How Divine, aka Harris Glenn Milstead, became John Waters’ cinematic muse and an international drag icon.
:Young, chubby Harris Glenn Milstead liked musicals, was drawn to feminine pursuits, and was bullied. He was privately playing “dress-up games” in his mother’s clothes. By 1963, Glenn was brave enough to show up at a party with his then girlfriend dressed as an astonishingly passable Elizabeth Taylor, among the many glamorous stars he openly idolized.
After meeting a crowd of gay hipsters and freaks. Glenn started camping it up, shoplifting, writing bad checks, and smoking grass. Glenn also met the man who was about to change his life – John Waters. Like Glenn, Waters was obsessed with movies and they bonded over the films of Russ Meyer and Jayne Mansfield. They began to forge a new character, one which mocked the conventional “pretty” drag queens that aspired to look as real as possible. With Waters’ encouragement, this character started to emerge. She was outrageous, outlandish and obviously overweight. Glenn’s wicked, rebellious side matched the sensibilities of Waters, and John christened his new star “Divine” and they started making films together.
Eat Your Makeup (1967) featured Glenn as Jackie Kennedy in a reenactment of the Kennedy assassination. Mondo Trasho (1969) features Divine as a busty, blonde bombshell trashing around town. In Multiple Maniacs (1970), Divine plays a homicidal criminal who goes on a killing spree and is raped by a giant lobster. His persona became increasingly outrageous, as though Waters knew he was providing a way for Glenn to channel his anti-establishment rage.
When the San Francisco drag troupe The Cockettes got wind of Divine and John Waters, they flew them both out for a command performance. For the trip, make-up artist Van Smith shaved Divine’s head giving him plenty of space for those signature eyebrows that would become his iconic look. After being greeted with open arms by mobs of fans, Glenn made a clean break from his past and decided to live his life as Divine.
Pink Flamingos (1972), firmly launched Divine as an underground sensation. Because its plot concerns a competition for “the filthiest people alive,” it made sense that Divine would become the filthiest actress alive. John talked Divine into eating dog poop as the capper to all the mayhem, and the film became a midnight movie blockbuster. It made Divine famous, and as a publicity stunt succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.
Female Trouble (1974) followed, where Divine played the insane Dawn Davenport. It featured scenes ripped from Divine’s past, as Dawn leaves home after trashing her family’s Christmas tree. Divine’s shocking visage began to appear on punk rock t-shirts, and his influence began to be felt in that grungy world.
Despite the films’ success, Divine wanted legitimacy beyond his shit-eating grin. His theater career began in New York when he appeared in Women Behind Bars and The Neon Woman. Divine’s ability to command a stage proved that he could have a career outside of John Waters movies. He was beginning to live the life of the international celebrity he always wanted to be, and joined the ranks of the beautiful people that partied at Studio 54.
Divine was looking for a way to supplement his income, and with the help of business manager Bernard Jay, found just the solution – becoming a disco diva. After recording a series of successful dance singles, Divine went on a whirlwind tour of discos around the world. Though filled with creative output, these years were extremely difficult in a personal way. Underground theater and disco didn’t pay well, and his chronic overspending continued. This meant a seemingly endless stream of exhausting appearances that began to take a toll on his health.
For their next collaboration, John and Divine decided it was time for an image change in the form of Francine Fishpaw in Polyester (1981). Divine would star alongside his teenage idol, Tab Hunter. For Divine, this was a legitimizing experience, and he delivered a tour-de-force performance as a long-suffering housewife. Tab Hunter loved working with Divine so much that he sought him out to co-star with him in Lust in the Dust (1985), a parody of Spaghetti westerns. Divine, ever the trouper, learned how to ride a donkey and worked in sweltering desert heat. His co-stars remember a serious devotion to his craft, and a desire not to let anyone down.
By this point, the persona of Divine had taken a firm hold, but Divine desired legitimacy as a character actor, and to play male roles. Memories of eating shit on a street in Baltimore and his larger than life persona made this nearly unattainable. But years of increased interest in John Waters led to the film that put him on the mainstream pop culture map. Hairspray was a loving flashback to the early 60s that dealt with race relations and outsider triumph. The lead role of teenaged Tracy Turnblad was one that Divine coveted, but understood that it would have been a stretch for the audience to believe him in the role. Tracy was played by newcomer Ricki Lake, and the two formed a loving almost maternal friendship.
Rave reviews for Hairspray gave him the praise he always craved and it looked like he might realize his dream of becoming a working character actor – a star and a legitimate performer in one. Riding high on the reception of Hairspray, Divine was cast on the hit show, Married With Children. The night before the shoot, Divine went to his hotel room, studied his script, and died in his sleep of a massive heart attack. He joined the ranks of artists tragically taken from us at the peak of their career.
I Am Divine is a story about a man who fought against what society considers conventionally beautiful. It’s about addiction. It’s about fame. It’s about the quest for the spotlight and artistic respect. Divine’s complete commitment to being and expressing himself perhaps did more to promote notions of freedom and acceptance than he knew. He certainly paved the way for legions of misfits to come.