Harris Glenn Milstead, an overweight and bullied Baltimore youth, bucked convention and occasionally good taste to become the legendary drag performer Divine. As John Waters’s “close friend and fearless muse”, Divine attained the status of cult icon, appearing in his early experimental films and later works like Female Trouble and Hairspray. The ultimate outsider turned underground superstar died in 1988 at age 42, but he lives on through the new documentary, I Am Divine, opening today in New York and Austin, before going into wider release later this year.
For Divine devotees or greenhorn pink flamingos, the doc provides an entertaining and insightful look at the icon’s raunchy, raucous and rapturous career.
Check out Queerty’s 7 moments from heaven in Divine’s life.
A Place in the Buns
As the only child of an upper middle class couple, Glenn Milstead was your typical “American spoiled brat,” and he played the role beautifully. His parents lavished attention and money on him and after graduating high school, Glenn went to beauty school and mastered the art of the beehive. He eventually gave up his job, however, and lived off his parents for a while, throwing fancy shindigs where he dressed up as Liz Taylor.
“The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, Almost”
I Am Divine press photo
In the mid-60s Glenn met John Waters, an aspiring filmmaker intent on making “the trashiest motion pictures in cinema history”, who renamed him Divine after a character in Jean Genet’s controversial novel about gays in prison and on the fringe of society, Our Lady of the Flowers. Waters began introducing Divine as “the most beautiful woman in the world, almost” and in 1966 Divine made his film debut in the short Roman Candles as a chainsmoking nun.
Pink Flamingos, or a Shitty Good Time
After a short-lived and failed venture as a thrift shop owner in Provincetown (Divine Trash) and a sojourn to San Francisco, Divine returned to Baltimore where he and Waters worked on their crossover hit, 1972’s Pink Flamingos. Described by Waters as “an exercise in poor taste”, Divine starred as Babs Johnson, “the filthiest person alive.” In order to prove her title, Divine as Babs ends up eating fresh dog feces, becoming one of the most infamous scenes in Divine’s career and in all filmdom.
Female Trouble in Little Tokyo
During the early 70s, while producing small plays with fellow Waters collaborator Mink Stole in San Francisco, Divine met future disco queen Sylvester. Back in Washington, D.C., Divine and Waters began attending balls, frequented by many black gays, and it was there that Waters encouraged Divine to go more OTT with his drag look — to become the “Godzilla of drag queens.” Then in 1974, back once again in Baltimore, Divine starred in his favorite film, Female Trouble, playing troubled teen bad girl Dawn Davenport and his first on-screen male character, Earl Peterson. Waters included a scene where the two characters, both played by Divine, shtupped, and Divine notably sang the film’s theme song.
Toot-Toot, Heeeeeey, Cheap-Cheap
In 1979, Divine began appearing in gay clubs, debuting his act in Fort Lauderdale, where he would scream “fuck you” at the audience and pick a fight with another drag queen. The gays ate it up and soon enough Divine continued his music career with a series of disco cuts, beginning with 1981’s “Born to Be Cheap.” His music proved especially popular in Europe, where songs like “Native Love (Step by Step)”, “Love Reaction” and “Shoot Your Shot” from his 1984 album The Story So Far became club hits.
Good Morning and Good Night, Baltimore
In 1988, Divine starred in his final Waters film, Hairspray, as Edna Turnblad, the mother of “pleasantly plump” teenager Tracy whose love of dance starts a racial revolution in 60s Baltimore. As in Female Trouble, Divine also played a dual role, this time as racist station manager Arvin Hodgepile. The film was a hit, both with critics and audiences, and stands as the most enduring of Waters’ films, with a blockbuster, award-winning Broadway musical adaptation starring Harvey Fierstein filling Divine’s girdle and later a successful film featuring John Travolta publicly coming to terms with his sexuality. Sadly, Divine was only able to relish in Hairspray‘s afterglow for a brief three weeks before dying in his sleep of an enlarged heart. He was only 42.
A Divine Legacy
While short, Divine’s life was by all means fabulous and served as an example and inspiration to anyone marching to the beat of their own drummer. The documentary I Am Divine explores his iconoclastic career as someone who spat “in the face of the status quos of body image, gender identity, sexuality, and preconceived notions of beauty.” Directed and produced by award-winning filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz, I Am Divine premieres today Friday, October 25 at New York’s Cinema Village, before tramping across the country for screenings throughout the rest of the year.