'I Am Divine' Is Like an 'It Gets Better' Video on Angel Dust

By: Daniel Villarreal

You may think you know John Waters' insane drag muse Divine because you saw the original Hairspray and saw her eat dog poop in Pink Flamingos. But the new documentary I Am Divine really shows the man behind the make-up... and it is glorious.

Documentarian Jeffrey Schwarz removes Divine's shock wigs, insane eye-shadow, and brash raunchy talk to reveal Harris Glenn Milstead — an effeminate, Baltimore-born queer who used to get beat up every day after school. Milstead started hanging out with John Waters early into his adulthood and quickly became the twisted director's muse — many folks know that. Fewer people realize that Milstead was a sensitive soul who ran up expensive bills on his parents' credit cards to throw lavish parties for his friends, a guy whose parents disowned him when he came out to them, and an insatiable pot-smoker with a serious food addiction.

Using decades worth of footage and interviews with Divine's closest collaborators, I Am Divine recounts the mad genius and personal hardship that inspired the pop maniac. The film also offers quite a few surprises. For instance, did you know that Divine was an Off-Broadway actress and punk performer who eventually became a successful gay bathhouse disco singer? Truth.

We chatted with Schwarz just before his film's debut at the South by Southwest Film Festival to ask him why he commemorated Divine at this point in queer history.

Gay.net: Divine passed away 25 years ago. Why is it important that we remember Divine now?
Jeffrey Schwarz: Growing up, Divine was picked on, teased and abused. When he met John Waters and his crew he found a group that accepted him, loved him, and encouraged him. He was able to take all his teenaged rage and channel it into the Divine character. He threw everything that people made fun of him for back in their faces and empowered himself. He succeeded in becoming an internationally recognized recording artist and screen icon and gives courage to anyone who’s ever been mocked, ridiculed or ostracized. His story gives us hope that anything’s possible. It's kind of the ultimate "it gets better" story and he's a poster child for misfit youth. I wanted the next generation to get to know their Queen Mother and find inspiration to fulfill their own creative destiny in his story.

These days it seems that modern gay men only get exposed to the drag queens on RuPaul's Drag Race, queens that seem much more focused on glamour and the ability to be funny rather than the sort of savage, over-the-top grotesquery or indie film spirit that Divine embodied. What has changed? Has Divine's mad brand of camp gone out of style?
So many of the queens on Drag Race are going for that glamourous, high fashion model look. Divine was not about that at all. He wasn't interested in "passing" as a real woman, but to accentuate everything that society tries to tell you to hide and accentuate it. He was more of a drag terrorist and certainly would not have been welcome at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. But honestly I don't think Divine's ferociousness has gone out of style at all. He's certainly influenced today's queens like Sharon Needles, Peaches Christ, and Jackie Beat. And John's movies exist in a universe of their own, so they haven't dated or lost any of their edge.

What do you think Divine would have to say about the current state of mainstream LGBT culture, so focused on marriage and workplace protections?
The LGBT community has always had a complicated relationship with drag. On one hand, drag performers are worshiped and adored by gay men, on the other hand they're not looked upon as the "politically correct" image for straight society to accept us. At this time where the LGBT community is quickly becoming absorbed into mainstream society, I think it's important to celebrate outsider artists like Divine. It's always the rebels and the freaks that make life easier for the rest of us. Divine was not outwardly political and didn't get involved in any gay causes. He wasn't a poster child for gay liberation. But just by being so outrageous and unique, just by being himself, he empowered everyone who saw him and told them it was okay to be who they were. He ate shit so we don't have to.

Check out the trailer for I Am Divine below.