Unholy Facts About Divine, The First Lady Of Trash Cinema

July 26, 2023 | Byron Fast

Unholy Facts About Divine, The First Lady Of Trash Cinema

While the word “divine” evokes feelings of holiness, the name Divine, on the other hand, may bring up something rather unholy. Harris Glenn Milstead put on a wig and a dress and, to be honest, didn’t really look that good in them. But that didn’t stop Milstead. In a world where female impersonators tried their hardest to pass as beautiful women, Milstead’s Divine seemed comfortable being what he was: a man in a dress who looked like a man in a dress.  These trashy facts about Divine offer a rare glimpse into the man behind the lipstick and mascara.

1. He Was Spoiled Rotten

Harris Glenn Milstead described his childhood self as a typical “spoiled American brat". There’s a reason for that. Before his birth—on October 19, 1945—his mother had had two miscarriages. In addition to this, Mr. and Mrs. Milstead had recently changed up their lifestyle: from working class to more affluent. Let’s just say that the Milstead’s had a lot of pent-up parental feelings inside them, and by the time he was born, they were dying to spoil their little prince.

Which apparently meant giving him a lot to eat.


2. He Grew And Grew

Milstead’s parents were just over the moon with their baby boy, and they had trouble saying no to whatever he wanted—which included food. As you can imagine, it had devastating consequences. Young Milstead started to gain weight, leading to issues with this as an adult. Ironically, it was this extra weight that paved the way for Milstead’s future fame.

In the meantime, however, it wasn’t  doing him any favors in school. The other children made fun of him for his weight—but that wasn’t the only thing.

Divine facts Wikipedia

3. They Teased Him

The kids at Towson High School, in the Baltimore suburb of Lutherville, liked to pick on Milstead. On the one hand, they didn’t like that he was overweight. The other thing was his masculinity—or the lack of it. Simple teasing eventually led to full on beatings. Sadly, it got so bad that Milstead needed the local authorities to take him to and from school for his own protection.

But Milstead wasn’t about to change his behavior—not for a bunch of stupid school boys.

Divine facts Flickr, Forsaken Fotos

4. He Didn’t Care

The pediatrician had told his mother that Milstead was more feminine than masculine. But Milstead already knew why the kids at school didn’t like him. He knew he wasn’t “rough and tough” like the other boys. His interests were also under suspicion: he liked flowers and art. But Milstead wasn’t afraid. At 15 years of age, he took a step that would put him even more in the firing line of the terrorizing kids. He took a job at a flower shop.

Milstead was somehow weathering the storm—but what was it doing to his mental health?

Divine facts I Am Divine (2013), Automat Pictures

5. He Needed Help

Milstead eventually went on a diet and lost 16 kg (35  lb). His confidence soared—but he still felt like there was something wrong with him. When he was 17, he told his parents he needed help, and they took him to see a psychiatrist. Talking to the doctor, Milstead made a life-altering realization. He discovered that he found both men and women attractive.

Today, this seems a little less than shocking, but in 1962 Baltimore…let’s just say it must have been nothing short of earth-shattering.

Divine facts I Am Divine (2013), Automat Pictures

6. He Had A Girlfriend

While high school was a nightmare for Milstead, he did find someone to bond with. Diana Evans said she dated Milstead when they were both in high school. In interviews she mentioned one kiss and a whole lot of makeovers—which Milstead did on her. The relationship lasted for six years. Their high school prom was a highlight, where Milstead did hair, makeup and flower-arranging.

Now, if only Milstead could find a way to make “preparing for prom” into a career.

Divine facts I Am Divine (2013), Automat Pictures

7. He Found A Home

In 1963, when Milstead graduated, he embarked on a career that would suit his interests: he went to Marinella Beauty School. Here, Milstead learned to style hair and was soon ready to hit the salons, where he specialized in making beehive haircuts. Milstead had finally found a home where he felt comfortable—which makes you wonder why he gave it up so quickly.

Divine facts Picryl

8. He Partied On Their Dime

Despite finding his niche at the salon, Milstead decided to make a dramatic change. He quit his job and decided to live off his parent’s generosity. Obviously, the doting Milsteads still hadn’t learned how to say no to their only child. You could accuse Milstead of taking advantage, as he threw parties that were quite fancy and his parent’s paid for everything.

It was at these parties where Milstead took his first baby steps at drag. His first outfit was a classic: Elizabeth Taylor. And it gave his girlfriend the shock of her life. Milstead had tasted the forbidden fruit, and he wanted more.

Historical Insults factsWikipedia

9. He Found Paradise

Baltimore was a pretty conservative city, but there was one place called Martick’s that attracted a special crowd. This bar—where Billie Holiday had once performed—was becoming known as a gathering place for members of what we now call the LGBTQ+ community. This famous acronym didn’t exist yet, and got called things like “the counterculture,” or “the underground".

Whatever you call it, I’m sure when Milstead walked into the Martick’s doors, he knew he’d found his garden of Eden.

Divine factsWikipedia

10. He Made Connections

Hanging out at Martick’s connected Milstead with all sorts of people. It was the late 1960s and the hippie movement was finally hitting Baltimore. They brought with them their marijuana and progressive ideas. Milstead ate—and smoked—it all up. He collected a group of close friends, one of which was an aspiring filmmaker by the name of John Waters. The two were soon bosom buddies.

Divine and Waters probably had no idea that this innocuous meeting would change both of their lives forever.

Bizarre People factsGetty Images

11. He Got A Name

Milstead and Waters created a group of friends that became a sort of family to each other. Waters was a bit of a father figure—even though he was around the same age as Milstead—and he started giving out nicknames to the family members. Waters took Milstead’s name from a novel he was reading called Our Lady of Flowers.

He borrowed a character name from it to give to Milstead. The name that Waters gave to Milstead was Divine—and it really stuck.

Divine factsI Am Divine (2013), Automat Pictures

12. He Was Almost Beautiful

In addition to a name, Waters also gave Divine an unforgettable introduction line. By this time, Divine was heavily into doing drag, and Waters was a big supporter of this. He looked at Divine in a dress and introduced her as “the most beautiful woman in the world, almost”. The introduction was a hit and, like his nickname, stuck with Divine for many years.

With the nicknames handed out, what was next for this family of misfits?

Divine factsI Am Divine (2013), Automat Pictures

13. They Wanted To Make Trash

Divine and the group of friends who frequented Martick’s realized one day that they needed something to do other than just hang out. Waters was an aspiring filmmaker and the group decided to use Sunday afternoons to make movies. But these weren’t going to be ordinary films. Waters said he wanted to make “the trashiest motion pictures in cinema history".

Divine and the gang came up with a name: Dreamlanders, and they set out to make history—one trashy movie at a time.

Divine factsI Am Divine (2013), Automat Pictures

14. It Was In Bad Taste

The early films of Dreamlanders were very avant-garde. Divine appeared as a nun in Roman Candles and as Jackie Kennedy in Eat Your Makeup—a little too shortly, some said, after the 1963 slaying of her husband. The films were truly trashy and, in many people’s eyes, in bad taste. Divine loved the controversy of it, but he knew his parents may not be quite as excited about the films.

For this reason, Divine’s movie career became part of his secret life. One day his parents would find out, but until that day happened, Divine kept them in the dark.

Divine factsI Am Divine (2013), Automat Pictures

15. They Tried

Around the same time that Divine was appearing in Waters' early films, his parents did something to keep him occupied: they bought him his own salon. Surely they were hoping that running the salon would help Divine find some normalcy in his life. Divine tried to show interest in owning a business but, in the end, refused to be anything more than an employee there, letting his mother run the shop.

You might say he was looking a gift horse in the mouth—but Divine needed to follow his passion.

Divine factsI Am Divine (2013), Automat Pictures

16. It Was Trash

In 1969, after making a number of trashy short films, Divine and Waters were ready to make a trashy feature film. To make it clear what kind of film it was they put it right in the title: Mondo Trasho. In it, Divine plays—who else—Divine and drives around Baltimore with an unconscious woman in the car. Trouble during the shoot started when the script called for Divine to come across a man on the highway—a man without any clothes on.

Divine factsMondo Trasho (1969), Dreamland

17. He Escaped

The day they filmed the scene on the highway with the man in his birthday suit, the worst happened. The authorities somehow got a head’s up about what was happening. Officers caught Divine and company off guard at the on-location shoot and, instead of just shutting it down, began arresting all those involved in the film.

Divine, seeing an opportunity, raced off in the car used for the film. Divine and the Dreamlanders did eventually finish making Mondo Trasho, but nothing could prepare him for the reaction.

Divine factsMondo Trasho (1969), Dreamland

18. He Got Noticed

The Los Angeles Free Press reviewed Mondo Trasho and even singled out Divine as a 140 kg (300-pound) “sex symbol". They went on to give him a dubious compliment, calling him “some sort of discovery". Now, the Los Angeles Free Press is hardly Entertainment Weekly, but this was an actual LA publication that had found and reviewed Waters and Divine’s work from all the way over in Baltimore. It was big time.

I wouldn’t say they had struck it rich, but you could say they had at least struck something.

Divine facts Getty Images

19. He Sold

Divine took his newfound—and still very minor—fame and quit hairdressing. Instead of heading to Hollywood, however, he moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts. Once settled, Divine opened up a vintage clothing store—basically reselling clothes he’d bought for a cheaper price at the local thrift store. Divine also cashed in on his fame. He called the enterprise: “Divine Trash". Clever.

Divine soon realized, however, with his extravagant taste he’d have to make more money to make ends meet. That’s when he came up with a devious plan. 

Divine factsI Am Divine (2013), Automat Pictures

20. He Got Caught

While running “Divine Trash”, Divine was renting a furnished apartment in Provincetown and had a great idea to make some extra cash. Why not sell the furniture in his apartment? Well, the easy answer to that would be “because it’s not yours". No matter, Divine soon had a side hustle selling someone else’s furniture. That is, until the landlady caught him red handed.

Divine factsWikipedia

21. He Had To Run

Divine’s landlady figured out that her tenant was selling her furniture and, instead of talking to him about it, she did something drastic. She put a warrant out for his arrest. It could be that Divine was looking for a reason to leave sleepy Provincetown, and maybe the law chasing him just gave him a reason to do it faster.

Within a month, Divine landed in San Francisco—a great place for a gay man in America to be.

Divine factsI Am Divine (2013), Automat Pictures

22. He Took A Bite

Before Divine could get comfortable in San Fran, he was summoned back to Baltimore to work on another Waters movie: one that would out trash the previous films.  Besides a scene with Divine in a church using a rosary in a very inappropriate way, another scene in Multiple Maniacs called for Divine to eat a human heart. There was just one problem. 

The cow’s heart they’d purchased for the shoot had gone bad sitting out of the refrigerator. I guess no one noticed—or didn’t care—and Divine took a big bite out of the rotting heart. Gross.

Divine facts Multiple Maniacs (1970), Dreamland

23. America Loved Him

After eating the cow’s heart, Divine likely suffered from a divine case of diarrhea, but it was worth it.  Multiple Maniacs was an underground success. Due to its potential for controversy, Waters was careful to keep the film out of conventional movie theaters and showed it only in places like church basements—oh the irony.

Still, somehow America found out about the little film and there was interest—especially in Divine. It was clearly time for more trash.

Divine facts Multiple Maniacs (1970), Dreamland

24. He Wanted It To Be Real

Divine’s next film with Waters was 1972’s Pink Flamingos. The script called for one character to open a package and react in horror—for one utterly gruesome reason. The package was to contain human excrement. Divine, in order to get the best performance from his co-star, decided to secretly make the scene more authentic by defecating into the package for real—the night before they shot the scene

And here’s a segue I thought I’d never use: And speaking of excrement…

Controversial Films factsPink Flamingos (1972), Dreamland

25. He Ate It Up

The script for Pink Flamingos called for Divine’s character, Babs Johnson, to prove how filthy she was by eating a dog's poo. These were the days before green screens, CGI, and even sophisticated props. Divine simply followed the dog around until it did its business and then…well…Divine did what audiences would later do to his performance: eat it up.

Divine’s stunts were getting grosser—and his fans just wanted more.

Controversial Films factsPink Flamingos (1972), Dreamland

26. He Attracted The Working Class

Divine’s Pink Flamingos was a big hit and was soon playing at midnight screenings at the Elgin Theater in New York City. The owner, Ben Barenholtz, noticed something strange happened a few months into the run. The fan base for the film, who were mostly downtown gays, had widened. The audience now included working-class kids from the New Jersey area mixing with the gay crowd.

There was something else happening, however, that made Barenholtz very happy.

Divine factsPink Flamingos (1972), Dreamland

27. They Spoke Along

The owner of the Elgin Theater noticed something strange. Many of the patrons were speaking the lines of the film, along with the actors on the screen. This meant that fans were seeing the film multiple times—which, of course, meant more money for Barenholtz.  The Elgin theater was raking it in, and Barenhotlz was thanking his lucky stars and laughing all the way to the bank.

And what about Divine? How much was he making in all this?

Divine factsGetty Images

28. He Went Too Far

Sure, Barenholtz and the Elgin Theater were making money from Pink Flamingos, but what about Divine? Believe it or not, he was still living off his parent’s allowance. The bank of mom and dad was left paying for anything Divine decided he needed or wanted. Likely, Divine thought this arrangement would last forever—but he was in for a rude awakening.

Divine facts I Am Divine (2013), Automat Pictures

29. They’d Had It

Mr. and Mrs. Milstead had finally had it. Their son was 27 years old and still a huge financial burden on them. They had no knowledge about Divine’s film work so, as far as they knew, their son was doing nothing productive at all. It all came to a head when Divine had car trouble and charged the repairs to his parents—without even asking them.

Divine facts I Am Divine (2013), Automat Pictures

30. It Was Gone

Before Divine could pick up his car, his parents paid a visit to the repair shop. Since they were paying the bill, they figured they should have the car. When Divine got to the mechanics’, his car was gone. Eventually, he figured out what had happened and the emotional movie star went ballistic. Instead of pleading for his car back, he arrived at his parents’ house for his sweet and silent revenge.

Divine facts I Am Divine (2013), Automat Pictures

31. He Walked Out

That night, there were no shouting matches or pleas for a second chance. Divine simply gathered his two pet dogs and left the house. But it was so much worse than just a case of the cold shoulder. It would be nine years until Divine saw his parents again. He did keep in touch with them, but Divine made sure it was a one-way communication.

He sent them simple postcards to let them know he was okay, but they contained no return address. You can be sure of one other thing the cards didn’t say: “Wish you were here!” But Divine was so used to his weekly allowance—how would he survive without it?

Divine facts I Am Divine (2013), Automat Pictures

32. He Went Respectable

Divine had been away from his parents for a while and was actually doing okay without their financial support, somehow buying a house in Santa Monica. This was obviously a big step for the usually budget-compromised Divine, who until this time had been used to charging everything to mom and dad. He was even able to fill his new home with extravagant items all to his expensive yet trashy aesthetic. I’m picturing a lot of leopard print.

James Dean FactsWikimedia Commons, Alexander Migl

33. He Wanted To Be Godzilla

Waters was still a big influence on Divine and even helped push him even further. Divine and Waters traveled to Washington DC. They went not to visit the Lincoln Memorial, but to check out the huge parties there that catered to members of the LGBT community. Here, Waters wanted Divine to act even more outrageous and use his fat stomach as a prop.

He thought Divine should be the opposite of the drag queens who wanted to look like Miss America. He wanted Divine to be “The Godzilla of drag queens". It’s possible that Waters had forgotten that Divine also had a soft side.

Divine factsGetty Images

34. He Wasn’t All Trash

While Waters was pushing Divine to be more extreme in performance, Divine was discovering a softer side to his personality. In the early 1970s, Divine’s friends Chuck Yeaton and Pat Moran had a son and they asked something of Divine that maybe caught him off-guard: they wanted him to be the child’s godfather. Divine accepted and took the role seriously.

They named their son Brook, and the two became very close. But not so close, of course, that Divine stopped being Divine.

Divine factsI Am Divine (2013), Automat Pictures

35. He Fulfilled A Dream (1974)

Divine’s next picture with Waters was 1974’s Female Trouble. There are two standouts from this movie. Divine learned to do trampoline moves so he could do his own stunts, and he also took a second role in the film. The second role was important to Divine because he was playing a male character—something Divine had been wanting to do.

Divine playing both a female and male character in one film gave Waters a trashy idea he just couldn’t resist.

Divine factsFemale Trouble (1974), Dreamland

36. He Did It With Himself

In Female Trouble, Divine was playing Dawn Davenport, a teenager on the run from the law. He was also playing Earl Peterson, a man who picks Davenport up when she’s hitchhiking. Because Divine was playing both parts, Waters had a truly inspired and trashy idea. Why not get Divine as the teenager and Divine as the car driver to get it on?

It was a scene that went down in history. Sadly, Divine was about to mess up his chance at a truly historic occasion.

Divine factsFemale Trouble (1974), Dreamland

37. He Fell In

When Female Trouble finally premiered in Los Angeles, it was at the Las Palmas Theater in Hollywood. It was the perfect place for a trashy premiere as the once-legit theater had recently been showing dirty movies. Someone had the idea to get Divine to put his hands in wet pavement like they did at Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

It would have been a classy addition to the gala premiere, except for one thing. Divine fell into the wet cement. No matter—Divine was on to bigger and better things.

Divine factsGetty Images

38. He Lived It Up

After Female Trouble, Divine did more theater work and even starred in Tom Eyen’s The Neon Woman—which Eyen had written just for him. The play was a success and boasted famous and fabulous audience members such as Elton John, Eartha Kitt, and Liza Minelli. While the play was in New York, Divine started hanging out with a new group of friends—his New York family—and frequenting the oh-so-fabulous Studio 54.

Divine realized that he liked hanging out in clubs, so he decided to try and make a little money while doing it.

Alec Baldwin factsFlickr, Broadway Tour

39. He Cursed

In 1979, Divine had his debut as a nightclub performer. It was in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and, not knowing what else to do, Divine started harassing the crowd with foul language. The partygoers seemed to love it, so Divine went one step further: he started a fight with another one of the drag queens. With those two simple ideas, Divine’s nightclub act was born.

Waters, however, was soon calling Divine back for yet another cinematic piece of trash.

Divine factsI Am Divine (2013), Automat Pictures

40. He Played The Victim

Divine’s next film with Waters was 1981’s Polyester. The role was a departure for him as his character, Francine Fishpaw, was not crass and loud but a timid young woman. Another difference was the inclusion of a handsome love interest. But this was not just any love interest. It was played by none other than 1950s Hollywood heartthrob Tab Hunter, who the press was constantly accusing of being gay.

I think it’s safe to say that appearing in a film with Divine did nothing to dispel these rumors.

Tab Hunter factsPolyester (1981), New Line Cinema

41. He Caused Some Gossip

The tabloids had a field day when Tab Hunter signed up to appear with Divine in Polyester. Not only were the gay rumors intensified, but “creative” reporters wrote that a relationship had started between Divine and Hunter. Both actors denied the accusations, but let’s face it: a story like this did wonders for the film’s popularity.

The relationship was never proven, but Hunter did finally come out as gay about 25 years later.

Tab Hunter factsPolyester (1981), New Line Cinema

42. He Stunk It Up

Besides the supposed relationship between Divine and Hunter, Polyester was famous for something else: Odorama. This was a gimmick Waters revised from the 1960s that allowed audience members to actually smell what was going on in the film. On entering the cinema, ushers gave each patron a card with instructions about when to scratch and sniff.

Odors included in Polyester were: flowers, pizza, glue, new car smell, and even flatulence. Yes it sounds trashy, but Divine was about to get legit.

Divine factsPolyester (1981), New Line Cinema

43. He Made Life 

Divine’s career was continuing to rise, but he still wasn’t really well known in middle America. An article about Waters and Divine in the very respectable Life magazine changed all that. Divine’s parents, now living in Florida, still had no idea about their son’s fabulous new career—until they picked up the magazine. Of course, seeing their son in Life magazine caught them off guard, but it did send mom on an eye-opening journey—into a theater that was showing Female Trouble.

It’s safe to say that Female Trouble wasn’t to mom’s taste, but it didn’t stop her from wanting to see her son for the first time in almost a decade.

Divine factsFemale Trouble (1974), Dreamland

44. They Reunited

Divine was performing at a nightclub and, after the show, he found a note left in his dressing room. It was from his mom and simply asked him to call her. It had been nine years. Divine set up a reunion and arrived at the door with expensive gifts for his parents. He regaled mom and dad with stories of his fabulous life full of celebrity and wealth.

And some of the stories were actually true.

Divine factsI Am Divine (2013), Automat Pictures

45. He Was High Energy

It was true that Divine was a huge success, but the wealth…that was not quite right. Instead of amassing a fortune, Divine was building something else. That would be massive debt. This was mostly due to his out-of-control spending. Divine realized he needed a quick financial fix and saw it in the music industry—specifically in the Hi-NRG genre.

Divine songs like “Shoot Your Shot” and “Love Reaction” were hits in discos across America and around the world. And yet some people still didn’t quite understand Divine.

Divine factsI Am Divine (2013), Automat Pictures

46. They Didn’t Know

Divine finally appeared in a film not directed by John Waters—but kind of seemed like it was anyway. The film was 1984’s Lust In The Dust: a bawdy spoof of Westerns. Strangely, half of the investors in the film were in the dark about something that to us seems glaringly obvious: they didn’t know Divine was a man. It was the second film of Divine’s with Tab Hunter—which refueled the rumors that they were dating.

Divine factsLust in the Dust (1984), Fox Run Productions Inc.

47. He Had A Love Life

The reality was that Divine was not dating Hunter. Divine’s love life was complicated. He had brief affairs with younger men he’d meet while on tour—some of whom he would become infatuated with. He also dated a married man named Lee L'Ecuyer, who he was completely devoted to. At one point, Divine had a relationship with Leo Ford, who starred in such blue movie classics as Stiff Sentence and Best Bi Far #1.

Divine kept his romantic life quite secretive—especially as he began to appeal to mainstream audiences.

Divine factsLust in the Dust (1984), Fox Run Productions Inc.

48. He Hit The Mainstream

If Divine was going to be a huge success in America, he’d have to appear in a movie that didn’t have an R-rating. Waters' first such film was 1988’s Hairspray. Because of the film’s tamer subject matter, Divine escorted his mother to two premieres of the film. It also opened him up to a broader audience and guest appearances on Late Night with David Letterman and even the conservative Merv Griffin Show.

Divine had made it in mainstream America—but it wasn’t meant to last.

Divine factsHairspray (1988), New Line Cinema

49. He Never Woke Up

On March 7, 1988, three weeks after Hairspray premiered, Divine was excited to begin rehearsal for a non-drag guest appearance on the TV show Married…with Children. The night before the first rehearsal, tragedy struck. Divine had dinner with friends and then went up to his hotel room to sleep. Sadly, he never woke up.

The coroner later stated the cause—a heart attack brought on by his oversized heart. His final resting place was back in Towson near Baltimore, where he’d grown up.

Divine factsWikimedia Commons, by James G. Howes, 2009

50. Still Divine

You can still see Divine’s influence in a variety of places: from Ru Paul’s Drag Race to a huge Divine statue at the American Museum of Visionary Art. There’s another, more unlikely, place to get a look at Divine’s influence: Disney. Two old friends from Divine's Baltimore days had gotten jobs at Disney. When they faced the challenge of creating the villainous character of Ursula in The Little Mermaid, they remembered their old friend and used Divine as an inspiration.

Screenshot_39The Little Mermaid (1989), Walt Disney Pictures

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 12

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