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Other segments from the episode on September 1, 2017

Fresh Air with Terry Gross: September 1, 2017: Interview with Joey Ramone; Interview with John Waters; Interview with Divine; commentary by Mat Johnson.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we conclude our week-long 30th anniversary retrospective of interviews from our first couple of years as a daily NPR program. In 1988, I spoke with Joey Ramone, the lead singer of the Ramones, the band that in the mid-'70s helped launch the punk rock scene with songs that were short, fast and loud. When the Ramones started playing rock 'n' roll, they thought there was nothing good to listen to anymore. Everything was overproduced or junk. They saw their music as getting back to the roots of rock 'n' roll.


RAMONES: (Singing) Twenty-twenty-twenty-four hours to go. I want to be sedated. Nothing to do, nowhere to go. I want to be sedated. Just get me to the airport. Put me on a plane. Hurry, hurry, hurry before I go insane. I can't control my fingers. I can't control my brain. Oh, no, oh, oh, oh, oh.

GROSS: The Ramones were one of the first punk rock bands inspiring new musical trends in both the U.S. and England. The founding members grew up in Queens, N.Y. And all adopted the last name of Ramone when they formed the band. In spite of how influential they were, the Ramones were rarely played on commercial radio.


GROSS: Have you been frustrated at all by seldom getting admission onto commercial radio?

JOEY RAMONE: Well, I mean, you know, it's a little frustrating. But then again, we came out with something entirely new in, you know, in '76. I guess when you are sort of the original, I guess it's a lot more difficult, you know. I mean, when you're pioneering something, I mean, you know, I mean, you're doing all the dirty work and everybody else just sort of takes, you know, like, rips off your ideas and sort of, you know, kind of fuse them together for themselves. And then they sort of break with your ideas.

GROSS: Well, you know, as you were saying, the band sounded really radical and alien, different when it started. But I would think that in a lot of ways, you really saw yourself when you started as being more related to the roots of rock 'n' roll than a lot of the, quote, "progressive" rock of the time.

RAMONE: Yeah. Well, that's what we were reacting against. Rock 'n' roll wasn't rock 'n' roll anymore. I mean, it was fused with all kinds of things. I mean, albums became six cuts. You know, like, you wouldn't hear songs anymore. They were non-existent. They were like all kinds of jams and guitar solos and cliche, pretentiousness. I mean, it was - rock 'n' roll was always simple and exciting and pure and from the guts.

And if you listen to Buddy Holly or Elvis Presley or the Beatles or The Stones or The Who, I mean, that was exciting music. That was was exciting rock 'n' roll music. I mean, what, you know, what happened to it, it just didn't - it was a void, you know what I mean?

GROSS: So you were playing really short songs, songs under three minutes.

RAMONE: Well, the songs we grew up on, you know, that was rock 'n' roll music were three-minute songs, you know. I mean, whether it be the Beatles or The Stones or the Kinks or The Who or, you know, the American bands, you know, Phil Spector, you know. Songs were meant to be short. You know, they weren't supposed to go on for hours, you know.


RAMONES: (Singing) I don't want to be a pinhead no more. I just met a nurse that I could go for. I don't want to be a pinhead no more. I just met a nurse that I could go for.

GROSS: A lot of your songs were basically two, three or four chords with a real thrashing rhythm. And I was wondering if the musicians in the band just played a few chords because that's all they could play or it's because they all - or was it all they wanted to play? Or does it not matter to you?

RAMONE: No because you're wrong there. I mean, yeah, a lot of the songs were like three or four chords. But then if you listen to Buddy Holly or Elvis Presley or Little Richard, those songs are three chords, too. You know what I mean? So I don't, you know, I don't understand what people are saying. You know, I mean, rock 'n' roll was always simplistic. And that's where the intensity is. I mean, it's like short and simple and exciting and spontaneous. That's what rock 'n' roll is - spontaneity.

GROSS: when the word punk was coined to describe the kind of music you and other bands were playing, what did you think of the word of punk rock?

RAMONE: Well, we got tagged punk rock. We always considered ourselves rock 'n' roll, you know. And to me, like, my feelings about the term punk, punk is like an attitude. And, like, some people are punks and some people aren't, you know. And it's really a state of being, the term punk. I mean, Elvis Presley was a punk. Jim Morrison was a punk. Iggy Pop is a punk, you know, Mick Jagger. So if you're going to call us punk, I mean, no, I'm not going to mind. I mean, I think John F. Kennedy was a punk, you know.

GROSS: When you first started singing songs like "Teenage Lobotomy," I think you were no longer a teenager, probably in your early 20s when that came out. And I guess I was curious about singing and writing so many songs with teenage-type lyrics yet not really being in your teens any longer.

RAMONE: Well, soul state of mind, isn't it? I don't get old. I decided I wasn't going to get old and I'm still the same (laughter).

GROSS: I'm sure you were a great fan of Phil Spector's music. He produced an album for you. What did you think of what he did with your music?

RAMONE: Well, I really enjoyed working with Phil. I mean, Phil's a genius. And Phil's got his idios, which I think all talented people have to some degree. Phil probably has a few more than most, but it was very exciting. I mean, it was sort of an honor in a lot of ways. He came out of retirement to work with us. He felt it was important to him. And I really liked the album. And I wrote most of the album. And I just - it was enjoyable working with him.


RAMONES: (Singing) Rock 'n' - rock 'n' roll radio. Let's go. Rock 'n' - rock 'n' roll radio. Let's go. Rock 'n' - rock 'n' roll radio, let's go. Rock 'n' - rock 'n' roll radio, let's go. Do you remember "Hullabaloo," upbeat "Shindig" and Ed Sullivan too? Do you remember rock 'n' roll radio? Do you remember rock 'n' roll radio?

GROSS: When a new member joins the band now, do they still take the Ramone name?

RAMONE: No, we're not going to have any more members. I mean, we're finished with members. See, Mark used to be in the band. He was - he's our second and fourth drummer. He was in the band. He came in in '78 after Tommy cracked up. Then, Mark, he had a problem with alcohol, so we had to let him go. And when we had gotten Richie, but Richie's wife wouldn't let him be in the band anymore. She wears the pants.

So then Clem Burke stepped in as a temporary. And then Mark pulled himself together. He's been straight for four years. So, you know, it's only been drummers. I mean, the core of the band is the three of us and that's the Ramones. I mean, without the three of us, there'd be no band.

GROSS: As you pointed out, when the Ramones started to play, the music sounded really radical. Well, how does it sound now? Do you think it still sounds alien? Does it sound different? Does it sound more pop than it used to?

RAMONE: No, it's more radical now than it ever was before. But now, there's other forms of music now that didn't exist then like speed metal and thrash metal. See, like, the Ramones, we like songs. We're song orientated. And bands like Anthrax or Metallica and Megadeth and, you know, whoever...

GROSS: Do you like their music?

RAMONE: Yeah. I think they're great. I mean, I really like them because I like their attitude.

GROSS: Joey Ramone of the Ramones, recorded in 1988. All four of the original members of the band are gone now. Joey Ramone died in 2001.

This is FRESH AIR. Let's continue our weeklong 30th anniversary retrospective of interviews from our first couple of years. I've interviewed filmmaker John Waters many times. In 1988, I spoke with him about writing and directing his film, "Hairspray" which had just opened. "Hairspray" is an homage to the teased hair and TV dance shows of the early 60s.


RACHEL SWEET: Hey, girl. What you doing over there?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Can't you see? I'm spraying my hair.

SWEET: (Singing) Let me tell you 'bout the latest craze. Mama's hoping that it's just a phase. But I know it's gonna last forever. You gotta see the way it keeps my head together. I gave my dollar to the drugstore man. I bought that magic potion in a 12-ounce can. Now I know when I make the scene, they're gonna stop and wonder, who's that beauty queen? Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Hairspray.

SWEET: (Singing) Mama told me not to use it.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Hairspray.

GROSS: That's the theme from the 1988 film, "Hairspray" which John Waters wrote and directed. The movie was later adapted into a hit Broadway musical with new original songs.

Waters first became famous or infamous after making his 1972 cult classic, "Pink Flamingos," a film about two families competing for the title, "the filthiest person alive." Waters had the characters do explicit, disgusting things as they vied for the title. That's one of the films that earned Waters the title, The King of Bad Taste. In "Hairspray," he used some of his regular cast of characters, including Divine who we'll feature an interview with a little later.

"Hairspray" is set in Baltimore in 1962 at the height of the TV dance show craze. In the movie, all the kids want to dance on the "Corny Collins Show," but only white teenagers are allowed on. The black teenagers are ready to protest. In 1988, I asked Waters if the Corny Collins dance show in Hairspray was supposed to be a takeoff of "The Buddy Deane Show," the dance show he watched when he was growing up in Baltimore.


JOHN WATERS: I watched all the teen dance shows. And so it's all of them sort of put together and pushed one step a little further. But it's not that exaggerated, basically. The kids really did look like then. The hairdos, all that was part of it. It wasn't a rebel look. Your mother had that hairdo, too.

GROSS: You have every record and more that I can remember, the novelty records. You have "The Continental," "The Fly..."

WATERS: "The Bug," "The Roach..."

GROSS: "The Bug," "The Roach..."

WATERS: ....The "Shake a Tail Feather," "The Madison" - and they're all real dances.

GROSS: Well, I figured - first of all, why did you include so many of the novelty dances in the movie?

WATERS: Well, because I love them. And I wanted to bring them back. I wanted the fact that the - that that was sort of a forgotten period when every dance was a gimmick dance. So I had all those records. They were my favorite records. I used to get them out late at night...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: ...And after a few drinks and put them on...

GROSS: ...And dance (laughter).

WATERS: ...And sometimes even dance. So I picked those songs first and sort of wrote the movie around them. And I wanted to include them.

GROSS: Your movie's set in 1962.


GROSS: This is currently a period when there's actually a lot of nostalgia for 1962?

WATERS: No. There's a lot of nostalgia for the 60s. But '62 is almost the 50s. This was - there were no hippies. There were no drugs. There was - Kennedy hadn't even been shot. It was right before everything changed.

GROSS: That's why you chose that year?

WATERS: Yeah. And so when people talk about the 60s, they talk about girls dancing in cages with fringe and - or hippies or the student rebellion or all that. This was way before any of that.

GROSS: Do you hate nostalgia?

WATERS: Well, obviously I had nostalgia about this movie. This is a memory movie. I'm sick of 60s nostalgia. I've been to clubs in New York where it's just like the Fillmore East. And I thought I hated that then.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: Do I have to go through it another time? Oh, please. No (laughter). Not tie dye again.

GROSS: One of the big storylines in Hairspray is about the integration of this dance show.

WATERS: Right. Right.

GROSS: And - because it's a white-only show except they have Negro Day once a month.

WATERS: Which they did - that's not an exaggeration. The shows did do that.

GROSS: Did - was it really called that in the show you watched in Baltimore?

WATERS: Yes. Yes. Yes. And they had them on other shows, too. And basically, I felt that to ignore that fact would have been really inauthentic. I don't know if that's the correct word. But if Hollywood had made this movie, they would have had blacks on the show and just ignored the fact that none of the shows - bandstands didn't have blacks on them either. None of them did then. And basically, the problem was the - all the music was black. All the dancing came from blacks. Black singers were were on the show all the time as entertainers, but they couldn't dance. And it wasn't because the kids didn't want it; their parents didn't want it.

GROSS: One of the things I really loved in the movie is that the worst insult that one girl can say about another is, she's a whore.

WATERS: Well, they used to - didn't they - when I went to high school, they always used to say that girl's a whore.

GROSS: Except it was that girl's a whore (laughter).

WATERS: Yeah. Right. And you know, the girls that they said that about never were.

GROSS: Oh, of course. I mean, how many girls in my high school were really whores (laughter)?

WATERS: I know. I mean that were charging money. There weren't too many of that. But they never even slept with anybody. But if you got the reputation as a whore, it lasted. And they always used to say that - whisper, oh, that girl - she's a whore. You know, it was always - at least, when I went to junior high, that was a very big insult.

GROSS: Did you always want to know, like, what the real story was behind that? Like a...

WATERS: I always hung around with the ones that they thought were the whores actually.


GROSS: Everybody in your movies, as you say, is usually really - they're outcasts. And they're frequently somewhere between odd and bizarre-looking.


GROSS: Now, what was your look when you were a teenager?

WATERS: I went through different looks. At one period, I was preppy because that's how I grew up. But then I had bleached hair in the front. And I used to wear - then I wanted to be a beatnik. It was hard to be a beatnik in suburban Baltimore. But I wanted to be one. And I read all the books about them and everything and read Life magazine about beatniks. And I just really wanted to be one. That's why I have the whole scene with - the whole beatnik scene in the movie.

GROSS: Well, there's a great scene where Tracy...


GROSS: ...And her boyfriend...


GROSS: ...Go into - they're looking for a place to hide out, basically.

WATERS: Right.

GROSS: And they knock on a door. Everybody's turning them away. But these two beatniks in the door that they knock on let them in. And the beatniks are Ric Ocasek and Pia Zadora.

WATERS: Right (laughter).

GROSS: And it's this great beatnik scene in their pad. The scene is a wonderful confrontation between the bouffant hairdo ethic and the the beatnik long, black, straight hair ethic.

WATERS: The ironed hair.

GROSS: The ironed hair.

WATERS: Yeah - which is not an exaggeration. Around '62 in Baltimore, all the girls had those big hairdos. And then suddenly, a few of the really hip ones started doing their hair straight. And people panicked. And it was called going Joe, meaning Joe College. And people would say, I don't know. Should I be Joe? I can't decide. I don't know what to do. It was a major thing. And what happened then is the kids that did do the ironed hair eventually became hippies. And the ones with the teased hair got married and became probably very middle class.


PIA ZADORA: (As The Beatnik Chick) You look like a hair hopper to me. I mean, your hair is really uncool.

RICKI LAKE: (As Tracy Turnblad) How do you get your hair so straight and so flat.

ZADORA: (As The Beatnik Chick) With an iron, man. I play my bongos, listen to Odetta, then I iron my hair, dig?

MICHAEL ST. GERARD: (As Lincoln "Link' Larkin) I think we better get going now. The coast looks clear.

ZADORA: (As the Beatnik Chick) Let's do some reefer. We'll get high, and I'll iron the chicks' hair.

RIC OCASEK: (As The Beatnik Cat) Reefer?

LAKE: (As Tracy Turnblad) Drugs?

ZADORA: (As the Beatnik Chick) Loco weed - when I'm high, I am Odetta.

GROSS: In the movie, you call women with really large hairdos hair hoppers.

WATERS: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Was that a Baltimore expression?

WATERS: That's a Baltimore expression.

GROSS: Yeah. I never - it's a great expression. I never heard it before.

WATERS: Yeah. Men can be hair hoppers, too.

GROSS: What kind of hair would you...

WATERS: A male hair hopper is, you know, greased back and the Continental look, it was called - with sport cuffs with a belt in the back and pointy toe shoes and that look. A hair hopper basically is someone that grew up without a lot of money, suddenly gets some, spends it wrongly, thinks they have style and don't.


Did you use real hairspray in the movie?


GROSS: In the opening scene, everybody's, like, spraying their hair, even the boys.

WATERS: It's real hairspray, yeah. We used roughly 60 cases of hairspray in the movie and - 'cause there was 1,100 extras. And when you worked on this movie, you had to go - it was like going into the fashion army. The boys had to go in one trailer get their hair cut, then go to the next thing and get their hair slicked back. The girls had to go in, get it teased. We had, like, Chris Mason who did all the hairdos but then we had backups - people that would tease it, then she'd come in and style it.

You had to go through an assembly line. So a lot of the kids that were in it finally got so sick of combing it out that they would just leave it in and they would just go out in Baltimore with those ridiculous hairdos and just figure, too bad. You know, I can't go through this hairdo torture another day. Let's just leave it in.

GROSS: How did you pitch it, the movie, to movie executives?

WATERS: I got up and did the dances in front of them, for one thing.

GROSS: Oh, you're kidding. That's great.

WATERS: And they were so startled that they realized I was serious about it. I played them the music guy. I got a development deal for it. It was done very conventionally.

GROSS: Oh, that's not conventional, going and doing the dances (laughter) to studio execs.

WATERS: You've ever been to a pitch session?

GROSS: Really?

WATERS: I don't know. You've got to sell the movie. You've got about 10 minutes.

GROSS: Did you test market the movie?


GROSS: So how did you do it?

WATERS: Well, I'd never been through this before. And actually, it's a good experience. It's like testing a Broadway show out of town. They go out and get what they call a normal audience to come in and see it. It's like being on trial. You sit there and you pray you don't have to appeal the verdict when you read them all. And luckily, what they said, parts they thought were too slow or there was too much of were the same notes we had when we finished after watching it with an audience.

So all they did was tell us what we knew already.

GROSS: Where did you go, to shopping malls to find people?

WATERS: Yeah, they do it - the people in the San Fernando Valley in LA are the most influential people in the country, more than critics, more than press or anything because that's where they test every movie when they want to know what's mid-America going to think of this?

GROSS: There are some regulars, people who've worked with you in many of your movies, who are featured in your new movie. Divine is in it.

WATERS: Right.

GROSS: Mink Stole is in it. I bet a lot of real odd characters send you resumes all the time figuring, like, well, I'm kind of freaky. Waters would really love me in his next movie.

WATERS: Yeah, but they're real wrong because the people that are freaky in real life generally make terrible actors. Good actors actually in real life are shy and very quiet people a lot of the time.

GROSS: Why do you think that's true?

WATERS: I don't know. They come alive with the camera, where people that are always on in real life, as soon as the camera comes on, tend to be very stilted sometimes.

GROSS: You cast Divine in a dual role.

WATERS: Yeah, well, Divine played a - he's played a man in my other films, too. In "Female Trouble," he was a dual role. But in this, he plays, like, I think kind of a lovable mom, Edna Turnblad. And then he also plays an evil station manager, who won't let blacks on the show. And we wanted to make him totally unrecognizable. We had new teeth made for him.

GROSS: No kidding.

WATERS: I mean, so that he even talks different - his face is shaped differently. He talks differently because all the teeth are fake. So I liked him in it. I thought he looked like sort of scary almost (laughter) as a man. That's his male impersonation.

GROSS: (Laughter) Divine makes such a sympathetic housewife.

WATERS: Yeah. And I don't think - I think it's really, so far, been very encouraging that both the Variety review and the Hollywood Reporter review have talked a lot about Divine and never mentioned that he was a man. It didn't matter anymore that Divine's a man, which I just - I think is good because he's not a transvestite. He doesn't wear those clothes when he's not making a movie.

You can't even call him a drag queen. What self-respecting drag queen would allow themselves to look as hideous as he looks (laughter) in the beginning of "Hairspray?"

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: So he's basically - he's a character actor.

GROSS: John Waters recorded in 1988.


This is FRESH AIR. Let's continue our 30th anniversary retrospective with Divine, the man who often starred in women's roles in John Waters' films. Divine was frequently referred to as a 300-pound drag queen. But Divine said he thought of himself as a character actor. Until his death in 1988, he was in every one of John Waters' movies. But when we spoke, he'd been trying to broaden his career and was doing films by other people in male and female roles.

It was Waters' 1972 movie "Pink Flamingos" that made Divine famous. If you've seen the film or the publicity stills, then you'll remember the image of Divine's huge frame covered in a skin-tight, low-cut gown. Divine's character wins the title the filthiest person alive in that film. I spoke with Divine in February 1988, just after the release of Waters' movie "Hairspray." Two weeks later, Divine died of an enlarged heart. He was 42.

In "Hairspray," Divine play dual roles, the housewife and mother Edna Turnblad and Arvin Hodgepile, the racist president of the TV station. When we spoke, we started with a scene in which Divine, as Edna Turnblad, is taking her daughter Tracy to Mr. Pinky's Hefty Hideaway House of Fashion for the Ample Woman to pick out some new clothes for a TV dance show.


DIVINE: (As Edna Turnblad) Mr. Pinky, I'm Tracy's business manager, Edna Turnblad.

ALAN WENDL: (As Mr. Pinky) Well, it's a pleasure to meet the both of you. Here, we cater to the big-boned gals like yourself who are stylish and, at the same time, frustrated by the lack of sizes in the department stores today. I saw you on TV. I want you to be my model.

DIVINE: (As Edna Turnblad) Would she be paid for this?

WENDL: (As Mr. Pinky) One free outfit a month. You start tomorrow. I hope there's no diets in the works because I want to design your Miss Auto Show coronation gown myself.

DIVINE: (As Edna Turnblad) Could you throw in a pair of complimentary pettipants in the deal?

WENDL: (As Mr. Pinky) You drive a hard bargain, Miss Edna, and rightfully so. Pettipants, pettigirdle - you just let Tracy take her pick.

DIVINE: (As Edna Turnblad) It's a deal. Thank you, Mr. Pinky.

WENDL: (As Mr. Pinky) I'm going to make you a star.


GROSS: Let me ask you to describe in your own words the two roles that you play in "Hairspray."

DIVINE: Well, I think one is Edna Turnblad as a loving mother and adoring wife. And vice versa. She has a child that wants to break into a dance program on television. First, she's a bit leery but then realizes that, in her words, she could be one of the Rockettes. So she thinks this is great and gets behind her 100 percent and becomes her agent and manager. Then I also play a part of Arvin Hodgepile, who is a racist, sexist pig. And he owns a television studio. And he's just a hideous person. So it was great to play 'cause they're unlike any other characters I've ever done.

GROSS: Are you glad that you played a dual role - that you played a female and a male role so that you're seen as a character actor who's capable of performing in both roles?

DIVINE: Oh, definitely. I think it's a cliche Hollywood story - being typecast. And I'm definitely a victim of that. But I think I'm very lucky that I was starting to come out of it. It's taken 20-some years. Like I said, I was screaming at people. I'm not a transvestite. I'm not a drag queen. I'm a character actor. I never set out in the beginning of my career just to play female roles.

But, fortunately or unfortunately for me, they were the only things that were offered to me. And they were the leads of the movies. So you don't go around turning down parts that are the leads or that are written for you if you're a young actor. I had no idea that they would be such strong characters - that people thought that was all I could do.

GROSS: Let's talk about your roles in "Hairspray." A part of the movie is about hairdos, about the great teased bouffant hairdos of the early '60s. And I know John Waters is really enamored with those old hairdos. You used to be a hairdresser, didn't you?

DIVINE: Oh, for a very short time. I'm glad I had that experience. It's come in very helpful now...

GROSS: (Laughter).

DIVINE: ...'Cause when I'm on the road and things doing my club act, there aren't always hairdressers available or things. So I end up having to do it myself. And I'm glad I know how to tease because that's definitely the look they want. But I said to Johnny (ph), he doesn't have to go too far from his front door, actually, to still see women who look just like that.

When I was doing the film, it was very funny because the first day on the set, I walked down the street. No one looked at me twice. I walked right through the camera crew, past John and kept going. None of them looked at me. I came back and stood right in front of John. He looked at me, and he did a double take. It was very funny. He's like, I can't believe it. That's perfect.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DIVINE: I looked just like one of the girls on the street.

GROSS: How did that make you feel?

DIVINE: Oh, it was good. I mean, that was the best compliment. I mean, I did fit right in. I did look exactly the way I was supposed to. And - because so often with my size and things, I'm so - what's the word? - you know, not uptight but - about sticking out too much.

GROSS: Self-conscious?

DIVINE: Yeah, self-conscious, you know, about sticking out too much or being the largest person on the set. But then, in a way, that's the best thing, too, I guess. You get noticed more.

GROSS: Let's talk about the male part that you played. And this is a kind of bad-guy-type part, a kind of villain part. He's the head of the TV studio who, you know, doesn't want to stand for integration. Now, John Waters told me you got fitted for new teeth for this role.

DIVINE: Yeah. Well, they wanted me to look completely different, which is the great part of being a character actor - to look like the characters and to look different from yourself. When they fitted me for teeth, big, bucked teeth had decay and things on them. Then I had brown - because I have blue eyes. They poked me in the eye every morning about 15 times, trying to get these brown contacts in my eyes.

And then I wore a toupee, which is the kind of hairstyle that men that are balding - and they sweep it up from the bottom and over the top, which really doesn't cover anything. But they think it does in their own mind. And you can see the skin in between the hair. You know, real dark brown because they usually dye their hair. So it was quite hideous.

GROSS: Were listening to my 1988 interview with Divine. We'll hear more as we continue our 30th anniversary retrospective after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our 30th anniversary retrospective and continue our 1988 interview with actor Divine.


GROSS: Did you love movies when you were growing up? What were some of your favorite films?

DIVINE: I've always had very macho taste in movies.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DIVINE: My favorites when I was a kid were - it was the "Knights Of The Round Table" movies and war movies and...

GROSS: Really?

DIVINE: Yeah. I really do like "Rambo" movies and Sylvester Stallone. And Charles Bronson, I think, is probably my favorite.

GROSS: So you liked, really, war movies and action films. Did you like glamour movies when you were growing up?

DIVINE: Well, anything that Elizabeth Taylor was in I liked.

GROSS: Did you like her better when she was thin or heavy?

DIVINE: It didn't matter to me.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

DIVINE: It didn't matter. I thought it was just more of her to look at when she got heavy - but still very beautiful. And I finally did meet her one day, and I couldn't speak at all. After years of planning what I was going to say to her, I was (vocalizing). So I don't drink, but I went and had a double scotch and came back and had a little conversation with her.

GROSS: Did she know you?

DIVINE: She knew of me. It was a party for her daughter, Maria (ph). And her hairdresser and makeup men, a man, were people that I've used. And they had told her all about me. So she wanted to meet me at the party.

GROSS: That's great that you'd use the same makeup man.

DIVINE: Yeah, we look a lot alike.


GROSS: You know, John Waters has said that he really has always loved it when people who don't fit mainstream good looks take what they have and really turn it into style, turn it into, you know, an advantage. Did you feel like you were doing that when you were growing up because you were - I think you were always pretty heavy?

DIVINE: Yeah. Well, no, actually not because I was very much an introvert. And I never really went out of the house until I was about 16 years old. I was very uptight about my weight and about the way I looked. And I always wanted to look like everyone else. And finally my junior year, like, when I was 16 and in high school is when I started hanging out with John and everyone else that I got the confidence together to go out and - I was always in a coat. I always had a raincoat on or something. People probably thought I was a flasher.

But I was just uptight about, you know, how fat I was. Finally, I went on a diet, like I said, my junior year, and lost 80 pounds and went down to 140, 145 for my senior year. And then I was able to get dates and go to the prom and everything. But still, it was strange to me because all of a sudden, people talked to me that wouldn't talk to me when I was fat.

And I thought, well, what's this all about? You know, it was a rude awakening, actually, at a very young age.

GROSS: So it must have been really liberating, in a way, when you started playing these extravagant roles where your weight was really a part of the role and you were very theatrical about your size and theatrical about the way you dress.

DIVINE: Oh, yeah, well, John did help me, I mean, to gain a lot of self-confidence and to be proud and not to fit the mold that I think they really do try to put you in, especially here in America, that you've got to be thin, you've got to be under 200 pounds. I mean, you don't. I mean, there are a lot of big people out there that they're still very beautiful people.

GROSS: I think when you and Waters started working together, you had a lot of exploits both in the kinds of movies that you did and in the kind of parties that you gave. But it seems to me like you were part of this, well, very kind of avant-garde theatrical type of - into a theatrical kind of juvenile delinquency, as opposed to being, like, the real hoods.

How did the tough guys in the school treat you, the people who really were the hoods?

DIVINE: Oh, well, I wasn't - they used to wait for me every day to beat me up after school and to the point where I was quite black and blue and afraid to say anything 'cause they had threatened my life. And it was very bad. You know, finally one day, I had to go for a physical to the doctor. And when I disrobed, I mean, it was quite obvious that something terrible was happening to me.

And finally, I broke down after a lot of questioning and told him what the problem was. And they called my parents in. When they saw what I looked like, they were quite hysterical. And we had the police at the school and the kids were expelled. And it was quite an ugly situation, which made me even more unpopular with their friends and the other people, you know.

But then I think finally, like I said, my senior year was more or less all right. It wasn't so bad.

GROSS: Actor Divine is my guest. I'm just going to ask you one question about the famous "Pink Flamingos" scene in which the movie ends. And just one question about it. And then you have to eat a fresh dog turd. And you and John Waters have both said that you did it to kind of get attention. And the film really did. I mean, you were real upcoming people.

DIVINE: Well, John came to me and he said, well, you know, would you do this? I said, oh, sure. Who thought I thought he was kidding? And he said, well, listen, do you want to be famous or do you want to be completely forgotten about? He said, it's going to do either one or the other for you. It's going to make you or forget - he said, but your name will go down in movie history forever anyway, no matter what you do.

And I thought, well, what do I care? You know, I was very young and you don't think about all these things. It was quite a hideous experience actually.

GROSS: Well, here's my question, did you rush off to an emergency room afterwards? I'd be wondering about, you know, germs and things like that.

DIVINE: Well, no, I had mouthwash and things. And I brushed my teeth and gargled. Anyway, I went home and I was sitting there. Then I started to worry. So I called the hospital and I said, (imitating a woman) oh, hello, this is Mrs. Johnson, and my son just ate dog doody. And what should I do? And she said, well, how old is your son? And I said, well, he's 24 years old.

Well, then the nurse said, some maniac's on the phone here. So she said, well, you just have to wash his mouth out and, you know, do all this. She said, but feel his stomach every day because he could get what was called the - you know, like, a worm. And every day, I was feeling my stomach to see. Finally, one day, it got hard. I thought, oh, my God, I've got it.

But I didn't have anything. So I was very lucky. But she suggested that I get rid of the dog.

GROSS: You said that it was John Waters who gave, you know, who helped give you your image.

DIVINE: Right.

GROSS: How did you decide on what that image was going to be when you first were getting it together?

DIVINE: Well, at the time, there were - Andy Warhol and a lot of people were making cult movies and, as they called them, underground films then, which were just the equivalent of your independently made movies today - low budget. So the one name like Vivah (ph) was very popular. So John gave me the name Divine. He just said he thought I was and it was - that it was funny and that I was divine and it was a good name for me and also because he had a very heavy Catholic upbringing.

We had sort of religious names. So I think with John wanted a very large woman because he wanted the exact opposite of what normally would be beautiful. He wanted a 300-pound beauty, as opposed to a 110-pound beauty. He wanted, as I've been called, inflated Jayne Mansfield. And also, it's ironic that he would say the most beautiful woman in the world turns out to be a man.

So everything there is backwards. So it's really a John Waters character. But then Van Smith, a very good friend of ours who does all of John's movies - he does the makeup and costuming and has done all - helped create the look for the character. He's the one that said, go in the bathroom, shave your head halfway back and pluck all your eyebrows out. So, I mean, you really have to trust people. I went in the bathroom and did this.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DIVINE: I came out and I thought, what have I done now? But then he did my face almost, like he always called it, beauty gone berserk. And it was similar to Kabuki-type makeup.

GROSS: Oh, that's true, isn't it?

DIVINE: Yeah. And also, we didn't want to look like a normal, everyday woman because I'm not a woman. We wanted to look more like a cartoon character, you know, of a woman.

GROSS: Divine, recorded in 1988 - two weeks after we recorded our interview, he died of an enlarged heart. He was 42.


This is FRESH AIR. We're going to end the week by checking in with our contributor Mat Johnson, who lives in a new subdivision in metropolitan Houston. He just moved into his home last December. We called him to see how he's doing and were relieved to find he's one of the very lucky ones. His home, where he lives with his wife and children, was not flooded. But he'd been worried about his mother who lives nearby in a senior independent living facility. That wasn't flooded either, but she has MS and mild dementia and needs a caregiver, and her caregiver couldn't get to the facility. Mat couldn't reach anyone at the facility by phone, so he was determined to drive there and bring his mother to his home. And although his home wasn't flooded, the roads around him were.

MAT JOHNSON: At times you're driving through places that have flooded, but the water's receded. So it just looks like any other day. And you look out and you think - oh, I'm just imagining this whole thing. It's blowing out of proportion. It's just another storm. And then you turn a corner, and a place that's supposed to be a parking lot or church or a building, it's just a river. And it kind of knocks you back into reality again. For me, I didn't know if I was going to get all the way through. I'd done Twitter searches on different roads to see which ones were dry. I got there just by being slow and kind of not losing control of my emotions. And it gets hard when, you know, you see the devastation. You see the people around.

The second night after the flooding, my family took donations to a couple of the shelters. The mood in some of the shelters was surprisingly pleasant because there was so much love being shown, to be quite honest. And it was also very much a specifically Texan spirit of independence. If that streak had not been there, a lot of people would not have been saved in time because civilians were on the water saving people a while before FEMA got here.

GROSS: Phyllis, one of our producers who produces you for our show - she produces your commentaries - she was telling me that you saw a lot of vultures. Was that when you were on the road trying to get your mother?

JOHNSON: Well, I'd seen a lot of vultures in my neighborhood, and I'd seen a bunch on the road. We had one on our roof, which was very creepy (laughter). But there's a lot of dead animals around. The small animals that couldn't get away - they're all laying out there, so the vultures are having a field day.

GROSS: And I should mention here that your phone signal keeps going in and out on us. I guess reception is still pretty bad?

JOHNSON: Reception's bad. I mean, if you were here right now in the part of Houston I live in, things would look completely normal. All the water that is up where I am in the north part of the city is flowing down into the Houston Ship Channel. And it goes through the city through the bayous to do that. And a lot of those bayous are at capacity already, and many of them have not crested yet. They have not reached their limit.

So when the initial hurricane comes in, you always get scared about the hurricane. Is the wind going to come in - and that destructive force? And after that initial hurricane passes through, there is this sort of a sigh of relief that happens. Like, my house didn't get blown down, you know? It's not - I didn't have "The Three Little Pigs" situation. But then right after that, the water starts to pool together. That's when you start to get the flooding, and that's actually the more dangerous part.

GROSS: What condition did you find your mother and her facility where she lives in when you got there?

JOHNSON: Well, my mother was pretty decent. She needs helpers. She didn't have them. So when I got there, she was kind of, you know, covered in trash. I mean, she had been getting food from the building, but those boxes of food were being dropped right next her wheelchair. No one was there to take care of her.

GROSS: Your mother has some dementia in addition to MS. Does she understand what happened in the hurricane, and does she understand what you went through in order to come get her and bring her to your home?

JOHNSON: No. That was one of the wild things. She didn't have TV. So my mother had decided she was the least fortunate person in all of Texas just sitting in her house. So she didn't understand the scope of what happened until we came outside. I don't know. I think - you know, I don't have dementia, and I'm having a real hard time processing everything that went on.

GROSS: Mat, you did a piece for us just a few months ago about how your computer crashed, you lost your computer memory, including the novel that you were writing. And you talked about what that loss meant and what it was that you still had and how you valued what you still had. So now you're surrounded by people who've kind of lost everything. And I guess I'm wondering what your frame of mind is like now.

JOHNSON: Well, you know, I feel incredibly fortunate that I was one of the two thirds that didn't have those issues. And I feel for those people immensely. You know, it's hard to - you know, I can't imagine what many of them are going through. I know for myself, when we didn't know if the lake was going to crest, I wasn't worried about my brand new house, which I love (laughter).

I was worried about my family. I was worried about my kids, my wife. I was worried about my mom. And, you know, the rest of it could float away. And know I don't say that lightly. I've worked my whole life to get what I have. But the things that mattered were the people. And I got to say, like, I don't know what everybody was thinking who'd been rescued from their homes, who had lost so much. But there was a sort of joy that they were alive and the people they loved were alive. And, you know, you have another day to live and do what actually matters.

GROSS: So how are you getting along with your mother now that she's moved back in with you temporarily?

JOHNSON: It's driving me nuts.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JOHNSON: My pitbull keeps looking at her Pomeranian trying to figure out if I brought over a new friend or takeout. And we're, you know - but we're good.

GROSS: Well, I'm glad to hear that you and your family and your home are all good. That's a relief. Thank you, Mat. It's always a pleasure to talk with you.

JOHNSON: Thank you, likewise.

GROSS: Mat Johnson is a FRESH AIR contributor and novelist and teaches in the University of Houston creative writing program. Our thoughts are with everyone who's been in the path of Harvey and have homes and lives they have to rebuild.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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