"Divine. That's my name. It's the name John [Waters] gave me. I like it. That's what everybody calls me now, even my close friends. Not many of them call me Glenn at all anymore, which I don't mind. They can call me whatever they want. They call me fatso, and they call me asshole, and I don't care. You always change your name when you're in the show business. Divine has stuck as my name. Did you ever look it up in the dictionary? I won't even go into it. It's unbelievable."-Divine (1973)
Long before RuPaul, Headdalettuce, and Lipsynka: there was Divine! This gargantuan 350lb drag queen paved the way for female impersonators and made drag an art form. He was a rule breaker, trendsetter, and gifted actor with a brilliant talent garnered towards slap-stick and stand up comedy. He was ahead of his time and most importantly, he was not ashamed of who he was. Divine is one of my personal heroes. His over the top shenanigans in John Waters' cult films Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Polyester, and Hairspray have made me laugh and cry into hysterics. I enjoy listening to his 80's disco tracks such as "You Think You're A Man", "Shake It Up", "Love Reaction", and "I'm So Beautiful". I can't help but giggle watching some of his music videos. I have a killer theatrical side to me. Many of you probably don't know this, but Divine was the inspiration for Ursula the Sea Witch in The Little Mermaid. That little known fact made me love him even more because Ursula is my favorite Disney villain. I fell in love with her when I was in preschool. My second favorite villain is Maleficent. I think of Divine every day. I wish he were still alive so I could meet him, or attend one of his concerts. Tragically, he passed away in 1988. I was just two years old at the time. He was only forty-two. Most importantly, he left a powerful legacy. Even in death he still sends people into reels of laughter and let's them know it's okay to be different. So here is my tribute to the one and only: Divine.
My first exposure to Divine was in John Waters' Hairspray when I was a Senior in high school. He played Tracy Turnblad's mother Edna who was a frumpy, overweight, reclusive house wife who made her living ironing other people's underclothes. She had an affinity for munching on diet pills and was ashamed what she had become. That shame turned into frustration and plagued her with having a closed mind. Nontheless, she was still a loving mother to her daughter Tracy. Edna's husband, Wilbur Turnblad, worked downstairs from their apartment in his gag-gift store The Hardy-Har Shop selling plastic doggy doodoo, fake vomit, and other accoutrements of the like.
The film is a laugh riot and one of my favorites because the fat person wins. I've always been self conscious about my weight and this film was a beacon of hope for me. I'm not morbidly obese, just tall and big. After watching it, I started doing my own evasive research on this enigma of a man named Divine. What I found startled me. I knew for a fact that I could never watch the rest of his films under my parents roof because they were too vulgar and outlandish and that looked absolutely fantastic!!! I would Youtube clips of them and have a ball. I made a promise to myself that when I got out from under my parent's roof I would own Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble. Subsequently, two of the first DVD's I bought in California were those.
The art of drag has always fascinated me. Looking back I guess this is because I loved watching The RuPaul Show on VH1 in elementary school. I adored it. All those colors on the set, all those costumes she wore, all those huge wigs, all those over the top one liners that came out of her mouth-"Honey, if you can't love yourself, then how the hell are you gonna love somebody else? Can I get an amen?!" The Rupaul Show was fantastic and it's a shame it's not on anymore. It was the first talk show in the 90's to have a female impersonator...talk about ground breaking. I remember being in church (of all places) and finding out that RuPaul was not a woman, but an actual man towards the end of Sunday School. No joke. I didn't want to believe it, but the more I watched and listened, the more the truth was revealed from under all that cake make-up. I was entranced by it. I thought his creation was beautiful and it certainly was not hurting anybody.
Being an avid reader, researcher, and theater fanatic, I discovered that many of the men in Shakespeare's masterful plays were also dolling themselves up with powder, wigs, frocks, high heels, and lipstick to play the women roles. In Shakespeare's day, women were basically powerless and not deemed to be anything of substantial merit. Can you imagine the three Weird Sisters in Macbeth as men cackling around the fire chanting, "Double, double toil and trouble. Fire burn and cauldron bubble!" Or what about a pretty boy dressed as Juliette basking on the moonlit balcony as Romeo professes his love to her from the green pastures below? I wonder if the kissing scenes back then caused a great raucous among the patrons of the Globe Theater and the London general public since there were two men kissing passionately in order to make the play believable instead of a man and woman?
Anyways, one thing led to another, and I discovered Divine, my favorite drag queen. He's got some pretty big steel enforced heels to fill and I don't believe anyone will try. I like it better that way. Leave him the way he was. He invented himself, John Waters just gave him a name.
"I think I've always been respectable. What I do onstage is not what I do in my private life… It's an act… It's how I make my living. People laugh, and it's not hurting anyone."
Filth was conceived in the strangest and most unlikely of places. As it should be: Baltimore Maryland. Harris Glenn Milstead was born on October 19, 1945. He was an only child with Baptist parents. His mom had suffered two miscarriages before having a successful pregnancy. When Harris grew older he changed his name to Glenn to separate himself from his father's name.He grew up in a comfortable lifestyle and soon became friends with his neighbor John Waters, who was an aspiring movie maker and screen play writer. He wanted to do something different: he desired to make Trash. He was also a homosexual. This was in a time where if you were gay they would send you to an asylum to get fixed. Luckily, that never happened to him. He soon formed a posse of Baltimore outsiders who he christened "The Dreamlanders". It was in a beatnik bar in downtown Baltimore where John Water's fondly called Glenn, "Divine, the most beautiful woman in the world, almost." The name stuck. During this time, Glenn was realizing he was different. He was severely bullied at school because of he was over weight and effeminate. He started to dress in women's garments and was realizing he was gay as well. He was discovering his divided self. He took a job in a florist and eventually in a beauty shop where took specialized in creating beehives and other exclusive hairstyles for women. he then started to appear as the main protagonist in some of Waters' early films such as Roman Candles, Eat Your Make-Up (he played Jackie Kennedy) Mondo Trasho, and Multiple Maniacs (He is raped by a giant lobster!)
In 1972 Divine stared in Pink Flamingos where she played Babs Johnson a trailer trash delinquent who battles her perverted neighbors Raymond and Connie Marble for the title "The Filthiest Person Alive!" Babs, along with her retarded mother "Edie the Egg Lady", her son Crackers (who enjoys fucking women with chickens) and his girlfriend Cotton terrorize the Marbles in order for Babs to win the title. It all ends in murder when Babs kills the Marbles by shooting them with a pistol after stripping them, tying them to a large tree, covering them in syrup, and pouring feathers all over them. As if this wasn't filthy enough Babs eats REAL dog shit at the end of them film thus obtaining the title "The Filthiest Person Alive!"
My personal FAVORITE film is a Cult Classic gem called Female Trouble.
I've got lots of problems...
In this film the gang from Pink Flamingos is back! This time they are discovering a paradox between Crime and Beauty centered around an apsiring model named Dawn Davenport who ran away from home on Christmas day because she didn't get her cha-cha heels, gets raped, works in a pie shop, The Red Garter strip club, and also resorts to a life of crime stealing used appliances with the help of her two girlfriends Concetta and Chiclet to pay the rent and support her nagging daughter who in the end runs off and becomes a Hare-Krishna follower!
In this film Divine give a tribute to his favorite actress Elizabeth Taylor. The trouble begins when Dawn goes to the Lipstick Beauty Salon owned by Donald and Donna Dasher who are two conniving little abortions! They trick Dawn into being a model only to see her commit murders and other obscene crimes like child abuse. She marries her hairstylist Gator who enjoys robbing her safety deposit box during sex with a carrot and a pair of pliers. Gator's Aunt Ida loathes Dawn Davenport. Aunt Ida is a lesbian who is tries to convert all of her family to the bright side of the rainbow. She gets frustrated because she can't get Gator to come over and cries when he marries a woman-Dawn Davenport. Dawn and Gator soon get divorced and Gator tells Aunt Ida that he's moving to Michigan to find happiness n the auto industry. This causes Aunt Ida to have a severe mental breakdown and only makes her hatred for Dawn more sinister. She rushes into Dawn's apartment while she is hosting the Dashers and says, "Here's some acid for your face motherfucker!" As it burns through her skin it permanently disfigures her and drives disturbingly insane.
In the end Dawn injects herself with liquid eyeliner, puts on a fabulous show using a trampoline and dead fish, murders her audience, and even kills her own daughter for "publicly embarrassing" her for becoming a Hare-Krishna. Dawn is then sent to prison and is convicted of her crimes. She is then sent to fry in the electric chair but not before giving an Oscaresque speech that ends with, "I LOVE EVERY FUCKING ONE OF YOU FROM THE BOTTOM OF MY BLACK LITTLE HEART!!!"
With the success of these films Divine was getting more popular and becoming a celebrity. During this time, he hopped on a plane fully dressed in drag and flew off to San Francisco. He was invited to become one of the cities Cockettes. They were a psychedelic drag troupe of communal, dirty, misfit, hippies who lived in the Haight-Ashbury.
They performed shows at the Palace Theater where Divine sang his signature songs "The Crab at the Center of Uranus" and "The Heartbreak of Psoriasis". He soon got tired of this and moved back to Baltimore.He soon became a disco singer and ended up traveling the world to tunes such as "You Think You're A Man" and "Shake It Up". He also performed on late night talk shows and the audiences loved him.
He made some other films which I won't go into detail. You can look into those yourself. They are great. 1988's Hairspray was his late major role. Right before the film's premier Divine suffered a heart attack and died. The world lost something marvelous that day. Something big. Something epic. It should be stated that Divine did not think of himself as a real woman. He was a character actor. He never underwent any type of surgery and was not a transsexual or transgendered person. He was simply a big man with a huge heart earning his living in a pair of heels and not caring what others thought. Divine loved his life.
He is greatly missed.