Andi Fraggs recalls watching his first Divine film, Hairspray, and how it started a lifelong fascination with “the most beautiful woman in the world”.
Last week I watched Jeffrey Schwarz’s glorious new biographical movie on Divine, I Am Divine, at the BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, followed by my favourite John Waters’ picture, Female Trouble, which literally had my makeup running as I was crying with laughter. I was also crying during I Am Divine, watching the story of a legend with so much talent and an all too early death. You could not wish for a better biopic of the icon who was (and still is) Divine. Watching I Am Divine got me thinking about my own relationship with Divine through the years.
It all began one day in the early ’90s when, weirdly enough, my Dad came home with a copy of Hairspray from the video store. Although my parents were quite protective, they weren’t too bothered about what I watched and my Dad had a knack of picking out titles that had a great deal of camp darkness – like Rocky Horror Picture Show, Clue and Return To Oz. Little did he realize that this was the start of a lifelong fascination with John Waters, Divine and Ricki Lake, who really saved me with her talk show when I was suffering my own horrendous bullying – which is a story for another day.
The character in Hairspray who I could most associate with was Penny Pingleton. My only friend and I would joke that my parents would any day send me to school with a giant ‘P’ on my T-shirt, as they were similar to Penny’s parents at times – especially later in my teens.
As if I didn’t stand out as being strange enough to the other pupils, one early high school day we were given the option to take in a film for the class to watch. I was already Mr Unpopular in every way, listening to The B-52’s while everyone else listened to Take That; dressing in ‘Fred Schneider’ style shirts made of some ungodly synthetic material, chosen by my mother, while everyone else wore ‘trackies’ and ‘Kappa’ – ‘Kappa Slappers’. I rarely communicated with anyone, unless to respond to the constant name calling, but this time I just knew I had to bring in Hairspray and maybe then they would all like me?!
The following week I took in my copy of the movie, which featured a fabulous and bright picture of a post-‘Mr Pinky’s store’ Divine and Ricki Lake, with the caption, “The World Was A Mess, But Their Hair Was Perfect”. It was all a recipe for disaster, but I lived in my own bubble and just thought it was “fantabulous”, which of course it was!
As that particular teacher was one of the only liberals in the School, with her dark purple hair, bangles and baggy clothes, she chose my film. “An excellent choice!”, she proclaimed. As the titles began, I grew with excitement and trepidation. Will everyone like it? Will I suddenly become popular?. Will they see this as the coolest film ever, like I do?.
The bright pink titles began with a song I knew all the words to; “Hey girl, what you doin’ over there? Can’t you see?… I’m sprayin’ my hair!”
My dreams were shattered within moments. First, the girls in the class started making comments about Ricki Lake’s “fat arse”, and turned into real life versions of Amber Von Tussle right before my eyes even before she walked onscreen as Tracey’s arch nemesis I was living with these real life Ambers every day. I had an especially cringe-worthy moment when Link, played by the gorgeous Michael St.Gerard, began to orgasmically spray his hair, which caused a wave of disapproval through the class.
Then came Divine and so it began. Urgh! Is that a bloke? That’s disgusting. You like this? You’re fucked up. What a load of shit. Of course, I’d never even considered Divine a bloke. I was so young and naive that I just thought of Edna Turnblad as a motherly figure. I never even thought about Divine being a man.
As the film continued, the race relations storyline in began and I heard some boys saying, “Well he would like this wouldn’t he? He’s a queer.” These teenage monsters regularly made racist comments, so this was another sickening threat for their eyes. The teacher had to stop the film within half an hour or so and any illusions of my new popularity were duly shattered. I had just become even weirder, which now looking back is great. At the time it was difficult and I just wanted to be liked.
My next John Waters/Divine film was Pink Flamingos, which I’d managed to get in a seedy second hand shop that didn’t mind selling to underage kids – thank goodness, as many of my favorite titles came from there. Again, from the moment Divine came on screen, this time as “the filthiest person alive”, I felt a huge connection. This was the person I needed in my life! I really would have liked to take Divine to parents’ evening at that point and I did, in my dreams. I discovered Postcards from Divine on CD and promptly gave my parents even more cause for concern with ‘Turn around – stand up like a man and look me in the eyes”, and various other great one-liners blaring out of my bedroom. My mother also had some bright pink sequined outfits in the cupboard from the ’80s and I told her, “You should wear them now! -You would look like Divine”, which I truly meant as a compliment. She had no idea who I was talking about, which is probably a good thing. I would say, “Oh Mother, you’re SO fifties!”
As the years passed, more and more of Divine’s films came into my life and brought me endless happiness. As I began to discover more about Divine’s own personal life and struggles, I could associate with him even more. In my later teens I started to base my relationships on “Do you like John Waters movies?” If the answer was “No” then it was already going nowhere.
A few years ago I was lucky enough to meet John Waters and I told him how much his “family of characters”, not least Divine, meant to me.
I never found them strange or bizarre, I always just thought that they were similar to me . We were the people society didn’t want to see. John Waters and Divine both gave me a place I felt that I belonged. So what’s left to say, but that I highly recommend I Am Divine to you all. Get on those Cha-Cha heels, watch it immediately and behold the wonder that is Divine!