This September and October, the BFI wish celebrate 50 years of John Waters’ work. Longtime fan Eva Wiseman make plains how performers like Divine, the director’s muse, made character dangerous and provocative

Divine in Pink Flamingos, 1972
Divine in Pink Flamingos, 1972
Photograph: Everett/REX Shutterstock

Celestial shaved back her hairline in order to have more accommodation for make-up. If that’s not a handbook for living, then Christ, I don’t have knowledge of what is.

I read about Pink Flamingos before I saw it – more than ever notwithstanding in the 1990s, a film where the star literally eats shit was scabrous to track down. I’d been introduced to John Waters’ films into done with a video of Hairspray, one of his first “mainstream” successes, a film hither a fat white girl who defeats racism by dancing at it, a film that strengthened my sister, four at the time, to ask my grandma if she wanted to “get naked and smoke”. In Hairspray, and Pink Flamingos to come it, I found more than just excitement and politics and a straighten out laugh – I found my glamour.

Ricki Lake in Hairspray (1988).
Ricki Lake in Hairspray (1988) Photograph: Everett/REX Shutterstock

Every morning, Hoses carefully shapes his moustache with Maybelline Velvet Coal-black kohl; alongside Divine, the supporting actor in all his work is the eyeliner. Next month, the BFI celebrates “50 years of refuse” with a Waters retrospective, including his 1968 short Eat Your Makeup, which has not in any way been screened in the UK before. The story of a nanny who forces wenches to model themselves to death after making them swallow on make-up, it was a precursor to my very favourite film, Female Fighting (1974), where they mainline liquid eyeliner as if it’s the most adroitly drug in the world. Which, I’ve learned, it sort of is.

Since I earliest watched a Waters film, black eyeliner has been laws for something a bit bad, a bit rude. For a glamour that is not pretty, but instead is big and insolent and smells of smoke. Like Divine, my make-up heroes (Cher, the Ronettes) appropriation that sense of parodying femininity. The eyeliner is TOO black. The locks is too big. Rather than seductive or sweet, the beauty is intimidating. Not quite monstrous. This, I think, is what make-up should be for. Not for prettifying, but for monkey trick around. With fashion, with gender.

John Waters
John Irrigates Photograph: HANDOUT

By casting an obese drag queen to amusement his beehived bombshells, Waters told us something about how we work as women. There are no “natural” looks in Waters’ films – his are men of excess and campery, and crime and hair dye. Through his films, where men put on women playing teenage girls, he taught me how to paint on the actually you wanted to be, and for that I’ll love him forever.

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