The Wylde Interview: Mink Stole
Queen of Underground Cinema, Crochet Fanatic and Official Patron of Wylde
Mink Stole Skypes with Pippa Brooks
Before my Skype-chat with Mink Stole I had the jitters: she's played so many mean characters so well and, for some reason, I kept imagining her as nasty bitch Sandra fromPolyester with Bo Derek cornrows and black underwear… I think the first time I ever saw her was a still from that movie and it's burned into my memory. Of course, she couldn't be more delightful, calling me “Sweetie” and joking about her appearance due to the heat: “I'm actually wearing a banana clip and no-one looks stupider in a banana clip but it's so hot!” I even angled my computer to take in my leopard-print sofa: “She'll like that,” I thought, in an attempt to make her feel at home, “she's worked with John Waters so, obviously, she'll love leopard-print!” I was very thrilled to learn I was Mink's first ever Skype date! A lady with the history she's had has been-there-done-most-things, so to share her first anything gives me a (probably pathetic!) sense of pride!
The best drag/punk names are unforgettable, legendary, ageless. Who knew, when John Waters gifted Nancy Paine Stoll the moniker Mink Stole when she was 19 and appearing in his early short Roman Candles (1966) the effect on pop culture the name – and the woman - would have? “If I had been thinking clearly I might have gone with Nancy Pain, which would have been a good punk name too,” she reminisces, “but since it was the era of the Warhol Superstars, who had wonderful names like Viva and Ultra Violet, he called me Mink Stole - or, to be accurate, he actually called me Mink Stole The Precious Jew-el... but we dropped that because a) I'm not Jewish and b) it was too long. For the first year or two people kept calling me Nancy but over the years I became Mink.”
If there are two gangs I've forever wished I'd been in (or even a satellite buzzing on the outskirts of) it would have been Andy Warhol's Superstars and John Waters' Dreamlanders. The discovery of both changed everything for me (and possibly for you if you're reading this). In retrospect, the scene in Baltimore looks like it would have been the more fun of the two – these colourful, fearless exhibitionists had lines to learn, characters to create, and looked like they were having a ball doing it. The Factory was far fewer laughs and a lot more ODs and tragedy... no less fabulous for that, of course.
"I NEVER GOT A TATTOO: I HAVE TROUBLE COMMITTING TO A SOFA!"
First I think we should thank the nuns: Stole and Waters both suffered at the hands of the sisters of perpetual...misery. Stole really did have a hard time of it: “I went to Catholic School for several years. It wasn't a good experience. The nuns I had were unkind. My first nun was like the stereotype; she was old and mean, she'd give you a ruler across the knuckles. Everything about her was awful. My father died the year I had this nun and she was really... Well, it was traumatic for me and there was no sympathy coming from her.” A naturally very upbeat and animated interviewee, Stole is visibly distressed when disclosing this dark chapter of her life.
In those days there were so many reasons you could go to hell. It wasn't as though Stole didn't try to fit in: “I'd tried when I was a teenager to accommodate myself to this environment and it just didn't work.” Thank God for that!
Stole is back on form when she reveals: “One day I just woke up and thought 'Huh, this is all crap.' And the whole house of cards that had been built up on the fear of going to hell if I did this, that or the other thing just toppled and I was really pissed that they had put all this fear on me and made me feel so miserable for so much of my life.”
Although she's probably been asked a million times about her self-creation, it's something she revels in telling, even now: “I was deliberately daring. I was one of the first people in the city of Baltimore to wear a miniskirt! Fortunately for me, the fashion then was so tame – I mean, you couldn't even buy Levi's except in uniform shops for workwear, so just by wearing Levi's and piercing my ears I was making an enormous statement. My mother was horrified because only 'trash' pierced their ears! The look was a challenge; I guess it was similar to today when people pierce themselves or get tattoos - I'm glad I never had to do that, I'm glad I never had to go to the extremes people go to now. I never got a tattoo - I have trouble committing to a sofa, so committing to something permanent on my body would be a little difficult! I have nothing against them but I'm happy I didn't get one. I mean, I never married either. I have a little bit of a commitment problem!”
Going against the grain on your own is fine, but finding John Waters, Divine, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pierce andthe rest of the players who would become the Dreamland repertory company must have been like finding your long lost family? The smile is broad as Stole says,“It was great. Meeting John and his friends for the first time was like coming home, in a way. It was the first time I had met people who said, 'You don't fit in with the neighbourhood you're in and the people you know?? Great!!! We don't either!' Finding these people really was a revelation.”
"EVER COMMITTED A CRIME? OH YES!"
Today, when everything feels like it's all been done and it's almost impossible to shock, it's hard to imagine what effect these 'freaks' would've had on their ultra conservative suburban neighbours. As far as looks go, 1972's Pink Flamingos sees everyone at their ultimate peak, I think. This was the film where Divine's make-up artist, Van Smith, shaved back the hairline - basically to make way for more make-up - and which best illustrates John Waters' term of endearment for Divine as a “drag terrorist”. Drag has never been the same since. David Lochary's hair was bright blue and Mink Stole created her most celebrated, iconic look as Connie, vying with Divine for the title “the filthiest person alive”. This being Waters' first colour movie, he took the Technicolor approach and encouraged a look that was high on colour saturation, and Stole's pillar-box red hair was probably the first time (this is pre-punk, pre-Crazy Color, pre-everything!) this colour had ever been achieved. Lochary bleached their hair to white and Stole used red ink (“refreshed each night before filming”) while he used a turquoise-blue Magic Marker refill to get the primary colours Waters was after. The effect is still refreshingly extreme when you revisit those movies; thrift-store clothing, make-up and hair dye have never been so inventively exploited. A case of making a little go a very long way. Also proof that you don't need a lot of money if you have a good idea and a story to tell, especially if your best friends are superstars-in-waiting.
There was a joyously 'hit and run' feel to the early Dreamland films – they were usually filmed on locations without permission, probably with nudity or transsexual content, and the characters would invariably be screaming and shouting. A great quote from Cookie Mueller from her book Ask Dr Mueller: “In John's films you had to exude energy, and you had to shout. One reason for this was the low-budget sound equipment...The other reason was purely a matter of style.” There is a lot of shouting in these early films but for me, it was Divine and Mink Stole who stole the show in the acting stakes. I ask Stole if she was aware she was developing her acting technique, giving her all? “Divine and I went totally without embarrassment, right into it. We just went for it. We were often accused of overacting because we were so enthusiastic! The ego didn't come up in our work, I could trust Divine to give me what I needed and he felt the same way.”
It was extremely risqué at the time to show “two actual queers kissing each other like lovers on the lips!” as the voiceover screams in Multiple Maniacs (1970), or to reveal a beautiful young girl to in fact be a transsexual by exposing her penis in Pink Flamingos. For the leading lady to be played by an overweight man and every kink from shrimping to sex with chickens to be humdrum daily activities meant that at some point the world would have to be shocked into taking notice of what was going on in Baltimore. Luxurious it was not on the set of the early Waters films, made with a budget of a few hundred dollars and a lot of love. Troopers one and all, it can't have been easy to strip off for art in the middle of winter? “My personal nakedness was almost always inside,” Mink reflects. “I didn't suffer half so much as Divine or Edith. Edith had to sit in that freezing trailer in underwear in Pink Flamingos and there was no way to heat it. Divine had to crawl through pig manure in the middle of winter, or throw himself into a river in January…he really suffered. I never really suffered. Maybe when I was tarred and feathered, that was uncomfortable; it was molasses and feathers, and a quarter of a mile from the nearest bathroom, but I was never miserable.”
The critics often called the players 'amateurs', which definitely rankled: “Although we weren't originally union members we were professional, on time, we did our job. It used to annoy me greatly when people said we were amateurs. I considered us to be 'non-union professionals'. Then, of course, we became union members and they couldn't call us amateurs anymore.”
Looking at Mink Stole's list of movies on IMDb, it's incredible to see that pretty much every year since her career began she's appeared in one movie or another. She's always been a good 'baddie', especially in Waters' films, and often plays Mom-of-a-gay these days. That she can act was always obvious, as it was with Divine, who sadly died just as he was breaking into the mainstream. Stole is particularly proud of But I'm a Cheerleader and All About Evil, “None of the films I have done outside of John Waters has made the impression on the public that the films with John have made. But I don't mind. I like working.”
The project closest to her heart, and which is nearing completion, is recording the album Do Re Mink with her 'Wonderful Band'. As she describes it, it's “a memoir of my life in songs” and the money to record it has been raised entirely by her fans, online. There's a real intimacy shared with them and her thanks in return for a pledge run way above and beyond the call of duty. With personal thank-you phone calls and hand-crocheted (by Mink, of course!) pot holders amongst the goodies in return for becoming a backer, she's going to be very busy honouring their devotion. It's something she's more than happy to do, though. Watching the money creep towards - and then finally exceed - the total goal “has been more gratifying than I can say. The messages I get from people, how happy they are to do this for me… sometimes I want to cry. It's so humbling.” I always thought Mink Stole, Divine and Edith Massey would have made the perfect supergroup, or at least wished they had played a band in a Waters film at some point. Still, back in the 70s Stole and Divine both appeared in San Francisco with the legendary Cockettes and one of the songs she performed then, No Nose Nanook, will be one of the tracks they record. Now in the role of producer, Stole has a newfound respect for John Waters, realising the work involved: “My respect for John Waters was always high but it has soared. The difficulty of getting something produced! All I had to do back in the day was learn my lines, show up and maybe colour my hair and ruin my clothes!”
Hopefully, when the album comes out, she'll get out on tour… maybe perform in London? David, our editor, was eager to know if Mink had ever been here before and when? “I've been to London once. In 1967 or 68. I had a boyfriend who wanted to move to London. We rented a small flat in Chelsea, we were there for three or four days then something came up back home and I had to leave! We were intending to stay for a long time so I didn't even get to do any of the tourist things… I did nothing, saw nothing, no Buck House, no London Bridge, nothing!”
Living back in Baltimore, the town that tried to tame her and then gave her the magic team that would help her make her unique mark on the world, she seems to be very happy with what she's achieved in her life but also excited for future projects and with a genuine enjoyment of people and a really youthful, mischievous outlook. The legacy is as strong as ever, if not stronger, with the passing of time : “I feel amazingly lucky. I had no idea that what we were doing at the time would have had such a spectacular impact – which is good because I would have been unbearable – I would have been so pompous and awful! And I would have been ousted!!”
THE WYLDE QUESTIONNAIRE:
Favourite item of clothing?
I dress like a waiter, so a good white shirt.
To have enough money to go wherever and wander, just get on a plane and go.
Who was your first crush?
A boy named Snowden. He taught me to French kiss; we were 15 or 16.
Do you vote?
YES! I'm a democrat all the way!!
Would you ever go on a celebrity reality show?
Yes, if they paid me lots of money!
Do you hate anybody?
No...(thinks)...Yes! George W Bush, Dick Cheney, anyone who has ever been to a Boston Tea Party meeting.
Would you die for anything?
Life is precious to me. Death is a horrifying thought, so nothing yet.
Will you write your autobiography?
I don't know. Writing is hard for me because I'm a perfectionist. I can write a good paragraph but a book is so long!
Do you collect anything?
Not any more. I lost a lot through moving and, anyway, my life became too cluttered.
What's the first thing you do in the morning?
Coffee before anything!
Do you have a hero?
No. I love Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn but hero? No.
It's called Chestnut and is some cheap brand...let me look...Jordana. It costs like $1 and whenever I find them I buy a dozen.
What book would you recommend?
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I'm a real Jane Austen fan and reread her all the time, but I love the incongruous element of this book!
What new music do you like?
I love Sade's album Soldier Of Love and, in particular, a track called Bring Me Home. It's a sad song and sort of about dying, I love it.
What TV shows do you watch?
I watch Big Bang Theory; it makes me laugh. I'm a big fan of Brit stuff too, I loved Lark Rise to Candleford, and Doc Martin.
At what age did you lose your virginity?
Nineteen. And only then because people were telling me to!
What was / is your favourite recreational drug?
[No hesitation] LSD. Definitely a "was", though!
Would you like to be buried in Baltimore?
Yes. I already have a burial plot - across the road from Divine!
Have you ever committed a crime?
[Laughing] Oh yes!
Or been arrested?
What is your favourite style of music to perform?
I would say jazz, cabaret. I even like to throw in a little rock 'n' roll.
What was the first record you ever bought?
An album by Billy Stewart, Summertime. If you get the chance, you should listen to it.
Have you ever taken part in active protests, taken to the streets?
Oh yes. I marched against Nixon in the late 60s. During the Vietnam protests I was teargassed!
Finally, crochet or sex?
[Screams with laughter] Considering my options at the moment - crochet! But overall in life, sex!