By Kat Shook
In this essay, I have tried to remain consistent with my pronouns. I use “she/her” to refer to Divine in character or as a stage presence and “he/him” to refer to Divine the person. Often, I view his characters entirely in a “she/her” capacity, and you will see me use that pronoun endearingly. Glenn used the name Divine to refer to himself and to his character actor persona, but from what I have read and observed in interviews, he preferred the pronoun “he/him,” and I have done my best to respect that.
One cannot discuss John Waters without discussing Divine. Those names exist in cinematic singularity. It is simply impossible to separate the two, and undoubtedly, Waters and Divine would not want us to.
Divine, the man, the character actor, and the persona, was born Harris Glenn Milstead (in youth, he preferred the name Glenn) on October 19, 1945 in Baltimore, Maryland.
The future Divine met John Waters at a surprise party Glenn was throwing. Waters showed up with mutual friends and a new camera and started shooting footage. At some point their tracks crossed, the two men talked, and as good people do, they bonded over their love of movies.
At that same time, significant social movements were happening. The 1960s-1970s were a grandiose time of gradual and sometimes painful transformations (as the forward motion of change often conveys). Groups of misfit hackers chipped away at previously established social constructs and rebelled against the impossible corporate confines and ideologies of the 1950s. They worked underground to recode our pretend existence, to build a world where everyone could thrive and exist. They boomed and throttled in the night, excavating while mom and pop slept, and those excavations shifted our earth, causing tiny, yet noticeable fractures in the surface above. And whatever boundaries were established in that underground were further crossed and radicalized by the visions of John Waters and Divine and others who dared to do more, and because they pushed further, they were allowed an unlikely jaunt in American success.
In those early days, underground film existed solely in New York City. John Waters appreciated Warhol’s filmmaking for proving there was a market for these underground films. Waters experimented in Baltimore with his own vision for characters and film. He was attracted to people who were interesting and fearless, and there were plenty of unique, palatable people roaming the suburbs of his hometown.
The Baltimore eccentrics and relics, actors and film apprentices collected by John Waters became known as the Dreamlander team. The Dreamlanders included Bob Skidmore, Mark Isherwood, and Mary Vivian Pearce, all friends of Waters, as well as Mink Stole, Paul Swift, Susan Lowe, Cookie Mueller, George Figgs, David Lochary, who Waters met through Divine, Edith “Edie” Massey, and more (as more were added throughout the years). A few books could be written on the collective Dreamlanders and their outside ventures with a standalone novel on the extraterrestrial yet comforting character that was Edith Massey.
Glenn Milstead became a crucial member of that core team, and one of Waters’ most profound muses. David Lochary was pertinent as well, as an uncredited contributor in the hair and makeup department and as an actor, often playing a perverse and excessive villain in Waters’ films. Lochary remains something of a public mystery, which means he is not discussed nearly as often as some of the other members. He attended beauty school with Divine and introduced Divine to the concept of “drag.” He was also known to style and design Divine’s makeup and wigs for parties. At that time, the drag scene was performative and serious pageantry, which was a bit too limiting and humorless for Divine.
The Dreamlanders were Baltimore’s bane (especially when it came to the censor board) and flair. They were young, rebellious, creative, and they embraced all the flavors of the city—the people, the stories, the pot, LSD, Quaaludes, and poppers.
The genesis and evolution of the persona, Divine, and the person, Divine, whom close friends often referred to as Divi, appears to us outsiders as something that happened quite naturally. The name Divine is said to have originated from the book Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet, but John Waters believes that it was more of something he heard as a descriptor ad nauseum in high school—everything in Catholicism was articulated as being “divine.” He said he didn’t recall “that thing about Our Lady of the Flowers. Although, that must be impossible because I did read that book around that time” (Divine Trash, 1998). The supposition here is that no sole entity can claim credit for Divine’s creation, and I doubt any soul does, but we also know that John Waters did everything deliberately.
Divine had plenty of other sponsors too. Remember, David Lochary tendered Glenn his drag-ucation, and Waters’ primary costume and make-up designer, Van Smith, created Divine’s severe look, stating that his shaved back hairline offered more room for eye makeup. John Waters envisioned a kaleidoscope cannon that would launch out a drag queen who looked like an insane mix of Clarabell the Clown and Jane Mansfield, and that is what Waters got. Of course, it was Glenn alone who carried Divine and brought her to life. Essentially, there is no Divine without Divine.
Divine existed and sometimes worked, or at the very least, mingled with other gender movers and shakers of that era—Waters’ Dreamlanders, The Cockettes (a hodgepodge of lesbians, queers, queens, and in-betweens), Bowie, Tim Curry in Rocky Horror, Grace Jones, and so on—members of the countercultural, punk underground who were administering deep doses of drag art and gender fluidity into our stiff mainstream veins. Second generation creators brought us to wholesomely conventional and competitive shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race. RuPaul exists because Divine did. Even something as recent as Harry Styles wearing a dress, which caused a small social stir and some pundits to tremble and expressly press pause, real hard, on their panties, exists because Divine paved the way. He was and is an icon.
Divine had a career that spanned decades—with stage performances, films, record deals, and world tours. Despite complaints received after his Top of the Pops performance (which led to a coveted TOTP ban), he was well on his way toward a television career. Divine had been offered a recurring role as Peggy’s uncle on Married with Children. Sadly, Divine passed away before production started.
Divine was a critical part of our collective code. He acted outside the box. Hell, he punctured and trampled that box in a pair of cha-cha heels and forged a path for other smart, creative-minded, gender-free folk to do the same.
John Water’s had a taste for the bizarre. The freakier the better. He appreciated the absurd and laughed at the obscene. And his appreciation for such things was reflected in his friend set and top billed actors. He was attracted to colorful people, people who stood out, folks who broke dimensions, and people who devoured space with their large personalities and brazen bodies.
In one of his many interviews with David Letterman, John Waters said, and I’m paraphrasing, something along the lines of he liked big people because they took up a lot of screen space. He intended that statement to be funny because what he says posits mathematical truth. But that statement also gives insight into his personal values and artistic imagination. When viewing the screen as a canvas, covering all of that space with something unique was important to Waters. It was part of his general aesthetic. He certainly did not elevate himself to cult status by presenting blank prints. Even in black and white, Waters filled his pages with color.
Divine had his demons. He was bullied in his formative teen years and initially rejected by his upper middle-class, socially conservative parents. With any respectable set of untherapized demons come coping mechanisms, often unhealthy ones. It is a known fact that Divine loved marijuana and food, which likely contributed to his enlarged heart and early death on March 7, 1988—three weeks after the release of Hairspray.
Still, in his life Divine was a goddess and a god, who refused to shy away from the challenges of John’s crude, pushing-the-envelope, sense of humor and action either. He trusted John. Pot may have helped with that.
Altogether, John, Divine, and the rest of the Dreamlander crew were the wicked instigators and inventors of lowbrow high fashion. Divine as well as the characters he played, dared to make madness and gender confusion look sexy. John and Divine also made fat sexy, because, well, something about padding on a skeleton is, unequivocally, sexy.
Even when Divine had scarred, reptile-like skin on her face in Female Trouble, she oozed sex. She stood, bold and confident, as an all-female chapel. She was a lady of captivation and divinity, and John Waters saw that in her.
When people talk about Divine, they might discuss that one fateful day, the final shot on the set of Pink Flamingoes, when she ate dog shit for posterity. Divine will eternally be the proprietor of that flash in film history. And while that was an epic act of taboo-breaking, Divine was and is so much more than that moment.
Did John Waters realize that he was fostering and ushering in an icon? More than likely. Waters just has a knack for that, that foresight and vision, the critical eyes and depth of an artist, which explains how he saw something iconic in Divine. Then again, I think anyone who wholeheartedly observes Divine’s work or who was privy to his company would have noticed the same. There is something undeniably fascinating and special about that man. He was a star and an inspiration to those who desired to rattle the monotonous cages of normalcy. Divine’s legacy allows us to covet our guts, to enjoy the largeness of our shadows, to love our darkness and our light, and to encourage and nurture the freaky little fiends that sit crouched and waiting to emerge from our cores. He reminds us that humor exists in everything, and if we are lucky, we’ll succumb to living our lives to the fullest through periods of indulgence and laughter.
Kat Shook is a wily writer from the enchanted hills of West Virginia. She has written for as long as she can remember—which is evidenced by the whirlwind trail of scattered and abandoned letters she has left behind. Many moons and gaffes ago, she received a degree in this stuff (B.A. in English/Literature from Concord University in Athens, WV). She has penned several stumbling lines of poetry, a trickle of short stories (non-fiction, horror, erotic, and bizarro), and a few provocative articles on politics and music. Also, she was the editor for My Shrinking Fat Belly: A Surrogate’s Side by Jana Jarrett.
Kat lives with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which thwarts her mind on occasion. Fortunately, therapy provides her with the tools she needs to stay balanced. Kat is also a social justice warrior who rails against poverty through activism. She volunteers as a mentor for children in her community and is a longtime advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights. She has been married to her darling wife, Elizabeth, for four years now. They live and thrive together by the Shenandoah River with their pups, Cassette and BMO, as well as their elderly cat, Autumn. Visit Kat @ www.katshook.com.