When it comes to alt-culture icons, they don’t come much bigger or more fabulous than Divine, who was born Glenn Harris Milstead 67 years ago today.
I shouldn’t need to explain to the readers of Dangerous Minds how important a figure Divine was, not just to gay people, drag queens or the plus-sized, but to freaks, misfits and outcasts anywhere and everywhere. I mean, you just gotta love Divine. Anyone who flaunts their flaws that proudly and boldly, turns them into cornerstones of their appearance in fact, should be held up as an inspiration to everyone.
Divine’s legacy has gotten stronger since Milstead’s death in 1988, and in a strange way Divine has come to represent a time when society was both more conservative, but oddly more liberal. What film star would gulp down real, live dog shit on screen these days and be called a hero? I think we need Divine now more than ever, so it’s no surprise to me how truly iconic she has become in recent years.
As today is Divine’s birthday, I contacted Lotti Pharriss Knowles, the producer of the upcoming feature documentary I Am Divine, to discuss the incredible performer, and to get the scoop on their film, which promises to be the definitive document of Divine’s life.
THE NIALLIST: How did this project come about in the first place?
LOTTI PHARRISS KNOWLES: Our director, Jeffrey Schwarz, has been kind of obsessed with Divine and John Waters since he was introduced to their films in college. Many years later Jeffrey interviewed Waters for SPINE TINGLER! THE WILLIAM CASTLE STORY, and many other Dreamlanders for the doc YOU CAN’T STOP THE BEAT: THE LONG JOURNEY OF HAIRSPRAY, and became inspired to make a definitive documentary about the immortal star that is Divine.
TN: How is the Kickstarter going? And when is the finished film due?
LPK: Kickstarter is going great—we made our goal of $40,000 earlier this week! But that goal was the bare minimum we needed to raise to help finish this film, so we are setting a new, “unofficial” goal of $50K to see how far we can get by Friday at midnight when the campaign ends.
We don’t have a specific due date, but we are applying to festivals where, if accepted, we’d premiere early next year. So time is definitely of the essence to make sure we polish the edit, get the soundtrack and graphics completed, and legally clear all the photos and footage we’ve included. And none of that comes cheap!
TN: What personally attracts you to the character of Divine?
LPK: I’ve always been an oddball and attracted to others who are, especially people who are fearless about being different. No one embodies that spirit of the in-your-face punk misfit more than Divine. I also love that while Divine was completely subversive, you always felt a tender heart beating underneath the wild persona—I think that combination is ultimately why Divine’s fans love him so fervently.
TN: Divine’s legacy has gotten stronger since her death - why do you think that is?
LPK: Well, we always seem to truly idolized those who leave us too soon: Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, Divine. They go out when they’re still young and beautiful, and they’re forever trapped in time… There’s something sentimental about that, because the fans are left to fill in the blanks of what might have happened had they lived longer. I also think there are always those new fans coming along, the next generation of folks seeing the Waters movies for the first time, and responding to those characteristics I mentioned. There are always going to be misfits and outsiders, and so there will always be a need for a role model like Divine.
Divine in Melbourne, Autralia in 1984, pic by Andrew Curtis
TN: Where do you think Glenn Harris Milstead would be today if he hadn’t died?
LPK: I think he’d be an accomplished actor with a wide variety of roles under his belt. He had so much talent, and was just about to enjoy a breakout role out of drag on “Married With Children” when he passed away. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have seen Divine live to play Edna Turnblad again in the Broadway musical??
TN: Indeed it would!! Do you think modern society/culture could produce another Divine? And who do you think is closest to that mantle now?
LPK: I think it’s possible but tough, because since the 1970s we’ve already kind of seen it all and done it all in our culture, and no one could truly have the shock value that Divine and the Waters movies did at the time that they were made. There is no one even close to Divine who exists now, but I see shades of Divine’s legacy in people from Lady Gaga to Sharon Needles [check out The Niallist’s interview with Sharon Needles here], Sacha Baron Cohen to the “Jackass” crew—I think Divine paved the way for them and others like them.
TN: What’s your favorite Divine song?
LPK: Maybe a cliche, but I gotta go with “You Think You’re A Man.” It’s classic, catchy, and totally fuck you. I love it.
TN: I have to admit I am a huge fan of Divine’s music, from “Born To Be Cheap” to the Bobby O-produced classics, all the way up to the Stock, Aitken and Waterman productions. For a complete non-singer, Divine really knew how to belt out a song, and by compensating for the vocal weaknesses with pure attitude made for a very compelling performer. I also like the music because it’s overtly gay but takes no prisoners, it’s very “fuck you” which “gay” music hasn’t been for a long time. My favorite Divine track is probably “I’m So Beautiful”, which actually IS beautiful, as well as cheap, nasty, funny, filthy, and funky as hell. Anyway, what is your favorite of Divine’s many looks?
LPK: God, there are so many… But I have to pick the one-armed green leopard print mini-dress from “Female Trouble,” just ‘cause I love how she STRUTS down the avenue in Baltimore in it, and the (real!) reactions from people on the street. That’s the spirit of DIVINE in her purest form!
TN: Thanks Lotti!
I really cannot wait to see this film, and judging by the people involved it really will be the tribute that Divine deserves. You can see the trailer in this Dangerous Minds I Am Divine post from a while back.
In the meantime, here’s a PSA on body image and self-esteem from the I Am Divine camp, featuring John Waters, Mink Stole, Sharon Needles and Latrice Royale, all set to the wonderful tune of “I’m So Beautiful”.
We miss you and we love you, Divine!