Peranio — both regular collaborators with Waters who contributed to the singular look of his classic films, including Polyester.

The theme was sung by Divine, with lyrics by Waters. I always find myself singing it for days and weeks after viewings.

And keep an eye out toward the end for the film debut of George Stover, who would go on to star in the sci-fi and horror movies of director Don Dohler, another Baltimore underground legend.

Polyester — 1981, VHS, New Line Home Video

Nate Logsdon/Iowa Informer

Waters’ hilarious and quickly-paced melodrama features one of Divine’s best performances as Francine Fishpaw, a woman with an acute sense of smell trying to hold onto her dream of domestic bliss as she’s pulled from crisis to crisis by her horrible children, husband, and mother. Her only friend is the aged debutante Cuddles Kovinsky (a wonderful Edith Massey), her only comfort drinking herself into a stupor. But as she hits rock bottom she sees Todd Tomorrow (Tab Hunter) standing by the side of the road….

Polyester is a nice middle-ground for Waters’ filmography: It’s definitely darker than Hairspray and Cry-Baby but it’s not the full-on depravity of his early features. I think that it’s so pleasing to the eye — shot by David Insley with beautiful colors and lighting in an idyllic suburban setting — that it really feels pleasant, even nostalgic, though we’re watching destructive behaviors. And that might be the most disturbing joke of all.

The original release of the movie was presented in “Odorama”: Theater attendees were given a scratch-and-sniff card numbered 1-10 so that viewers could smell along with Francine Fishpaw at intervals through the film. (Some are smells you may prefer to just imagine.) Unfortunately, the used VHS box set that this particular tape is a part of did not come with an Odorama card and I’ve never experienced the film that way. However, the recent Blu-ray edition of Polyester from Criterion does include the scratch-and-sniff and I want to pick that up at some point.

The film is notable for another terrific theme, sung by Tab Hunter, with lyrics by Deborah Harry.

The chemistry between Divine and Tab Hunter makes this movie unforgettable. They appeared together again in Paul Bartel’s enjoyable 1984 Western musical-comedy Lust in the Dust, which is available on Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome.

Maid in England — 1988, LP, DanceTrax

Divine was an in-demand nightclub performer around the world and released some dance music in the ‘80s. His signature songs “I’m So Beautiful” and “You Think You’re a Man” both appear on this UK import, Maid in England, which I found at the downtown Ames record store Vinyl Grind a few years ago.

“Give it Up” and “Show Me Around” on side A are catchy tracks too. The B side is mostly remixes and is a bit lighter on vocals. Overall it’s a lot of a fun, I like it.

Divine’s singing voice is deep and throaty, at times he can sound like a punk vocalist, which is a long way from his light touch in the “Female Trouble” theme but works with the pounding rhythms and anthemic choruses of the best songs here. He was a pioneer for drag queens becoming pop recording artists, preceding RuPaul’s music career by a decade.

Van Smith, of the Waters crew, did Divine’s hair and makeup for the cover photo. Sadly, Divine passed away in 1988, the year this album was released, at the age of 42.

Nate Logsdon is a writer, editor, and indexer from Ames. He was a founding editor of the Ames Progressive and contributing editor at the Iowa Informer.