He was unmistakably eye catching. There on my computer screen was a gun bearing goddess in a glittering mermaid shaped dress. His hair was wildly teased to the heavens. Divine’s photograph made everything else on my tumblr dashboard completely irrelevant. Was he a character? A murderer? A style icon? He was scary and beautiful. I had to know more about this man dressed in tulle.
I found that I had something in common with Divine. In fact, I would argue that a part of Divine is in all of us.
Born Harris Glenn Milstead, Divine is mostly known for his role in the forever controversial Pink Flamingos. I often fear that, in most cases, people will remember Divine solely for his physical appearance in this movie. Overweight, loud, and crude, Divine gained fame from this character in the 1972 John Waters film (hopefully not entirely for the turd-eating scene). This was the image that first introduced me to Divine, who became an icon in drag queen history — it was a very brief, yet very imperative, look at the man beneath the makeup.
Divine and Waters, who lived in the same Baltimore neighborhood, would go on to make more films together including Female Trouble, Polyester, and finally, Hairspray. They were a match made in filth heaven. Waters wrote characters notably different than Divine’s “real life” personality. In interviews, he was quiet, and at points, reserved. Yet he played Waters’ scary characters with such perfection, it’s nearly impossible to imagine anyone else filling in those roles. He was a chameleon, showcasing his talents of comedic timing and rage, all with a commanding on stage presence. At the most dazzling peak of his career, Divine died from cardiomegaly in 1988 shortly after the premiere of Hairspray.
Divine’s weight never fails to go unmentioned in articles and interview introductions. In fact, it quickly became a part of his identity. Waters often cast those that society deemed as “ugly” and strange, and exaggerated them into something of beauty. If this is the case, Divine absolutely perfected the concept. He owned it.
Divine’s legacy started in his hometown of Lutherville, Baltimore. His high school experience was nothing short of horrific. Bullied for his weight and apparent femininity, Divine came home from school completely black and blue. The bullies eventually met their fate with an expulsion, but not without Divine’s own grief. He was pushed even farther towards the outside, looking in on a group of kids that clearly didn’t know a good thing when they saw it.
Divine overcame them with class and grace. I, amongst many fans today, did not have the pleasure of knowing Divine. But what I do know is this: for kids who are bullied, for people who struggle with their sexuality, for people who hate the way they look, for people who love the way they look, Divine is a role model. He embodies the idea that love and friendship are the outcomes of strength like his own. Not everyone is as strong as Divine was, but he sure as hell is the voice of many — even to this day, long after his passing.
The bullies didn’t define Divine. What defined him is the way he channeled that small town frustration, alongside a friend, to make art. “They can call me whatever they want. They call me fatso, and they call me asshole, and I don’t care,” “My Son Divine” quotes the iconic performer. Divine taught us that we are all beautiful. He taught us to take what society tells us is ugly, and use it to prove the bullies wrong.