My mind raced back to the very first celebrity interview I ever did. It was 1986, and I was an undergraduate student at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Canada, struggling to find my way through a liberal arts degree. Back then, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew I was fascinated with gay politics and culture and I loved movies. Then 20, I had just returned from a trip to London, England, where I’d seen several of the films of John Waters, and gained an appreciation for Divine, the 300-pound actor who was the director’s muse and who graced many of his best films. I saw Divine perform at a club called the Hippodrome in London. I knew what this man was about. He was spectacular, funny and radical. And he was an amazing actor.
I learned that Divine was coming to Edmonton for a two-night gig performing his disco hits, including “You Think You’re a Man” and “Native Love.” I got tickets for opening night and, figuring he’d have to be at the adjoining hotel for the night in between the gigs, left his manager a note at the front desk. The next morning I got a call from his manager, Bernard Jay, who asked me if I could come to the hotel to talk to Divine. My heart was racing. I rushed to the hotel.
And there he was: Divine was wearing sweats, and hadn’t shaved (no photos, I was told). But he was full of vigor, fantastic anecdotes and ready to talk to me just as if I was Barbara Walters.
Which was pretty funny in itself, as this was the first interview I’d ever conducted, and was doing it for my student paper, The Gateway. That meant I had no recording device beyond a big, ugly yellow ghetto blaster I brought with me. I explained this to Divine. He laughed and put me at ease. We started talking.
Divine loved that his latest film, Trouble in Mind, had been getting great reviews, and that one critic in particular said he’d “stolen” the film. “I was quite flattered.” Being a huge fan, I had done my research. I brought up the fact that Divine had been banned from ever appearing on the long-running British program Top of the Pops after huge numbers of audience complaints jammed switchboards following his first performance there. There hadn’t been a problem when Boy George had performed on the show, I said, so it seemed drag wasn’t the problem — they seemed to be offended by fat. “That’s what I said too,” Divine responded. “But I thought, ‘Some of the people who watch it are fatter than I am and sit home on their fat asses watching television.’ They’re the very ones who complain! They had 12,000 complaints and they say about ten million watch the show. That’s not a very great ratio. However, my record sales doubled the next day! The only people who were ever banned from Top of the Pops were The Sex Pistols, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the Beatles and myself. So I felt this wasn’t bad company to keep, when it goes down in history.”
I had to bring up the rift with his parents, one that happened after they saw Pink Flamingos, the 1972 Waters entry that is punctuated with Divine’s famous dog-shit-eating scene. By this point, the news was happy: Divine and his parents had reconciled. ” It’s real good now. They’re fans. Which makes me feel so much better because I’m an only child and of course we were very close and spent a lot of time together. Then all of a sudden you don’t speak, and as far as I was concerned it was for no reason at all. I think they finally realized that too because I’m just doing what I love and do best and that’s being a comedian and an actor and making people laugh.”
But what I loved about Divine — aside from his beautiful, generous spirit — was his blind ambition, just like that of his character Dawn Davenport from 1974’s Female Trouble. When I suggested he had attained great success, he immediately shot back: ” Oh, but I want more than that. I want Oscars, Golden Globes, Grammys. I mean, why not? If somebody had told me five or six years ago that I’d have gold and platinum records I’d have said they were crazy because I didn’t sing. But now I’ve got them on the wall.”
When we were putting together my book, The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers, I begged my publishers at Arsenal Pulp Press to let us put an image of Divine on the cover. After all, the final chapter in the book, on John Waters, would include my original interview with Divine. The image didn’t come cheap, but it was worth it.
I still think of Divine. And I still hope the Academy will come around, and give him a special posthumous Oscar, for delivering some of the bravest, craziest and most audacious performances ever seen on the big screen.
Matthew Hays’ book The View from Here won a 2008 Lambda Literary Award. He screens Female Trouble as part of the Queer Cinema class he teaches at Montreal’s Concordia University. He is the co-editor (with Tom Waugh) of the Queer Film Classics book series.