Divine's agent paints unflattering portraits in high-camp biography

September 01, 1994|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff Writer

It's no small feat to parody John Waters' parallel universe, itself a gross parody of gender, mores and authority. But author Bernard Jay has done it -- unintentionally.

His biography of the late Divine, a stock character in Waters' outlandish troupe, is a hilarious, bumbling buddy book, in which the author and the performer hit the road in a series of surreal misadventures.

Consider this passage from "Not Simply Divine: Beneath the Makeup, Above the Heels, and Behind the Scenes with a Cult Superstar" (Fireside Books, $12), recounting Mr. Jay's efforts to get his client an acting job: "Devi would wait patiently for me to return to his apartment, getting himself stoned in preparation for my usual report of no interest. Often, in these times, he would only respond with a comment such as 'Why bother, Bernard? They'll never accept me. . . . They can only see me in wigs, bras and heels -- and in someone else's show.' "

Mr. Waters, for one, isn't amused. "It's a book about how unhappy Divine was when he was with the author," he says.

The greedy, physically repulsive man portrayed by Mr. Jay bears no resemblance to the Glenn Milstead that Mr. Waters had known since their teens in Lutherville, he says.

"Divine was a nice person and this book does not have that in it," he says.

Though frequently mentioned in the book, neither Mr. Waters nor any member of his Baltimore inner circle cooperated with Mr. Jay. The author, who lives in London, could not be reached for comment.

The book has plenty of high-camp moments. Mr. Jay assesses Divine's performance in Mr. Waters' "Female Trouble" this way: "To many, including myself, his final scene in the electric chair was proof beyond doubt that he possessed a natural acting talent that deserved to be channelled into a career."

And then there's the poignant passage concerning preservation of Divine's mystique: It takes place in the Atlanta airport, where Mr. Jay defends his right to tote Divine's purchase, a huge ham.

"Carrying a bulky, heavy ham around with him while he's recognized in the airport is not very magical," he recalls telling the performer's incredulous makeup artist.

Mr. Jay dispels definitively any questions about Divine's gender: "In his own mind, Divine was never anything but a man."

Mr. Jay also takes pot shots at Mr. Waters, claiming in various anecdotes that as Divine's manager he protected his client from being short-changed by his old friend and by association with his limited acting ensemble.

When "Not Simply Divine" rains names, it pours: Liza, Halston, Truman, Bianca, Andy, Grace, Rudolph, Jack, Elton, blah, blah, blah.

The bittersweet photo section bears witness to Mr. Milstead's steady march to the edge, from a diapered innocent to angelic choir boy to obese, deranged harpy. The early photos came from Divine's mother, Frances Milstead, who is not treated well in the book, either.

"That's the ultimate betrayal, to get baby pictures and then write mean things about the mother," Mr. Waters says.

"Not Simply Divine" is not the final word on the gender-bending diva who died at 42 of heart failure in 1988, shortly after attaining mainstream fame in Mr. Waters' "Hairspray."

"There are other people interested in writing a real biography that we will cooperate with," the filmmaker says.

For now, Mr. Waters is keeping his distance from Mr. Jay. It is, he says, like "moving away from someone who has a cold."

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