Waters Ally Van Smith; Films' Doyen of Dirt

Actor Divine works with costume designer and makeup artist Van Smith while shooting the John Waters film
Actor Divine works with costume designer and makeup artist Van Smith while shooting the John Waters film "Female Trouble." Smith tried to make actors look ugly, giving them fake pimples and lines on their faces. (Dreamland Productions)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 8, 2006

Van Smith, 61, a costume designer and makeup artist who died Dec. 5 at his home in Marianna, Fla., after a heart attack, was the "resident 'ugly expert' " on John Waters's films. He gave actors fake pimples and pocks, outfitted them in lentil-filled fake breasts and advised them to eat lots of potato chips before a close-up to better showcase their plaque.

Mr. Smith was a New York fashion illustrator, Baltimore antique store owner and Florida animal rescue volunteer when he was not sharing Waters's vision of film as "action against good taste." They worked together on every film from "Pink Flamingos" (1972) to "A Dirty Shame" (2004).

Waters wrote in his book "Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste" that Mr. Smith "totally understands the look of 'inner rot' that I demand and could come up with the perfect look for each character without my ever having to say a word."

Describing his method as a makeup artist, Mr. Smith was quoted as saying in "Shock Value": "I like to start with a freshly scrubbed face. First I apply pimples made out of eyelash glue, and if they have any natural glow, I throw dirt on their face as a good base. Then I draw on blackheads, pencil on any age lines, shadow severe bags under their eyes, and crack their entire complexion by letting egg white dry on their skin."

Walter Avant Smith Jr. was born Aug. 17, 1945, in Marianna, a Panhandle town where his father was a municipal judge and his mother was a savings-and-loan bookkeeper.

He developed an early interest in art, but having spina bifida, he lacked great dexterity because of stiffness in his hands. However, a teacher at his junior college in Marianna encouraged his artistic interests, and Mr. Smith went on to graduate in 1968 from the Maryland Institute College of Art with a degree in fashion arts.

At the time, he lived at the Marlboro Apartments in Baltimore. "Everyone lived there," Mr. Smith told a Waters fan site, referring to those who became fixtures of Waters's film sets. "We all smoked pot and tripped on LSD."

Mr. Smith became a regular part of Waters's film repertory group, Dreamland, starting with "Pink Flamingos." The movie, starring 300-pound transvestite actor Divine, is about a woman eager to outfilth competitors.

On a constricted budget, Mr. Smith found simple ways to make the actors look appropriately outrageous. He shaved Divine's hairline deep into her forehead to make room for excessive eye makeup. He then dressed her in a fishtail red gown.

The effect, he later said, made Divine resemble a cross between busty glamour girl Jayne Mansfield and Clarabell the Clown.

In "Desperate Living" (1977), he designed a shower curtain dress for actress Liz Renay. In "Cecil B. DeMented" (2000), he put Melanie Griffith in a Chanel jacket that he reformatted with a biker mystique.

Waters said yesterday that his favorite Smith creation was the see-through lace bride's dress worn by Divine in "Female Trouble" (1974) that displayed the actor's pubic hair.

During that period, Mr. Smith was an illustrator at Women's Wear Daily and other publications in New York. He also was costume and makeup designer for 1970s off-Broadway shows, including "The Neon Woman" and "Women Behind Bars," both with Divine. Mr. Smith was also the creative force behind "The Simply Divine Cut-Out Doll Book."

For many years, he operated Nigel Smith, a modern-antique shop in Baltimore that he named after his cattle dog.

More recently, he cared for his mother, Eloise Smith of Marianna. She survives, along with a brother and a sister.

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