Awesome Men Throughout History: Divine
This week’s Awesome Man Throughout History became famous, initially, as a woman. Harris Glenn Milstead, better known as the actor/drag queen/performance artist Divine, is a Baltimore icon whose roles in John Waters’ early movies—Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Polyester, and the original Hairspray—made him a cult film star and a hit on the gay nightclub circuit.
Divine was much more than that, of course. He was a man who loved the brassy, outrageous female character that he’d created, but wanted to break out into mainstream film as a male actor. He even auditioned for Blade Runner and impressed Ridley Scott, who wanted to work with him on other projects. Divine hinted at his professional frustration through self-deprecating comments in interviews, and his sudden death in 1988 seemed like an unsatisfying end to a daring and subversively brilliant career.
There are documentaries to tell you all that, though. I have some pretty specific reasons for picking Divine as an Awesome Man, so I’ll forgo a typical biography and launch right into them.
For one thing, Divine was fat and gay and totally unashamed, at least in his public persona. Where most drag queen personas are a cartoonish and mean-spirited parody of perceived female weakness, Divine’s female persona was a hyper-confident (if trashy) Amazon who didn’t need saving from anyone or anything. To borrow a term from literary criticism, he had a lot of agency.
Divine also took the more embarrassing aspects of working class Baltimore and made them cool. A less confident performance would have made audiences laugh at her characterization of Baltimore, but she made audiences laugh with it, and root for it.
Speaking of laughing, Divine was also really funny. He had great comedic timing and a knack for slapstick that few of his peers could match. Hairspray has some of his funniest delivery, and I think parts of Female Trouble are hilarious thanks purely to Divine’s physical work.
He was funny outside of his films, too. This appearance on the Tom Snyder show showcases his quick wit.
In the end, one quote really captures what made Divine so special, and why TSB readers who might not ordinarily relate to a guy like him should, at the very least, respect his legacy. Paul Thornquist, who was quite the authority on weirdness in his day, described Divine as “an audacious symbol of man’s quest for liberty and freedom.” I think that sums it up nicely.
Also, I like his version of “Walk Like A Man” better than the original. There, I said it.
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.