I Am Divine (directed by Jeffrey Schwarz) documents the true larger-than-life story of Divine, the three-hundred-pound drag trailblazer and star of many well-known John Waters films, such as Hairspray and Female Trouble. A fashion godsend and pre-punk muse, Divine bent gender and social norms to play some of the most inspirational queer roles of all time. The documentary features insightful personal interviews with Dreamlanders like Mink Stole, as well as Divine's mother Frances Milstead, who couldn't be more Baltimorean, or more poignant.
The documentary takes a comprehensive look at the life of Harris Glenn Milstead, who was given the stage name Divine by John Waters when the two met in high school in Baltimore. Apparently John thought the word described his fellow outsider perfectly, and, says Divine, "It was as simple as that."
The pair started out making 8 mm films, and their refusal to quit, along with Divine's gumption and commitment to risk, led them to camp superstardom. Divine embodied the ideal vehicle for John's wild ideas and would stop at nothing in the quest for shock value--she even ate dog feces in Pink Flamingos, a stunt that would earn her a reputation for the rest of her career. Waters was always unabashed: "If someone puked it was like a standing ovation."
It was groundbreaking for a three-hundred-pound man to dress in drag and exposed outfits, because at the time, drag was a petite, skinny, more conventionally feminine look--more June Cleaver and less RuPaul. Not to mention there was no nationally televised Drag Race, so it was much more work to start your engine as a drag superstar. Drag in the 70's and 80's had to be performed in secret, and an act this big was hard to hide. A consummate professional, Divine was willing to put in the elbow grease. Divine may have started out impersonating Elizabeth Taylor, but created and popularized a drag look based on sturdier women like Jayne Mansfield, opening up drag and burlesque to more queer performers.
Divine was a major contributor to the history of drag itself . The film delves into Divine’s signature look, created by makeup geniuses like George Masters (who brought Tootsie to life). Van Smith originated the idea to shave Divine's hairline back, so there would be more room for the recognizable eye makeup that slashed high across her forehead: long thin eyebrows, dramatic eyeliner, and jagged lipstick.
Parts of Divine's life were darkened by addiction, to drugs, love, food, and money, although the documentary makes it clear that he was a sensitive and generous performer and friend. Divine died suddenly of a heart attack in his sleep shortly after the smash success of Hairspray, in which he played Edna Turnblad, and had just been hired to play a male character on the TV show Married with Children. After growing up in Baltimore, Divine travelled to San Francisco and New York to hob-nob with celebrities and have eighteen-year-old boys throw themselves at him. Yet he would still stop and stare at his own billboard, somehow never quite fully believing his own illusion. He "exaggerated what everybody hated, turned it into a style," Waters says at the end of the film, confessing he still doesn't believe he's gone. Thankfully the documentary is available now on Amazon and Netflix so we never disobey the original glamazon: "Do not forget--I am Divine!"