Van Smith never won an Oscar. He was never idolized or celebrated by a vehement genre audience like Dick Smith or Tom Savini. If his chief collaborator, cinematic genius John Waters, was the ‘Pope of Puke’, Smith was his primary prophet, a pure fashion forecaster who violated the mandates of style while creating his own kitsch couture along the way. Noted for finding the ugly underneath the beautiful, and more importantly, the glamour inside the gross, the mad make-up artist/costumer designer is more famous for taking the simple drag queen elements of one Harris Glen Milstead – a.k.a. Divine – and twisting them into pop culture iconography. Through a combination of scars, blackheads, pimples and other occlusions, Smith stood fearless in the face of misunderstanding mockery. Years later, when his approach was stolen outright for the catwalks of Paris and Milan, he and his friends in Waters’ Dreamland Studios had that long awaited, hard last laugh.
When you think about it, Smith did indeed start the whole vogue/vile concept behind well done exaggerated drag. Prior to his poisoning of the standards of beauty, males masquerading as women usually strove for the slight hyperrealism of the typical suburban spouse. Waters has even been quoted as saying that before Divine came along, most gay men “wanted to look like Bess Myerson”. Smith and his symbol changed all that. Using the limited budgets that a Dreamland production would provide, a Baltimore loaded with thrift and welfare shops, a penchant for bargain basement cosmetics, untold amounts of sequins, and an aesthetic that shouted “More! More! More!” this Matisse of Maybelline redefined the notion of what was trash and what was tasteful. Basically blurring the lines between the two, and throwing in some of his own Smith secrets, he created a signature sensibility that few, if any, have been able to mimic or match to this day.
Born Walter Avant Smith Jr. in Mirianna, Florida on 17 August, 1945, the renamed Van first ran into Waters after he graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1968. Living in an apartment complex inhabited by many of the future director’s antisocial company, he started hanging around the sets of Water’s early works. It wasn’t long before Smith was tapped to create Divine’s character of Babs Johnson for the seminal Midnight movie masterpiece Pink Flamingos. Designing a deranged fishtail gown, and shaving the actor’s hairline back toward the middle of his head (to make room for more make-up, Smith explained), he gave birth to a laugh out loud legendary look that has carried over for more than 35 years. It was a difficult accomplishment when you consider that Waters had little money, Divine was over 300 pounds and hard to fit, and Smith had to hand create everything, from dresses to hairpieces, fake breasts and the necessary female cheater (read: false vagina) for any nude scenes.
Yet he never let the lack of cash destroy his imagination. For his next pairing with Waters, the amazingly anarchic Female Trouble, Smith got to take Divine from teenager to tramp, lumpy housewife to scandalous supermodel. The transformations were terrific (including the use of some latex to mottle the star’s face with fake acid burns) and Smith even created outrageous outfits for co-stars Edith Massey (in particular, a laced leather item that still seems pornographic today) and Mink Stole (whose tumbled down school girl Taffy predates anything ever considered by Courtney Love or the rock band Babes in Toyland). The highpoint had to be the main character, Dawn Davenport’s, death row ensemble. Sure, her crazed cat suit with an off the shoulder strapless look and a single gloved arm leading to a connected set of razor sharp nails is amazing, but when limited to a potato sack like prison outfit, and a head completely bereft of hair, Divine’s dour, dumpy persona perfectly encapsulated the Waters/Smith ideal. The director has always stated that his make-up maven had a sense of “inner rot” and nothing shows this better than an obese drag queen being prepared for a little capital punishment.
Smith’s crowning achievement, however, is still Desperate Living. With Divine unavailable for filming (he/she was in San Francisco starring in her successful stage show) and former striptease sensation Liz Renay on tap to play a loco lipstick lesbian, Smith outdid himself. Sticking to the main theme of the movie, he took cast members like Mink Stole, Jean Hill, and Susan Lowe and magically transformed them into the hopeless citizenry of Mortville, a seedy sanctuary where criminals, vagabonds and other social misfits could come and live out there wrong footed wretched existence. The only problem was, they had to conform to the contemptible demands of the demented Queen Carlotta. While almost any talented designer can conceive of a shower curtain dress or a fluorescent green tutu for a 500 pound black woman, Smith made it all seem like part of the plot. In fact, the main element that people often forget about this amazing artist is that he never once tried to overshadow Waters’ worlds. Instead, he hoped to complement their corruptness by flawlessly visualizing their inner deceit. And he usually did.
When Waters went ‘legit’, first with Polyester, and later with Hairspray and Cry Baby, Smith was right along side, toning down his approach but never once abandoning his ethic. His work in the two trips back into Baltimore nostalgia – Hairspray centering on a ‘60s teen TV dance show, Cry Baby a cheesy chunk of ‘50s juvenile delinquency – proved that Smith could handle historically accurate and shockingly ridiculous at the same time. Continuing on with costumes only for the rest of Waters oeuvre (up to and including the man’s most recent effort, 2004’s A Dirty Shame) Smith was one of the last original Dreamlanders, a group that saw death (Divine, David Lochery) and the passage of time take away many of the merry band. When his aging mother grew ill, Smith moved back to Mirianna to take care of her. It is there where, on 5 December 2006, he had a fatal heart attack. Among fans of film, the loss was immediate and irreplaceable. Not only was Van Smith that rare individualist in a realm loaded with no name journeymen, but his vision lives on in that stronger than ever subculture of gay life.
It is clear that, from a purely symbolic standpoint, the mythos of Divine would be substantially mitigated if Van Smith had not been on hand to create her crackpot composite. It’s a look that’s so unsettlingly unique that only that rare combination of performer and packager can pull it off successfully. Smith once stated that his generic approach to Divine’s basic look was a meshing of Jayne Mansfield and Clarabelle the Clown. No doubt, the actor frequently looked sexy and sick, sinister and silly, a harlequin, a horror and a honey all rolled into one great big ball of brazenness. Many critics have pointed out that Waters seemed to lose his edge once Divine passed away in 1988. It will be interesting to see where the filmmaker goes now that his guru of gruesomeness, his trident of tastelessness, his imaginer of ick is gone as well. Waters did manage to make movies without his longtime friend and celebrated star. This, however, may be an aesthetic blow to great to completely compensate for.