The actor known as "Divine" was born Harris Glenn Milstead on October 19, 1945 in Baltimore, Maryland. He was an only child in a fairly well-off family and described himself later as having been spoiled at home. But he was overweight and effeminate, and was teased and sometimes beaten up at school. As a teenager, he began to hang out in underground gay clubs and found kinship with drag queens. Meeting John Waters gave him a sense of having found similar outcasts, though they were not exactly the same:
'When I met Waters and his wild cronies, Divine said, "I thought...God, what a sleazy crew they are.
Everyone liked living in poverty and filth. No one I knew lived like that, I was stuck in a middle-class
mentality."' San Francisco Chronicle, March 1988
Waters shot film
s with his friends, and was fascinated by the bizarre
. The two came up with the character of "Divine" for the films in 1966
, when a man in thick makeup
, a wig
, and a dress
was a truly new and shocking thing in a film. Milstead started to use the name Divine (though his parents still called him Glenn); nonetheless, when he was not in the female
character's costume, he considered himself a gay man
and used male
pronouns about himself.
He kept acting in Waters' films, as well as co-writing "The Diane Linkletter Story" with him, but supported himself as a hairdresser and then proprietor of "Divine Trash," a "nostalgia store," and appeared in nightclubs with the Cockettes. After being in Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs, 1972's Pink Flamingos made Divine much more well known because of the scene where his character Babs Johnson, "the filthiest person alive," eats dog feces; the scene was Waters' idea and was meant as a promotion for the film (and it did certainly draw audiences, though Divine was later embarrassed by it). After this, Divine received several stage roles as well as continuing to act in Waters' films. At his manager's urging, he also performed in nightclubs when other work was scarce; his act included a trademark phrase "Fuck you. Fuck you very much."
Starting in 1979, he also became a singer (though he had already sung the title song to 1974's Female Trouble). His first single was "Born to be Cheap" backed with "The Name Game," released on Wax Trax Records, and along with several more singles Divine would release the albums "Jungle Jezebel" (1982), "T-Shirts and Tight Blue Jeans" (1984), "So Far" (1984), and "Maid in England" (1988) on various labels. Overall, he received at least 10 international gold records; the sales were biggest in Europe. However, he had problems with "O" Records, who released "Native Love" single, and had to go to court to get his money. After an appearance on Top of the Pops in 1984 to promote "You Think You're A Man," enough viewers complained that he was banned from BBC TV appearances, though they continued to play his records.
The R-rated Polyester (1981) and PG-rated Hairspray (1988) made him almost mainstream. Rosie Velez in Lust in the Dust (1985) was his first role in a movie not directed by Waters. He also appeared in male roles in the movie Trouble in Mind (1985) and on the TV show "Tales from the Dark Side" in 1986. He was offered the recurring role of Uncle Otto on TV's Married with Children, with shooting to start in March 1988.
But this role never happened for Divine. He died from a heart attack
, probably caused by complications of his 300-pound weight
, on March 7, 1988 and is buried in Prospect Hill Park Cemetery
in Towson, Maryland
. His gravestone
has his real name prominently featured and his stage name in smaller lettering (as well as the words "Our loving son.") His mother
Frances has written a book (with Kevin Heffernan and Steve Yeager) about him, My Son Divine
, which amazon.com describes as a loving and "remarkably unembarrassed view of her son's adventures on and off screen." His manager
Bernard Jay has written a much harsher biography
, Not Simply Divine
. There has also been a one-man play
written by Donald L. Horn called "Dishin' with Divine."