I Am Divine, the wonderful documentary look at the drag queen who became John Waters’ muse, is out on DVD now. It’s a great look at a fascinating person who died too young, celebrating someone who pushed the envelope of both sexuality and life in general.
We talked to the film’s director, Jeffrey Schwarz, about the film.
Why is it so important to tell Divine’s story?
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 recognized recording artist and screen icon and gives courage to anyone who’s ever been mocked, ridiculed, or ostracized. 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 fulfill their own creative destiny in his story.
What is it about her story that makes it worth telling?
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.
Would you say that the film is a way to show thousands of teens that you can be whoever you want to be?
Yes, absolutely. John and Divine appealed to other outsiders and freaks and revelled in shocking people who were humour impaired. 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.
Was Divine using drag as protection for her insecurities?
Absolutely. For the documentary though, it was important to go beyond the layers of eye-liner and wigs and hairspray to find the real man inside. 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.
What would Divine be like if she were alive today?
We’ll never know what would have happened to him after his first taste of mainstream acceptance in Hairspray. My feeling is that had he lived, today he’d be show business royalty. I hope this film gives him what he wanted in life, to be appreciated and respected and not dismissed as a novelty act. I’m convinced he would have gone on to have a successful career as a character actor, which is what he always wanted. I think he would have played more male roles, and taken the wig out of the box every once in a while for a special appearance. I would have loved to see him play Alfred Hitchcock.
What do you think about today’s state of drag personas?
So many of the queens on Ru Paul’s Drag Race for example are going for that glamouros, high fashion model look. Divine was not about that at all. He wasn’t interested in “passing” as a real woman, but to accentuate everything that society tries to tell you to hide and accentuate it. He was more of a drag terrorist and certainly would not have been welcome at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. But honestly I don’t think Divine’s ferociousness has gone out of style at all. He’s certainly influenced todas’s queens like Sharon Needles, Peaches Christ, and Jackie Beat. And John’s movies exist in a universe of their own, so they haven’t dated or lost any of their edge.
Has there been anyone like Divine since Divine?
No, Divine was an original and there will never be another.
How did you initially approach this project?
The idea came about when I was producing the DVD extras for the remake of Hairspray a few years back. We did a documentary called You Can’t Stop The Beat: The Long Journey Of Hairspray, it covered the entire phenomenon including the original film. Getting to finally meet and interview all the Dreamlanders gave me the bug to try and do an entire film just about Divine. 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.
Were there any celebrities that were wary about the project who did not want to be filmed?
No, we got everyone we wanted to get although I’d have loved to talk with Elton John but he was on tour during our production.
What do you think Divine would make of the film?
I think he would be happy with it – the film is a tribute to Divine that deepens our appreciation for this iconic performer and ensures his legacy for a new generation. It honors Divine in just the way he always craved – as a serious artist and immortal star.
What is it about the film that makes people love it so much? What are they connecting with?
I think anyone can identify with the theme of self-acceptance. 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.
What did you know about Divine before the project? And what have you learnt now?
I had read about Pink Flamingos years before actually seeing it, in Danny Peary’s Culy 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 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 labor.
How do you think Divine managed to make it big in a time of such homophobia?
I’ve only heard Divine refer to himself as gay once – on a radio interview in the early 70s that we use in the film. He didn’t need to be officially “out” because really who would ever think that Divine was straight? Divine wasn’t outwardly political and didn’t get involved in any gay causes, but just by being who he was I’m sure empowered people to accept themselves.
What do you think Divine’s secret was when it came to men?
Being funny! As John Waters says if you can make somebody laugh you’ll always get laid.
Do you think Divine ever regretted creating her own character? Was it a blessing a curse?
He says in the film that he gained an underground kind of stardom that he loved and appreciated, but he couldn’t make any money from it. He was worried about getting older and being impoverished. He didn’t make much from appearing in John Waters’ films, so he had to develop a second career as a disco performer just to pay his bills. He wanted stability, to be able to earn a living, and be respected. He didn’t want to schlep around the world appearing at discos and being treated like an animal at the zoo. Divine wanted to live a comfortable life and not be taken for granted. We’ll never know what would have happened to him after his first taste of mainstream acceptance in Hairspray. My feeling is that he he lived, today he’d be show business royalty. I hope this film gives him what he wanted in life, to be appreciated and respected and not dismissed as a novelty act.