The late Divine, originally named Harris Glenn Milstead, was a resident of Baltimore who gained global fame as an unconventional and entertaining drag performer. Milstead and his friend, the avant-garde filmmaker John Waters, collaborated on several low-budget and controversial films in the early 1970s.
Divine’s success extended beyond the big screen, with chart-topping hits such as “You Think You’re a Man” and “I’m So Beautiful.” Sadly, he passed away from a heart attack caused by cardiomegaly. Divine continues to inspire a devoted following despite his death and has been the subject of numerous documentaries, songs, and artistic works.
Milstead was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to a conservative middle-class family. He developed a keen interest in drag while working as a women’s hairdresser. In the mid-1960s, he became a part of the city’s countercultural scene and friends with Waters. Waters named him “Divine” and gave him the tagline, “The most beautiful woman in the world…almost.” Milstead joined Waters’ acting troupe, the Dreamlanders, with his friend David Lochary. They took on female roles in their underground experimental short films.
Divine, who had gained immense love and appreciation from fans and critics for playing Edna Turnblad in John Waters’ movie Hairspray, was all set to venture into television at 42. He had been offered a male character role in the Married with Children sitcom, which had the possibility of turning into a recurring one. However, Glenn never made it to the set. His manager found him dead in his hotel suite on the very morning that his guest appearance was scheduled to tape.
Divine’s legacy lives on through his influence on pop culture. Disney’s villain Ursula the Sea Witch was inspired by his signature look and larger-than-life personality. Many credit Milstead for changing drag culture by breaking the rules and rebelling against typical feminine beauty standards. As his friend and fellow Dreamlander Pat Moran said, “He 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.”