October 19, 1945– Harris Glenn Milstead:
“‘Divine’ and ‘Glenn Milstead’ are both just names. Glenn is the name I was brought up with, Divine is the name I’ve been using for the past 23 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.”
One of my favorite non-fiction books is John Waters‘ delightful and insightful 2010 memoir Role Models, where I was surprised to read that the universe chose to have placed Divine’s childhood home just a few yards away from Waters’ place.
Harris Glenn Milstead was famous for his Divine persona, and her over-the-top gross antics. He said that his favorite part of drag was getting out of it and he became Divine for the paycheck. He was openly gay, yet he did not consider himself to be a drag queen, transgender, transvestite nor transsexual. He thought of himself as a male character actor.
Milstead was born in Baltimore, Maryland. He was an only child of a middle-class family of socially conservative Baptists. When he was 12-years-old, the family moved to a suburb of Baltimore. In high school, he was bullied for being fat and effeminate. In a 1988 Interview magazine interview, Milstead told about being beaten up daily. He kept this to himself, but when he had to go for a physical, his bruises were noticed by the doctor. After telling about the abuse at school, his tormentors were expelled, which made him only made more unpopular at school.
As a youth, Milstead suffered self-consciousness about his weight. He never went out until he was 16 years old, around the time he became friends with Waters and even then, he always wore a big rain coat to hide his body. In his junior year, he finally went on a diet and lost 80 pounds. He was able to make friends with the kids who would never talk to him before. He describes that experience as a ”rude awakening at a very young age.”
After graduating high school in 1963, Milstead began beauty school, learning hair styling which would come in handy in his showbiz career. He worked at several Baltimore salons before his parents helped him purchase his own salon. He quit the world of hair design in 1970.
Milstead, Waters and their friends embraced the underground club scene in Baltimore. The nickname ”Divine” was given to Milstead by Waters, who had just read Our Lady Of The Flowers (1943) by Jean Genet, a controversial book about queers living on the outskirts of Parisian society. Waters took the name ”Divine” from a character in the book. Milstead loved the name.
Waters encouraged Divine to make his drag persona more and more outrageous, saying that Divine needed to be the ”Godzilla of drag queens”.
Waters wanted to make the trashiest films in cinema history. He created his own production company, Dreamland Productions, and his regular cast and crew became known as the ”Dreamlanders” The original dreamlanders consisted of his friends from Baltimore where his early films were shot. Some of the original group included Divine, David Lochary, Mink Stole and May Vivianne Pearce.
Divine’s first film in drag was Roman Candles (1966), in which he plays a cigarette smoking nun. The next was Eat Your Makeup (1968), where he portrays a fictionalized version of Jacqueline Kennedy who kidnaps fashion models and forces them to eat their own makeup. The films were not seen outside the Baltimore queer subculture. Divine made a point of keeping his involvement with these low-budget films from his conservative parents who would not have approve.
Divine continued to appear in more of Waters’ films, including The Diane Linkletter Story (1969), which was loosely based on the true story of television personality Art Linkletter‘s daughter who had committed suicide the previous year. Waters had every intention to become known for bad taste films, intent on shocking conservative society. The Diane Linkletter Story was never formally released for legal reasons, but it was shown at the very first Baltimore Film Festival. Divine plays a young girl who rebels against her parents because they are against her dating a hippie; her character takes a large quantity of LSD and then commits suicide.
Divine began to get more attention after appearing in Waters’ Mondo Trasho (1969) and Multiple Maniacs (1970). In Mondo Trasho, Divine plays an blonde woman who runs over a hitchhiker. In their review, the Los Angeles Free Press called Divine a three-hundred-pound sex symbol. Multiple Maniacs was the first Waters film to receive widespread outrage. Divine portrays ”Lady Divine” who runs an exhibit known as ”The Cavalcade of Perversion”. In one scene Lady Divine masturbates in a church using a rosary; in another scene she kills her boyfriend and eats his heart.
The film that made Divine a star was Pink Flamingos, about Babs Johnson (Divine) a woman who owns the title of ”the filthiest person alive”. Mink Stole and Lochary play a couple who are bent on challenging her to take that title for themselves. There are several disgusting scenes in Pink Flamingos, including infamous scene is at the end where Babs eats dog poop; not fake plastic turds, but a fresh log. When Waters first told Divine about that scene, Divine thought he was joking. Divine was reluctant at first, but Waters convinced him that this was his chance for Divine’s name to go down in film history. According to Waters, Divine and the crew had to follow the dog for three hours until he finally gave a shit.
After gaining success among underground film fans, Pink Flamingos was picked up and distributed by the mainstream New Line Cinema and it gained a cult following. When his parents finally found out about his career and saw Pink Flamingos they were disgusted and moved to Florida and didn’t speak to Milstead for nine years.
After Pink Flamingos opened in theatres, Divine and Mink Stole starred in a series of low-budget plays in San Francisco as part of a drag collective The Cockettes. Returning to Baltimore in 1974, after returning to Baltimore, Divine and Waters made Female Trouble and Polyester, and then he accepted a role in Tom Eyen‘s play, Women Behind Bars, playing a prison matron. The play was a solid success at Manhattan’s Truck and Warehouse Theater before it was transferred to London, where it was a big hit.
Divine’s agent, Bernard Jay, recommended that Divine perform at clubs. His first live show was in 1979 at a gay club in Florida. Divine described his stage performances as ”good, dirty fun”. He would banter with the audience members, swearing and insulting them, and inviting them up to the stage to be fondled. He would get into fights with other drag queens, a gimmick that proved popular. His fans went crazy for Divine. He would tell the crowd:
”… if you find it offensive honey, don’t join in”.
Divine also added disco songs to the act. He recorded several minor hit singles including You Think You’re A Man, Shoot Your Shot and Love Reaction. To help publicize the singles, he performed them in discos across the world.
Divine mixed it up by playing a gangster in Trouble In Mind (1985), a film noir written and directed by Alan Rudolph, written with Divine in mind. Divine had been eager to play the part because he wanted more male roles.
Hairspray (1988) was the turning point in Divine’s career. He plays Edna Turnblad, the mother of Ricki Lake‘s Tracy Turnblad, chubby teenager in the 1960s whose dream it is to become a dancer on a local television show and who also fights against racial segregation. Divine also plays the racist television station owner Arvin Hodgepile.
On a spring evening in 1988, a week after Hairspray was released, Divine was staying at a hotel in Los Angeles. After dining with friends and returning to the hotel, he died in his sleep. His death was the result of an enlarged heart. That’s correct, Divine was dead of a big heart. He was just 42-years-old. At his funeral in Baltimore, Waters gave a speech and was one of the pallbearers. Many flowers from fans were sent, including a wreath from Whoopi Goldberg, which read:
“See what happens when you get good reviews?”
Divine has been a great inspiration to many artists. Portraits of Divine have been painted by artists including David Hockney and Andy Warhol. In Disney’s version of The Little Mermaid, Ursula the Sea-Witch was inspired by Divine. Many, including myself, believe Divine/Harris Glenn Milstead would have enjoyed a long successful career as the talented and funny male character actor he always wanted to be if he hadn’t been taken from us so soon.
Underneath the unremitting oddity of Divine’s performances, there was an actor of genuine talent and charm, including a crack sense of comic timing and an uncanny gift for slapstick. He was an audacious symbol of the quest for artistic liberty and freedom to be your true self.
“All my life I wanted to look like Elizabeth Taylor. Now Elizabeth Taylor looks like me“
I was lucky enough to have enjoyed a short conversation with Milstead while he was shooting Trouble In Mind. He was simply standing alone, admiring the view of the Seattle skyline from Volunteer Park. If he had been standing in the same spot as Divine, I doubt I would have approached, so formidable was that persona. So, I stood near him enjoying the scenery and then I turned and told him that I had auditioned for the film and even made several sets of call-backs, but that I didn’t make the cut. He was sweet, sympathetic and shy.