Harris Glenn Milstead, more commonly known as Divine, became the larger-than-life star in many of director John Waters’ raunchy trash films. The female impersonator from Baltimore grew from the underground midnight circuit into some of the most memorable films of the 70s and 80s. While the cult followings of these films helped turn Divine into an indie film star, their relatively minimal mainstream success also meant that he remained a bit of an unknown to wider audiences.
Divine passed away in 1988, a result of complications from an enlarged heart. He was just 42 years old, but he left behind quite the legacy. Called “the Drag Queen of the Century” by People after his death, he is now remembered as a prominent figure in the film industry. He also had an underrated music career that may have influenced contemporary electronic music. But his life and career pathway was riddled with personal struggles and misrepresentations. With the following information, we hope to clear up some of the mystery and give you the untold truth of Divine.
Divine was bullied as a child
Growing up in a big Victorian house and affluent neighborhood in Baltimore, Harris Glenn Milstead had anything but an idyllic childhood. According to People, going to school was reportedly “a nightmare” for him as a young boy, whose bullies “saw him as ‘this big Nellie queer'” and would torment him regularly. “They used to wait for me every day to beat me up after school and to the point where I was quite black and blue and afraid to say anything ’cause they had threatened my life,” he said in an interview with Terry Gross. “It was very bad. You know, finally one day, I had to go for a physical to the doctor. And when I disrobed, I mean, it was quite obvious that something terrible was happening to me.”
That doctor visit forced him to reveal his ordeal to his parents, who contacted the police. The bullies were expelled, but Milstead’s popularity plummeted even more. He eventually found his people and got the respect he deserved. It was here that he met director John Waters. Rather than compartmentalize his conflicts and attempt a “normal” life, Milstead embraced and celebrated his difference. He used his anger, his talents in self-expression, and the nickname given to him by Waters, Divine, to give birth to the character that would live on decades after his death.
In his final role, Divine finally found stardom
Divine’s film work is often undersold. After getting his start in theJohn Waters short Roman Candles, Divine took on his first starring role, playing a fictionalized version of Jackie Kennedy in Eat Your Makeup. According to author Brenda Thornlow, aside from recognition in the hippie subculture, Divine first gained true notoriety from the controversial film, Multiple Maniacs. His next film, Pink Flamingos, took up permanent residence as the midnight movie at the Elgin Theater in Manhattan.
More than 45 years later, there’s still a place for Pink Flamingos. “It still works, I know that,” Waters told Vanity Fair. “It didn’t get nicer; it might have even gotten more hideous. Even people who think they’ve seen everything are sort of stunned by it. They may hate it, but they can’t not talk about it. That was the point. It was a terrorist act against the tyranny of good taste.” In Polyester, a film that eventually joined the Criterion Collection, Divine takes center stage in a studio film for the first time. According to Los Angeles Review of Books, his “performance simultaneously parodies the codes of Hollywood femininity and projects the physical vulnerability that defines Divine’s legacy.”
Just weeks before Divine’s death, his final film and Waters collaboration was released. Hairspray would garner great reviews, and spawn a Tony-award winning Broadway play, a 2007 reboot film, and a live TV musical. It would also cement a public respect for Divine’s work as an actor.
Divine was typecast as transgender
In most of Divine’s work on film, he dressed in drag, so the public eventually came to assume that he was transgender and/or a drag queen. He was neither. “Divine never dressed as a woman except when he was working. He had no desire to be a woman,” John Waters said in a Vulture interview. “He didn’t want to pass as a woman; he wanted to pass as a monster.” But Divine and Waters had found an audience, and the offers for lead roles were too enticing to pass up for a young actor.
“I think it’s a cliche Hollywood story — being typecast. And I’m definitely a victim of that,” Divine said in an interview with Terry Gross. “I was screaming at people. I’m not a transvestite. I’m not a drag queen. I’m a character actor. I never set out in the beginning of my career just to play female roles.” As People noted, Divine became a victim of his own success — at least, in terms of the achievement of becoming an on-screen anti-hero. “He began to get sick of playing a sicko. As a private person, his friends agree, Divine was nothing at all like the monster of vulgarity he played on stage and screen. They remember him as a gentle, likable, quiet-spoken man who loved to entertain a few friends quietly at tea.”
Body image issued plagued Divine from childhood
Divine looked confident and powerful in his body, but the actor struggled with his weight ever since he was young. Considering his chosen career path, Divine rather ironically considered himself “an introvert,” he told Terry Gross in 1988. “I was very uptight about my weight and about the way I looked. And I always wanted to look like everyone else. And finally my junior year, like, when I was 16 and in high school is when I started hanging out with John [Waters] and everyone else that I got the confidence together to go out and — I was always in a coat. I always had a raincoat on or something. People probably thought I was a flasher.”
After finding success and an audience that loved him for owning his body, Divine’s self-consciousness still lingered. While shooting his final film, Hairspray, his makeup and big hairstyle allowed him to blend in with the other cast members in costume. This, as he tells it, was a blessing. “Oh, it was good. I mean, that was the best compliment,” he said. “So often with my size and things, I’m so – what’s the word? – you know, not uptight but – about sticking out too much.” When given the word, “self-conscious,” he continued. “Yeah, self-conscious, you know, about sticking out too much or being the largest person on the set. But then, in a way, that’s the best thing, too, I guess. You get noticed more.”
The inspiration for the sea witch
Few Disney villains can match what Ursula brings to the screen in The Little Mermaid. Her evil schemes rate highly, but it’s her looks and her attitude that really put her a place of such high esteem. Amazingly, it was those qualities that were influenced by Divine. According to Hazlitt, when animator Rob Minkoff created Ursula’s image, he “drew a vampy overweight matron who everyone agreed looked a lot like Divine.” The lookalike image worked out perfectly, and Howard Ashman, who created the music for the film, took it and ran with it.
Divine was a pop star in the 80’s and had a very unique style of performing. Per Hazlitt, “At clubs, Divine would growl and spit on the crowd, cashing in on the trashy, misanthropic, sexually charged image [he’d] been cultivating for decades.” When Ashman created “Ursula’s signature phrasing, attitude, and growl,” he drew from Divine’s performances. Watching the sea witch sing “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” it’s not difficult to see the connection.
Sadly, Divine passed away without seeing the character he inspired. According to documentarian Jeffrey Schwarz, Divine “would have wanted to play the part himself,” and longtime friend, John Waters, agreed. “When I was young, all I wanted to be was a Disney villain,” he said. “My idol was the stepmother in Cinderella.”
The infamous scene that followed Divine forever
Among all the memorable films and scenes, there is one moment that stands out in Divine’s career. For those who are not aware or don’t instantly recall the revolting scene in question, we’re referring to his eating of real dog feces in Pink Flamingos. To get the shot, they followed the dog around for three hours waiting for it to do its business. “We finally had to give it an enema,” Divine told the Chicago Tribune. Afterward, the actor wondered if he might become ill.
Recalling his paranoia and embarrassment, Divine told NPR‘s Teri Gross that he called the hospital and imitated his mother to get some medical advice, pretending to ask about his “son [who] just ate dog doody.” The dubious nurse basically told him to “wash his mouth out” and keep an eye out for worms, which he momentarily feared he contracted, but never actually did.
That scene would follow both Divine and filmmaker John Waters around for most of their careers. According to Senses of Cinema, other filmmakers’ work in “queer cinema” was consistently “criticised for not matching the grossness of Waters’ work: nothing seems to come close to watching Divine eating dog sh*t and licking his lips.” As for Divine, it seemed to haunt him. “It became legend,” Waters told Baltimore. “He got sick of it, which I don’t blame him. He got sick of talking about it, because people were frightened of him.”
Like it or not, Divine was a drag icon
Divine may not have been a drag queen in real life, but he played one on television, and he was deified for it. Through his characters, Divine took on Hollywood’s notions of gender and power. His female impersonations screamed personality, originality, and courage, something that many believe drag lacked before Divine.
“His legacy was that he made all drag queens cool. They were square then, they wanted to be Miss America and be their mothers,” John Waters told Baltimore. “Divine frightened drag queens because he would show up with a chainsaw and … fake scars on his face, wearing mini skirts when you’re 300 pounds. He broke every rule. And now every drag queen, every one that’s successful today is cutting edge.”
It was his fearless approach to life that has allowed the actor’s memory to stand the test of time. “Divine was irreverent, and he lived life to the fullest, which I think is something important for everybody,” friend and photographer Greg Gorman told Vogue. “It’s about being who you are and standing up for what you believe in.” Filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz thinks that Divine would have become even more legendary should he still be alive. “He probably would have been a grand dame of the drag world — he would be like the Dame Judi Dench of the drag women,” Schwarz told Vice. “We can’t know, but maybe it would have been Divine’s Drag Race instead of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Divine's got the look
Divine’s iconic look, a direct assault on the traditional drag queen appearance of the times, made him legendary. His makeup was flashy and his attitude flashier. But the performer never really loved putting all that effort into the costume. The New York Times broke Divine’s look, which was created by makeup and costume artist Van Smith, down into three categories, “First was the hair, shaved back to the crown to allow more room for eye makeup. Second was the makeup, acres of eye shadow topped by McDonald’s-arch eyebrows; lashes so long they preceded the wearer; and a huge scarlet mouth. Third were the clothes: shimmering, skintight numbers that gave Divine (né Harris Glenn Milstead) a larger-than-life female sensuality.”
Divine may have made it look fun, but dressing up was hard work. “He was fat. It was too hot to wear all that sh*t,” John Waters told Vulture. “He couldn’t wait to get that wig off. The t*ts were so hot. He hated it.” As for those breasts, It took Divine a long time to get them right. “I wanted them to jiggle properly, he said on The Late Show. “We filled these big pads with lentils, and of course, to get them big enough to be in proportion to my size, I was like a 65DD.” So they nailed the “jiggle material,” but they were too heavy. “We went through old rags, anything, newspapers, balloons, tried everything. Finally ended up with carved foam rubber.”
Mainstream fame was imminent when Divine died
Divine found fame in drag, but he longed to make his mark without it. In 1985, he took an out-of-drag role in Trouble in Mind and earned praise for the performance. He then nabbed a part in Married … with Children but died before filming. “I’ve never seen him happier,” his manager, Bernard Jay, told People. “His career was taking off. He was actually going to play a very good character role on a network television show. That’s what he wanted. To show them that he didn’t have to play women, that he was respected as an actor, that he was not regarded as a freak. … But he didn’t make it.”
The Chicago Tribune reported that Divine was receiving major scripts before his death. “He has been offered roles in horror movies and teen exploitation flicks, and even read for a part in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.” According to Bloody Disgusting, he got a part in Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. In John Waters’ mind, all that exposure might have spelled the end of their collaborations.
“If he was alive, he might have been too expensive for me,” he told Baltimore. “The day after he died, he was supposed to be shooting Married … with Children, where he was playing a gay man on a huge, hit television show, which they had never done before. It probably would have been hugely successful . . . He wanted to play everything.”
Divine's lavish lifestyle was a lie
Divine often lived a life of luxury whether he could afford it or not. When he was young, he would throw extravagant parties and money was no object. “Divine took to renting luxury apartments, staffing them with servants and throwing huge parties for his friends,” as per People, which also noted, “Everything was charged to his father, but when the bills arrived at his parents’ house, Divine intercepted and destroyed them. Before his creditors could catch up with him, Divine moved on to another fancy flat and another round of parties. The game ended, of course, when Mr. Milstead’s credit soured.”
As an adult, he kept on with his wild spending ways. “Divine was fiscally irresponsible,” John Waters told Baltimore, adding, “When he died, he had given his mother a swimming pool, and I think they had to fill it in.” Friend Pat Moran also revealed, “Divine’s dead, and there’s a big, fat hole in her yard in Florida. Also, I believe at the opening of Hairspray, he had a mink coat delivered to her. But then, shortly thereafter, as you know he died shortly after that, they said, ‘Well, this was rented.'” According to Waters, “He lived like a movie star even when he had not one penny.” As a result, the IRS came in and confiscated his belongings after his death. They then held an auction, earning over $11,000, which were used to help pay for unpaid back taxes.
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