In 1984, Cree McCree sat down with Divine during the filming of the Lust in the Dust, directed by Paul Bartel and co-starring Tab Hunter. For this campy Western, Divine was “Rosie,” an exotic cantina dancer. At the time, Divine, who grew up with John Waters in Baltimore, had just risen to national attention as the drag queen star in Waters’ films Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Polyester. He/she had also embarked on a disco singing career and was in fine fettle. Cree recently discovered the unpublished interview in her files and shares it here, a holiday gift to PKM readers.
Temperatures are rising in a rowdy saloon, where a seedy crew of goggle-eyed cowpokes are drooling over Rosie. She’s one big red-hot mama. Heavily corseted in yards and yards of antique lace, she’s belting it out for all she’s worth: “These lips (boom boom) were made for selectin’, these hips (boom boom) were made for connectin’,” she sings, brazenly raising her skirts to reveal a voluminous pair of bloomers.
Welcome to Lust in the Dust, the campiest Western to ever blaze across the screen. Played by the inimitable Divine, Rosie became the cover-girl star of Pasatiempo, the Santa Fe New Mexican’s weekly entertainment supplement, which gave me a plum assignment in 1984: tracking the Lust production from the soundstage cantina to the fictional town of Chili Verde at the J.W. Eaves Ranch, site of many Western shoots.
Directed by Paul Bartel, whose cult classic Eating Raoul was playing at a local theater during the shoot, Lust in the Dust lifted its title from the industry name for Duel in the Sun and co-starred Tab Hunter, Divine’s leading man in Polyester, as a “Clint Cooper” mash-up named Abel. Lainie Kazan played the voluptuous Margarita, Rosie’s rival for Abel’s affection; Cesar Romero was a sanctimonious, greedy priest; and Henry Silva — with whom I had a hot one-night stand — played a comically inept villain. But Divine, as always, was the main attraction.
Thirty seven years after I got up close and personal with Divine during a poolside interview at the Santa Fe Hilton, I revisited the transcript of our conversation, which plumbed his long and storied history with director and fellow Baltimorean John Waters. Then I streamed Lust on Tubi and teleported back to Chili Verde, via Divine’s juicy commentary on many of the scenes, including Rosie’s bawdy musical number.
“I think we should have dancing cactuses in it, and make it surrealistic,” Divine enthused about plans to turn “These Lips Were Made For Kissing” into an MTV video. Though that video never materialized, and Lust didn’t set any box office records, Divine’s dream of going mainstream was fulfilled just four years later, in 1988, when Hairspray catapulted both Divine and Waters out of the underground into the multiplex. Unfortunately, the outrageous female impersonator, who first achieved cult superstardom as the dog-shit-eating “filthiest person alive” in Pink Flamingos, wasn’t around long enough to enjoy the growing fame that cemented Waters’ legacy in the years ahead. Divine, nee Glenn Milstead, died of a heart attack not long after Hairspray was released.
But he was very much alive during our 1984 conversation, when he vividly recalled rolling around in the titular dust during a catfight with Lainie Kazan — “I told her ‘watch it, honey. Under this dress is a throbbing steel rod of passion!’” — and bemoaned his frustration with a skittish mule he was never able to ride. And Divine shines brighter than ever today in a host of fan sites and the work of countless imitators.
He is also enshrined in my tribute to “The Divine John Waters,’ a miniature float I pulled through the streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras season as part of my microkrewe’s ‘tit Rex parade of shoebox floats. Though Waters didn’t see the float in person, he told friends who sent him photos that he loved it. And why wouldn’t he? Center-pieced by a John Waters votive candle, it’s festooned with glittery piles of dogshit — a much coveted throw that year — and features cardboard cutouts of Waters shooting Divine back in the Baltimore days with Edie the Egg Lady looming above them.
Though my Pasatiempo story had a few Lust-specific quotes in a special box devoted to Divine — “‘Lust’ star ecstatic about appearing in his/her first big budget film” — the lion’s share of our long and lively conversation has never been published anywhere. At the time, I had high hopes of placing the entire Q&A in a national publication. But I was a little ahead of the curve, and it sat in the back of my file cabinet for nearly four decades. To put the interview in context of the time it was conducted, I included my 1984 introduction. Enjoy!
Conversation with Divine, Santa Fe, NM 1984
Flamboyantly outrageous on stage and screen, where he’s played everything from the world’s greatest stripper to the unchallenged queen of suburban bad taste, the private Divine is genuinely unassuming. A big, balding man with gentle eyes and a laugh that comes from deep within, Divine wore his civvies to our poolside brunch interview at the Santa Fe Hilton. And he takes his career as seriously as the smoked salmon, sausage and eggs he inhaled without missing a beat.
While covering the shooting of Paul Bartel’s Lust in the Dust, I was continually impressed by Divine’s good-natured professionalism. For long, grueling hours under a relentless New Mexico sun, his girth heavily corseted for the role of Rosie, Divine managed to turn the slightest gesture — a lift of the eyebrow, a pout of the lips — into moments of high hilarity on the screen in the dailies. As Bartel puts it, “Divine is worth his weight in comic gold.”
Divine is betting on Lust, which also stars Tab Hunter, Lainie Kazan and Cesar Romero, to launch him beyond the notoriety he achieved in such John Waters’ cult classics as Pink Flamingos and Polyester, and he’s aiming straight for the heart of Middle America. With a budding singing career here and abroad, and a climate of growing tolerance evidenced by the success of such films as Victor/Victoria and La Cage aux Foiles, he seems likely to make it. Even his parents talk to him now.
[The following conversation was edited for length and clarity.]
PKM: I’d like to go back to Baltimore, if Baltimore was indeed where it all began. Born in Baltimore?
Divine: Born and raised in the suburbs of Baltimore. And actually, I spent a very happy childhood, swimming with John Waters, who was a neighbor, and eventually we started making movies together.
PKM: Before we jump to John Waters, do you mind my asking the name on your birth certificate? Unless — were you christened Divine?
Divine: No, Baby Divine, no. I was born Glenn [Milstead]. And I guess I was your American spoiled brat. An only child, I never wanted for anything. I had too much of everything.
PKM: When you were growing up, were you a big child?
Divine: Was I what?
PKM: Were you a chunky child?
Divine: You mean fat? Yes, uh-huh.
PKM: Okay, let’s not mince words. So that wasn’t something that came later.
Divine: No, I was always overweight. And then when I was about 16, I got tired of it because kids can be very cruel.
PKM: Sure, I was a fat kid too.
Divine: I always felt sorry for people who were fat and wore glasses, because they got it from every direction.
PKM: I wore glasses and braces.
Divine: Oh, Jesus. You’re lucky you’re still around. But anyway, at 16, I thought ‘I’m going to go on a diet’. And I did, and it was quite difficult, but I lost 100 pounds and got down to 140.
PKM: Did you stay at that for awhile?
Divine: About a year. But I realized at the same time, which was a very rude awakening, that it wasn’t necessarily me they liked, it was the way I looked. So I said ‘well, I’m still the same person I was when I was fat’. And eventually my weight got back to normal. Took a few years, but it all came back.
Now people accept me this way, so I don’t fight it anymore. I still cut down sometimes because I’d hate to get so big I couldn’t fit through the door. [laughs] And I keep aware of my blood pressure, because when I work I’m active and the last thing I need is a stroke. But I just had a physical before I came here, and I was in perfect health, which always seems to surprise the doctors more than me. They’re dying to find something wrong with me, you know.
PKM: Were you already performing when you were in high school?
Divine: Well, I was in the glee club, because I loved to sing, but never in a theater group. I did some in elementary school, though.
PKM: What did you play in elementary school?
Divine: In one, I was a beaver. I’ll never forget, because some kids backstage ripped my tail off right before the show.
PKM: Oh dear, that must have been traumatic.
Divine: I had to flip it, you know, the way a beaver flips. I got it sewn back on just before I went on, thank god. I was a wreck! Imagine — being a beaver and you lose your tail before your big chance. And in another play in sixth grade, I played Nero.
PKM: That’s a pretty sophisticated theme for sixth grade. Nero fiddling while Rome burns.
Divine: I picked it. He was one of my favorites, Nero. I loved all those Quo Vadis-type movies. If you ever get the chance, you must see Quo Vadis.
PKM: Oh, I have. Peter Ustinov played Nero in that. Who were some of your other childhood heroes or heroines?
Divine: I always loved Elizabeth Taylor. She was my favorite movie star. And at that time movie stars weren’t like real people, they were somewhere between gods and humans. And Elizabeth Taylor, my god, she was a queen. She still is.
PKM: Have you ever met her?
Divine: Oh, yes. I’d been invited to a party for her daughter, but I wasn’t going to go because I thought she wasn’t going to be there and what do I care about seeing her daughter? So I went to bed to read and watch TV, and the phone rang. It was this friend of mine, and she said ‘I’m at the party, where are you?’ I said ‘I’m in bed.’ She said ‘well, then, you are an asshole because she is here and you can’t believe what she looks like. If you don’t hurry up, you’re gonna miss her.’
I didn’t bathe or anything. I jumped right into my clothes and got in a cab and halfway downtown I thought, ‘I’m making a mistake. She probably weighs 500 pounds and she’s not going to have a stitch of makeup on and I’m gonna run out of there screaming.’
But finally, I walked into the room, and it was like everything went into slow motion. A friend of mine had done her makeup that day for a magazine cover and he was standing between us. He moved aside and said ‘there’s someone I’d like you to meet’. She was sitting there all in orange, with this huge diamond on, and looked like she’d just walked off the screen. It was perfect. She smiled and batted those eyes and I couldn’t believe what they looked like. I was completely starstruck and dumbstruck. Elizabeth Taylor was my biggest childhood fantasy, and she was no disappointment at all.
PKM: Lucky you! So when was Divine born as a recognizable entity?
Divine: About 16 years after Glenn. Divine was a name given to me by John Waters. The summer before my senior year, we became very, very friendly. John said he felt I was Divine, so that’s what people should call me.
PKM: I imagine you and Waters weren’t your typical American high school students, going to the prom and making out in the back seat.
Divine: Oh, we did all that. Went to the prom, went to the ring dance, went on dates.
PKM: You had double dates with John Waters?!
Divine: No, no, I was on my own. I had a wonderful girlfriend. Her name was Diane Evans. I wonder what happened to her? I also dated a girl named Stella. I liked her a lot and I wanted to marry her. But she was older than I was, and my mother and father didn’t want to hear about it.
PKM: What else were you and Waters doing? Were you wild and crazy?
Divine: Not really. I mean, we liked our share of beer, but we didn’t rob anybody or break into stores. We weren’t really juvenile delinquents. Although our parents thought we were. We were like all kids. You go through a period when you talk back and think you know it all and I went through that. But I think everybody does.
PKM: So was John already playing around with movies?
Divine: Yeah, he loved cameras, he loved the whole idea of movie making. And he did it all on his own. I admired him. I still admire him, because a lot of people can do a movie for 40 million dollars, but there aren’t that many who can make a full-length color feature for $12,000. That’s what Pink Flamingos cost. It looks like it, too. But he did do it and he’s done it more than once. We never took any of this seriously, you understand. It was just fun and games. And whoever thought anything would happen?
PKM: Were you surprised at the success of Pink Flamingos?
Divine: Very surprised. I think we all were.
PKM: What did your parents think of Pink Flamingos?
Divine: They didn’t care for it. They didn’t care for anything in it. We didn’t speak for about nine years.
PKM: It’s not exactly the kind of film you write home to mom about.
Divine: But it’s the kind of film that mother finds out about because it was so popular.
PKM: Yeah, and it got a lot of press. So what did it take to make a reunion happen after nine years?
Divine: Well, the Christmas before last, I decided to give them a call because my father has multiple sclerosis and I was very afraid he would die and I wouldn’t have been able to live with that. Because he’s always been very good to me and never did anything to me except disapprove of what I was doing. And that’s also his right. Whether I listen to him or not, he’s certainly entitled to his thoughts on the matter,
So I called them up and we had a lovely conversation, and I started to write to them, and invited them down to the house in Key West — they live in Ft. Lauderdale now — and everything was fine. And my father’s health has gotten a lot better in the warm weather.
PKM: Are they excited about Lust in the Dust?
Divine: Oh, very excited. When I first got to New Mexico, I called them, and my mother said ‘hi, hi, hi, how’s Cesar Romero?’ I said I’m fine and she said ‘yeah, yeah, yeah but what about Cesar Romero?’ I said ‘well, he’s not here yet’. She said ‘oh, I gotta go. Will you call me when he gets there?’ She said ‘if you don’t send me a picture of him, just don’t leave New Mexico.’
Then my father said, ‘are there any gals in the movie?’ I said, ‘besides me, there’s Lainie Kazan’. He said, ‘oh yeah, she’s sexy. Big tits.’ And he was quite thrilled. So I think for the first time, out of all the things I’ve done, they are just in ecstasy. I’m glad they’re happy.
PKM: What’s shooting Lust been like for you?
Divine: Well, the whole thing’s been unbelievable. I mean, first they told me Paul Bartel was directing and that Cesar Romero and Henry Silva were going to be in the film. And I thought ‘sure, sure’. Because in this business you hear about things so often that fall through and don’t happen. Then they said ‘George Masters is doing your makeup’, and I said ‘mm hmmm, yeah, yeah, yeah’. I used to read about him in the movie magazines, doing makeup for Marilyn Monroe and all these other big stars. And there he is, right on the set! Not to sound corny or anything, but it’s been one thrill after another.
This is the most Hollywood-type film I’ve made, so it’s all a brand-new experience for me. We have sets built with walls you can move to change the camera angle. When I worked with John Waters, if we filmed in a house, we filmed in a house. If you wanted to move a wall, well tough luck because you couldn’t. [laughs] And when we came out to the ranch, and I saw my name on the trailer, I almost cried.
At first, I was so nervous I couldn’t enjoy it. I felt like an amateur with all these pros, I felt like Little Lotta stuck in the middle of a real Hollywood movie. But everyone’s been just great, so now I’m really starting to enjoy it and I’m sad it’s going to be over so soon.
PKM: So you don’t feel like Little Lotta anymore?
Divine: No, I feel like Divine. When I walk on the set, 15 people attack me all of a sudden, doing my hair, my costume, my makeup. And when I finish a scene, someone says, ‘a chair for Divine. Where’s an umbrella?’ That’s star treatment, you know. You’ve got to watch it. You can fall into it quite easily, I think.
PKM: Well, you need all that attention with how hard you’re working in the sun and the heat and the dust.
Divine: I don’t think of it as hard work. It’s like getting dressed up and going out to play. I mean, I try to be professional by being there on time and being ready when they’re ready to roll and knowing what I need to do. But once the camera starts, I like to have a good time.
PKM: Did you enjoy the rape scene?
Divine: For that scene, they just used a camera on me and all the men come ahhhh at the camera like that. [mimes leering men] Then the next scene, they’re all lying around sleeping with their shirts off. So it’s up to you to fill it in.
PKM: Were you disappointed there wasn’t more interaction?
Divine: No I wasn’t. I didn’t feel like getting raped so early…I think movies are a bit too explicit now. They don’t leave anything to the imagination. This way, you can make it the filthiest rape you ever saw or it could be very Catholic. It all depends on what you’re looking for. If you want to see an explicit sex scene, you should go to a hardcore porno movie. I don’t think there’s any reason to show it all in a regular film.
PKM: Well, John Waters gets pretty explicit.
Divine: At times, but he draws the line in certain things too. [laugh] Not much.
PKM: You’ve had to do a lot of rolling around in the dirt too, haven’t you?
Divine: Oh, yes. When I did the fight scene with Lainie, we were all over each other. I told her, ‘watch it, honey. Under this dress is a throbbing steel rod of passion!’
Then yesterday Paul said, ‘okay, now throw yourself down here and roll. And don’t let the parasol go’. I thought, ‘my god, that sounds like stunt work to me.’ Well, I did it three times. I rolled in the wrong direction one time. But once you get down there and start rolling, you can’t tell where you’re going.
PKM: What about riding the donkey? How was that?
Divine: That’s the only thing I couldn’t do, and it upset me so much. I can get on a horse with five people helping me, but a donkey is built in such a way that you can’t wrap your legs around it. Your legs go out like this [stretches arms wide open] so you really have to balance. And I had to hold a parasol in one hand and the donkey with the other. So five people are helping me on this donkey, right, and they said ‘the donkey’s nervous because you have that parasol’. So I threw down the parasol. Then they said, ‘the donkey’s nervous because you have that bag’. And I threw that down too. I thought I was going to be nude in about 15 minutes because the donkey was upset. I was so scared! The other day they said ‘your Cadillac’s not here yet to take you back to the hotel, do you mind going in the van?’ I said ‘I’ll go in anything, just don’t put me on that donkey!’
PKM: So now they just have you leading the donkey in?
Divine: Right. And Tab says I look like I’m walking across the desert in fifth position. [laughs]Now there’s a wonderful person: Tab Hunter. He gave me a break in this business and believed in me enough to keep me there. I’m sure they could have gotten the money a lot quicker if they used someone else. But Tab said, ‘if you’re not in it, we’re not doing it’.
PKM: You did Polyester with Tab too, which I loved. I mean, what’s not to love when you go to a movie and they hand out scratch-and-sniff cards because it’s shot in Odorama? What was it like working with Tab in that?
Divine: In Polyester, Tab saved me. He would take time out to coach me and help me with my lines, which he still does. I think that was the best performance I ever gave in all those [Waters] movies, and I attribute a lot of that to Tab. He was not only my leading man and co-star, he was almost like my director and acting coach. So when he asked me to do Lust, I was thrilled.
PKM: You’ve also embarked on a singing career too. How’s that going?
Divine: That just happened two years ago. All my life I’d been told I couldn’t sing, even though I loved to sing. I was always in the glee club and the choir at church.
PKM: What church?
Divine: Calvary Baptist. We weren’t Southern Baptists, we didn’t jump up and scream and roll around. We were the more conservative, high-class Baptists. Quiet. Until you picked up your hymnbook and let it roar, roar, roar. [sings] “On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross…..” That was my favorite. And “Onward Christian Soldiers” was always a good one to get going.
Anyway, two years ago this record company came to me and said ‘we want you to do disco records’. So I spoke to my manager and said ‘I think we should tell them no because I’m not a singer and I can’t sing’. But they didn’t want to take no for an answer. They said, ‘listen, if you don’t like it we’ll shelve it’. So I said to Bernie, ‘well, in that case we have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Let’s do it’.
PKM: You hadn’t even been singing in clubs at that point?
Divine: No. And I was concerned about my career because movies for me don’t pop up every day, I’m not Barbra Streisand, you know. So I needed work, because there were times I had no money and had to depend completely on my friends. Without them, I don’t know if I’d be here talking to you.
PKM: What happened with that first record?
Divine: It was called “Native Love” and I quite liked it. I was shocked because I’m my own worst critic. I said ‘it doesn’t sound too bad if we could just fix this one little thing.’ And they went in there with those machines, and added special sounds on synthesizers and all that. It actually got up to #22 on the charts here. It was on O Records distributed by Vanguard. But Vanguard didn’t know what to do with me, so they didn’t really promote it and the record just died out.
Then all of a sudden I got a call from an agent in Holland who said ‘I would love to book you over here. Your record’s a huge success, you can’t go anywhere it’s not being played’. So I did another one called “Shoot Your Shot” and went over there and did some shows and was quite successful. Last year I spent ten weeks touring.
Now I have a new record company, Design Communications in London, who fortunately have a lot of money behind them. I’m the only artist they’ve signed because they think I have great potential. On the charts in England I’m tied with Boy George popularity-wise for number one, and they want me to open a live show there around Christmas with backup singers and all.
PKM: What do you think about Boy George?
Divine: I don’t think about him very much. [laughs] Well, I’ve met him. He’s a fan of mine. I love some of his music, but I have my own career to worry about. His is doing fine.
PKM: Do you think people like Boy George, and even Michael Jackson, with his sexual ambiguity, have helped to make you more accessible to the general public?
Divine: Oh, definitely. It doesn’t scare people so much; they can relate to it easier. Anything like that helps, sure. But the thing with me is that there isn’t anyone else who does what I do. I’m alone. Not that I’m complaining. Boy George’s is definitely a singing career. He’s not an actor. But I try to be all-around. I always want to do everything. That’s why it made me so mad I couldn’t ride the mule.
PKM: David Bowie is another one who’s pushed a lot of boundaries. Are you a Bowie fan?
Divine: I only met Bowie once. I’m a friend of Elton John’s. You just picked the wrong one. David, I don’t know very well. I’ve watched him go through many changes in his career — the bright red hair with all that glitter and lipstick. I think he was one of the first. Well, Jagger, too, wore little girl dresses and mary jane shoes and tapped all the way to the bank. I met him with Jerry Hall a few times, they came to shows I did.
PKM: And Elton John came to your shows too?
Divine: Oh yes. The first time I met him, he came to my show “Neon Woman” and there was a whole row of people with Elton John jackets so I wasn’t sure he was there. But he came backstage afterwards and recited all the lines from my movies. He knew all the dialogue, and I was very impressed. So he took me out to dinner and I told him I’d never heard him sing and didn’t own a record. All of a sudden, I owned every record he ever made, and was being flown around first class to his concerts, riding in limousines. It was quite exciting. I did that for a couple months.
PKM: Cool! That’s really living the high life. Skipping back to your acting career, have you ever worked with Andy Warhol or Holly Woodlawn?
Divine: I did play with Holly in “The Neon Woman.” We’d done it two and a half years, and she came in the last 12 weeks to replace somebody. I have mixed emotions about that. There’s this scene where five girls come out, boom-boom-boom-boom-boom. And I say a line to them and they all have a line one after another. And the last of the five is supposed to be Holly.
Well, four of them are standing there and she’s not there. So I said my line to get me offstage, and ran back, and there’s Holly. I said ‘excuse me, what are you doing?’ ‘I’m just freshening my makeup’. I said ‘well, don’t you think you could do that at intermission? You were supposed to be on stage five minutes ago’. Well, she ran past me, ran right on stage, and just started to spill her lines out. They had already gone a scene beyond that by then. I thought, ‘I’m glad I’m not on stage right now’. I just did my change and then went back and took it up from there. Holly didn’t like to come in a lot, either. Like, ‘oh, I can’t do the show tonight’.
PKM: And Warhol?
Divine: Andy gave parties for us when we first opened Pink Flamingos in New York, and he’s still a friend. Every Christmas I get a big lithograph from him. So I have my own Warhol collection.
PKM: Well, that’s money in the bank. I understand there are plans to make a video of your song from Lust, “These Lips Were Made For Kissing.”
Divine: Yeah, we talked about it. I think we should have dancing cactuses in it, and make it surrealistic or whatever you want to call it. Because MTV is on 24 hours a day and a lot of what I’ve seen is boring. It’s got to just jump off that screen.
PKM: Would you consider doing an MTV video with another singing star?
Divine: Oh sure. I always wanted to do one with Tina Turner. She’s one of my favorites. I think she looks fabulous.
PKM: Well, it seems that with Lust in the Dust, an MTV video and this record company backing you in England, you could really make a crossover into the heart of the market.
Divine: That’s part of the reason I wanted to do this movie. Because I thought it wasn’t fair to deny all those other people a good laugh. I want to infect them with my humor, too.
I think a lot of people get scared when they see a large man walking around in these dresses, and it takes a little while to break the ice. I had to run into Safeway the other day — without the wig but with the makeup — and the heads were spinning in Safeway! [laughs] But I thought, they’ll get over it, I’m not hurting anybody, I’m only trying to make people laugh and have a good time. I think that’s what’s important.
A good laugh doesn’t cost anything, it’s free, and it’s better than anything. I love to laugh and have a good time. That’s what I’ve based my whole career on: to entertain people.