Divine in the video for "You Think You're A Man"
Divine in the video for “You Think You’re A Man”

It’s still somewhat shocking to realize that Harris Glenn Milstead, better known as drag performer Divine, died at the age of just 42. He suffered a heart attack in 1988. 

Divine was a star of the underground movie circuit from the late 1960s onwards thanks to his work with friend and fellow Baltimore resident John Waters. He was also known for his club hits, such as 1984’s thundering “You Think You’re A Man.”

Milstead developed an interest in wigs and dressing up while still a teenager working in a Baltimore hair salon. He threw himself into the city’s late-60s counterculture and befriended Waters, who suggested the name “Divine.” 

Their first short movies together were Roman Candles (1966) and Eat Your Makeup (1968). 

Waters, Divine, and their collection of cohorts began to pick up attention after the release of 1972’s Pink Flamingos. It turned Divine into a cult figure. In one infamous scene, Divine, in her role as Babs Johnson (a.k.a. “The filthiest person alive”) spots a small dog defecating on the street. She scooped down to pick up the poop and eat it. 

The scene, shockingly, was not faked. 🤢

Born to be cheap

With a growing following, Divine branched out into appearances with the San Francisco drag troupe The Cockettes and other theater work.

More movies followed. In the late 1970s, he began making club appearances. His early stage act consisted of him shouting “F*ck you” repeatedly at audiences and fighting with other drag queens. He decided that including some songs might help, leading to his first single, “Born To Be Cheap” in 1979.

In 1982, Divine began working with seminal producer Bobby “O” Orlando. This resulted in floorfillers such as “Native Love (Step By Step),” “Shoot Your Shot,” and “Love Reaction.”

Divine fell out with Orlando in a dispute over money. He took the producer to court claiming he wasn’t earning enough of the royalties. Their contract was subsequently terminated, leaving Divine free to work with others. 

In 1984, Divine released “You Think You’re A Man.” It was written by Geoff Deane and Keith Miller. Deane was the singer and songwriter with the Leyton Buzzards and Modern Romance: two bands that had enjoyed brief success in the UK. Deane went on to write the movie, Kinky Boots

Musically, “You Think You’re A Man” is another slice of hi-NRG disco that also worked as a gender-bending visual pun. Divine (a man dressed as a woman) is lambasting a male lover for not being “man enough” to satisfy his needs. Divine angrily refuses to comprehend any man could spurn his love. 

“You think you’re a man but you’re only a boy, you think you’re a man, you are only a toy. You think you’re a man but you just couldn’t see, you weren’t man enough to satisfy me.”

To match Divine’s furious vocal, the production is full of synth-driven drama and crashing drums. It’s “I Will Survive” on steroids and a blast of poppers. It marked the first song to enter the UK top 75 from production trio Stock, Aitken and Waterman. 

The prodigious production team went on to dominate the UK charts throughout the rest of the 1980s. They had over 100 Top 40 hits. This includes all of Kylie Minogue’s early output, “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)” by Dead Or Alive (SAW’s first UK number one), and “Venus” by Bananarama. 

“You Think You’re A Man” went top ten in Australia and to number 16 in the UK. It was also a hit in Germany and a club smash in many other countries. 

The song’s success in the UK led to Divine performing it on the July 19, 1984, episode of Top Of The Pops. The BBC show was the biggest music show on TV and enjoyed a primetime audience. 

However, many were quite unprepared for Divine beaming into their living rooms, questioning their masculinity and unapologetically flaunting his queerness. The appearance led to a storm of complaints and Top Of The Pops did not invite Divine to return. 

The song’s success led to more club shows, including an infamous appearance at a gay night at the Hippodrome in London. Divine entered the stage riding a real baby elephant.

Divine continued his rise to mainstream acceptance with the success of Hairspray in 1988. He even began to explore opportunities to perform out of drag. In March of that year, he was in Los Angeles to film an appearance on Married… with Children as a character named Uncle Otto. 

Divine took part in rehearsals at Sunset Gower Studios on March 7. He returned to his hotel, prepared to film the next day. Tragically, he suffered a fatal heart attack in bed that night. 

Divine’s death shocked his growing number of worldwide fans. Hundreds turned up at the Baltimore funeral home where he lay in rest, while John Waters spoke at his funeral and was one of his pallbearers. Whoopi Goldberg was among those to send flowers, attaching a note saying, “See what happens when you get good reviews.”

Divine left an indelible mark on pop and drag culture. He died just three weeks after the release of Hairspray, the movie that made him a bona fide star. Nowadays, thanks to Drag Race, there are dozens of well-known drag performers with worldwide followings. However, it’s safe to say none have had the transgressive impact made by this iconic queen.

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