In 1984, at the massive Hippodrome nightclub in London, I saw Divine absolutely WOW an audience of several thousand people with her Hi-NRG Eurodisco set. The place was packed to the gills with adoring—and very glamorous—people who were there to be bathed in her low rent divinity… if not her flop sweat. Looking around the audience that night, it occurred to me what a personal triumph this event must have represented for someone who was so marginalized growing up. Let’s face it, Harris Glenn Milstead was a full-blown freak (in a good way, the best possible way), and John Waters was absolutely right when he said “Divine stood for all outsiders. A young person could be inspired because anything is possible.”
Divine’s life and rise to worldwide fame and unlikely icon-hood was the ultimate “It Gets Better” story, whether you are gay or straight! His is a legend that will last forever, truly.
I also met Divine once at a Manhattan nightclub I was working at during the mid-80s. I took up a tray of food to his dressing room. You’d expect maybe that he would have been intimidating—a diva—but I can assure you that he was absolutely a total sweetheart. I still have the autographed invite for the event—a “Father’s Day Party”—with Divine wrapped in an American flag on the front, posed like the Statue of Liberty. In marked contrast to the London appearance, Divine had, just a few years years later, become morbidly obese and appeared to be very unhealthy. I saw him when he walked offstage and he was really out of breath, sweating profusely and it took him some time before he was breathing normally again. I asked “Are you okay?” and he silently indicated that he was fine and waved me off as he stood there wheezing. A friend of mine remarked that he didn’t expect that Divine would be “long for this world.” A little over a year later, Divine was dead.
Here’s a selection of some of the best of Divine’s 80s disco diva period:
1984’s “I’m So Beautiful” made it to #16 in the British pop charts and was the first hit for powerhouse songwriting/production trio Stock Aitken Waterman, later responsible for dozens of Hi-NRG hit records in the 80s by the likes of Kylie Minogue, Rick Astley, Bananarama and Dead or Alive.
Rock and Roll taught John Waters how to annoy his parents, but it was the nuns from his local church, who inadvertently encouraged his interest in cheap, exploitation films:
‘The first thing I can remember rebelling about really, was when I was about 8-years-old and every Sunday we’d go to church. Once a year they’d read us this pledge that we had to take for the Legion of Decency, which was the Catholic Church rating the movies—what you could see and what you couldn’t—and the condemned ones were the ones they’d tell us you’d go to Hell if you saw these movies.
Well, I remember refusing to do this pledge and my mother was kind of shocked, but I was just a child, and she didn’t make a big deal out of it. And on Sundays, the nuns would read us this list, with this voice like the Devil, and you know, seeing this nun stand there saying, “Love Is My Profession, Mom and Dad, The Naked Night.” I thought “What are these movies?” I’d never heard of them—they didn’t play at my neighborhood, believe me—but I would go and see them, or read about them, and clip the little list and keep a record of all these condemned movies. The Mom and Dad poster is hanging right in my hall—it’s still that much of an influence. But it made me want to see these movies I’d never, ever heard of. So, in fact they encouraged me, [the nuns] encouraged my interest, without ever knowing it completely.’
Growing Up With John Waters is a fabulous Channel 4 documentary from 1993, where the notorious director of Pink Flamingos, Multiple Maniacs, Female Trouble and Hairspray talks about the childhood events that shaped his life.
This is what Tranarchy is doing this weekend, a tribute to all things trashy, sleazy, skeezy, strange and Baltimorean. Yup, we’re showing every single full length film by cult auteur and Pope of Trash, the Ayatollah of Crud, the Prince of Puke, the one and only John Waters.
Every single one. In a row. Non-stop. For 24 hours.
The only things we’re not showing are his hard-to-find early short, and hell, if we can find ‘em, we’ll probably show them too!
You know, maybe we are crazy. And a little bit stupid. But we still don’t care. This movie marathon is something some of our members have dreamed of doing their whole lives, and just like the Dreamlanders, Tranarchy is dedicated to making our craziest, stupidest dreams a reality.
Let’s face it. watching all of these films back to back non-stop for 24 hours is going to be quite an endurance test. We are inviting patrons to sleep over, and Manchester’s Islington Mill (the venue for this festival of freakiness) are kindly letting us convert one of their heated gallery spaces into a giant bedroom for anyone who needs a break.
There will be lots of interactivity’s for patrons , including a Waters-inspired photo booth featuring some of his most iconic movie scenes, free popcorn, edible turds, and for the final film, a dance-a-long screening of Hairspray, dance lessons that will teach you to do The Madison. We’ll want you to go two up and two back with a big, strong turn. The brilliant artwork, above, by Manchester-based illustrator David Bailey, will also be available to buy as limited edition prints.
Even now, 42 years after the Dreamlanders made their first ripples in the puddle of public consciousness with the release of Pink Flamingos (our midnight show, of course!) they are THE SHIT. They were punks before there were punks (they died their hair with pen ink because colored dye was not commercially available back then.) They were openly queer before there was such a thing as queer culture (in fact, they were a huge part of defining what queer culture could and would be.) They were one of the only pockets of hippie-resistance outside of Warhol’s Factory, and their couldn’t-give-a-flying-fuck attitude is inspirational to this day. Cookie Meuller, Mink Stole, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pierce, Pat Moran, Vincent Peranio, Divine and John Waters, we salute you. For 24 fucking hours.
The Facebook event page for Tranarchy’s 24 Hour John Waters Movie Marathon is here.
In sourcing the content for the movie marathon we’ve collected some interesting curios and documentaries about John Waters and the Drreamlanders. Thankfully, some of them have appeared on Dangerous Minds before, including the excellent Incredibly Strange Move Show with Jonathan Ross and the brilliant Divine Trash. But here’s a little curio I am happy to say has never been on this site before. It’s an appearance on Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous, where he gives us a tour of his Baltimore home and its cavalcade of perversions:
John Waters on Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous:
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
You know, we’ve been posting about John Waters on DM almost since its very inception. There are just too many great posts about the man to list them all individually. So instead of singling them out, have a scroll through the John Waters-tag page.
I have to admit, as a Mick living in Limeyland, I don’t fully understand what Thanksgiving is all about. All I know is that it’s as American as apple pie, as the Detroit Lions or the Pittsburgh Steelers, as right-wing Christian nut jobs or cheapo exploitation cinema starring 300lb drag queens.
So on this turkey day, come worship at the altar of the Pope of Trash. Because nothing strikes me as being more American than the work of cult auteur John Waters. What’s more fitting to watch on Thanksgiving than two of his very early, very cheap shocksploitation classics?
Sure, these films may represent a way of living and a segment of the US population that America is not too comfortable sharing with the rest of the world (see also: Honey Boo Boo Child) but it’s an integral part of America nonetheless, and worthy of as much celebration as turkeys or pancakes with bacon with maple syrup (I’ve tried that one, I wasn’t impressed.)
So here’s an early-John Waters double bill to sink your teeth into, starting with 1969’s silent Mondo Trasho, (it’s got a great soundtrack though) and followed up by 1970’s ever-so-slightly higher budget Multiple Maniacs (it’s got sound!)
Even now, over forty years on, these films have the power to shock. Mondo Trasho kicks off with a live chicken being killed (kind of of fitting for Thanksgiving?) and Multiple Maniacs climaxes with Divine being raped by a giant lobster. In between you will find all kinds of depravity, though looking back it’s funny how innocent all this depravity seemed. There’s no real rage or unhappy-ever-after bleakness on display, everyone involved always seemed to be having too much fun!
Some people would say these films are hard to watch, and you know, they might be right. That doesn’t mean the films are not worth watching. In fact, some other people would say that John Waters’ films are so good that they are all worth watching in row, back to back, non-stop for 24 hours. Who would be crazy enough to attempt such a thing?!
When it comes to alt-culture icons, they don’t come much bigger or more fabulous than Divine, who was born Glenn Harris Milstead 67 years ago today.
I shouldn’t need to explain to the readers of Dangerous Minds how important a figure Divine was, not just to gay people, drag queens or the plus-sized, but to freaks, misfits and outcasts anywhere and everywhere. I mean, you just gotta love Divine. Anyone who flaunts their flaws that proudly and boldly, turns them into cornerstones of their appearance in fact, should be held up as an inspiration to everyone.
Divine’s legacy has gotten stronger since Milstead’s death in 1988, and in a strange way Divine has come to represent a time when society was both more conservative, but oddly more liberal. What film star would gulp down real, live dog shit on screen these days and be called a hero? I think we need Divine now more than ever, so it’s no surprise to me how truly iconic she has become in recent years.
As today is Divine’s birthday, I contacted Lotti Pharriss Knowles, the producer of the upcoming feature documentary I Am Divine, to discuss the incredible performer, and to get the scoop on their film, which promises to be the definitive document of Divine’s life.
THE NIALLIST: How did this project come about in the first place?
LOTTI PHARRISS KNOWLES: Our director, Jeffrey Schwarz, has been kind of obsessed with Divine and John Waters since he was introduced to their films in college. Many years later Jeffrey interviewed Waters for SPINE TINGLER! THE WILLIAM CASTLE STORY, and many other Dreamlanders for the doc YOU CAN’T STOP THE BEAT: THE LONG JOURNEY OF HAIRSPRAY, and became inspired to make a definitive documentary about the immortal star that is Divine.
TN: How is the Kickstarter going? And when is the finished film due?
LPK: Kickstarter is going great—we made our goal of $40,000 earlier this week! But that goal was the bare minimum we needed to raise to help finish this film, so we are setting a new, “unofficial” goal of $50K to see how far we can get by Friday at midnight when the campaign ends.
We don’t have a specific due date, but we are applying to festivals where, if accepted, we’d premiere early next year. So time is definitely of the essence to make sure we polish the edit, get the soundtrack and graphics completed, and legally clear all the photos and footage we’ve included. And none of that comes cheap!
TN: What personally attracts you to the character of Divine?
LPK: I’ve always been an oddball and attracted to others who are, especially people who are fearless about being different. No one embodies that spirit of the in-your-face punk misfit more than Divine. I also love that while Divine was completely subversive, you always felt a tender heart beating underneath the wild persona—I think that combination is ultimately why Divine’s fans love him so fervently.
TN: Divine’s legacy has gotten stronger since her death - why do you think that is?
LPK: Well, we always seem to truly idolized those who leave us too soon: Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, Divine. They go out when they’re still young and beautiful, and they’re forever trapped in time… There’s something sentimental about that, because the fans are left to fill in the blanks of what might have happened had they lived longer. I also think there are always those new fans coming along, the next generation of folks seeing the Waters movies for the first time, and responding to those characteristics I mentioned. There are always going to be misfits and outsiders, and so there will always be a need for a role model like Divine.
Divine in Melbourne, Autralia in 1984, pic by Andrew Curtis
TN: Where do you think Glenn Harris Milstead would be today if he hadn’t died?
LPK: I think he’d be an accomplished actor with a wide variety of roles under his belt. He had so much talent, and was just about to enjoy a breakout role out of drag on “Married With Children” when he passed away. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have seen Divine live to play Edna Turnblad again in the Broadway musical??
TN: Indeed it would!! Do you think modern society/culture could produce another Divine? And who do you think is closest to that mantle now?
LPK: I think it’s possible but tough, because since the 1970s we’ve already kind of seen it all and done it all in our culture, and no one could truly have the shock value that Divine and the Waters movies did at the time that they were made. There is no one even close to Divine who exists now, but I see shades of Divine’s legacy in people from Lady Gaga to Sharon Needles [check out The Niallist’s interview with Sharon Needles here], Sacha Baron Cohen to the “Jackass” crew—I think Divine paved the way for them and others like them.
TN: What’s your favorite Divine song?
LPK: Maybe a cliche, but I gotta go with “You Think You’re A Man.” It’s classic, catchy, and totally fuck you. I love it.
TN: I have to admit I am a huge fan of Divine’s music, from “Born To Be Cheap” to the Bobby O-produced classics, all the way up to the Stock, Aitken and Waterman productions. For a complete non-singer, Divine really knew how to belt out a song, and by compensating for the vocal weaknesses with pure attitude made for a very compelling performer. I also like the music because it’s overtly gay but takes no prisoners, it’s very “fuck you” which “gay” music hasn’t been for a long time. My favorite Divine track is probably “I’m So Beautiful”, which actually IS beautiful, as well as cheap, nasty, funny, filthy, and funky as hell. Anyway, what is your favorite of Divine’s many looks?
LPK: God, there are so many… But I have to pick the one-armed green leopard print mini-dress from “Female Trouble,” just ‘cause I love how she STRUTS down the avenue in Baltimore in it, and the (real!) reactions from people on the street. That’s the spirit of DIVINE in her purest form!
TN: Thanks Lotti!
In the meantime, here’s a PSA on body image and self-esteem from the I Am Divine camp, featuring John Waters, Mink Stole, Sharon Needles and Latrice Royale, all set to the wonderful tune of “I’m So Beautiful”.
Here’s something to make up for that Divine interview on The Tube I posted on Monday - a whole thirty minutes of Genn Harris Milstead discussing Divine’s role in the 1979 theater production of The Neon Woman.
The interview is hosted by TV personality Tom Snyder, and also on hand are The Neon Woman‘s director Ron Link and Divine’s co-star (and another stone cold legend of drag/gender-bending and Warhol’s Factory scene) Holly Woodlawn.
There’s still a bit of a naff “wtf?” tone to Snyder’s questioning, but it’s nowhere near as bad as Muriel Grey’s Divine inquisition on The Tube. In fact, Snyder does a decent enough job of eventually getting past his own preconceptions and treating Divine and Woodlawn not as freaks, but as human beings with something interesting and intelligent to say.
This interview was taped for NBC’s Tomorrow show in 1979, and appears on YouTube in three parts. The quality isn’t immaculate, but it’s not terrible either, and it’s just a joy to see these people in the same room together hanging out and shooting the shit:
Divine and Holly Woodlawn on Tomorrow, 1979, part one:
Or to be more precise, here’s a very awkward interview with an out-of-drag Glenn Harris Milstead on the British music television show The Tube, from 1983, which is followed by an excellent performance by Divine of her club hit “Shake It Up.”
While it’s understandable that straight-laced, square TV presenters might not know what to make of Divine (whose very raison d’être was to make people laugh by overturning preconceptions of gender and beauty), you would expect the producers of a supposedly hip, youth-oriented TV show like The Tube to be a bit more switched on.
Instead we get an interview by the bumbling Muriel Grey in which she suggests that Divine is insecure, repulsive, and somehow an affront to women. The hapless Grey comes across as the dullest of squares in this clip, which I guess is a danger to be considered when you go up against a glamor icon like Divine, but unfortunately Grey has previous form in conducting cringe-worthy interviews.
Thankfully, Milstead takes it all in his rather large stride, and reacts with the grace befitting a true star:
Babs Johnson and Edie The Egg Lady get psychedelicized.
Yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog’s eye.
Crabalocker fishwife, pornographic priestess,
Boy, you been a naughty girl you let your knickers down.
I am the eggman, they are the eggmen.
I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob.”
Mr. Vader: “Do you believe in God?”
Babs Johnson: “I AM GOD!”
The thing I love most about John Waters is that he always appears unfazed by anything. He’s cool, self-contained and shrugs off all condescension. He’s the kind of role model that should be used in schools to get youngsters (and adults) to like themselves, and be confident in who they are and how they want to live.
Steven Yaeger’s documentary on Waters, Divine Trash, is one of those films that ends up on everyone’s wish list at some point or another, it’s an ‘O, I’d love to see that’ kind-of-a-film, and is as good as you hope. This is especially true if you’re a fan of Mr Waters, and want to see behind the scenes and find out all about his early days as a film-maker, in particular the making of Pink Flamingoes. Director Yaeger more than deserved his Film-Makers’ Trophy for Best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival for Divine Trash in 1998, as he gets the best out of Waters and knows how to tell a damned good tale. With contributions from Divine, Hal Hartley, Steve Buscemi, Jim Jarmusch, Waters and of course those fabulous Dreamlanders.
Happy Birthday Harris Glenn Milstead, born today at the Women’s Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1945.
Glenn will be forever in our hearts as the one and only Divine - legendary star of John Waters’ movies, and singer of a slew of Hi-Nrg classics, “I’m So Beautiful”, “Walk Like A Man”, “T-Shirt and Tight Blue Jeans”, and “Shake It Up”.
I was fortunate to see Divine in concert in 1984, and it is a memory I will always treasure. To celebrate what would have been Glenn’s 66th birthday, here are a few of Divine’s hitsplus a seldom seen interview from Channel 4’s The Tube.
From the Canadian sketch show SCTV, this clip has been causing some confusion among Divine fans as it’s labelled on YouTube “Divine as Peter Pan”. Thankfully original Dreamlander Mink Stole was on hand to help clear the matter up:
That’s not Divine— I think it’s actually John Candy doing a Divine parody—which is in itself a tribute.
Who knew Candy made such a good drag queen?!
BONUS! Here’s Candy, again as Divine, doing “Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me”
The fabulous Divine in highlights from The Neon Woman, Tom Eyen‘s sequel to Women Behind Bars, which was specifically written for Divine. The footage is a bit raw and gritty, but still gives more than a fair idea as to why Divine was so loved as a performer.
Produced in 1978, The Neon Woman is an “outrageous murder mystery” set in a run-down Baltimore burlesque house managed by a retired stripper, Flash Storm (Divine). The story was inspired by Gypsy Rose Lee’s classic burlesque thriller, The G-String Murders. Directed by Ron Link, and co-starring Helen Hanft, Brenda Bergman, William Duff-Griffin, Maria Duval, and Sweet William Edgar. The production ran for eighty-four performances at the Hurrah Discotheque, New York.
There’s a line by Neil Innes, which Richard likes to quote:
There are no coincidences, but sometimes the pattern
It’s from “Keynsham” by the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, who were on here recently, and well, there’s just something in the air as here’s another fine documentary from Jonathan Ross, this one from 1988, when he interviewed the “Pope of Trash”, the “Anal Anarchist”, the “Ayatollah of Crud”, the fabulous Mr. John Waters.
Shown as part of Ross’s series The Incredibly Strange Film Show, and recorded not long after Waters’ co-conspirator Divine died, this superb documentary contains one of the best and most revealing interviews Waters has ever given.
Starting with the opening of Hairspray in Baltimore 1988, with interviews from key Dreamlanders, a chewy selection choice clips, background skinny and some fabulous archive.
And what can we learn from this all? As Waters explains, without Divine there would be no John Waters’ films, for Divine represented the rebel who could win. Nice, but that’s a line which is also true of Mr Waters - for he is the rebel who won.