Divine is more of a phenomenon than a person.
And that isn’t to detract from the actual person—Glenn Milstead—who embodied Divine to make her tangible. It’s simply that, like all human creations, there is a part of it that supersedes the physical and is connected to a vast network of contributors and supporters.
“We all have other sides we never show,” Divine said in an interview once, a mantra she repeated in both performance and privacy.
I Am Divine follows this phenomenon from cult status to all-out national recognition and, more importantly, director Jeffrey Schwarz shows the fragility of identity—even after one gets precisely what they want.
Glenn was, like most gay boys, an awkward creature in Baltimore; naturally effeminate and intrigued equally by women’s fashion and a consumption of cake that surpassed even the most famished. Often donning his mother’s clothes, Glenn began experimenting with his wants and desires, despite perpetual beatings at school from bullies.
Going to beauty school and becoming the hairdresser of the town—”All the hairdressers were gay,” noted longtime friend Sue Lowe—soon attracted more off-kilter friends to round out his already awkward group of oddsters.
Two of those friends—his drag-mother of sorts David Lochary and the now legendary cult master John Waters—would go on to christen what would become Divine in Waters’s The Roman Candles.
“Divine was the burlesque of John,” said friend Vincent Piranio, noting that the “Dreamlander” actors of Waters’s vision were not hippies, but freaks—and that contributed to their soon-to-be cult status.
Following Multiple Maniacs (1970), which was the first Divine-Waters work to feature dialogue, Divine’s character attracted the attention of the (in)famous Cokettes in San Francisco. Loud, audacious, and in search of any trash they could find, Divine’s uninhibited persona drove the Cokettes to find her—and have her make her first major public appearance on the west coast.
Makeup magician Van Smith—the creator of Divine’s now iconic and beautifully creepy look—was told by Waters to do one thing: something—anything—with Divine’s hair to make her stand out.
Van Smith’s imagination of impossibly long eyebrows led him to shave Divine’s hairline back and draw eyebrows and eyeshadow that sprawled across her head. And then to shouts of “We want Divine!” did Miss Divine get her first taste of fame at a small theatre in San Francisco.
That fame was continually pushed—she became a New York scene staple following Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974), hanging with the likes of Warhol and being included on the list to the opening of Studio 54—to the point that Divine was moving beyond Divine.
How many can claim they were banned from Top of the Pops after performing?
The cover of The Sun following Divine’s performance on Top of the Pops.
As with all desires, they are not one-sided and, as Divine’s fame increased, so did her desire to move beyond type-casted roles. Divine, as a ‘he,’ wanted to be a he. It seems that the public—even Larry King—had forgotten that behind the makeup is a person: one that didn’t want to always wear a dress and one that certainly didn’t identify as a female.
And to an extent, Divine got what she wanted in that sense, having partaken in a handful of male roles. But the public yearned for the Divine they had cemented into their minds: a constantly outrageous, always moving, never-stopping phenomenon.
It could very well be that fame killed Divine, who passed away in 1988 in his hotel just three weeks after the premiere of Hairspray and days before he was to go to the set of Married… With Children. He passed away of an enlarged heart—which speaks volumes metaphorically as to his personality and passion.
I Am Divine will screen at this year’s QFilm Festival on Saturday, September 7, at 9PM at the Art Theatre located at 2025 E 4th Street. Passes and tickets are available for purchase through the QFilm Festival page at www.qfilmslongbeach.com.