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Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead) (1945-1988)  

A versatile character actor, nightclub singer, and international cult star who generally performed his stage show and movie roles in drag, Divine first became famous through his appearances in John Waters' films of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Born Harris Glenn Milstead on October 19, 1945 in Towson, Maryland, the future actor grew up in Baltimore suburbs. His parents, Bernard and Diana Francis Milstead, were generous and indulgent, perhaps because Harris was picked on at school for being plump and effeminate. At the age of 12, the family moved to Lutherville, another Baltimore suburb. The family lived just six houses from a boy Harris's age named John Waters.

Waters, who became a neighborhood friend in Baltimore, was responsible both for creating Milstead's stage name, supposedly a religious reference, and for crafting a host of outrageous roles for him.

Two scenes in particular from Waters' films contributed to Divine's cult status. In Pink Flamingos (1972), Divine eats real dog feces so that her character can prove she is "the filthiest person alive." In Female Trouble (1975), the Divine character Dawn Davenport gets sexually attacked by dirty-old-man Earl, also played by Divine (with help from a body double for certain shots).

Other films in which Divine appears include Polyester (1981) and Hairspray (1988), directed by Waters; Lust in the Dust (1984), directed by Paul Bartel; and Trouble in Mind (1985), directed by Alan Rudolph.

After beginning in films, Divine gained celebrity in the mid 1970s by performing campy stage plays and disco acts in San Francisco. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Divine made films and performed in clubs around the world. He became famous in Australia, England, the Netherlands, and Israel, as well as in the United States.

Although Divine often had difficulty releasing records in the United States, his hits such as "Walk Like a Man" and "I'm So Beautiful," both released in 1985, became popular both at home and abroad. During the 1980s, Divine was also a frequent guest on talk shows and cable television programs, and often appeared at celebrity events. But a life constantly on the road began to take its toll on the performer.

Professionally, Divine yearned both for greater Hollywood stardom and for recognition of his talent, both in and out of drag, as a character actor. In his personal life, Divine faced worry over his romantic involvements, increasing weight, and financial difficulties.

In 1988, when Waters cast him in Hairspray, as a leading lady in addition to a cameo as a male character, Divine's personal and professional situations began to improve. With the film's success came publicity and offers for more interesting roles, as well as the possibility of the stardom Divine desired. However, in a sad twist of fate, Milstead, because of an enlarged heart, died in his sleep on March 7, 1988, soon after the film's opening.

Divine's appeal to audiences springs not only from his innate talent and likeability, but also from his willingness to do absolutely anything, no matter how bizarre or subversive, in his quest for fame.

As a film actor, Divine constructed serious characterizations even in roles that called for him to perform outlandish actions. On stage and in personal appearances, he exhibited the same measure of control and professionalism. He created a stage persona marked by raunchy humor and sarcastic exchanges with audience members; but he could also moderate this persona by projecting a more subdued appearance and calm, avuncular demeanor.

Today, with recent video releases and television airings of his films, Divine's wild looks, expressive gestures, strong delivery, and undeniable talent continue to attract new fans.

David Aldstadt


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Too often cinematic drag is reduced to a mere joke, a harmless tease that tacitly reassures us that people can change their clothes but not their sexual identities.

arts >> Bartel, Paul

Independent filmmaker Paul Bartel's ultimate importance may lie less in his directorial efforts, which are variable in quality, than in his unwavering presence as an inspiring figure in the independent film world, particularly to queer filmmakers.

arts >> Busch, Charles

Actor-writer-director Charles Busch has distinguished himself through his virtuouso performances of "grand dame" characters and through his writing of dramatic vehicles for these roles.

arts >> Hujar, Peter

Photographer Peter Hujar created stark, stunning, affecting , and sometimes disturbing images in black and white.

arts >> Vilanch, Bruce

Comedy writer and performer Bruce Vilanch has appeared on stage, television, and film and is a tireless proponent of glbtq causes.

arts >> Waters, John

A director, writer, producer, and photographer, John Waters became well known in the early 1970s through his filmic collaboration with actor--and drag queen--Divine.


Bernard, Jay. Not Simply Divine. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Waters, John. Shock Value. New York: Thunder's Mouth, 1981.


    Citation Information
    Author: Aldstadt, David  
    Entry Title: Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead)  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated January 17, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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