Divine Was the Judi Dench of Drag Queens
Still from Pink Flamingos courtesy of BAMcinématek/Photofest
When the drag queen Divine ate dog shit at the end of John Waters’s Pink Flamingos, he knew he was participating in a great publicity stunt. What he didn’t know was he was about to become an icon of American culture. Over the course of nine films directed by his childhood friend John Waters, Divine starred in a series of cult films before dying of an enlarged heart in 1988 at the age of 42, just a few weeks after his role in Hairspray made him a bona fide movie star. Next Wednesday, I Am Divine, a new documentary about Divine’s life, premieres at BAM Cinematek in Brooklyn as part of a retrospective of his life and career.
Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, the movie chronicles how Harris Glenn Milstead, originally a chubby kid from suburban Baltimore, created the Divine persona and reinvented drag in the process. This week, I spoke to Jeffrey over the phone to talk about the making of the movie, why today’s gay youth needs Divine, and the difference between John Waters’s films and today’s reality TV–centric trash culture.
VICE: What made you decide to make this movie?
Jeffrey Schwarz: I’ve always worshipped at the altar of John Waters and Divine since I was a teenager. As time went on, I thought that kids growing up today didn’t really have the firsthand experience of seeing those movies as they were coming out—Divine wasn’t known around the younger kids. I wanted to revive Divine’s memory.
Why do you think younger gay guys haven’t heard about Divine?
Midnight movies aren’t really a thing any more. You can’t go out and make a cult movie. Most gay men over 40 can quote every single John Waters movie verbatim, but those movies don’t play in theaters a lot. [But] people like Lady Gaga, who are popular with kids, essentially share Divine’s message: be yourself, don’t let anybody put you down for being different. I felt like Divine’s story of being the triumph of the outsider really resonates today.
Today, pop culture has a lot of women acting like drag queens—Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, to name a few—but few contemporary drag icons besides RuPaul, who became famous back in the 90s. Does it take a homophobic environment to produce someone like Divine?
I think drag is born out of repression. Drag culture has always been on the margins—even in gay and lesbian society. It’s always been a political statement. Divine certainly wasn’t the first person to do drag, but he was among the first wave of drag performers to really turn drag upside down and play with the notions of gender. A lot of the drag queens at the time wanted to be Miss America. They wanted to pass as women—beautiful, gorgeous creatures. Divine was a beautiful, gorgeous creature, but he was also 300 pounds.
Still from Hairspray courtesy of BAMcinématek/Photofest
Was it easy to convince your sources, like John Waters, to participate in the film?
I knew John, because he was in my first film, Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story. He was the first phone call I made, and I wanted to get his blessing. Not only did I get his blessing, but he opened a lot of doors for me and called everyone I wanted to interview and told them if I was going to get in touch with them, he supported this project, and they should do it.
Divine’s mother, Francis, was still with us when we started making the film. She was the first interview that we conducted. She didn’t live to see this film, but we dedicated it to her. I’m glad she was in it; she gave it its heart and soul.
Why was she so important?
I think a lot of people can identify with the story of a son and mother who knew her son was different—and unlike a lot of people in her generation, she didn’t reject him. If he got beat up at school, she’d show up at the school. They did have an estrangement for a time, but it wasn’t because he was gay, it was because he was a little nuts.
He was kind of a juvenile delinquent. He would write checks in his parents’ names to pay for extravagant parties. At a certain point, they had had enough. It wasn’t even about doing drag. They didn’t even know he was doing drag.
Does it take a juvenile delinquent to star in these movies and break boundaries?
Absolutely. As Divine, he could be in your face—he could do all the things Glenn never would.
Would he have continued to play the Divine role if he hadn’t died?
He probably would have continued working with John, but I don’t think he’d continue to be the star—Divine would have been more of a side character. He would have done more male roles. (He started to get more male roles towards the end of his life.) He probably would have been a grand dame of the drag world—he would be like the Dame Judi Dench of the drag women. We can’t know, but maybe it would have been Divine’s Drag Race instead of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
John Waters’s movies with Divine were criticized at first for being trashy. Now they’re being being celebrated in a retrospective at a cultural institution like BAM. In 20 years, do you think today’s trash will be celebrated?
I don’t think so. The trash of reality TV looks down on people—we’re encouraged to make fun of those people. But that’s not the case with Divine or John Waters films. You’re rooting for the characters. You’re rooting for the outsider. Maybe there will be nostalgia for those reality shows? I don’t know. I do know for a fact that in 20 years people will be watching Divine movies.
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