Harris Glenn Milstead, born on October 19, 1945, in Baltimore, Maryland, was best known as Divine, his adopted persona, in which he performed on stage and in film as a larger-than-life woman. Divine appeared in more than a dozen films, most notably in her collaborations with director and childhood friend John Waters. She debuted in Roman Candles in 1966, and first achieved cult celebrity status in Pink Flamingos (1972), in which her character fought to retain the title of the "world's filthiest person." In her most famous scene, Divine eats actual dog feces on screen, thus essentially securing her character's title for herself.
Her fame and significance stem largely from the fact that she did not play a man in drag, but rather played female characters as a female. This was reinforced when she was offered roles as a woman in projects beyond her work with Waters, such as her 1985 appearance in Lust in the Dust for the director Paul Bartel. She rarely appeared onscreen as a man, and the roles in which she did are largely forgettable, although at the time of her death she was about to begin shooting on the television series Married … with Children, in which she was to have a recurring role as a man.
Divine's acts of gender displacement were equaled only by her celebration of poor taste. In part because of the success of her films with gay audiences, the chic for lowbrow or trash taste became a permanent part of gay camp sensibility. Her collaborations with Waters also changed film culture. The films broke with Hollywood style by using handheld cameras and natural light sources, working with a company of actors over several films, and encouraging improvisation.
Divine was obese, yet usually played roles in which she was sexually active and an object of men's desire. As such, her sexual activity as well as her gender position were non-normative. In 1981 she starred in Polyester with Tab Hunter, himself a former matinee idol whose career was nearly destroyed when his homosexuality was revealed. As a gay man playing a straight man in love with a man playing a woman, the pairing was unique and transgressive by almost all standards. It was often difficult to determine in Divine's films if her suitors were attracted to her obesity, or if her appeal was separate from her physicality. Her insistence upon being recognized and accepted as a sex object despite her distance from any conventional notion of beauty or femininity has rendered her an icon. She has many imitators, amateur and professional, most notably Chi Chi LaRue, a director of gay pornographic films.
Divine's most mainstream role came in 1988, when she starred as the mother in John Waters's Hairspray. It was also to be her last starring role, as she died of a heart attack in her sleep on March 7, at age forty-two, just as the film was gaining popularity. Divine is most remembered for flagrantly ignoring stereotypes of gender, taste, and body image.
Jay, Bernard. 1993. Not Simply Divine: Beneath the Make-Up, above the Heels, and behind the Scenes with a Cult Superstar. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Waters, John. 2005 (1981). Shock Value: A Tasteful Book about Bad Taste. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press.
Brian D. Holcomb