Mink Stole first gained notoriety in the ’70s, when she emerged as one of the most memorable stars in the groundbreaking films of John Waters. Along with Divine, David Lochary and Edith Massey (among others), Stole chewed up the scenery in over-the-top turns in cult films that are now regarded as countercultural classics.
As Stole tells it, her bombastic acting style was something Waters required of her. In Desperate Living (1977), she commands the first ten minutes of the movie, having an extended nervous breakdown, admonishing the neighborhood children to “Go home! Tell your mother this isn’t some communist daycare centre!” Later, when her lesbian lover makes a pass at another woman, she takes umbrage at the infidelity: “Go ahead! Feel her up, just like you did to me! Find them, feel them, fuck them and forget them! Is that your new motto?” She brought Waters’ genius dialogue to life so perfectly, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else taking on her roles.
Stole continues to act in various film and TV roles and on stage, and she also performs and records music. On the eve of an appearance in Montreal, Canada, Stole spoke with Queerty about her Catholic upbringing, her acting style and getting mistaken for a drag queen.
Queerty: The opening 10 minutes of Desperate Living, where you are having a complete and total breakdown, is sheer genius. It’s really one of my favorite performances.
Mink Stole: Thank you. It was very loud. The whole movie — it starts there, and then escalates. I have difficulty watching it. I want to wear ear plugs when I’m watching it. It’s so shrill! I think the movie is brilliant, and hilarious. And I loved my character. There’s one moment in the movie and that’s my absolute favorite one, where Grizelda and I have escaped from the cops and we’re walking into Mortville, and it’s this one moment in the whole movie where your ears get a break. Everyone yells in that movie! It doesn’t stop.
We had both grown up with the rules, and they were a lot more restrictive than they are today. There was not eating meat on Friday, which condemned us to Friday-night fish sticks, you couldn’t eat before Mass — the rules seemed arbitrary, but we abided by them. I went to three different Catholic schools and at none of them did I find a kind nun. I don’t know what the nuns are like there, but my nuns were the medieval kind, with full robes and enormous rosaries, which they swung like weapons. They were not pleasant. Every now and then you’d find a nun that could chuckle, but it was pretty bad most of the time. They were not tolerant.
Was there a moment when you first realized the restrictions were ridiculous?
Catholicism is so fear-based. It’s based on the fact that if you break any of those rules and you die without confessing, you go to hell. Period. No extenuating circumstances. And you hear this from the time you’re seven. You are doomed if you don’t follow the rules! When I was 14, I skipped mass for the first time. And then I didn’t get hit by a bus. And it fell apart for me then. I completely believed that if I broke one of these major rules, I would be stricken. The whole thing fell apart for me, and I was really pissed off.
I know you do a lot of theatre, and I find that really interesting, because when I look back on the films you did with John, they were so Brechtian. The acting was so completely over-the-top, it was a performance style that drew attention to itself.
I was directed to do that. He directed everyone exactly the same. We started Pink Flamingos without a complete script. I knew I was going to lose — I never for a moment thought I was going to win, I knew that Divine would always come out the winner. I was so happy in Hairspray when I got to be on the side of the good people! John would speak everyone’s lines in rehearsals, and every line was spoken with italics. So we were directed to be very dramatic, and over-dramatic. I don’t know if John was actively trying for that or if that was all he knew. Because we were children at the time, in our early 20s. We gave him what he wanted, but as we would do it. There’s very little subtlety. The last few movies I’ve made with John, he says “Take it down.” His style has become so much quieter.
It’s been argued that the mainstream has co-opted alternative culture, thus it’s hard to create Midnite Movies of the kind that you and the Dreamlanders made. Is there anything out there that shocks you in a good way?
I’m really loving Amy Schumer, not because she talks dirty, but because she talks dirty and makes it not sound dirty. There’s a matter-of-factness to her that’s great. I laughed through so much of Trainwreck. It’s relatively guilt-free promiscuity. Obviously she didn’t grow up Catholic.
I once asked Mary Tyler Moore if she ever resented Mary Richards as she’s so closely associated with the role. She said that she did for a time but grew to embrace it and be thankful for it. Do you ever resent that you are so closely associated with the work you did with John Waters?
If I had known, when I was 19, that Mink Stole was going to be a name I’d carry with me for life, I may not have let this happen. As recently as a few years ago, people mistake me for a drag queen. Not because I look like one, but because they associate me with Divine, and then my name. I’ve been naked on film, but they still think I’m a drag queen. “That was quite a good tuck!” I was in Provincetown a few years ago and I was doing a play, and two gay men walked by and one said, “Who’s that?” and the other responded, “Mink Stole — a very famous drag queen.” When I became Mink Stole drag queens weren’t using funny names. Things were very different then. Mostly they were passing as women, which was one of the reasons Divine was so revolutionary. At my dentists a few weeks ago, my dentist asked how I got the name Mink, and I said, because my last name is Stole. His assistant said they didn’t get it. So not only is my name politically incorrect, it’s also outdated. And I’m against fur, I should say, I did some work with PETA. I didn’t hang out with PETA that long though, because I couldn’t give up chicken and fish. If I could go back, I don’t think I’d take the name.
Why not go back to your birth name?
Then I’d have no resume. I’m not unhappy with my name, but it’s just something I’m not sure I’d do over. Some guy was trying to use it a few years ago, so I had to get it trademarked. So now it’s legally mine.
The problem was, I had said yes. If I had said no from the beginning, then it would have been okay. I thought it would be a fabulous scene. But as the filming of the scene was approaching, I realized that this was a very dangerous thing to do. From an actor’s perspective, the deal was that I was going to be sitting on a chair, and there was going to be someone standing there with a match and another person with a bucket of water. Then the line was going to be, “Liar, liar, hair on fire!” I can’t remember who was supposed to say it, probably Divine. But these weren’t professional people. I could have been bald for life! Not only that, but at the end of the movie, Divine eats dog shit, so no one would have remembered my hair being set on fire. So I thought, ‘I could be bald for life in a moment no one would remember!’ So I thought, no.
I think that was a smart choice.
Me, too. John was so pissed off! He had already bought me a wig. There had been an investment made.
Thanks for making those films. They changed my life.
Thanks! I’m always humbled and pleased that people still care about what we did all those years ago. It surprises and delights me that people are so interested in what we did.
Mink Stole will perform September 12 from 6-9 p.m. and take questions at as part of the Legend Series hosted by Never Apart (7049 Saint Urbain, Montreal, Quebec, Canada).