Each spring, Portland, Ore., plays host to QDoc: Queer Documentary Film Festival, the only festival in the U.S. devoted exclusively to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) documentaries, and one of only two festivals of its kind in the entire world!
Now in its seventh year, QDoc 2013 begins May 16. The opening-night film is I Am Divine, filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz's new feature-length documentary about the life and times of John Waters protégé and drag pioneer Divine, aka Glenn Milstead.
Logan Lynn: Thanks so much for chatting with me this morning, Mink. I am a huge fan of your work. I just watched the I Am Divine screener.
Mink Stole: I haven't seen it yet.
Stole: I have not seen it yet.
Lynn: Oh, wow. That's surprising. I feel so lucky!
Stole: I'm gonna see it in Boston in a couple of weeks, and then again in Portland.
Lynn: Well, I felt very moved by the film. There was a "dreams really do come true" theme running throughout the film with regard to Divine's life. In making the film, how was it to be looking back at that period, and in particular your friendship with him?
Stole: It was nice, actually, because Jeffrey came here to Baltimore, and we spent a really fun couple of hours together. His take on Divine was so friendly, and so loving. I didn't feel challenged at all to have to defend my friendship -- and it was a real friendship. I wouldn't say that Divine and I were best friends. You know, he had a whole life with his music career that I was not even remotely part of. I mean, I saw him perform and thought he was amazing, but I wasn't part of that life. I'll tell you the truth: We had lost touch between Polyester and Hairspray. He was off in Europe doing all this music stuff, but when John proposed Hairspray to us, Divine and I got back together. He had moved into an apartment right around the corner from me in New York, and we started spending time together again. It was really wonderful to reconnect with him. He was happy. He was doing really well. You know, he had money for practically the first time in his life, and it was wonderful to see him. Divine always did better when he had money.
Divine's music video for "You Think You're a Man" (1984)
Lynn: Don't we all?
Stole: Yes, we do, but some of us are better at not having it than others. I'm better at not having money than I wish I were, if that makes any sense. [Laughs.] Divine had such a generous spirit. He loved to entertain lavishly. Divine would have us come over for tea parties with beautiful teapots filled with wonderful teas, like a real tea party in the afternoon, at tea time! When he was able to live the largeness that he wanted to, he was a very happy person. The last year or so of his life, when I was spending time with him again, he was lovely. It was wonderful to be around him.
Lynn: Looking back to the early John Waters Dreamlanders days, what was your favorite role?
Stole: From the early days it was definitely Taffy. I really identified with her. We were different but similar. I'm one of 10 kids, and Taffy was an only child, and my mother never beat me with a car aerial, and I did not wear baby clothes into my teens.
Lynn: [Laughs.] Small nuances.
Stole: Right. But I had a sense of isolation. Taffy was not bad. She was very unhappy, and that comes out when she finally finds the Hari Krishna. Now, I didn't find the Hari Krishna, thank God. I found something else. I started acting and working with John and found a family in that sense. That did for me what Hari Krishna did for Taffy: It was a place to be. I've always strongly identified with that character.
Lynn: You were given your screen name by John Waters, correct?
Stole: Yes. Mink Stole is the name John gave me.
A still from Pink Flamingos (1972)
Lynn: At what point did that become your offscreen name too?
Stole: Kind of gradually. As John would introduce me as Mink, people just started calling me that. I never made a big fuss about it. I never insisted. My real name is Nancy Stole, and there are still a few people in the world who call me Nancy. Not many, and I don't encourage it, not because I think, "Oh, well, I'm Miss Mink Stole, and you must call me that," but when I was born, Nancy was a very popular name.
Lynn: Did John also name Divine at the same time?
Stole: I think I was Mink before Glenn was Divine, because I worked with John before Divine did. Roman Candles was my first movie with John, and I don't think Divine's in it. I can't remember. I mean, it's been a thousand years, and you can't watch it, because it's not available.
Lynn: You have to fully rely on the reel in your head.
Stole: Exactly, and it's full of scratches and splice marks.
Lynn: I would love to watch that reel! You have delivered some of the best lines ever spoken in American queer cinema, and they were spoken with such sincerity.
Stole: John loved to give me nasty things to say, and I loved it!
Lynn: Do you get fans repeating those lines to you to this day?
Stole: Yes. Fairly regularly.
A still from Female Trouble (1974)
Lynn: Which ones do you hear most?
Stole: People really love the Connie Marble line: "I guess there's just two kinds of people, Miss Sandstone: My kind of people, and assholes. It's rather obvious which category you fit into." Also, gay men in particular love Taffy's line: "I wouldn't suck your lousy dick if I was suffocating and there was oxygen in your balls!" Those are probably the two biggest.
Lynn: How did you first meet John Waters?
Stole: I met John in Provincetown on Cape Cod. I had just gone on a whim. One of my sisters was there, and I fell in love with it and decided to stay for the rest of the summer. My sister knew John, and when we ran into him on the street, she introduced us. By the end of the summer, my sister, John and I and a couple of other people were all sharing a house together. We were fast friends. When we came back to Baltimore, it was interesting. John moved back in with his parents. I moved back in with my parents [laughs], because that's how old we were. You know, we were kids, and the rest is kind of history.
Lynn: Did you meet Divine around the same time?
Stole: I met him that winter following in Baltimore.
Lynn: There's a longstanding rumor that you all were high on LSD while you were filming those early films. Is that true?
Stole: That is so wrong. Absolutely not true.
Lynn: Where do you think that came from?
Stole: Because people think we made it all up. They think that we improvised. We took a lot of acid -- I mean a lot of acid -- at the time, but not while we were working. Acid was Saturday night. You know, John wrote every word. None of this was improvised. ... John was pack leader, gentle and respectful -- he didn't bark, he didn't bite -- but definitely pack leader. There was no fucking up on the set, because we couldn't. The budgets were so tight. The scenes were shot in masters. Now, I'm not telling you to do this, but if you ever feel inclined to you go back and look at Pink Flamingos, notice that there are no cutaways. If the scene was 4 and a half minutes long and somebody blew a line at 4 minutes 15 seconds, you had to all start over, which did not make anybody happy.
Lynn: Much less the person buying film, I'm sure.
Stole: Right. There was a lot of dialogue. We showed up ready. I used to get very resentful of people calling us amateurs, because although we were not union back then, and we were untrained, we were so professional. We showed up on time. We knew our lines. We did overact a bit.
A still from Hairspray (1988)
Lynn: Was that intentional?
Stole: No. None of us knew what the hell we were doing, but I think for people who were untrained, our level of commitment was astonishing. I think we were doing the best we could. You know, every single person wanted to do a good job. We all really wanted to do it right, and we had fun. It wasn't like we went on the set as whipped dogs ... but we were a happy pack. We were glad to be there, but we knew that we couldn't fuck up. It wasn't pressure. It was responsibility, which is different.
Lynn: Agreed. There is still room for fun in responsibility. While we are on the subject of responsibility, there has been a major shift in mainstream acceptance of queer culture since the late '70s and early '80s. How has it been for you to have been a part of groundbreaking queer cinema before it was socially acceptable?
Stole: I had no idea I was part of queer cinema. I was just making movies. I happen not to be gay personally, but I feel like I get credit for being so progressive, and it's like, "I was just working with my friends!"
Lynn: Mink Stole: accidental trailblazer.
Stole: That's a very good term for it. When I was in Provincetown the summer I met John, that was the first time I had ever met gay people. Everybody I met that was gay was OK with being gay. I wasn't meeting tortured people. I wasn't meeting people who were miserable. Of course , there was a large community, some heteros, as well, but most of the men were gay. We all had horrible childhoods. It's not exclusive to gays. Later I did the Eating Out series. I did a couple of movies with Lee Friedlander. I played the mother of the gay in But I'm a Cheerleader.
Lynn: That's such a good one!
Stole: Yeah, I love that movie. But this was all happenstance. I did not set out to be in queer cinema. It just kind of happened in my life. I'm typecast.
Lynn: [Laughs.] You have a record on the horizon, as well. Can you tell me a little bit about what you have cooking on the musical end of things lately?
Stole: Well, I recently read your interview with Joey Arias, and he is going on the road with Kristian Hoffman. Kristian was in my band in L.A., and it was interesting, because I met him at a party -- I was sort of just noodling around with music -- and he told me he played keyboards. I had keyboards with me, and he said, "OK," but I had no idea of his pedigree. Had I known, I would have been way too shy to ask him to work with me, but he was wonderful. I adore Kristian. We are very good friends, and I like Joey, as well. I haven't worked with Joey, but I've worked with Kristian for a couple of years. I have two of his songs on my album, and they are songs that I have performed with him many times.
Lynn: How would you describe the genre of this new record?
Stole: It's grownup eclectic. I didn't write these songs, but I feel like even though I did not give birth to them, they are my adopted children, because I raised them. I don't feel like they are covers; I feel like they are versions, because I really worked hard to shape each one of them, and each one of them is very different from its original form.
Lynn: When does the album come out?
Stole: It will be out very soon. We finished the recording, mixing and mastering. We are just waiting for the cover to come back, and then it's off to the presses.
Mink Stole by Mac James
Lynn: Fun! Which do you find yourself feeling more drawn to: making music or making movies?
Stole: They are so different. Singing is harder than acting. You're a singer. You know.
Lynn: Yes. You're kind of on your own up there onstage.
Stole: And this is a self-produced album, so I do everything but play the instruments. You know, I chose the songs. I mean, I can't say I arranged everything, but I set the tone for every song. I'm really lucky I have wonderful musicians to work with. It is all over the place. My musical tastes go from swing to jazz, rock 'n' roll, pop. I loved Madonna. I adore k.d. lang. I do get bored with Ella Fitzgerald. It's, like, too much Ella after a while. When the album started out, I thought it was going to take a week, but it ended up taking two and a half years.
Lynn: Oh, my god. I know how that goes: "Down the rabbit hole we go."
Stole: I had no clue. I had never done this before, and then it was like, "Wow, that sounds really good, but now this one sucks, and I have to redo everything."
Lynn: Well, I'm looking forward to hearing it. I know you have a busy day ahead of you, but before we go, I have to swing back around to the film and ask: If there were one thing about your friend Divine that you would like the world to know, what would it be?
Stole: Divine was a pro, onstage as well as on film. I also worked with him with The Cockettes. One thing that people would never have known, because not that many people saw it: We did a small play in San Francisco in the early '70s, a remake of Ladies in Retirement, and we played old women, and Divine gave as much commitment to playing a dowdy, frumpy old woman as he did to playing big, glamorous roles. He was an actor, and he was a damn good one, and I'm sorry he did not get to go on and do more work.
Lynn: What do you think Divine would think of all of this now?
Stole: I think he'd be thrilled. He'd love it.
Lynn: I'm excited that the world is going to get to celebrate him another round with the release of I Am Divine!
Stole: I am too. It's wonderful.
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Watch the I Am Divine trailer:
For more on Mink Stole, visit minkstole.com.
For more information on QDoc: Portland Queer Documentary Film Festival, visit queerdocfest.org.
To learn more about I Am Divine, visit divinemovie.com.