Divine by Nick Levine
Illustration by Severus Heyn
Nick Levine is a writer and journalist from south London via south Buckinghamshire. He writes about music, pop culture and LGBTQ+ issues for publications including Gay Times, Refinery29, i-D, NME, Time Out and GQ, and has interviewed the likes of Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande and Britney Spears.
I love Divine because she was a drag queen like no other: fabulously fat, fearlessly confrontational, effortlessly funny. Divine died nearly 30 years ago on March 7, 1988, at just 42 years of age, but her legacy lives on in every queen who busts out of the mould and stomps right across the line of good taste. Divine was so far ahead of the curve that if she were alive today, she'd still probably - definitely - win RuPaul's Drag Race. Michelle Visage wouldn’t like her lack of a waist-cinch, but Divine wouldn’t give a fuck.
Divine was born Harris Glenn Milstead on October 19, 1945 to an affluent family living in Baltimore, Maryland. Like so many queer teens, Glenn (as his parents called him) endured spells of bullying, partly because of his weight and partly because he wasn't as he put it, "rough and tough". After attending beauty school, Glenn Milstead worked a few jobs in local salons, but creating beehive hairdos for well-heeled Baltimore women wasn't his calling. Friends say he was always throwing costume parties so he could dress up in drag, and he'd already found a perfect co-conspirator in John Waters, a wannabe film-maker who lived on his block.
"I used to see Divine waiting for the bus when my father took me to school," Waters later recalled. "He tried to dress preppy-ish and tried to fit in, but you could see that would be completely impossible for him. I always joked that he was the girl next door, but he actually lived about six houses away."
Waters came up with the name Divine and started casting her in his super-low budget, super-provocative underground movies. Today, we jokingly call a thirst trap with a hint of ass crack "scandalous", so it's difficult to imagine how properly shocking the pair's early collaborations must have been back in the day. For 1968's Eat Your Makeup, Divine portrayed Jackie Kennedy in a shamelessly tasteless recreation of JFK's assassination, then a fresh wound in America's collective memory. Two years later, she starred in Multiple Maniacs as a freak show owner who gets raped by a giant lobster. And in 1972's Pink Flamingoes, Waters filmed Divine eating an actual dog turd. Who else but Waters, later nicknamed the "Pope of Trash", would devise this gross scenario? Who else but Divine would agree to do it?
Listing Divine's "greatest hits" like this is a lot of fun, but it's also reductive. Divine was brilliant because she had no boundaries, but she was also brilliant because she had great comic timing and a gift for pathos. In 1974's Female Trouble, we see Divine's character Dawn Davenport rip her own umbilical cord with her teeth, and bathe onstage in a cot filled with mackerel. But she also brings a kind of tragicomic poignancy to a scene in which Davenport's bandages are removed after her face is scarred by acid. There was always more to Divine (and Waters) than ostentatious schlock.
By the mid 1970s, Divine had established a successful underground career beyond Waters. She did stage shows with psychedelic San Francisco theatre troupe The Cockettes and starred in plays in London and New York City. The people who came to see Divine were precisely the kind of people you'd expect: queer people, bohemian people, hipster people, Liza Minnelli, Elton John. At the tail end of the decade, Divine began doing PAs at gay nightclubs with an act that was combative and thrilling: she’d scream “fuck you!" at the audience repeatedly, show off her gloriously corpulent body and scrap with another drag queen. Imagine being able to add this performance to your Instagram story.
A music career both unlikely and kind of inevitable followed. Divine didn't so much sing as bark with chutzpah over innovative Hi-RNG club tracks by cult producer Bobby Orlando. Before UK production team Stock Aitken Waterman knocked out a series of pop classics with the likes of Kylie Minogue and Donna Summer, they scored their first ever hit single with Divine's You Think You're a Man. After Divine performed the song on Top of the Pops wearing a preposterous blonde beehive wig and a skin-tight silver dress, around 12,000 people called in to complain. It was a lightning rod moment that fellow Hi-NRG producer Ian Levine later called "gay disco's revenge".
In 1988, John Waters and Divine scored their biggest mainstream hit with Hairspray, an infectious comedy film filled with campy nostalgia. The success must have been at least a little bit bittersweet for Divine: like any actress the wrong side of 40, she wasn't cast as the female lead, but in a supporting role as her mother. Just weeks after the premiere, Divine died of an enlarged heart while resting up in an LA hotel room. The following day, she was due to shoot a guest appearance as a cross-dressing uncle in the hit sitcom Married... with Children.
"[Divine's] legacy was that he made all drag queens cool," Waters told Baltimore magazine a couple of years ago. "They were square then, they wanted to be Miss America and be their mothers. Divine frightened drag queens because he would show up with a chainsaw and [makeup artist] Van Smith would put fake scars on his face, wearing mini skirts when you’re 300 pounds. He broke every rule. And now every drag queen, everyone that’s successful today, is cutting edge."
But Divine is also an inspiration to any queer person who doesn't, and doesn't want to, fit in a box. Divine proves you can do what you want, wear what you want, say "fuck you!" when you want, and totally own it.
Born 1991 in Germany, Severus spent his childhood in London, Germany, Netherlands and Australia. Severus is self-taught - mainly copying French and Belgian comics like 'Spirou & Fantasia,' 'Asterix,' and 'Gaston.' Severus has been interviewed by VanityHype and The Advocate.