‘I Am Divine’
The man behind the makeup.
by Megan Smith
His head half shaved to make room for more makeup, drag movie star Divine wasn’t focused on perfecting realness—he was too busy taking drag “to the level of anarchy.” Divine started a revolution.
Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz (Vito), I Am Divine paints a biographical portrait of Divine, aka Harris Glenn Milstead. An overweight and bullied teenager, Divine’s once-estranged mother details how her son was labeled by his doctor as “more feminine than masculine.” His high school girlfriend describes Divine’s love of pretty things and need for perfection during their relationship. She even accompanied Divine to his first party dressed in drag—as a very passable Elizabeth Taylor.
It wasn’t until he teamed up with filmmaker John Waters (who was 17 at the time and lived six houses down) that things truly turned around for Divine. The two just clicked. From then on, Divine was Waters’s muse and nonsexual soul mate. With the help of makeup artist Van Smith, the character “Divine” was created. His head was shaved halfway back to allow for eyebrows with a larger-than-life arch and outlandish eye makeup.
Whatever Waters would ask, Divine would do—and I mean anything. In one of the pair’s earlier films, Pink Flamingos, Divine literally ate dog poop to fulfill Waters’s vision. Thousands flocked to see the 1972 underground classic out of curiosity, disgust, and amazement. The scene was meant to shock, and it did its job. People could not take their eyes off Divine—he was here to stay. “Divine was dangerous—part outlaw, part serial killer,” drag performer Jackie Beat says in the film. “She was simultaneously sexy and monstrous. Is she going to screw me or eat me?”
Wishing to expand beyond Waters’s campy low-budget movies, Divine traveled to New York and starred as a prison matron in Tom Eyen’s play “Women Behind Bars.” He also developed a musical career performing in discos during the 1980s. He achieved mainstream success in 1988 with the release of Waters’s Hairspray, in which he played a very different type of character—1960s housewife Edna Turnblad, alongside Ricki Lake.
But underneath the makeup and Divine’s outrageous film and stage personality, he was still a man of shy demeanor. Divine also faced the struggle between being pigeonholed as a female drag star and the desire to additionally play men’s roles. Hairspray’s success, however, brought the opportunity for Divine to play a role—as a man—on the TV show Married . . . With Children, an opportunity that he was very excited about. But one of his main vices, his love for food, prevented him from reaching this new chapter in his life. Because of his weight, Divine suffered a massive heart attack in March of 1988, just days before he was scheduled to start filming for the TV show. He was 42.
I Am Divine pieces together detailed research and colorful interviews with clips of on-set movie footage, club performances, and daily life to create a full picture of the artist that was Divine. “Divine stood for all outsiders,” Waters says. “He stood for anybody who didn’t fit in, that exaggerated what everybody hated, and turned it into a style and won.”
I Am Divine is available from Wolfe Video (wolfevideo.com).