Here’s the typical path from underground hero to mainstream celebrity: Gain cult following of people who are edgier and wilder than most (see: gay crowds, college kids, artists); sweat in small theaters and films for years; get the attention of a powerful tastemaker; take the edge way off your persona and appear publicly as a watered down version of your earlier self, bringing slight thrills without actually pushing any boundaries.
And while you could say this is what happened to 1970s and ’80s drag star Divine — who went from eating dog poo in the John Waters film Pink Flamingoes to playing a Baltimore housewife who’s only compulsion is ironing — the real story, told in the new documentary I Am Divine, is anything but typical.
With a voice both growling and shrill, the nasty and hilarious drag persona of a gentle, 300-pound man named Glenn Milstead was equal parts evil clown and femme fatale. Live at CBGBs, onstage with the San Francisco performance troupe the Cockettes, and in other John Waters movies, Divine was all id with five-inch eyebrows and matted platinum wigs.
But in 1988, after a tender performance in the movie Hairspray, Divine captured the attention of mainstream America (Larry King, even!). Before his unexpected death from heart failure that same year, the “drag queen who ate dog shit” had become a household name.
I Am Divine has its New York City premier tonight at Cinema Village. We talked with director and producer Jeffrey Schwartz about Divine, John Waters, and how drag queens become movie stars.
In his heyday, he was a midnight movie star. There isn’t an underground anymore, but back then you had to find out about Divine through the grapevine. People would say to each other, “Oh, you have to see this movie where the drag queen eats dog shit.” It was like a right of passage.
That’s what drew me to the story; it has to be seen to be believed. Back when he met Divine, John Waters was hating high school, trying to find the beatnik scene, and reading William Burroughs. Divine was reading movie magazine and in love with Elizabeth Taylor. He was gaga for movies. John wanted to make movies. Divine wanted to be a movie star. What are the chances of a gay, fat kid from Baltimore becoming Elizabeth Taylor? He kind of lived his dream. I thought making a movie about Divine would enshrine him. This was somebody who was an outsider — who was different, who was bullied, and who really triumphed in the end.
The complete opposite of that character. People have told me they got a real sense of peace emanating from him when he was in his male persona. He would throw these big lavish parities and he would just sit and observe everything that was going on.
One of his friends said — it was the heels. When he put his heels on, his whole body had to change. The way he moved had to change. There was no trace of Glenn when that wig and his heels went on.
There’s so much more acceptance now. Drag used to be underground and they would literally throw you in jail for wearing women’s clothing. Even though Divine wasn’t really a political person, drag was a radical political statement. Now you have drag queens on TV. RuPaul is the face of MAC cosmetics. That never would have happened.
Divine’s mom provided us with the home movies of Divine as a kid that no one’s ever seen. It’s really touching — Divine overweight, awkward. He did drag in some of those home movies. He’s eating in almost every shot. Another thing that was a revelation were early John Waters movies like Eat Your Makeup where Divine played Jackie Kennedy. John Waters doesn’t really let those movies out. They’re kind of a holy grail to even the most hardcore fan.
Divine jumping on the trampoline in Female Trouble. I could watch an endless loop of that. The love scene in Polyester with Tab Hunter — it’s, like, real. It’s not all shock value. He was a skilled actor and a skilled comedian. I love watching those performances where you do see some subtlety.
The image was so strong and the look was so incredible. People forgot there was an actor underneath. They thought that’s who he was. When people would meet him, they thought he was just going to eat them alive. He struggled to get Hollywood work out of drag. People get typecast so easily they only see you as that one thing. Hairspray would have changed that for him.
It was the first movie that he did with John Waters that really broke through and became a mainstream, PG, feel-good hit. It’s just as subversive as any of his other films. It’s kind of the same story: the outsiders triumphing over the bad guys, you know. And he did that in every movie that he’d ever made. It was just the logical next step: going to the shopping malls.
A lot of people saw that movie and didn’t even know that Divine was a man. They just thought, “Oh, where’d they find this strange-looking woman?” And that’s sort of a testament to his skill as an actor.
One thing about his death that’s a little bit consoling is that he went to bed that night with a big smile on his face, I have to think. He’d just had the biggest hit of his career, great reviews, everybody loved what he was doing and he was gonna be on the show Married With Children as a man. He’d kind of arrived. I would love to have seen what he would have done next. Who knows, it might have been Divine’s Drag Race instead of RuPaul’s Drag Race.