"When you live in Baltimore, you don't think anything could ever happen."
To eat is human, to mull over the possibility of gnawing the gristly bone of a decimated slab of prime rib the size of the Saddledome, is Divine.
The waiter attempts to remove the plate. "Gnnnnnnar," says the 320-pound gender bender, a former Baltimore hairdresser who has played more meaty women's roles than Joan Crawford, Joan Collins and Dustin Hoffman combined. Think Dawn Davenport in "Female Trouble," Francine Fishpaw in "Polyester," Babs Johnson in "Pink Flamingos"; loud, vulgar, depraved damsels in cha-cha heels and thigh-splitting spandex dresses, rhinestone glasses, ratted beehives and pencil-thin, Mommie Dearest eyebrows being violated by 15-foot broiled lobsters, spewing insults and chowing down on trailer park nouvelle cuisine: dead fish, tiny mascara brushes and doggy droppings.
"I have no bad habits, except overeating," says Divine, daintily sipping a glass of tomato juice at the Palm. "Divi," as he is known to his friends, made his entrance in true star style; stepping from a stretch limo, wearing sunglasses and a diamond stud earring, his silver hair a neat Friar Tuck fringe saddling his polished bald skull. Part Baby Huey, part Mamie van Doren. The last time he was here, for the opening of "Polyester" in 1981, he was duly teased and beehived, squeezed into a cocktail dress, so the waiters are naturally ex- pecting a repeat. What they get
instead is a beefy middle-aged man in a dark jacket, eating roast beef (medium) and a salad (roquefort) with the pin-stripe-suited power-lunch crowd.
"It's just a mask. It's something to hide behind," Divine says of his sluttish persona. "I'm not a female impersonator. I don't do Cher. I don't do Mae West. I don't do Bette Davis or Carol Chan-ning. I hate that when they call me a transvestite. If I was a transvestite I'd be sitting here with a little crocodile handbag and a polka-dot bow. Those are my work clothes. That's how I make people laugh. I don't see the harm in that."
He is seated at a small table near Andy Rooney, George Starke, Bob Strauss, Vernon Jordan and Ted Turner. Their sketched portraits stare down from the walls as Divine, whose only addiction seems to be Maud Frizon shoes, speaks softly and hoarsely of a film career sidetracked by drugs, suicidal thoughts and Hollywood typecasting. He really is quite nice, and quite serious. Not at all what you'd expect from an actor who once held the title "Filthiest Person Alive."
"I think I have disappointed quite a few people," he says with a raspy laugh. "They thought I was going to walk in and vomit on the floor and eat it. And have a tight spangly dress on and a teased wig. I mean, Elizabeth Taylor played Cleopatra. She doesn't walk around looking like Cleopatra all the time!"
The character of the foul-mouthed obese Divine was created by director John Waters, a friend and mentor to the actor. They met in high school outside Baltimore and have been making films for the past 20 years, the bulk of them X-rated underground classics shown on campuses and at midnight shows. Waters moved into the mainstream with his 1985 "Polyester," which cost $350,000 and became the surprise hit of the Cannes Film Festival. It was the first film made in "Odorama," offering a scratch 'n' sniff card through which movie-goers were treated to a variety of scents.
Their latest collaboration, "Hairspray," opens today. It has a budget of $3 million, the largest of the Waters films. Divine, who plays the dual role of Edna Turnblad and Arvin Hodgepile, is anticipating a hit. "It has better lighting, better sound people, individual trailers for the stars. Just like a real movie!"
Waters has rounded up his usual suspects (including actress Mink Stole); the director's penchant for using the same small group of players is reminiscent of Woody Allen's. "I'm the Mia Farrow, I guess," says Divine.
At 42, Divine is in danger of becoming either the finest character actor since Alec Guinness or a stale cartoon on the order of Viva, Candy Darling and Tiny Tim. What may save him from becoming another fading remnant of the over-hip underground mondo bizarro shock troupe born of the drug culture is his potential to snag male roles, a dream that eluded him for years. Until he was tapped to play the gangster Hilly Blue in Alan Rudolph's "Trouble in Mind" (with Kris Kristofferson, Keith Carradine and Genevieve Bujold), most people thought of Divine as a freaked-out creation of John Waters' demented brain.
"I would only be offered female parts! It was so frustrating for me. I never set out just to play female parts, they were the only parts written for me. When you're a young actor, you take what comes your way. Of course, they were the leads. What are you going to say -- 'No, I don't want it'? Then you're making money and you have fans. I would go around to different agents in a three-piece suit and being a gentleman the way I was brought up to be and talk to these people and they would look at me! I think they saw a glittery dress and a big wig. What is this? I'm a comedian."
He pauses. "I always wanted to play Nero. Or Antony and Cleopatra." He stabs the prime rib with his fork and cuts off a chunk. "I could play both parts. I'm a producer's dream."
If there is some confusion over Divine's professional persona, it has been heightened by his life style. Sexually, he says, "I've tried everything, and now I don't try anything any more." It's been "a long time," he says wistfully, since he's enjoyed a relationship. "A couple of years. Which isn't normal, I don't think." There were some entanglements. "There were a few women. And a couple of guys. People just aren't gay or straight, it's whatever turns you on."
He digs into the plate of Palm fries. "Hairspray," he says, is a nostalgic look at Baltimore in 1962. The plot revolves around a dance program, "The Corny Collins Show," and a chubby girl's dream of being queen of the hop. The show is modeled on the old "Buddy Deane Show," a local DJ-run dance featuring teen-agers who become mini-celebrities. It's about popularity and the trials of teenhood: zits, parents and having only three shetland sweaters.
Divine plays the mother of an overweight teen (Ricki Lake) who steals the film as the heartwarming heroine. A Baby Divine.
"I hate her," Divine says, turning ugly. "She'll never fill these shoes." Then he laughs.
The cast of "Hairspray," he says, made him feel old. "The young kids didn't know those dances. John said, 'Divine, show them!' So I had to get up and show these kids how to do these dances." Gimme gravy with my mashed potatoes! "Once they learned those dances they really got into it. And they were so proud! I would go to rehearsals and watch them. It would bring tears to my eyes. It was really moving back in time."
He began as Glenn Milstead in the suburb of Lutherville, Md., the only child of a middle-class couple who ran a nursery school. Glenn was a lonely boy. "I had fantasy friends I talked to. My parents and I were very close. We traveled a lot."
He says he was always attracted to the great female legends: Mae West, Liz Taylor, Jayne Mansfield, Joan Crawford.
Making "Hairspray" conjured up his own adolescence. "To look back and see what was important. Did you have your own telephone, your own television, your own car. These are the things that made you popular."
The young Divine wasn't popular. "No, not really. I was always fat, and not very athletic. Finally in my junior year, I went on a diet. I got down from 220 to 140. It was very funny, all of a sudden I was much more popular. I could get dates with pretty girls who had turned me down before. I was the same person! It was a learning thing for me, part of growing up. I realized it was all so artificial.
"I was very much the introvert. I didn't go to dances or anything. I was uptight about my weight."
After graduating from Towson High School, he became a hairdresser, Mr. Glenn, until he was tapped by his old pal Waters to act in his series of underground films. Shot in grainy black and white, they featured "Miss Divine" in increasingly grotesque antics, culminating with the notorious dog excrement scene in "Pink Flamingos" (1972).
Divine also starred in the 1976 stage production of "Women Behind Bars." Reviews were mixed. One critic described the actor as "Minna Gombill or Bardil Rosen blown up with a few hundred pounds of air, crowned by a towering varnished yellow mop and sounding like Casey Stengel imitating Fanny Brice."
But it isn't easy appearing in drag, sweating under 40-pound wigs and lugging around false bosoms made of foam rubber and lentils. Lentils? "They move well but they're so heavy," Divine complains. "To have a bosom that size! They weigh about 50 pounds apiece. I was on a plane once and I had to fly in costume because they were going to meet me at the airport. It was to San Francisco. Halfway there, I thought I had a heart attack, I had these pains in my chest. I leaned forward and I noticed the pain subsided. I sat back and it started. It was all this weight on my chest! It was 70 or 80 pounds!"
He grabs a Palm fry and laughs. "Some people use mineral oil in balloons. But if one of them pops open, you've got a horrible mess on your hands." He says he had a custom-made bosom for his 1985 film "Lust in the Dust" (opposite Tab Hunter), which earned him some good notices.
He's also had a career as a singer, and has had some disco hits in Europe, including "Born to Be Cheap."
All along, he says, he's wanted to be not just an actor, but a movie star. "I didn't care about the acting. I think I wanted to go to the parties and ride in limousines and go to premieres. Even though I've done those things, I still find them fabulous ... I love having my picture taken. I love doing interviews. I was on the cover of Interview magazine this month. Nothing made me happier. I waited for 15 years ... I knew Andy. I'd call him once a week and say, 'I want the cover.' "
Horrified by their son's career and life style, his parents didn't speak to him for nine years. Divine says he's made peace with them now.
"My father's in a wheelchair but my mother came to the Miami Film Festival the other night and I told her to stand up. I was on stage. She was weeping. They're both very proud now and very happy. She's like Shirley Temple's mother all of a sudden."
Beating drugs helped. "It was marijuana, not cocaine. It's been seven months since I stopped smoking. I was smoking every day for years ... I was completely losing touch with reality and I didn't care ... I was unbearable and difficult to work with, all the things I hate in other people, to the point I was suicidal -- I didn't care if I lived or died. I really hated my life. And everything about it. One day, I went to Malta, and I couldn't find any grass there. I thought, wait a minute, I really should try and get it together ... I feel like I wasted so many years."
Depressed and alone, he says, "you really start to think about things." He considered jumping from the balcony of a hotel room in Israel. "But then I thought, I wasn't finished. That's what brought me around in the end."
He smiles sweetly. "And who am I to deny all my fans! I would leave a gap there! You think about these things."
The turning point came when Divine won kudos for his nondrag role in "Trouble in Mind." But it doesn't mean he's abandoning the woman who made it all possible. "As long as there's an audience for it, I'm glad."
He reaches for the sunglasses, prime rib chowed down to the bone. The waiter asks for an autograph. Heads turn.
"People told me I would never be able to break into television. It hasn't been easy, but I have." He's off to Hollywood next week to film a small part in Fox's "Married With Children." And yes, it's simply divine to have escaped Baltimore, to have found fame and fortune. "I remember a friend telling me 10 years ago to pack it in and get a serious job."
Divine smirks. "He's a dishwasher now."