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Celebrating 30 Years Of 'Fresh Air': Character Actor Divine


This is FRESH AIR. Let's continue our 30th anniversary retrospective with Divine, the man who often starred in women's roles in John Waters' films. Divine was frequently referred to as a 300-pound drag queen. But Divine said he thought of himself as a character actor. Until his death in 1988, he was in every one of John Waters' movies. But when we spoke, he'd been trying to broaden his career and was doing films by other people in male and female roles.

It was Waters' 1972 movie "Pink Flamingos" that made Divine famous. If you've seen the film or the publicity stills, then you'll remember the image of Divine's huge frame covered in a skin-tight, low-cut gown. Divine's character wins the title the filthiest person alive in that film. I spoke with Divine in February 1988, just after the release of Waters' movie "Hairspray." Two weeks later, Divine died of an enlarged heart. He was 42.

In "Hairspray," Divine play dual roles, the housewife and mother Edna Turnblad and Arvin Hodgepile, the racist president of the TV station. When we spoke, we started with a scene in which Divine, as Edna Turnblad, is taking her daughter Tracy to Mr. Pinky's Hefty Hideaway House of Fashion for the Ample Woman to pick out some new clothes for a TV dance show.


DIVINE: (As Edna Turnblad) Mr. Pinky, I'm Tracy's business manager, Edna Turnblad.

ALAN WENDL: (As Mr. Pinky) Well, it's a pleasure to meet the both of you. Here, we cater to the big-boned gals like yourself who are stylish and, at the same time, frustrated by the lack of sizes in the department stores today. I saw you on TV. I want you to be my model.

DIVINE: (As Edna Turnblad) Would she be paid for this?

WENDL: (As Mr. Pinky) One free outfit a month. You start tomorrow. I hope there's no diets in the works because I want to design your Miss Auto Show coronation gown myself.

DIVINE: (As Edna Turnblad) Could you throw in a pair of complimentary pettipants in the deal?

WENDL: (As Mr. Pinky) You drive a hard bargain, Miss Edna, and rightfully so. Pettipants, pettigirdle - you just let Tracy take her pick.

DIVINE: (As Edna Turnblad) It's a deal. Thank you, Mr. Pinky.

WENDL: (As Mr. Pinky) I'm going to make you a star.


GROSS: Let me ask you to describe in your own words the two roles that you play in "Hairspray."

DIVINE: Well, I think one is Edna Turnblad as a loving mother and adoring wife. And vice versa. She has a child that wants to break into a dance program on television. First, she's a bit leery but then realizes that, in her words, she could be one of the Rockettes. So she thinks this is great and gets behind her 100 percent and becomes her agent and manager. Then I also play a part of Arvin Hodgepile, who is a racist, sexist pig. And he owns a television studio. And he's just a hideous person. So it was great to play 'cause they're unlike any other characters I've ever done.

GROSS: Are you glad that you played a dual role - that you played a female and a male role so that you're seen as a character actor who's capable of performing in both roles?

DIVINE: Oh, definitely. I think it's a cliche Hollywood story - being typecast. And I'm definitely a victim of that. But I think I'm very lucky that I was starting to come out of it. It's taken 20-some years. Like I said, I was screaming at people. I'm not a transvestite. I'm not a drag queen. I'm a character actor. I never set out in the beginning of my career just to play female roles.

But, fortunately or unfortunately for me, they were the only things that were offered to me. And they were the leads of the movies. So you don't go around turning down parts that are the leads or that are written for you if you're a young actor. I had no idea that they would be such strong characters - that people thought that was all I could do.

GROSS: Let's talk about your roles in "Hairspray." A part of the movie is about hairdos, about the great teased bouffant hairdos of the early '60s. And I know John Waters is really enamored with those old hairdos. You used to be a hairdresser, didn't you?

DIVINE: Oh, for a very short time. I'm glad I had that experience. It's come in very helpful now...

GROSS: (Laughter).

DIVINE: ...'Cause when I'm on the road and things doing my club act, there aren't always hairdressers available or things. So I end up having to do it myself. And I'm glad I know how to tease because that's definitely the look they want. But I said to Johnny (ph), he doesn't have to go too far from his front door, actually, to still see women who look just like that.

When I was doing the film, it was very funny because the first day on the set, I walked down the street. No one looked at me twice. I walked right through the camera crew, past John and kept going. None of them looked at me. I came back and stood right in front of John. He looked at me, and he did a double take. It was very funny. He's like, I can't believe it. That's perfect.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DIVINE: I looked just like one of the girls on the street.

GROSS: How did that make you feel?

DIVINE: Oh, it was good. I mean, that was the best compliment. I mean, I did fit right in. I did look exactly the way I was supposed to. And - because so often with my size and things, I'm so - what's the word? - you know, not uptight but - about sticking out too much.

GROSS: Self-conscious?

DIVINE: Yeah, self-conscious, you know, about sticking out too much or being the largest person on the set. But then, in a way, that's the best thing, too, I guess. You get noticed more.

GROSS: Let's talk about the male part that you played. And this is a kind of bad-guy-type part, a kind of villain part. He's the head of the TV studio who, you know, doesn't want to stand for integration. Now, John Waters told me you got fitted for new teeth for this role.

DIVINE: Yeah. Well, they wanted me to look completely different, which is the great part of being a character actor - to look like the characters and to look different from yourself. When they fitted me for teeth, big, bucked teeth had decay and things on them. Then I had brown - because I have blue eyes. They poked me in the eye every morning about 15 times, trying to get these brown contacts in my eyes.

And then I wore a toupee, which is the kind of hairstyle that men that are balding - and they sweep it up from the bottom and over the top, which really doesn't cover anything. But they think it does in their own mind. And you can see the skin in between the hair. You know, real dark brown because they usually dye their hair. So it was quite hideous.

GROSS: Were listening to my 1988 interview with Divine. We'll hear more as we continue our 30th anniversary retrospective after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our 30th anniversary retrospective and continue our 1988 interview with actor Divine.


GROSS: Did you love movies when you were growing up? What were some of your favorite films?

DIVINE: I've always had very macho taste in movies.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DIVINE: My favorites when I was a kid were - it was the "Knights Of The Round Table" movies and war movies and...

GROSS: Really?

DIVINE: Yeah. I really do like "Rambo" movies and Sylvester Stallone. And Charles Bronson, I think, is probably my favorite.

GROSS: So you liked, really, war movies and action films. Did you like glamour movies when you were growing up?

DIVINE: Well, anything that Elizabeth Taylor was in I liked.

GROSS: Did you like her better when she was thin or heavy?

DIVINE: It didn't matter to me.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

DIVINE: It didn't matter. I thought it was just more of her to look at when she got heavy - but still very beautiful. And I finally did meet her one day, and I couldn't speak at all. After years of planning what I was going to say to her, I was (vocalizing). So I don't drink, but I went and had a double scotch and came back and had a little conversation with her.

GROSS: Did she know you?

DIVINE: She knew of me. It was a party for her daughter, Maria (ph). And her hairdresser and makeup men, a man, were people that I've used. And they had told her all about me. So she wanted to meet me at the party.

GROSS: That's great that you'd use the same makeup man.

DIVINE: Yeah, we look a lot alike.


GROSS: You know, John Waters has said that he really has always loved it when people who don't fit mainstream good looks take what they have and really turn it into style, turn it into, you know, an advantage. Did you feel like you were doing that when you were growing up because you were - I think you were always pretty heavy?

DIVINE: Yeah. Well, no, actually not because I was very much an introvert. And I never really went out of the house until I was about 16 years old. I was very uptight about my weight and about the way I looked. And I always wanted to look like everyone else. And finally my junior year, like, when I was 16 and in high school is when I started hanging out with John and everyone else that I got the confidence together to go out and - I was always in a coat. I always had a raincoat on or something. People probably thought I was a flasher.

But I was just uptight about, you know, how fat I was. Finally, I went on a diet, like I said, my junior year, and lost 80 pounds and went down to 140, 145 for my senior year. And then I was able to get dates and go to the prom and everything. But still, it was strange to me because all of a sudden, people talked to me that wouldn't talk to me when I was fat.

And I thought, well, what's this all about? You know, it was a rude awakening, actually, at a very young age.

GROSS: So it must have been really liberating, in a way, when you started playing these extravagant roles where your weight was really a part of the role and you were very theatrical about your size and theatrical about the way you dress.

DIVINE: Oh, yeah, well, John did help me, I mean, to gain a lot of self-confidence and to be proud and not to fit the mold that I think they really do try to put you in, especially here in America, that you've got to be thin, you've got to be under 200 pounds. I mean, you don't. I mean, there are a lot of big people out there that they're still very beautiful people.

GROSS: I think when you and Waters started working together, you had a lot of exploits both in the kinds of movies that you did and in the kind of parties that you gave. But it seems to me like you were part of this, well, very kind of avant-garde theatrical type of - into a theatrical kind of juvenile delinquency, as opposed to being, like, the real hoods.

How did the tough guys in the school treat you, the people who really were the hoods?

DIVINE: Oh, well, I wasn't - they used to wait for me every day to beat me up after school and to the point where I was quite black and blue and afraid to say anything 'cause they had threatened my life. And it was very bad. You know, finally one day, I had to go for a physical to the doctor. And when I disrobed, I mean, it was quite obvious that something terrible was happening to me.

And finally, I broke down after a lot of questioning and told him what the problem was. And they called my parents in. When they saw what I looked like, they were quite hysterical. And we had the police at the school and the kids were expelled. And it was quite an ugly situation, which made me even more unpopular with their friends and the other people, you know.

But then I think finally, like I said, my senior year was more or less all right. It wasn't so bad.

GROSS: Actor Divine is my guest. I'm just going to ask you one question about the famous "Pink Flamingos" scene in which the movie ends. And just one question about it. And then you have to eat a fresh dog turd. And you and John Waters have both said that you did it to kind of get attention. And the film really did. I mean, you were real upcoming people.

DIVINE: Well, John came to me and he said, well, you know, would you do this? I said, oh, sure. Who thought I thought he was kidding? And he said, well, listen, do you want to be famous or do you want to be completely forgotten about? He said, it's going to do either one or the other for you. It's going to make you or forget - he said, but your name will go down in movie history forever anyway, no matter what you do.

And I thought, well, what do I care? You know, I was very young and you don't think about all these things. It was quite a hideous experience actually.

GROSS: Well, here's my question, did you rush off to an emergency room afterwards? I'd be wondering about, you know, germs and things like that.

DIVINE: Well, no, I had mouthwash and things. And I brushed my teeth and gargled. Anyway, I went home and I was sitting there. Then I started to worry. So I called the hospital and I said, (imitating a woman) oh, hello, this is Mrs. Johnson, and my son just ate dog doody. And what should I do? And she said, well, how old is your son? And I said, well, he's 24 years old.

Well, then the nurse said, some maniac's on the phone here. So she said, well, you just have to wash his mouth out and, you know, do all this. She said, but feel his stomach every day because he could get what was called the - you know, like, a worm. And every day, I was feeling my stomach to see. Finally, one day, it got hard. I thought, oh, my God, I've got it.

But I didn't have anything. So I was very lucky. But she suggested that I get rid of the dog.

GROSS: You said that it was John Waters who gave, you know, who helped give you your image.

DIVINE: Right.

GROSS: How did you decide on what that image was going to be when you first were getting it together?

DIVINE: Well, at the time, there were - Andy Warhol and a lot of people were making cult movies and, as they called them, underground films then, which were just the equivalent of your independently made movies today - low budget. So the one name like Vivah (ph) was very popular. So John gave me the name Divine. He just said he thought I was and it was - that it was funny and that I was divine and it was a good name for me and also because he had a very heavy Catholic upbringing.

We had sort of religious names. So I think with John wanted a very large woman because he wanted the exact opposite of what normally would be beautiful. He wanted a 300-pound beauty, as opposed to a 110-pound beauty. He wanted, as I've been called, inflated Jayne Mansfield. And also, it's ironic that he would say the most beautiful woman in the world turns out to be a man.

So everything there is backwards. So it's really a John Waters character. But then Van Smith, a very good friend of ours who does all of John's movies - he does the makeup and costuming and has done all - helped create the look for the character. He's the one that said, go in the bathroom, shave your head halfway back and pluck all your eyebrows out. So, I mean, you really have to trust people. I went in the bathroom and did this.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DIVINE: I came out and I thought, what have I done now? But then he did my face almost, like he always called it, beauty gone berserk. And it was similar to Kabuki-type makeup.

GROSS: Oh, that's true, isn't it?

DIVINE: Yeah. And also, we didn't want to look like a normal, everyday woman because I'm not a woman. We wanted to look more like a cartoon character, you know, of a woman.

GROSS: Divine, recorded in 1988 - two weeks after we recorded our interview, he died of an enlarged heart. He was 42. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.