Remembering Divine, Drag Queen of the Century, who John Waters called “My Goddess”

By on October 19, 2017

Today, on what would have been Divine‘s 72nd birthday, we remember the midnight movie icon’s rise to fame in John Waters’ early films before he became, according to People magazine, “Drag Queen of the Century.”

Have a look at this interview in our Divine Video Profile, which aired on “Night Flight” on February 15, 1986, before we re-aired it again, a little over a month after Divine died suddenly, age 42, after suffering cardiac arrest on March 7, 1988.

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Divine was born Harris Glenn Milstead on October 19, 1945, in Towson, Maryland.

In 1958, the Milsteads moved to Lutherville, a Baltimore suburb, into an eight-room house where F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda had lived (when she wasn’t locked up in the local mental hospital).

An only child, Glenn spent a lot with his parents, father Harris and mother Frances, who later co-wrote a loving biography, My Son Divine, with Kevin Heffernan and Steve Yeager, filmmakers of the award-winning documentary Divine Trash.

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Milstead had always been crazy about movie stars — Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe were favorites — and from an early wanted he also wanted to be a film star.

Read more about Divine below.

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Just six houses away from the Milsteads lived the Waters, who had a boy about Glenn’s age named John (b. April 22, 1946).

Waters went to a Catholic high school, so he and Milstead didn’t really get to know each other until Waters — whom William S. Burroughs once anointed “the Pope of Trash” — was already testing the boundaries of bad taste and shock value as an underground filmmaker.

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Waters knew that when he saw Milstead dancing the Dirty Boogie at a local swim club that he’d found “my goddess.”

Waters gave Milstead his stage name, Divine, which Milstead would continue use for much of the rest of his career, and cast him in his next film, Roman Candles, a 35-minute film comprised of three 8mm films shown simultaneously on three projectors (an homage to Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls).

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That film would also feature a stable of actor friends — Mary Vivian Pearce, David Lochary, Mink Stole and Maelcum Soul — who, along with crew members, became known as Dreamlanders, derived from the name of Waters’ production company, Dreamland Productions.

Waters gave Divine a bigger part in his next film, 1968’s 45-minute Eat Your Make-Up, which was screened just once (it was shot at sixteen-frames-per-second and the sound was recorded separately).

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Waters knew that re-enacting JKF’s assassination scene — with Divine as Jackie Kennedy — was the absolute zenith of bad taste, but it turns out he wasn’t short on coming up with bad taste ideas.

His next film, the 15-minute The Diane Linkletter Story, was improvised immediately after hearing that family-friendly TV host Art Linkletter’s daughter Diane had fallen to her death out of an open window on October 4, 1969 (it was rumored that she’d committed suicide after taking LSD, which turned out not to be true).

Shot mainly to try out a new 16mm synch-sound camera , the film remained unreleased until it showed up on a 1990 videotape A Divine Double Feature.

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By now, the character of Divine — created by Waters and makeup artist Van Smith, who came up with conscious cross between actress Jayne Mansfield and Claribel, the seltzer-bottle wielding clown on TV’s “Howdy Doody” — was becoming “synonymous with vile, repulsive acts with an attitude to match,” according to the Dreamland News website.

Divine — who ended up selling thrift store clothes his own nostalgia boutique, Divine Trash — remained interested in acting, but wanted to be a “star.”

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He was given the lead role in Water’s next 16mm film, the 95-minute Mondo Trasho, playing a portly blonde bombshell who hits a woman with her car after being startled by seeing a nude hitchhiker.

Waters’ gloriously grotesque next feature from 1970, Multiple Maniacs, featured the inexplicable rape of Divine by Lobstora, and Mink Stole giving Divine a blasphemous “rosary job” in a church.

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Divine made his first “official” personal appearance at a screening of Multiple Maniacs at the Palace Theatre in San Francisco.

That event was so well-received that they returned to screen Mondo Trasho, where Divine did odd poses like an exhibitionist model while throwing dead fish into the audience.

Divine also wore latex burns and scars in an ugly drag queen beauty contest, the Miss Demeanour Pageant.

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Divine stayed in San Francisco, where he was treated like royalty in the local gay community.

Waters and Divine both took every opportunity to promote Waters’ next film, 1972’s 93-minute Pink Flamingos, in which Divine was to play an obese trailer park matron who competes with another couple for the title of “the filthiest family alive.”

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Divine happily told members of the underground press that, in the film’s climactic scene, he planned to eat dogshit.

He did just that on what Waters later referred to as “a magic day in our happy young lives,” picking up a piece of freshly-dropped poodle poop and munching on the turd for Waters’ camera while sporting a truly shit-eating grin.

It was a truly outrageous celluloid moment that never fails to disgust.

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Pink Flamingos became a cult film sensation, selling out at festival screenings and creating the Midnight Movie craze in the process.

It also made campy transvestite Divine the film star he’d always wanted to be, ever since childhood.

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Divine would continue to appear in many of Waters films — Female Trouble, Polyester (featuring Stiv Bators), and his final film with Waters, Hairspray — and you can read more about some of the other film roles that Glenn Milstead had towards the end of his life in this previous Night Flight blog post written by contributor Marc Edward Hueck.

R.I.P. and Happy Birthday, Divine.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.