The obese transvestite character-actor Divine personified self-consciously campy underground films and ushered in a new threshold of bad taste in cinema. Starring mainly in the films of offbeat director John Waters, Divine cultivated an outrageous drag queen image, with gaudy makeup, a blonde mane the texture of cotton candy, and tight dresses on his more-than-300-pound frame. In the majority of his films, he played female characters and dressed in women's garb during his short-lived career as a singer. Though Divine was poised to break through into mainstream film and television at the end of his life, most of his appearances were in films with shocking subject matter. He will likely remain famous for his role as the Filthiest Person Alive" in the 1972 Waters film Pink Flamingos, especially due to the notorious scene at the end in which he consumes freshly excreted poodle dung."
Divine was born Harris Glenn Milstead on October 19, 1945, and raised in an upper-middle-class home in a suburb of Baltimore, Maryland, the city that provided the backdrop for the bulk of his films. His parents ran a successful nursery and regularly attended a local Baptist church. As a teen, Divine was active in school plays, and began associating with Waters, who lived nearby. They were both outcasts, and Divine noted in Waters' book Shock Value that he required a daily police escort to and from school to avoid constant beatings by other students. After high school, Divine graduated from beauty school and became known as an excellent stylist. His parents even bought him his own salon, but he became bored with it. He later opened a fashion boutique in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Meanwhile, he also began acting in Waters' independent movies. His first role was in Roman Candles (1966), a home movie of Waters' friends stealing and then modeling dresses. It was at this time that Waters recognized the actor's potential and renamed his friend "Divine."
After that unceremonious induction into film, Divine starred in Eat Your Makeup (1968), in which he played the part of Jacqueline Kennedy in the movie's central scene re-enacting President John Kennedy's assassination. Subsequently, Waters made another film of questionable taste that is rarely noted in official sources, The Diane Linkletter Story, named after Art Linkletter's daughter, who committed suicide allegedly after taking large amounts of hallucinogenic drugs. In 1969, Waters and his troupe, known as the Dreamlanders, made Mondo Trasho, which established Divine's bizarre look. In Not Simply Divine, Bernard Jay quoted Divine as saying that his new image was based on Waters' concept of a blend of "the wicked stepmother in Cinderella, the evil queen of Snow White, and the bad witch in The Wizard of Oz," combined with a touch of Jayne Mansfield. Continuing down a slippery slope of poor taste, Mondo Trasho was followed by Multiple Maniacs in 1970, which professed that Divine was the actual killer in what were later dubbed the Manson Family murders. It also featured Divine being raped by a 15-foot-tall lobster.
After Multiple Maniacs, Divine and Waters garnered a good deal of attention from underground publications. Their next collaboration, though, dwarfed their previous efforts. Pink Flamingos was the tale of a battle for the title of "Filthiest Person Alive," and featured a couple who kidnaps women, impregnates them, and sells the babies to lesbians on the black market in order to raise money for their elementary school heroin ring. They want to take the distinction away from Divine, an incestuous, trailer-dwelling matriarch who firmly maintains her disgusting reputation with the dog excrement scene. Pink Flamingos generated a flurry of attention and became one of the premier cult films of all time.
Divine had acted in stage plays in San Francisco in the early 1970s, and after Pink Flamingos, began appearing off-Broadway in productions such as Women Behind Bars (1976) and The Neon Woman (1978). He also launched a disco singing career. In fact, he often attended the legendary Studio 54 disco in full drag and mingled with other icons of the day. Divine made a number of other films with Waters throughout the years, including Female Trouble (1975), Polyester (1981), and Lust in the Dust (1985), as well as a few on his own. Though Divine made his mark as the garish caricature of himself that people usually saw, he grew weary of dressing in drag and yearned to be accepted as a talented character actor. Finally, in 1988 he was noticed for his dual role in Waters' Hairspray as both proud stage mother Edna Turnblad and bigoted television executive Arvin Hodgepile. After that, he was slated to appear on the popular television program Married … With Children, and was eager to line up other work as well. Just as he seemed on the verge of making an entrance into the mainstream, however, Divine died of a heart attack in a hotel room in Los Angeles on March 7, 1988. Almost a decade after his death, Pink Flamingos stirred a new wave of publicity with its 25 year anniversary release, padded with new footage and commentary by Waters.
Clark, John. "Ready for the Return of 'Flamingos'?" Los Angeles Times, April 10, 1997, 8.
Jay, Bernard. Not Simply Divine. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1993.
Waters, John K. Shock Value: A Tasteful Book about Bad Taste. New York, Dell Publishing, 1981.