“Cross-dresser walks along a street. Bends down, picks up freshly laid dog turd. Eats it.” If you read these stage directions, you’d probably run a mile. But for one actor keen to make his mark in Hollywood, it was all in a day’s work, albeit as far from the Elizabeth Taylor ideal he was aiming for.
For many, this is the scene that defines Divine, the colourful drag queen who worked with subversive Maryland-based bad taste director John Waters in many of his movies. Labelled by the narrator at the end of Pink Flamingos, in which this scene appears, as the world’s “filthiest actress”, Divine may have had a shock value that got him noticed, but his legacy was – and still is – far-reaching.
Documentary maker Jeffrey Schwarz is one of many around the world fascinated by the flamboyant film star, who was born Harris Glenn Milstead. Jeffrey’s admiration for all that Divine achieved and the wider impact he had on American culture comes to the fore in his new film, I Am Divine – an examination of the life of the screen wonder, who rejected the round-hole society his square peg wouldn’t fit into, and whose life was tragically cut short at the age of 42.
The Baltimore-bred misfit began to thrive when he found a group of likeminded individuals borne of the 1960s counterculture that embraced him, says Schwarz. “Growing up, Divine was picked on, teased and abused. When he met John Waters and his crew he found a group that accepted him, loved him, and encouraged him. He was able to take all his teenage rage and channel it into the Divine character. He threw everything that people made fun of him for back in their faces and empowered himself.”
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He grew up wanting to be Elizabeth Taylor and a big, fat movie star, which is pretty much what happened...
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Succeeding in becoming an internationally recognised screen icon and recording artist, Divine’s is “the ultimate ‘it gets better’ story”. In Schwarz’s words, Divine was a poster child for the misfit youth. Making I Am Divine was a chance for Jeffrey to tell his story so that “the next generation [can] get to know their Queen Mother and find inspiration to fulfil their own creative destiny.”
Crossing gender stereotypes and traversing boundaries, ‘trans’ is a prefix that crops up a lot when trying to describe Divine. This transgressive transvestite transformed himself from small-town outcast to transcend expectations and transfix audiences. And in doing so, he not only subverted the typical notion of the American Dream but also, paradoxically, achieved it.
“He grew up wanting to be Elizabeth Taylor and a big, fat movie star, which is pretty much what happened,” says Jeffrey. If the American Dream is defined by the pursuit of happiness, both Jeffrey and former co-star Mink Stole believe Divine threw himself headlong after it and succeeded.
“Of course Divine was in pursuit of his own happiness,” says Mink, who starred with Divine in seven of Waters’ films. “Isn’t everyone? He was as happy as anyone else I knew, and probably more. Although he didn’t have everything he wanted, he was famous, he was working, he had had a varied and successful career and people loved him. His life was pretty darned good! The last time I saw him, at the Baltimore premiere of Hairspray, he was as happy as I’d ever seen him.”
The film highlights his estrangement from his family, and hints at a series of romantic liaisons throughout his life. But although there were one or two significant relationships, Divine never had a traditional long-term partner. It would be easy to insist that there was a deep sadness within the man who presumably found an escape in the character of Divine – there are suggestions that he ate to fill the void within himself (he was clinically obese and died as a result of an enlarged heart) – but Mink contradicts this.
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“He never expressed sadness to me,” she explains. “But I know he was thrilled to have his mother with him at the Hairspray premiere in Baltimore [following their reunion], so it was obvious then that he had missed her very much.”
Schwarz points out that he also hadn’t necessarily wanted to escape Glenn in creating Divine. “Divine never considered himself a drag queen. He was a character actor who played female parts. People assumed Waters must have discovered Divine in an insane asylum: that he was actually like the character he played. It was a great source of frustration for him.”
Neither Divine nor Waters hated where they came from. An outsider himself, the director could have detested America. Instead, as he says in the documentary, he loves everything that’s bad about his country, and his films can be seen as a real celebration of that. That there are people who exist beyond the norm and outside of the accepted rules of society is a large part of that. For Waters, Divine was the opposite of what was considered beautiful and as such, his presence in Waters’ work was a salute to the misfit and a shake-up of the mainstream mentality – bolstered by the controversial deeds he had him perform on screen.
“Pink Flamingos is still pretty shocking,” says Schwarz. “It definitely still packs a punch, especially with people who haven’t seen it before. And not just the dog shit scene. The scene where Divine gives her son a blow job on camera is one of the most transgressive moments in any movie ever.”
John and Divine were being deliberately provocative. “They were making those films to shake up the love generation. They wanted to scare hippies and become famous and it worked. Divine’s look in (1974’s) Female Trouble was a punk rocker before punk rock [existed]. Those films have been hugely influential in pushing boundaries in humour.”
Perhaps the key to their success lies partially in the fact that both John and Divine were even outsiders to the gay scene that prevailed in America when they were starting out.
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He empowered people to accept themselves...
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“They appealed to other outsiders and freaks,” says Schwarz. “The gay community has always had a problem with drag. On the one hand, drag performers are worshipped and adored by gay men, but on the other hand they’re not looked upon as the ‘politically correct’ image [needed] for straight society to accept them.”
Although Divine’s music and theatrical performances allowed him a platform in gay clubs, his appeal wasn’t limited to a gay audience. Schwarz explains: “He also appealed to punk rock kids, would play straight clubs and hold his own. Divine wasn’t outwardly political and didn’t get involved in any gay causes but just by being who he was, he empowered people to accept themselves.”
So what of his legacy? Schwarz says this: “Divine was the ultimate outsider and still succeeded in becoming an internationally recognised recording artist and screen icon. He gives courage to anyone who’s ever been mocked, ridiculed, and ostracised, and gives us all hope that anything’s possible.”
For Mink Stole, he was a self-confident figure that embraced his individuality. “He has had a lasting impact on Hollywood and American culture. The fact that now, 27 years after his death, we are still fascinated by him and his work is evidence of that.”
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Words: Kim Francis
More information on I Am Divine can be found here. The film opens in UK cinemas on July 18th.
This article is taken from the American Dream-themed issue of Clash magazine (details/purchase links)
Related: more Clash film content