Celebrity Then And Now
Publication: Albany Daily News. Posted by Lexi Schwartz
Celebrity Then And Now
Posted by Lexi Schwartz
Hollywood's First Drag Star
Currently Known For:
1960s - 1980s
October 19, 1945
Hollywood's First Drag Star
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“The last thing my parents wanted was a son who wears a cocktail dress that glitters, but they've come around to it.” Building his reputation as one of Hollywood’s first drag superstars, Divine was an actor and singer whose legacy lives on decades after his tragically early death at 42 years old in 1988. A cultural icon in the LGBT community, Divine is best known for appearing in films directed by his longtime friend, John Waters, in titles like Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Polyester and Hairspray. Aside from acting, the Maryland native was an accomplished singer who even gained international fame after releasing covers of “Walk Like a Man,” “You Think You’re a Man” and “I’m So Beautiful.” Dubbed the “Drag Queen of the Century,” Divine might have left this world on March 7, 1988 but his legacy lives on as we take a look at his journey to fortune and fame nearly six decades ago!
The only child born to a plumber and his wife, Divine was born as Harris Glenn MIlstead on October 19, 1945 in Baltimore, Maryland. With his parents saving every penny they earned after growing up in poverty of their own, the family was quite wealthy and was considered an upper middle-class family. Because of this, his parents happily spoiled Divine with lavish toys and plenty of food, which caused him to become overweight as a child. “I was an only child in, I guess, your upper middle-class American family,” Divine later recalled. “I was probably your American spoiled brat.” Undeniably spoiled and overweight, Divine was often bullied at Towson High School and even briefly dieted, dropping from 180 pounds to 145 pounds just in time for his high school yearbook picture. By then, he was already well aware of his sexual attraction to both men and women.
After graduating from high school in 1963, Divine briefly studied cosmetology at Marinella Beauty School and was later hired as a hairdresser at a few local salons. “I was a hairdresser for three years,” he said, “but it drove me up [the] wall!” Eventually quitting and living off his parents, Divine used this time to explore his own interests and hosted lavish parties where he dressed as a drag queen. This helped Divine make connections with a lot of affluent people in the film industry especially when his friend, Carol Wernig, introduced him to an amateur film director from Baltimore named John Waters. Quickly realizing they had a lot in common after growing up in the Towson area, Waters encouraged Divine to pursue his interests in drag and even came up with his signature name—Divine—which would carry over into his professional acting and singing career. “[Drag] was just something John thought would be funny for the movies—to take a fat man and make him a female sex star,” Divine later said of doing drag in Hollywood.
With Waters dreaming of making some of the trashiest films in Hollywood history, he brought Divine along for the ride and cast his friend in many of his flicks. “John and I made films part-time, usually on Sundays, since that was the day everyone had off,” Divine reminisced. One of those films was Mondo Trasho, which Divine described as “a parody of all the trashy things in the world.” He said, “I play a really trashy bleached blonde. We shoot one scene in a laundromat where I have a vision of the Virgin Mary. Crazy stuff like that. Fun.” Of course, the fun was only beginning as he spent the rest of the 1960s making underground films until his parents discovered his Sunday afternoon shenanigans and bought him a beauty salon with the hopes he’d have a change of heart and give up drag in exchange for a more legitimate career. However, Divine was far more interested in the wild side of film and let his mother run the beauty salon instead.
It wasn’t until Divine’s appearance in Pink Flamingo in 1972 that Divine truly became a household name in Hollywood as he recalled, “By the time we made Pink Flamingos, we had all just about tripped our minds out.” Fortunately, the film was a huge success with three sold-out screenings at its premiere at the Annual Baltimore Film Festival held at the University of Baltimore. Divine’s reputation in the underground drag market quickly became public and led to even more opportunities throughout the rest of the decade as Hollywood’s first drag queen ventured into the music business with the release of albums like My First Album, Jungle Jezebel and The Story So Far in addition to appearances on Late Night with David Letterman and Thicke of the Night.
Divine’s rising popularity led many to wonder if he planned on having a sex change operation and raised many eyebrows on what his life was like behind the scenes. Admitting that he was content as a man, Divine shed some light on his personal life saying, “I can’t worry about [what people think]. What I am on stage or what I do in movies is quite different from my personal life. I don’t go around eating dog s**t all the time. Although I have to admit when I was younger, I was real crazy—drugs, wild sex, Oh God, everything! I don’t really have the time and I’m not interested in having sex and taking drugs all the time, nonstop. I have a lot of friends who do nothing but get high and beat the bush, but it gets tiring—and I’m not that way anymore.”
Venturing into business with an antique clothing boutique while continuing to star in films, Divine was incredibly content with life when, on March 7, 1988, he died in his sleep from an enlarged heart. In Los Angeles at the time for an appearance on Married… with Children, Divine’s body was flown back to Maryland where he was laid to rest at Prospect Hill Cemetery where family and friends like John Waters paid their respects to the 42-year-old star. Today, after almost 30 years, Divine continues to be an icon in Hollywood and the LGBT community.