Raygunesque #5: Divine

Art & Culture

“Is anybody here man enough to fuck me?”

“I said, is anybody here man enough to come up on stage to fuck me? Come up here and fuck me then!”

Those succinct words, bawled out by a wig-wearing, larger than life character, caked in make-up and wearing a tighter than tight dress, live on stage in the most unlikely of places – a stage in a student union somewhere in Egham, by Windsor – was my introduction to the world of Divine. Or at least, Divine in the flesh. 

As a teenager (this was in 1985), it was some introduction. 

In between the disco numbers, very much in tune with the productions of the day, it was just one expletive after another from the potty-mouthed star, a combination of pussies, cunts, cocks and pricks; filthy and very funny. One of our crew ended up interviewing Divine backstage afterwards. I was a bit disappointed that he was out of stage clothes and wearing “normal” gear. I wanted Divine to be like this 24 hours a day, seven days a week, like another of my heroes, Lux Interior from The Cramps. I secretly hoped Divine wandered the streets of Baltimore, eating dog shit. 

I’d seen the films by then – Polyester, the Odorama classic (recently reissued complete with scratch n sniff cards as part of the whole Scalarama thing) on VHS – you got two or three cards for each rental of the film; then, at a trash all-nighter at the Scala, the likes of Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble – and knew the records he’d released, thanks in no small part the Bobby O productions that had proved so influential to New Order and others (while Love Reaction was a fairly straightforward lift from the latter’s Blue Monday, the earlier Native Love had helped inspire the Mancunians’ global hit) – but it was only in person you really started to realise just how much larger than life this character was. 

Director Jeffrey Schwarz’s introduction to Divine came through the films. As the man who ended up charting the life of the singer cum actor cum showbiz personality in the rather wonderful documentary I Am Divine, just released on home formats by Peccadillo notes: “I had read about Pink Flamingos years before actually seeing it, in Danny Peary's Cult Movies and John Waters' book Shock Value. At the time I had no tangible connections to gay culture, so John and Divine's sensibility certainly helped lead me down a creative path and was an inspiration. 

“And then,” Schwarz continues, warming to the theme, “finally getting to see Divine in those movies when I was in college was just mind blowing. Each film was more jaw-dropping than the next and Divine’s performances were fearless and courageous. Just after the release of Hairspray, John and Divine’s breakthrough success, I opened the newspaper and saw that Divine had died. It seemed so cruel and unfair that after receiving the best reviews of his career and on the verge of mainstream acceptance, he wouldn’t be able to enjoy the fruits of his labour.”

(Jeffrey Schwarz: “My favourite Divine film? Female Trouble, for sure. That's the movie that he gives the most insane performance in. He goes from a teenage delinquent to a criminal, prostitute, child abuser, fashion model, stripper, murderess, and death row prophet all in the same movie!)

That is, of course, the tragedy in the Divine story, one that is duly noted in the film – just as the actor was finally ready to break out of cultdom and into megastardom, events took over. But as well as celebrating the life of Divine, the film also celebrates what Divine did manage to achieve. 

As Schwarz says: “At this time where the LGBT community is quickly becoming absorbed into mainstream society, I think it's important to celebrate outsider artists like Divine. It's always the rebels and the freaks that make life easier for the rest of us. Divine succeeded in becoming an internationally recognised recording artist and screen icon and gives courage to anyone who’s ever been mocked, ridiculed, or ostracised. His story gives us hope that anything’s possible. It's kind of the ultimate ‘it gets better’ story and he's a poster child for misfit youth. I wanted the next generation to get to know their Queen Mother and find inspiration to fulfil their own creative destiny in his story.”

Don’t just take our, or the director’s word for it, however. Mark Oakley, one of the UK’s biggest Divine fans, owns the Eagle in Vauxhall, home to arguably London’s finest night out, Horse Meat Disco. Divine’s inspiration is writ large over the venue and HMD as a night. “

“Since first seeing Divine on film then in the flesh in the early 80s Shows at Heaven and London's Hippodrome where she arrived on stage on an Elephant, I was hooked,” Oakley says. “She had always remained an influence on my creative and various career paths and when opening Eagle London and launching the now legendary Horse Meat Disco as our Sunday residency, we have had Divine in her Dawn Davenport character looking down on the dancefloor giving us inspiration laughter and comfort as the true Icon of our ethos of fun frolics and frocks.”

(Note the trailer contains no footage from the film itself, Of the film, I Am Divine director Jeffrey Schwarz says: “Divine ate shit so we don't have to.”)

As I Am Divine correctly – and hilariously – notes, the UK counterculture, whether in fleapit rep cinemas such as the Scala, or London’s sleazy nightclubs of the 80s, took Divine to its heart. That turned into a more mainstream success as single You’re Think You’re A Man, a camp cover version and the most commercial offering in the Divine discography, enjoyed chart and then Top Of The Pops success. 

“Divine's play Women Behind Bars opened in London and was a smash hit,” says Schwarz.The Waters movies were well known in the UK, so Divine could rub elbows with emerging young artists in London. Divine absolutely loved the city and felt at home. He soon found a group of fabulous friends that included artist Andrew Logan and his partner Michael Davis, designer Zandra Rhodes, photographer and artist Robyn Beeche, and more. The London contingent loved and adored the larger than life American star, and together they painted the town red. Divine even appeared as a guest co-host for Logan's The Alternative Miss World pageant in a circus tent on London's Clapham Common.”

(“What this record needs is more cowbell…”)

Schwarz wanted to explore more than the obvious side to Divine in the film though. “I was a fan but for the documentary, it was important to go beyond the layers of eye liner and wigs and hairspray to find the real man inside,” he says. “Divine never considered himself a drag queen. He was a character actor who played female parts. He was a fantastic and brave performer, a fine actor, and a warm, generous person. I wanted people get to know the man behind the mask of the Divine character. He couldn't have been more different than the characters he played in the John Waters films, but people just assumed he was that way. It was actually a great frustration for him.”

Mention of frustration brings us neatly on to one of the most frustrating elements for any filmmaker – that of funding. In keeping with many independent directors, he found alternative ways of coming up with the ash. “Fundraising is always difficult especially in today's economy, so we turned to Divine's fans to help us get this movie made,” he explains. “We spent a couple of years cultivating a very lively community on our Facebook page and then decided to use crowd funding through Indie-Go-Go and Kickstarter and we made our goals. We wanted the fans to feel they had a stake in making sure the film was completed. It was a way for people to give back to Divine, to feel personally connected to something really special, and to show that Divine still has a thriving fan-base. There really wasn't a plan B. Between our on-line campaigns and the big donor angels that made larger contributions, we were able to complete the film.”

Once the money was raised, securing the involvement of director John Waters, the man who first brought Divine to the public eye, was crucial. “The first thing I did when I decided to try and make the film was call John Waters. He knew my work and trusted that Divine's story would be in good hands. Without his support and blessing I would not have moved forward on this. He actually said, I trust you. This will be a good movie. So that's all I needed to hear! John opened up his rolodex to us and got in touch with all these people I was hoping to interview, telling them to speak with me. He's been nothing but supportive of this project.”

The involvement of some of the original Baltimore scenesters really helps bring it alive. “Going to Baltimore and getting to meet and interview so many of the original Dreamland crew (Mink Stole, Sue Lowe, Mary Vivian Pearce, Vincent Peranio, Pat Moran) was such a treat,” says Schwarz. “There is a lot of history under the bridge with these folks, and they've been through so much together. Making movies, loving each other, fighting with each other, sleeping with each other. We should all be so lucky to have friends and creative partners like they do.”

What is heartening to see is that Divine and his films are still enduringly popular – see the aforementioned Polyester playing to rapt audiences throughout the summer. “John and Divine appealed to other outsiders and freaks and revelled in shocking people who were humor impaired,” says Scwarz. “Divine did play all the gay clubs when he did his disco act, but his appeal wasn't limited to a gay audience. Even though the gay community loves drag, there's always been a tension there. Sometimes they're not looked upon as the ‘politically correct’ image for straight society to accept us. Today's queers need to remember people like Divine and the people on the fringes who made it easier for the rest of us.”

(“Filmed in Odorama…”)

And then, of course, there’s the timeless appeal of Divine himself. “Just by being so outrageous and unique, just by being himself, he empowered everyone who saw him and told them it was okay to be who they were. He ate shit so we don't have to.”

Scwharz is pleased by the reaction of the film, and, especially from Divine’s own crew. “I think anyone can identify with the theme of self-acceptance,” he notes. “Growing up, Divine was picked on, teased and abused. When he met John Waters and his crew he found a group that accepted him, loved him, and encouraged him. He was able to take all his teenaged rage and channel it into the Divine character. He threw everything that people made fun of him for back in their faces and empowered himself. And they both got famous in the process, which is what they wanted.

“I’m definitely pleased with the film and Divine's friends and fans are all very happy with it as well so that's very gratifying.”

I Am Divine is available now on DVD and on demand from Peccadillo in the UK.