Divine is, of course, the name of the most famous (or perhaps more accurately infamous) drag queen of the 1970s and 1980s, and the subtitle to Jeffrey Schwarz’s I Am Divine–“The True Story of the Most Beautiful Woman in the World”–comes right out of Divine’s stage show introduction. But the title is also a commentary on the appropriation of Divine, not as an identity but as a character created by Glenn Milstead, the overweight, gay Baltimore outsider who worked in a beauty shop and found his place with a group of self-described freaks (John Waters, Mink Stole, David Lochary and others) who reveled in ridiculing the culture around them. When Waters started making movies with his friends, Glenn put on a dress, caked his face with make-up, and delivered an outsized, campy performance that channeled Hollywood melodrama, vamping stage diva, and B-movie horror. Waters bestowed the name Divine on Glenn for the credits of their first film together, Roman Candles, and he embraced it with a mad, wild-eyed passion.
I Am Divine opens with the premiere of the original 1988 Hairspray, the film that brought Divine out of cult circles and into suburban theaters and mainstream culture. Glenn had spent years trying to break through as an actor apart from the Divine person and with glowing reviews of Hairspray, as well as a role in Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind (not as Divine but as Glenn Milstead, dressed in a suit and playing a mob boss) and an upcoming role on the TV sitcom Married… With Children, he was poised to finally do just that. He died of a heart attack, brought on by obesity and poor health, the night before his first day of shooting on the sitcom.
I Am Divine is the story of both Divine, the outrageous gargoyle of a glamour queen who both caricatured and embraced drag culture, and of Harris Glenn Milstead, the shy, generous man who was kicked out of the house by his parents when he came out of the closet to them.