You know Nancy Stole as a horrible person. She's performed under the nickname Mink Stole in sixty films, but her morally corrupt roles in John Waters' outrageous films are the ones that burn themselves into your brain. In Female Trouble, Pink Flamingos, Mondo Trasho, and Desperate Living, Stole shocked and appalled viewers in new, inventive ways. More recently, Stole took time off from her new music venture to participate in I Am Divine, a documentary about the life of beloved drag queen and fellow Baltimore actress Divine. The documentary screens at festivals in Portland, Boston, Vancouver, Miami, and Baltimore this month. When I called up Stole to talk about her work, she jumped right in.
MINK STOLE: So have you seen the movie yet? I haven't.
I never like watching myself on film, I never do. But I'm okay with it. It's usually just the first time I see it, I wonder aaa ooo why did i wear that, why did I do that? I'm so dumb.
Is it strange to see yourself saying and doing such terrible things on screen? In John Waters' films, your characters commit all sorts of awfulness.
That was different. Those were characters he wrote and I brought them to life, but if anyone ever had any objections about them, I could say John wrote it! Kidnapping hitchhikers teenagers and impregnating them–everything I did in Pink Flamingos was offensive. In Polyester, I was a husband stealer and I danced in my underwear. In Desperate Living, I had my husband killed, turning from a deranged housewife into a delusional evil princess. But I never had any problem with anything I did for John. And I'm the one who was doing it, so if anyone has a problem, it should be me.
Do people ever complain to you about your characters?
They look askance. They just look at you, like, "I didn't know you were like that." People either like it or they don't. If anyone's going to judge me about it, go away.
Where you ever grossed out by the any roles or lines?
I thought everything I did was fun and funny. I knew every word I was going to say before I said it, I signed off on it. But there were plenty of things people could have judged me on. Back in the sixties and seventies, I was one of the first people I knew to wear a miniskirt. I wore black fingernail polish in 1967—I wasn't trying to make a statement, I was just trying to be cool. I was one of the first women to cut their hair short and dye it wild colors. I wanted to look interesting. I like getting responses from people. I grew up in a very conservative neighborhood, a neighborhood of madras and weejuns. I never fit into that and I didn't understand it. I tried to fit in and i couldn't, it was a bad fit. So then I just tried doing my own thing. It was an exploration of a new way of being, I was much more interested in how I thought of me than about how others thought of me.
Where did you grow up?
It's actually where I live right now, I live across the street from the house I grew up in here in Baltimore. I'm surrounded by trees, it's kind of suburban. It was very stultifying.
It's funny that when you were young, you all were outsider outcasts, but now the city loves you. Baltimore seems to have really embraced John Waters.
Oh, John Waters could be mayor, they love him here. John and I have dinner together every so often, and it never fails that people approach him. He's like a beacon in the night. He's always very gracious to people and he's always had charm. My mother, she died a few years ago, she always liked John so much. She hated what we were doing, she hated it so much, she hated it with a passion. She was mortified not because of what she saw but because of what she heard about the films—she wouldn't go. She would practically beg me not to tell people I was related to her. But he made her laugh in spite of herself. Even in the early days, there was this liking for John that overcame the disapproval.
Is it better now that people like you?
I like it better! I'm still considered relatively eccentric, which is fine. But I live in an area of town where eccentrics are appreciated. I don't want to fight with people, I don't want to be challenged. I keep myself pretty away from people who don't like what I'm doing.
We should probably get to talking about the movie. What was it like working with Divine all those years?
The general answer and the true answer is it was great. Divine was a real pro. We all were. We came to the set prepared, we knew our lines, we were ready to go. There was no room on John's sets—and there still isn't—for diva behavior. We worked hard, we knew what we were doing. We had a good time but we were not supposed to laugh until he called "cut."
How is Divine different than people think of him?
Well, he wasn't a woman. Nor did he dress as a woman or refer to himself as a woman. I think for some reason there is an idea in the back of some people's heads the idea that Divine sat around in full drag all the time. That would be ludicrous, that's a lot of work. No, he didn't. There are in gay culture a lot of men who will refer to themselves as 'she,' it wasn't the only way he referred to himself. He dressed as a man and lived as a man, being a woman was work. That's what he did for a living.
Meet Mink in person at the Portland screening of I Am Divine, part of the QDocs festival.
Photo: Mink Stole as Taffy in Female Trouble.