She was overweight, outrageous, shocking, ferocious, brash, crass, and in-your-face. And she was beautiful.
The iconic Divine, branded the drag queen of the century by People magazine, ripped pop culture a new one by challenging—no, assaulting—constipated standards of beauty, sexuality, and basically everything sacred and boring about mainstream American life.
That's why the biographical documentary I Am Divine provides such a compelling look at the numerous factors that helped fuel the triumph of both the man and the mask in one of the most unlikely crossover success stories to come hurtling out of queer culture.
Director Jeffrey Schwarz, on the line from Los Angeles, says that he had long been a fan of both Divine and director John Waters, a key figure in Divine's career, while growing up. While he was drawn to the forbidden nature of their films, he, like all Divine fans, found Divine's defiance irresistible.
In the same way that legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland transformed flaws into distinguishing characteristics of beauty, Divine found strength by upsetting the apple cart.
"One of his songs is 'I'm So Beautiful'. I think it's all about confidence," Schwarz says. "As Divine, he was super, super, super confident. And using his weight to his advantage, instead of hiding the weight, he accentuated the weight, and people loved it because he wasn't ashamed of who he was. And…as Glenn [Milstead], out of drag, he was a complete opposite—he was shy, he was quiet, he was more withdrawn, very soft-spoken, but as Divine, he could be a monster."
The film points out how the creation of Divine was a collaborative effort. For instance, Waters recognized Milstead's anger and encouraged him to channel it through Divine (at a time when drag was more about trying to pass as women in earnest) and makeup artist Van Smith created Divine's distinct look.
On stage, Divine's magnetism became so powerful that "boys would throw themselves at him". Schwarz says he was thrilled to find out during his research that Milstead had a very rich personal life.
"He certainly had a very loving group of friends and…a very lively sex life, which I was very happy to hear. Because there's a cliché: everyone loves a drag queen but who wants to go home with them at the end of the night? The opposite was true with Divine. He certainly got around, and he had a very healthy appetite for the flesh and he loved to eat, he loved to smoke dope, he loved men, he loved to dance, he was a very sensual person, and a sexual person….He certainly enjoyed life. I don't think he said no to anything."
That's not to say Milstead didn't have his struggles, and Schwarz didn't shy away from showing that.
"We wanted to present Divine as a real person, not as a caricature. And so Divine certainly has his insecurities, he certainly had an addictive personality. There were certainly some dark periods in his life where he didn't know where his next meal was going to come from. But it never really got him down. I mean, I think he went through periods of depression where he felt like maybe he was being typecast. But instead of waiting for the phone to ring to get his next role, he developed a disco career. So he created opportunities for himself instead of just being resigned to being an underground movie star."
Consequently, Schwarz thinks the example of Divine provides a timely message.
"In the last few years, there's been all this talk about bullying in schools…that kids need role models and kids need examples of people who have faced some similar adversities in their lives that come through the other side, happy and healthy and full of self-love," he says." And Divine was certainly somebody who fits that category. He was bullied and picked on and abused when he was a teenager growing up in suburban Baltimore, and he was able to find a way to channel all of that teenage rage into the Divine character and do things as Divine that he would never do as Glenn, and it was sort of a way to empower himself, and also have a wonderful, creative life."
What's more, as gay communities become more integrated into the mainstream, and as pop stars like Lady Gaga fly freak flags further than ever before, Schwarz feels that pioneering figures like Divine should never be forgotten.
"There's always been a bit of push and pull in gay culture between wanting to be like everybody else and wanting to be rebels and wanting to be different and wanting to stand out. And I think Divine really reminds us that the people who are the most outrageous and brave that make it easier for everybody else….We are all outlaws, and I think we need to remember that. And Divine was certainly an outlaw. But…he was becoming almost a household name at the end of his life, which is really amazing because of the whole thing of how he started off as an underground star with a really threatening, scary image."
I Am Divine plays on May 10 (6:30 p.m.) at the Rio Theatre.