For those of you who aren’t aware, Divine is the one of the biggest names in drag history and was the star of many of John Water’s movies, including Pink Flamingos, where his trashy onstage persona gained him notoriety as one of the most extreme performers in America. A new documentary, out in cinemas today called I Am Divine, sees his friends and family recounting his early childhood, his stardom and his impact on drag culture and what it means to be big and beautiful in Hollywood.
Divine’s beginnings are rooted in conservative Maryland, where his effeminate ways saw him the friend of all the women at the local hair salons but the victim of school bullies who saw to it that Divine, real name Harris Glenn Milstead, was regularly covered in bruises. The secretive local gay community soon took him in and introduced him to the world of drag and a star was soon born. It wasn’t long before Milstead met John Waters, counter-culture director and moustache wearer extraordinaire, and the pair decided to bring the trashtastic creation, Divine, to the big screen.
What you may know of Divine is his onstage antics, outrageous comedic putdowns and the infamous scene in Pink Flamingos where taste and decency were a distant memory as Divine ate real dog poo. And yet offstage and out of his wigs and dresses, Divine was a kind soul with a generous heart. His friends reveal in stories that he had a deep longing to be more and do more than the mainstream media would allow, having pigeon-holed him into his Divine persona. His chat show appearances allowed him to really be himself; an actor looking for meaningful roles to play, while the hosts and audience members just wanted Divine, the drag diva who was larger than life. Despite clearly being able to convince the world of the realness of Divine the woman, audiences failed to see how this was a great performance but that he could do more.
Though there were, of course, drugs and an extravagant lifestyle, it was ultimately his weight problems that caused his death at the age of 42. John Water’s speaks so highly and so fondly of Divine that, had he lived longer, you get a sense that there was still so much waiting for Divine to accomplish. Jeffrey Schwarz, the director, creates a clear portrait of both the performer and the man behind Divine but his legacy has been excluded from the documentary, so much so that’s it’s almost jarring to anyone who knows his story. Divine was the inspiration for Disney’s wicked sea-witch, Ursula in the Little Mermaid and due to his casting in Hairspray, every actor to play his role of Edna Turnblad was male; his mother went on to write a book about her relationship with Divine and was the subject of her own documentary, Frances: A Mother Divine.
It feels like there is more to say on Divine but what has been said in this film was nothing short of divine.
I Am Divine is out in cinemas from today.
Emily is the Community Manager of Dattch as well a part-time film reviewer and full-time cookie monster. She can’t walk in heels, is a crossbreed of Essex girl and Londoner and makes cupcakes like nobody’s business. Find further nonsense from Emily on Twitter @moulder5000