By Eric Weber
Twenty-one years ago, on March 7, 1988, legendary comic performer Divine (a.k.a. Harris Glenn Milstead) passed away in his sleep from heart failure. It was on the eve of his debut performance on FOX television’s popular show, Married. . . with Children. Divine was at an exciting moment in his career as he was receiving terrific reviews for his dual role in the recently released Hairspray. At last he was getting the one thing he had always dreamt about: acceptance from his peers as a legitimate actor and performer. He was finally shedding the “drag queen” stigma and beginning to be appreciated and acknowledged as a true talent instead of a “transvestite” or freak. Sadly, and like so many other unique and talented performers, his life was cut short much too soon.
As many of my friends and colleagues are well aware, I am rabidly obsessed with everything related to Divine. I have a fairly large collection of his films, records, photographs, interviews, and stage appearances. Divine has been the biggest influence in my life both creatively and personally. His characters and personality have completely and totally influenced my artwork, my imagination, my sense of humor and style, and believe it or not, my self-esteem. I learned from him that you don’t ever have to be “normal” or ordinary. You don’t need to follow the crowd and—most importantly—never, ever take yourself seriously. I also admired him as a wildly original and truly funny actor. You just can’t take your eyes off of him when he’s on-camera; partly because of his large frame, but mainly because of his wonderfully funny expressions, gestures, and that incredible voice!
My first introduction to Divine was when I was around 12 years old and saw a couple of strange movies on the shelves at the local National Video in Springfield, Ohio. The boxes read: Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble. They were incredibly cruddy, sun-faded video boxes featuring images of a large, cartoonish woman with elaborate hairstyles and weird clothes. I had never seen anything like them before and I was almost scared to pick them up. I was afraid I would somehow become instantly corrupted as it was clear that these movies were of an adult nature. I don’t think I necessarily equated it with porno, but something pretty close.
One night, a year or so later, I was watching either Night Flight on the USA Network or HBO and was dozing off. I awoke to see this huge woman singing a song in some Western movie. I was totally intrigued. “What IS this?” I thought. I later figured out it was Lust in the Dust but I immediately knew that there was something really unique and interesting about this person.
I actually remember the day that he died, because I can recall seeing the obituary on Entertainment Tonight where they showed brief clips from the early John Waters films he appeared in. At school the next day, we had to give examples of recent news events—interestingly, only one other girl and I mentioned that Divine, one of the stars of the new film Hairspray, had died.
As the years went by and my obsession with strange and unusual films grew, I came across a copy of John Waters’ autobiography Shock Value. This book basically changed my life and opened up a whole new world to me. I began to look at everything differently, from appreciating the grotesque in everyday life to broadening my film viewing habits. It also provided me more details and information about this mysterious and fascinating Divine.
After hunting down and seeing all of his movies, I began to tell my parents about Divine. Being the amazing parents that they were, they would go looking for memorabilia for me during their frequent flea market/antique store shopping excursions. My mom would tell me how much of a laugh they would get when my father would ask someone, “Do you guys have any stuff with Divine?” to which the people would reply, “What?” My dad would answer, “You know. . . the big drag queen guy?” My parents would always be tickled by the looks on their faces! (Keep in mind, we were living in the Deep South at the time.) I like to think that Divine would be amused by that story.
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