Behind the famous drag queen persona was a man many of us know little about. Divine was born Harris Glenn Milstead in Baltimore, Maryland on October 19, 1945. He was the son of Harris Bernard Milstead and Frances (Vukovich) Milstead.
His mother, Frances, had suffered two previous miscarriages in 1940 and 1943. Such incidents left little Harris (known as Glennie to his parents) an only child. Frances always fought for her son and after his death kept his legacy alive. She became a defender and ardent supporter of gay rights. Mrs. Milstead died in 2009. Harris Sr. died in the early 90s and had a good relationship with his son at the time of his death.
At the age of twelve, Glenn’s family moved to Lutherville, a suburb of Baltimore. Milstead attended Towson High School and graduated in 1963. It was during this time that he became friends with director, John Waters. Waters remembered Milstead was frequently harassed by fellow students during those years.
Beginning in the mid 1960s, Waters would direct him in his first feature film as the outrageous, drag persona, DIVINE. Many controversial films would follow in the 70s and 80s with some of the more famous being Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Polyester and Hairspray. His stage performances, club dates and song recordings also made their mark on the gay/alternative scene. Divine’s increased popularity spilled over into Europe where he had strong following in England, Germany and the Netherlands.
The New York Times said this about Divine’s films of the 80s:
“Those who could get past the unremitting weirdness of Divine’s performances discovered that the actor/actress had genuine talent, including a natural sense of comic timing and an uncanny gift for slapstick.”
By the late 1980s, Waters’ landmark film Hairspray found a wider audience. Milstead wanted to prove he was more than a famous drag queen and that he could excel as an actor in male roles.
On the evening of March 7, 1988, just after Hairspray was released, Divine was a guest at LA’s Regency Hotel. The next day he was to begin taping Fox Network’s television series, Married… with Children. He was to play the role of Peg Bundy’s Uncle Otto.
After dinner with photographer Greg Gorman, Divine returned to his hotel. Just before entering his room he leaned over the balcony and sang “Arrividerci Roma.” The next morning he did not show for work. This caused alarm on the set as he was always a punctual performer.
The autopsy discovered Harris Glenn Milstead had died in his sleep of an enlarged heart at the age of 42. A true innovator of alternative art and performance lives today in the legacy of Divine.
- Kevin Miller