Harris Glenn Milstead (aka as John Waters’ starlet Divine) died of an enlarged heart at age 42, just one week after Hairspray was released. We never got to see what a digital mess she might have become had she lived to today. But Jeffrey Schwarz’s new documentary I Am Divine will let us take a long, twisted look backwards at her film and onstage work and see proof that sometimes it doesn’t get better—sometimes it gets much, much worse in all the best ways.
John Waters remains a living legend who once said, “Wouldn’t you rather your kid be a drug dealer than a drug addict?” Is it any wonder he helped raise Divine from an unknown B-movie actress into the Queen of Trash Drag? She was a total progenitor of reality TV trainwrecks and according to a biography written by her mom, her younger male self would have been the ideal child badly in need of the “It Gets Better” campaign:
When Glenn was still a child, Frances noticed he showed little or no interest in sports, but instead gravitated toward stuffed animals. In time he exhibited a desire to be every cliché in the book — florist, hair stylist, interior decorator. Surely the gay panic alarms were flashing in the Milstead home when Glenn developed obsessions with Marilyn Monroe and, in particular, Elizabeth Taylor. He gained weight, avoided gym class, and loved being in school plays. He was the object of the bully’s attention, and regularly came home with bruises and swollen lips. What more evidence is needed of the boy’s divinity?…
There was always a little something extra to Divine, and I’m not talking girth. The husky voice, the delivery, the winking humor, and the sly references to acting conventions gone by all suggested a bona-fide artiste, not just a painted gorgon. While others around him in Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and even the more palatable Polyester were strange, puerile, or demented, he rose to a higher calling. Any glance at an early John Waters movie will reveal just how much they rely on Divine to sustain our interest. To his everlasting credit, he didn’t overstay his welcome and he never sank into self-parody. He made fun all right, but it was always on his terms. Thank you lord, we have been spared the sight of Divine occupying center square, singing a mawkish ballad on behalf of New York firefighters, or essaying Mama Rose in Gypsy.
For the record, Divine didn’t identify as transgender or even transsexual, even though she used Divine as her real name:
“Glenn is the name I was brought up with, Divine is the name I’ve been using for the past twenty-three years. I guess it’s always Glenn and it’s always Divine. Do you mean the character Divine or the person Divine? You see, it gets very complicated. There’s the Divine you’re talking to now and there’s the character Divine, which is just something I do to make a living. She doesn’t really exist at all…”
Maybe Divine would have ascribed to what RuPaul once famously said: “You can call me he. You can call me she. You can call me Regis and Kathie Lee; I don’t care! Just as long as you call me.” She probably would have. Although Divine would have said it screaming, swearing, and while rubbing mayonnaise on herself.