Art & Photography / Who, What, Why

I Am Divine

We consider Jeffrey Schwarz's new documentary I Am Divine, charting the unlikely rise to fame of America's most iconic drag queen, alongside an exclusive clip from the film

Who? She was big, she was bold, she was utterly shameless and at times downright filthy. She was Divine, America's most famous transvestite during the 70s and 80s, who rose to fame as cult filmmaker John Waters' muse. But under the layers of eye-popping make-up, incredible wigs and colourful costumes, she was Glenn Milstead, a sensitive, generous and very talented actor whose story is not so well known, and now forms the subject of a wonderful documentary directed by Jeffrey Schwarz.

"Divine stood for all outsiders" – John Waters

What? Titled I Am Divine, the film is a moving and amusing tribute to a "bigger than life" man, featuring captivating interviews with John Waters, Ricki Lake, and other members of the Waters gang, along with Milstead's mother Frances. It charts Milstead's unhappy, middle class childhood in Baltimore – largely spent being beaten "black and blue" by high school bullies – and the meeting with neighbour and fellow outsider Waters which was to change his life forever. Waters encouraged Milstead to embrace his wilder side and before long he was prancing around in drag in front of the director's lens. The character Divine appeared in Waters' first movie The Roman Candles. "He just said he thought I was divine – that should be my name... so it was that simple," Milstead explains. And so Divine was born.

The duo continued to make films with increasing gusto, subverting convention at every turn, revelling in the stomach-churningly revolting and selling out late night screening slots. Their boldest move was of course Pink Flamingos where Divine's Babs Johnson notoriously eats a dog poo to prove just how filthy she is. People were vomitting in movie theatres, and Divine and John Waters had cemented their position as counter-cultural heroes.

Why? I Am Divine is of course a delight for fans of Divine's work, both with and without Waters – he went on to star in hit Broadway shows, and forge a highly successful disco career. But it is particularly notable in its depiction of Milstead's passion and commitment as an actor – he never forgot his lines, frequently put himself in physical danger for roles and was never heard to complain. He was desperate to be taken seriously, and determined to break away from his revered alter ego to play male as well as female roles. These were things he achieved with his acclaimed role as Tracy Turnblad's doting mother in Hairspray and the offer of the part of Uncle Otto in hit TV show Married... with Children but, in a tragic twist of fate, he passed away from a cardiac arrest days before filming began. Nevertheless, his accomplishments were nothing short of remarkable, as Waters notes, "Divine stood for all outsiders. He stood for anybody that didn't fit in, exaggerated what everybody hated, turned it into a style and won."

I Am Divine is in cinemas and on demand from today.

Text by Daisy Woodward