The Divinity of “Divine”

October 19 is the natal day of the much-missed Divine (Glenn Milstead, 1945-1988).

As Lon Chaney was to Todd Browning, so was Divine to John Waters, both muse and star at the heart of his works. The pair were upper middle class Baltimore kids in the ’60s — Waters aspired to make tasteless parodies of art films; Divine (whose professional name was given to him by Waters) was an overweight drag performer willing to do ANYTHING for attention. Along with Waters’ other so-called Dreamlanders, such as Mink Stole, David Lochary and Mary Vivian Pearce, et al, Divine helped Waters realize his highly idiosyncratic cinematic visions, which were inspired by Warhol’s Factory, the films of Mario Montez, the plays of Jean Genet, and others. Their early movies together included Roman Candles (1966) in which he played a nun, Eat Your Makeup (1968) in which he played an outrageous version of the widowed Jackie Kennedy, the title character in The Diane Linkletter Story (1969), Multiple Maniacs (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972 — in which Divine ate real dog poo on camera), and Female Trouble (1974), in which he (the character is a she) goes on a demented killing spree. (To clarify, Divine was a gay man. He identified as male, but liked to perform in drag. He did not identify as female, and preferred “he” to “she” with reference to himself).

By now, Waters and Divine’s films had achieved notoriety in America’s burgeoning underground film scene, and Divine took the opportunity to start branching out, performing in theatrical plays in the Ridiculous vein with the Cockettes in San Francisco, and at Off-Off Broadway New York venues like LaMama. The original production of Women Behind Bars was from that period. Waters’ Desperate Living (1977) was made without Divine, but he returned to the fold for Polyester (1981). By now Divine was cutting disco records, and began appearing in films by other directors, such as Paul Bartel’s Lust in the Dust (1985) and Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind (1985), in which Divine acted out of drag for the first time. The original non-musical Hairspray (1988) was his last film with Waters. He was slated to appear in an episode of Married…With Children, when he died of a heart attack at age 42. One is unavoidably reminded of his fellow drag performer Charles Ludlam, who was also just beginning to mainstream in film and television when he died of AIDS the previous year. Ironically, America was ready for these guys, but somehow the universe wasn’t.

For more on “the most beautiful woman in the world, almost” I highly recommend the 2013 documentary I Am Divine.