Divine grace

Mink Stole remembers cinema's biggest star.

by Jennie Kermode

Mink and Divine in Female Trouble
Mink and Divine in Female Trouble

This week sees the release of documentary I Am Divine, which explores the life of one of cinema’s most unforgettable stars. Mink Stole, who is featured in the documentary, worked with Divine on several occasions as part of John Waters’ Dreamlander ensemble, making films like Multiple Maniacs and Pink Flamingos, and she agreed to talk to me about those experiences.

“There are times when it is sad for me to remember but also times when it is not sad,” she says of the late star. “What we did was fun. Recollecting good days is a pleasure.”

They met “rather coincidentally,” she says, through their mutual friendship with John Waters, and her professional respect for Divine is immediately apparent. “He was an incredibly generous performer,” she tells me, though she acknowledges that, though hhe never intentionally upstaged other people, it could be difficult to make an impression alongside him. “He was always focused on the scene rather than his camera angle. For him it was always about the scene, but his enormity, not just his sexuality, was so mesmerising that he automatically was a presence to be reckoned with. Still, I think I held my own.”

Laying down the law in Pink Flamingos
Laying down the law in Pink Flamingos

To me, some of their early work together seems more like theatre than cinema because it’s clear that they weren’t able to do retakes.

“I didn’t know there was any other way of working!” Mink exclaims. “”I thought everybody worked like that... I would often take offence, I guess—I would rather use a fancier word like umbrage--that people thought we were just amateurs. We were untrained but we showed up on time and knew our lines and did our blocking, partly out of self priide and partly out of fear of John’s wrath. He was never scary, exactly, but you didn’t want to make him mad. He had this look.” She laughs.

What was Divine like off set?

“He smoked a awful lot of pot,” she says. “On set he was always very focused and off set he was relaxed and more fun. He was just always very intent on doing a good job. “We all try to escape from ourselves at points. He was Glenn in his childhood and his name changed but I don’t think you change who you are. Glenn was always with him, for most of his life. It’s like, most people call me Mink but if I get pulled over and someone looks at my driver’s license, it says Nancy – but it’s only a duality of name, it’s the same person.”

Mink has said in the past that she thinks the issue of what is and isn’t acceptable in American culture is changing, and I ask if she thinks that the films she and Divine made together helped to shape that agenda.

Time out as Glenn
Time out as Glenn

“I think any time you do something as off the norm as what we were doing, it changes things,” she says. “What’s important is where the conversation goes. I know because of what people have told me that our early films changed lives. We never had that as a goal - I was just having a good time – but so may people made it a point to tell me. I’m not just talking about gay people here but lots of people who just felt isolated and had no peers and no sense of something they could belong to.”

So does she think those films still have the potential to be revolutionary today?

“Yeah, I do. I talk to people that have seen them for the first time in their twenties and they’re still having an effect. Of course the time that we made them was very different from now.”

There’s a lot going on in the world that she finds disturbing, she adds, though she stresses that she doesn’t want to talk about politics. One thing that stands out to her is the change from a time when there were three television networks and a lot less information to be disseminated to a time when there are “”enormous amounts” of information which it’s easy to access – but even in that situation, she notes, Divine’s star quality makes an impression.

We talk about the Eating Out films in which Mink appeared as Aunt Helen, about the play she recently did in New York (The Mutilators), and about the new album she’s releasing with her Wonderful Band, which she insists on emailing me a code for so I can download it (called Do Re Mink, it’s a lot of fun to listen to and you can buy it here). She tells me she’s read my review of the film and liked my focus on Divine’s relationship with his mother; I tell her that I found it one of the most touching parts of the film.

The new album
The new album

“People everywhere relate to that,” she says. “Gay people in particular because he was sent away because he was gay.” Her relationship with her own mother was difficult, she tells me, but they “pretty much” reconciled before her death. She met Divine’s mother, Frances, many times, visiting her at home once whilst Divine was still living there. “She was very proud of him at the end. She went to the première of Hairspray and witnessed for herself how much people loved he son.”

What’s her own fondest memory of Divine? I ask.

She thinks for a moment. “I don’t know. We had an odd relationship. I don’t mean odd. We were very friendly but we were more professional colleagues than hang out buddies... One of the things that made me happiest happened when I hadn’t seen him for many years. After Polyester he was concentrating on his musical career. When we were getting ready to film Hairspray he called me. He had moved into my neighbourhood. We were both living in New York and it really felt like coming home.

“We were family in a big sense. I think that we shared a mutual respect for each other and each other’s work.

Divine tones it down for Hairspray
Divine tones it down for Hairspray

“When we were both in San Francisco in the early Seventies, after we’d filmed Pink Flamingos but before it had been released, we did a play about ladies in retirement and we all played old women. Divine played an old women with a wig, grey hair in bun and no make-up. He had – I can’t quite remember - a stone collection or a shell collection, and the way he played with and connected with these little things on the stage, these little props, took my breath away. He was as committed to playing this plain old woman as any of his more flamboyant roles. He actually was a good actor.

“When people call him she I often let people know that divine didn’t live as a woman. He was a man and he played women’s roles but he could play a man or a woman. Had he started out playing men, I doubt that he would have achieved the level of fame that he did. Because he was a large man playing women that thought they were beautiful, it really got attention. And of course there was his collaboration with Van Smith, who made amazing looks for him, and John wrote amazing characters for him. Divine completely occupied that look.”

And he made it sexy, I suggest, fat and all.

“Absolutely. He defied all the stereotypes.”

He wasn’t the only one doing that in their early films, which feature many people taking an unconventional approach to being sexy...

“...and enjoying it and revelling in it!” says Mink. “It was a good place to be and a good group of people to be with.”

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