Ari – Where did you first meet Ron (Athey)?
Divinity – I met Ron at Cuffs – it was the premier leather spot, a dark little place but not very big. It was very macho and leather, and I was drawn to that masculinity. I was just hanging out and Terry, my drag mother, it’s where he went out, so one night I went with him, and then after a while I went on my own. One night Ron came in and we met each other and started talking. We were both reading Dennis Cooper at the time.
Ari – Can you tell us about Dennis Cooper?
Divinity – Dennis Cooper was a gay writer- he did a lot of writing about being gay and how to maneuver in society and being true to yourself. He did a lot of really cool exposé on gay life. He was from California and that was interesting to me because for some strange reason I’d always found the idea of going to California really attractive. Something was always telling me to go there but I didn’t know what it was. Once I got there I realized what it was; it was a place I needed to be. All the places I’d been before like New Orleans and Michigan were conservative and moving out to California was really freeing for me. It was like, “oh, possibilities are endless out here!” It was a lot of good reading for me. I read a lot of Brion Gysin as well. A lot of people were like, “you’re black, why are you reading that?” I was like “I don’t know!” It was just really interesting to me.
Ari – Wait, what? Was beat culture typically looked at as white reading material where you were?
Divinity – In my circle, yes! They (beat authors) weren’t black, so where I was from people were like, “why are you reading that?” I’m like, “you have to read it to find out!” It’s not color based. It was written by some white men but this writing is not color based and that’s why I’m reading it! The people from where I came from were confused. I read everything in my culture but outside it as well. That’s a different viewpoint, that’s different from where I was, why shouldn’t I be reading that? That’s why I got into it. My friends were like, “you’re weird” and I was like, “yes, I am weird!” I hung out with my group, but I would talk to anybody about who they were or where they came from. There’s always some way to connect on some level, and thats the level that we need to find. I’m not gonna let anyone drag me down.
Ari – Were you doing drag back in Michigan?
Divinity – No, I didn’t start doing drag until I moved to California. I had no idea before – I wasn’t really interested in it. But when I moved to LA I just started meeting people and my best friend, who I call my drag mother, this Latino man named Terry – he turned me out!
Ari – Did it immediately intrigue you?
Divinity – It was more like the first time I did it, as soon as that happened I was like, “oh yeah, thats for me!”
Ari – What were some of your early drag performances like?
Divinity – When I first started doing drag it was more – well let me say how I got into it. The first day I did drag was with friends of mine I had met, I had known them for about a year, these two really good friends of mine that I would preform with, well, later on as a drag queen, they put on a club called “DragStrip66.” It was basically the premier drag club in LA at the time, it started back in 1994, and they had wanted to get all the drag clubs to come and party. Didn’t matter if you were pretty or ugly, it was for everybody, and it was my first big event. Jerry was talking this up like, “you gotta do it, you gotta do it” and I was hesitant, like, “I don’t wanna cut my facial hair, I don’t know about all that.” He said,“you gotta do it, you can leave your chin, I’m leaving mine, c’mon!” He did my make up and we went on and I had a blast. I had so much fun and that’s where it spiraled from. A lot of my drag at the time was inspired because I was an activist in Queer Nation. A lot of what I was doing was being an activist and my drag was basically Divine type of make up but heavy white eye shadow and white lips so it was like this black jigaboo thing. I was throwing that out at people – that’s what a lot of my early stuff was, really outspoken, being a big black guy in the gay community that was predominantly white at the time. People from all different races getting together and fighting for the same cause. Our cause wasn’t about being colored, it was about being queer, and that we weren’t going anywhere. My drag performance eventually developed into doing make-up. I was becoming that drag queen, all done up and everything, and I was like, “I want to do something a little more edgy!” Then I met Ron and he helped put the edge in it! Once I started with Ron the character was more out of the box, lots of nudity, throwing on different wigs and some piercing hooks- wild and crazy. That kind of helped to develop with us working with the body modification aspect. I was getting more into the story – he came from a Pentecostal priest and I came from a strict black Catholic family. Even though we went through a lot of the same things, what he went through were more severe for him; a lot of the pressure caused it to come out from stylized. I’ve got a huge fetish for religious iconography and iconology and all the pictures and artwork that came out of Catholicism.
Ari – Do you think that fetish developed because of your upbringing?
Divinity – Yeah, absolutely, I kind of have that torture thing going on with me. That’s often what I was portraying, being tortured for your faith, I really resonated with that. I grew up a big boy in my neighborhood, I was gay, I came out when I was 13, and with black people in that area that was unheard of. You don’t do that and then to try and be open with it. You don’t do that. So there was a lot of getting beaten up and fighting for my life and all that other stuff, but I wasn’t backing down, I didn’t care. That’s your thing, I’m not knocking what you do, so don’t knock mine. I’m not asking you to try it, but don’t knock it.
Ari – I’m sure all that aided in making LA seem so cathartic when you moved there.
Divinity – I think that’s one of the reasons I wanted to be in LA, I wanted to find that community where I could be accepted. It took me a while but I found it. It was a great day when I found it.
Ari – Had you had many experiences with getting pierced or tattooed or anything before it was a part of your performances?
Divinity – I got my first tattoo when I moved. It was my love for Genesis P-Orridge- it was the skull head with the happy face on it, that was my very first tattoo. My second one was from a friend of in San Francisco was having a really really hard time, had HIV, he was really destroyed by it, fucked his life up a little bit util he was able to work with it and understand it was the life he would be living. He did this drawing and he gave it to me and I said, “this is gong to be my next tattoo!” Then I started really looking at my African roots and was overwhelmed with scarification and body art and the reasoning for the body art, the tribal thing, the rite of passage and the reasons to get in. We don’t have that here. Rites of passage in the black community here is joining a gang, that what it is. Sorry to say that but that’s what it is. I don’t want to kill anybody, I don’t want to beat anybody for turf. I wanted something more meaningful. I met one of Ron’s best friends, she was doing branding and playing around with other stuff like that, and I was like ,“you can experiment on me! I don’t care!”
Ari – Do you remember who that was?
Divinity – Crystal Cross, who is now Clayton. I speak to him every so often. I’ll see him on Facebook and we’ll chat a little bit but I haven’t seen him in maybe ten years.
Ari – Is that just because y’all live in different areas?
Divinity – Yeah, he lives up north, I think somewhere in the desert. How I got closer to Ron was I didn’t know Clayton and Ron were super tight, so even though I was talking to Ron I was meeting these other people who knew Ron independently of Ron, so I didn’t know they knew Ron. Clayton had been talking to Ron about me and my wants, with Ron having mentioned to them that he was really looking to expand into doing these body modifications in his pieces, and they kinda hooked us up and that’s when we really connected on a different level and we started doing these sort of light body modification performances for a bit. Ron wanted me to do drag but without any facial hair because I still had facial hair at the time. He was always looking at me like, “whats that?” and I knew he meant my chin! I was like, “yeah, it’s staying there!” We fought and fought and fought. One day when i was doing my make-up he came around the corner was just like “What?! My god, who is this girl sitting here?” and I had totally shaved off all my facial hair with my hair and make-up all done. He was just like, “who are you??” and I said, “this is what you’ve been asking for, here it is!” For quite a while I was doing this super glam thing with a twist, but I haven’t done drag in a long time.
Ari – What segued into moving away from drag?
Divinity – The troupe we were dealing with all had gone separate ways. A few of the main people in our group, the meat of it, had died and a lot of us got really dispirited and we just kind of let it go. We tried to keep it going for a bit, like, “we’ll do another one, let’s do one more,” but nobody wanted to do it because the two main pieces were too difficult to pull off without the full line up. Ron and I decided to do something with drag and designed it. A lot of people here, and in general, keep expecting me to do a lot of talking, but I don’t have much to say – I let my work speak for itself. I like to let the work talk. People always ask, “don’t you have anything to say?” and I’m like, “nope! I’m good!” Look at Ron – I mean, I could sit and listen to Ron all day. The stuff that comes out his mouth – you’re just like (glazed eye look). All this history just comes out. That’s one of my favorite parts about our friendship, I love just being in his presence and hearing the things that he talks about. It’s always enlightening to me. We’ve been through a lot, we go deep with our relationship – we’re sisters for life.
Ari – You worked at Gauntlet, right?
Divinity – I did, yeah!
Ari – Was that before or after your interactions with Clayton?
Divinity – I worked with Clayton! Gauntlet had purchased Primeval Body, Clayton’s shop. They had purchased it and it was going to be Primeval Body on the east side of town and Gauntlet on the west side. I came in, I mean, I was doing some piercing, but I came in more as a managerial type. I did that for a year but this was around the time Gauntlet was getting ready to fold. I stayed out of all that mess but I basically made sure inventory was right and people were getting paid, and then also a little piercing as well. That’s my history with Gauntlet. I came in late with everything going on but had no idea all that stuff was going down.
Ari – So the Primeval group left before you came on, or after?
Divinity – They were there when it was folding. Once it was collapsing the dude decided to get his money for it and move onto something else.
Ari – Who else was working with you?
Divinity – Mic- I worked with Mic Rawls, my friend Rick who used to work for Clayton, Scott Shatsky maybe? Jeff. A lot of people but I’m struggling to remember. This was like 1994 or 1995.
Ari – For the piercing part, how did you get to being on the floor itself?
Divinity – I took the class and did pretty well with it. I mean I wouldn’t have cared if I didn’t pierce there, that wasn’t my issue. I know the body, the human body, very well. As a kid I worked in a morgue for years, that was my summer job, I’d cut up bodies all day long and send them off, do autopsies. My anatomy was always very sharp. My friends always joked I’d be a great serial killer! Just give me a knife and a big ol’ vat of sulfuric acid and you’re done! The stuff that I took from Gauntlet and brought over to performance was the technique, the care, the safety and sterility. That was all helpful in application, a tool to use with my work, and it was a really good tool to have. I mean, you just never knew when Ron was gonna go, “you’re sticking me ninety million times today! You got all the tools?” and I’d say, “let’s get it on!”
Ari – You also worked with Josh at Good Art?
Divinity – I used to like Josh! He’s a funny bird. I met him, this is even before I worked at Gauntlet, I was looking for a job and hanging out with all the piercers. I don’t quite remember exactly how I got hooked up with him but sometime had told me that he was looking for a sales person and that was my background, sales, so I said, “sure! I can sell any product! Show me what it is, tell me what it is and I can sell it! You make it and I sell it, that’s what I do!” I got connected with him and started selling jewelry for him and we were against the Barrys and the JDs and it was fun! I was the black guy in the corner selling jewelry! I didn’t try to bullshit anybody. That’s how that worked, I was very easy to get along with and talk to. People see me from a distance and go, “oh I can’t talk to that guy! He looks really mean!” But once you come over and have me open my mouth to you, you’ll be like, “oh I get it!” t’s totally different! So yeah, I worked for Josh for a long time until I got sick. I contracted Lupus from somewhere, I don’t know where it came from, I tried to figure it out. I contracted it and when I got sick I needed health insurance, and Josh wouldn’t pay it because he’s a Scientologist. Scientologists don’t believe in health care, they think you go in and put your hands on the E-meter and you feel better. Those cans are not gonna cut it. They don’t work. We went back and forth over it, and I was like, “dude, I can’t do this! I’m spending all the money I’m making, making money for you, to try and correct my health I can’t keep doing this.” One day I just gave up. “I’m making all this cash for you and you can’t see past your religious beliefs to take care of somebody else?” That spoke volumes to me. I was like, “ok, I have to go out and fend for myself, I can’t work for you anymore, I’m not gonna make you another dime, that’s not fair at all.” There was a general manager at the time, I used to call him the Scientology Agnostic Front, this black guy who used to bug me about it. I was like, “dude, who are you?” Him and Josh were all about that shit.
Ari – Fuckin hell, was everyone at the company besides you a scientologist?
Divinity – No, just those two- Josh and his general manager. Everybody else was just regular, male and female, fairly diverse. I told Josh I loved him but I couldn’t work for him, and that all the work I’d done for him was not being looked at right. It felt like he didn’t care because he couldn’t get outside of that box. The year that followed was rough, I had to deal with LA Medical County, in and out of the hospital, it screwed up my legs. he way I got diagnosed was I was getting these lesions on my leg that would pop open and stay open. I didn’t know where they were coming from. I was OCD about scrubbing them and making sure they were clean, but they showed no signs of healing and I just couldn’t figure it out. One day this intern came in and he looked at my legs, he looked at me and goes, “has anyone ever tested you for Lupus?” I told him no, nobody ever has, and he says, “well maybe we should test you for that!” Sure enough that’s what I had. Then I found out what Lupus was and they put me on steroids. Steroids totally screwed me up, I put on tons of weight, I became diabetic, I became hypertensive. The issue with Lupus is it’s an autoimmune disease, your system is always producing antibodies because it always thinks something is there. You have all these antibodies floating around and they last for about seven days, and when they go to die off they go to your kidneys. When they go to your kidneys there is another mechanism that kills them off and you can dispose of them, and I didn’t have that. So I would have all these antibodies piling up in my kidneys and it was making my kidneys malfunction. I took Prednisone to shut down my immune system, thats what it does, and I became diabetic. I had high blood pressure, I gained all this weight, I got up to like 340 pounds. I was miserable. I couldn’t get it figured out. I finally got a doctor who I connected with. I said, “help me!” I’m intelligent, I can speak for myself, and I noticed people who lacked that ability didn’t seem to get anywhere – they got lost in the shuffle. That was a big eye-opener for me. I found a doctor to help me through it, lost a bunch of weight, like 80 pounds, got back to normal, found out the Prednisone was what was making me diabetic, so as soon as I stopped taking it I was better. Then I got a job at Yahoo doing search engine work and I got real insurance and was able to get my health back on track.
Ari – Where you able to perform at all while all of this was going on or were you on hiatus?
Divinity- I was performing through.It was really stressful on my body but if I stopped performing I probably would’ve just died. It was something I could do as a release for myself.
Ari – Ron’s shows seem to be pretty physically intensive – was there any time where you worried you were reaching a boundary you didn’t want to cross?
Divinity – There were a few arguments! A few, “are you serious? You want me to do what? Did I just hear that?” But then I think about it and Ron’s one of those kinds of people where he’ll bring it up and throw it around at you and discuss it but in the back of his mind it’s what he needs and what he’s doing, so he’ll just keep coming back with it like “so, did you think about that any further?” The biggest thing is when we did 4 Scenes in a Harsh Life, the printing press scene was there a woman who comes out to do her big strip-tease dance in front of the workers at the titty bar and then she does her dance. It gets all chaotic and the workers start to take it out on the female so they drag her down and start beating her up and stuff like that. After that the woman becomes the object and the object becomes the working machine, hence the whole, “human printing press.” This whole concept of, “we work really really hard so we need to have a beer and fuck up some women and go back home and start the same process over,” thats the spin on that. At the beginning he was using a real girl for the strip tease part until one day he says, “I want you to do it”. I’m like, “get the fuck out of here!” Then he showed me what I was going to be wearing and I was like, “…really? All of this, out in the open?” I’ll never forget the first day I saw this outfit – he had this red g-string bikini where they had built titties into the chest so it was part of the suit. It was just a couple strings and nothing else. I was just like, “you want me to wear this? Really?” For a while I was nervous, I remember the first time I did it! Also, I had to wear high heels! Divinity’s character was sort of this lesbian, so she wore boots, and all of a sudden now I have to get glamor and wear high heels! That was a big transition! My issue was a body issue and being on stage, I mean how vulnerable can you get? I pushed through it and had a lot of fun with it once I got comfortable. Ron talks about being that “daddy figure” and thats basically what he is. He’s nurturing and he knows what he wants and he wants to get it out of you. He knows that at the base of it all it’s in you, and it’s his deal to get it out of you.
Ari – I mean if performance art is largely pushing into uncomfortable territory I have to think pushing the performers into uncomfortable territory brings additional authenticity to it.
Divinity – That’s what makes a performance go to a different level. The bottom line is, “the show must go on.” I’ve been performing for so long and thats just what we do. I could be sick as a dog but the show must go on. There’ve been many times when I have been really sick but you just push through it, I didn’t have an understudy! That wasn’t available! There wasn’t another fat guy we could use! A lot of the stuff we do is always pushing to a different level, pushing the envelope to get to that place. When you look at a piece you’re looking at all the stuff that’s going on and you’re wondering, you’re sitting there watching thinking, “these people are going so far out of their scope, how does he get them to do that?” That’s always the big learning process, the people who wouldn’t let me escape from what was needed. This is what daddy wants, that’s what daddy got!
Ari – Does bleeding on stage and being injured on stage leave you feeling pretty vulnerable as well, or is that different from being mostly naked on stage?
Divinity – I think the cutting and whatnot, a lot of what that was for me was I was getting a lot out of it that I wanted. I was into scarification, I was getting what I needed, and to get it in that perspective on stage and having everybody else experience that, that was kinda heavy, that was kinda deep. People would say, “why’d you go through all that?” We’d be in a town and do three or four shows and I’m at the bar, my backs all raw meat, having a good old time, and people are just looking at me like, “are you ok?” I’m like, “yeah, I’m great! Don’t touch my back, but I’m great!” It was really funny. When we did the show in Mexico we did four shows of that trilogy. There were four times in three days that my back got cut up. In Mexico I don’t trust the water so the whole time I would not shower. Once I got cut I was like, “you guys are gonna smell me, get over it, I’ll do a whore bath for you but you guys are gonna smell me, I’m not getting any of that water on me. I don’t want to go back to the states with some weird viral shit.” My boyfriend at the time, he was like, “dude are you gonna shower?” and I was like, “nope! Just Febreeze it or something, we aren’t putting water on it until I get back to the states”. We didn’t, either! I mean my back was literally raw, I felt like a piece of human meat, it was just a part of it. I thought the whole thing of experiencing that and having other people experiencing that and the kind of reactions you would get, it wasn’t something you were seeing every day. We were these American kids having a good old time, making really good work and it was important work and stuff that needed to be seen. As gay men, what do we do? Why do we do what we do? Do we assimilate? Do we become our own ritual?
Ari – Let’s talk about the NEA and it getting defunded.
Divinity – A lot of that was pretty interesting. We first did the show 4 Scenes In a Harsh Life and woke up the next morning to this news thing, this hootenanny saying there was blood all over the place! We’re all like, “what show was that at? I don’t remember that show at all! “There was a cutting, there was all of that, but what it evolved to was just unbelievable. It went on to the Senate floor. Do you know how much money we got from the NEA for that performance? $150. That’s what they were fucking arguing about. Are you serious? $150 travel voucher, that what it was. Another cute story- there was a gentleman, I don’t even remember his name, but this guy somehow got my phone number and called me. He was from DC, and he was talking to me about the scene and he was like, “how can you let that white man cut your back?” I said, “excuse me? Who are you? I don’t even know who you are but you’re calling my phone and attacking me over something I do for a living?” He said, “that’s not right!” And I said. “OK, that’s your opinion, I respect that, goodbye!” Afterwards there was a write-up about it in one of the papers and I kinda laughed it off. People were trying to make it out to be this black and white issue, trying to get me involved in it, but I wasn’t having it. These people are stupid. You don’t understand so you’re trying to make up something so you can understand. Guy never called me again. I was offended, it was like, “who the fuck are you? I’m not doing this for the black community, I’m doing this for me! Forget the community, they aren’t here, they aren’t showing up to shows, what’s your point? What are you trying to tell me?” That was an interesting period. We didn’t get any waves from the art community. In America there was backlash because we couldn’t get work. People were scared to book us for shows, so that’s when we started going to Europe. Europeans were all about us. We played in London, Scotland, Lisbon, Spain, all kinds of places! For that period, from 1994-1996 we were touring out of the country. Nobody would book us in the States, so we were like, “fine!” Somebody wants to see us! Other countries where they understood what we were doing, and even if they didn’t get it initially by the time we were done they got it. They were willing to open up to get it. We were meeting a lot of other people, and Ron was very very family oriented. He’d always pull people in, like extras, he’d be like, “wanna do this, wanna do this?” People were clamoring to be a part of that. There would be a group of people who would follow and certain ones would get to be in it. People going through similar things in their lives, finding a collective way to be a part of that, pushing their identity and finding their identity. It’s been a crazy ride, and I’ve really enjoyed this ride.
This interview has been interviewed for content and clarity. All photos courtesy of Darryl Carlton. For more information on the Better Safe than Ari series, click here.