He was known for tasteless deeds in movies such as Pink Flamingos, outlandish costumes and eye makeup, and for being what People magazine called “the drag queen of the century.” Divine, who was born Harris Glenn Milstead and grew up in Towson, died in 1988 of a heart attack when he was 42.
On the eve of his 70th birthday on October 19, we chatted with his friends and collaborators John Waters and Pat Moran—who are part of the iconic Dreamlanders—about his hilarious moments, professionalism, and not-exactly-thrifty spending habits.
It’s been 27 years since Divine died, but I’m sure you both still think about him frequently.
JW: I’m shocked every day still that he’s dead because he had been such a big part of my life. But, we’re going to spend eternity with him because I bought a grave stone where Divine’s buried. So did Pat, so did Mink Stole, so did Dennis Dermody. We call it “Disgraceland.” So we’ll all be together . . . It’s just that he was in our personal lives. And also, when you have your first success, which we did with those first movies basically, it’s incredibly exciting, and he was a huge part of it.
PM: I have two children, and Divine was my son’s godfather. Packages would come from Herrod’s, from all over the place. He was Auntie Mame.
JW: And Divine took your son to Europe for the first time to work in his nightclub, to tour with him.
PM: He said to my son when he graduated from high school, from Boys Latin, ‘What do you want?’ and he said, ‘I want to go around the world.’ And [Divine] said, ‘We’ll leave Monday.’ And they did.
JW: People ask, ‘What would Divine be like today?’ No one knows that, but, if he was alive, he would have played Big Ethel in A Dirty Shame, he would have played the grandmother part. If he was alive, he might have been too expensive for me. The day after he died, he was supposed to be shooting Married, With Children, where he was playing a gay man on a huge, hit television show, which they had never done before. It probably would have been hugely successful . . . He wanted to play everything. People forget that when I originally made Hairspray, he was going to play the mother and the daughter, like The Parent Trap. And he was about 40 then.
How do you define his legacy?
JW: I think he changed drag queens forever. Ru Paul’s show wouldn’t be there. Ru Paul started a long time ago, I’ve got to give him some credit, and Ru Paul also has a great look out of drag, something that Divine struggled with. Except towards the end, when he wore men’s suits and looked like a very handsome, distinguished man.
PM: He looked great, he just happened to be a heavier man.
JW: His legacy was that he made all drag queens cool. They were square then, they wanted to be Miss America and be their mothers.
JW: Divine frightened drag queens because he would show up with a chainsaw and [makeup artist] Van Smith would put fake scars on his face, wearing mini skirts when you’re 300 pounds. He broke every rule. And now every drag queen, every one that’s successful today is cutting edge.
PM: He also was revolutionary with the drag queens because no longer did you have to be a showgirl, you could be anything. Five-feet-tall, 500 pounds, it didn’t matter, there was space for you. Divine was an underdog, and he was very much tormented in school because he was very effete. But he found his niche. We all were oddballs, I guess, but we all somehow stayed together and remained friends forever.
So much has happened for LGBTQ rights since Divine’s death. What would he think about the state of things now?
JW: It’s funny because in the early 1970s, as a complete joke, his boyfriend at the time had a gay wedding. And it was thought of as the most ridiculous joke in the world, but it was the first time I’d ever even heard of a gay wedding, it was in Provincetown, MA. Divine would have liked it because he loved weddings and spending money and flowers and everything, so he probably would have gotten married.
PM: You think?
JW: Yeah. If he could have gotten married he might have just looked at it as another excuse to have a party.
PM: That’s very possible. But while we were all very left wing politically, he was looking at Vogue magazine and trying to pick out flowers for the weekend.
JW: He said to me, ‘Can’t we just see movies about rich people?’ He was hardly a hippie. When we used to hang around Pete’s Hotel, where Edith [Massey, actress in Pink Flamingoes] worked, he hated it. [He’d say] ‘I’m not going down to that horrible place.’ He lived like a movie star even when he had not one penny.
The extravagant parties he used to have at the Belvedere Hotel sound legendary.
PM: Until the bills came, and you were his parents.
JW: [One of my] favorite stories about the Belvedere was when we were making Hairspray, he used to smoke pot with the maids that worked there. And they’d come in to get him for rehearsal, and he’d be under the covers with the maid, watching TV, smoking pot.
PM: Watching soap operas and smoking pot. Not bad.
Do you have any other particular favorite stories about Divine?
PM: So many that you don’t have time.
JW: Divine was fiscally irresponsible. I mean, they’re funny stories. When he died, he had given his mother a swimming pool, and I think they had to fill it in.
PM: Divine’s dead, and there’s a big, fat hole in her yard in Florida. Also, I believe at the opening of Hairspray, he had a mink coat delivered to her. But then, shortly thereafter, as you know he died shortly after that, they said, ‘Well, this was rented.’
JW: He told his mother he had to take it back to get it monogrammed, and then he said, ‘I’ll figure out how to pay for it.’ His father used to say to him, ‘What are you thinking about?’ And that’s a fair question.
PM: He would go to the mailbox when the bills came and throw them in the trash.
JW: No, he’d rip them up so his parents never knew. And the best story, and I tell this at my Christmas show, is that Watson’s Garden Supply was always the place where he got in so much trouble because he was writing bad checks. And the police came, and he said, ‘I didn’t do it,’ he completely lied. And they said, ‘Well, you’re taking a lie detector test,’ and he took it and passed. That’s acting. When you can pass a lie detector test, you are a brilliant actor.
Despite all of that, it sounds like he had quite a work ethic.
JW: He loved to work. He was tireless. When we made so many of those movies, oh Pat, you know, we had 20-hour days.
PM: Absolutely. It’d be a freezing cold day and you’d say, ‘Ok Divine, jump in the Gunpowder River, swim across. We only have one costume so you better make it work.’
JW: And hit your mark.
PM: And hit your mark, and don’t go out of frame because we can’t do it again. Whenever you hear some alleged movie star or actor say, ‘I couldn’t do that unless I had this, that, or the other,’ this poor thing had to crawl through frozen pig shit.
JW: They say, ‘I did my own stunt,’ but you haven’t crawled through pig shit, you didn’t eat shit, so shut up.
When you asked him to do some of those things, could you believe he did it?
JW: Eating shit was something at the very beginning we knew it was going to be the end [of Pink Flamingoes.] Forty years later, did we think the Museum of Modern Art would own a print of it? No. To be honest, it wasn’t that huge of a deal. It became a huge deal. It was in the script, he did it. I only did one take, I’m not a sadist, and it was over. But it became legend. And then he got sick of it, which I don’t blame him. He got sick of talking about it, because people were frightened of him. They thought, ‘Oh my god, these people really live in a trailer and kill people.’ That’s what they thought. It was filmed so badly it looked like a snuff film.
Did he share in the debauchery with you?
JW: It was like a political move.
PM: We were all included. Every one of us was an outlaw.
JW: It was group madness. It was like a political act of terrorism about the tyranny of good taste. We didn’t talk about that, but it was a political action in some ways.
PM: It was different than being a hippie. We didn’t look like that.
JW: We were yippies more.
PM: Some of us had political aspirations and stuff. We went to all the marches in Washington [D.C.]. Wherever we could go to start trouble, we were there. Except Divine wasn’t going.
JW: He wanted a mink coat.
PM: He was home looking at a flower book.
Was there a difference between his public and private persona?
JW: Divine was not at all like the character Divine. He was a quiet gentleman who liked to eat and smoke pot, and was very loyal to his friends. He didn’t just have gay friends—he lived with a gangster once. At least half his friends were definitely straight, and he got along with everybody. And very generous.
PM: And very international.
JW: Yeah, he had great happiness in London. I had dinner with Boy George in London last week, and he has a huge Divine tattoo on his arm. It’s very sweet—so many people have tattoos of Divine. When I go on these tours I cannot tell you, I’ve seen hundreds of people with Divine tattoos.
What’s the one thing the reminds you the most of him?
JW: Christmas, because he was a Christmas fanatic. We all like Christmas, too. I still have a cashmere blanket he gave me [for Christmas]. I was under it last night. I don’t know how the hell he paid for it. Maybe he didn’t. I hope it is stolen. It’s even better.
Do you guys still celebrate his birthday?
PM: Not really. We say it on the phone that day, but we don’t go around saying, ‘Here’s a cake for Divine.’ We’ll say, ‘God, can you believe it? He would be 70 this year.’
JW: He died when he was 42, which was younger than my friends’ children. It is shocking that Divine would be 70. Oh my god.
We aren’t the only ones paying tribute to Divine this month. Local radio station WTMD is holding a birthday party on October 16, featuring music, re-enactments of Divine’s famous movie scenes, and even a psychic.