Artistic mediums always have innovators, those people who weren’t afraid to try new things with paint, words, light, film. Director Jeffery Schwarz’s new film I Am Divine creates a portrait of how revolutionary drag superstar Divine brought drag from society’s margins to the mainstream in his fearless and innovative way.
Schwartz structures the film around the 1988 release of Hairspray, fixating on the moment when both Divine and director John Waters entered into mainstream pop culture. The two shared a longtime collaboration beginning from their teen years in Baltimore.
We see the beginnings of Divine with Waters’ early films like Eat Your Makeup and Mondo Trash where Divine at first merely served as a supporting character. But Divine was never a supporting character, Divine demanded your attention.
Waters described Divine as a rebel “breaking the rules of drag and wearing things that a fat person wouldn’t wear.” Divine wasn’t afraid to look like a monster, to joke about giving blow jobs to serial killers even to eat dog feces famously in Pink Flamingos. The new film gives us plenty of archival footage showing Divine’s notoriously larger-than-life persona and shocking humor, but it also also highlights the intense work ethic that it took to make Divine shine.
Divine makes insane roles look easy. As a performer, Divine was up for doing whatever Waters asked, from swimming across a freezing river in Female Trouble to touring around the world doing a different show every night.
Director Schwartz illustrates the evolution of Divine’s career from the underground Baltimore beginnings to being a drag superstar, accomplished actor, and disco queen. In doing so, Schwartz shows the great influence that Divine’s career opened up for modern drag performers.
Divine was born Harris Glen Milstead, a kid who loved shiny things, fixing hair and who was tormented at school. Through interviews with Divine’s friends and family, the film sets up the idea that little Harris just tried to fit in—until he met other gay people in Baltimore’s underground gay scene. As Waters says, after that he was “out with a vengeance.”
Above all else, Divine wanted to be taken seriously as an artist—in and out of drag. With the success of Hairspray, Divine was on the verge of critical acceptance before he died in 1988.
Like artistic innovators before, Divine reinvented his medium. First, Divine took drag out of the cabaret world of “female impersonation,” turning it into a darker, more sinister performance, flaunting a body that is seen as socially unacceptable. Waters was always attracted to “bigger than life women” and what is more subversive than showcasing as “the most beautiful woman in the world” someone who’s both the opposite of our beauty norms and who’s actually a man. Divine also brought queer art into the mainstream and proved that queer performers could turn their passions into a career. Rather than acheiving success in spite of his outlandish style, Divine’s mother says in the film that she received fan letters from people after his death who were inspired by his outsider status.
After seeing the film premiere at SXSW, I asked a Divine-devotee friend of mine why she loves Divine so much. She simply said, “Because Divine’s the original.” If it wasn’t already obvious, Schwartz’s I Am Divine cements it.