The Divine Wind: The Fat Lady was Harris Glenn Milstead

Posted on Posted in Diva, History

By Miss Tasha LaBlush
[PHOTO] Lynn Davis

Were you ever teased as a child dear TRANSFORMATION reader? Teased because you were different and not accepted by the other children? Like so many transgendered people Harris Glenn Milstead was teased for being fat and effeminate. The name calling and harassment got so bad one day Glenn had to be escorted to school by a police officer. His loving parents decided to move to a burb just outside Baltimore, Maryland. The move would change cult cinema and drag history forever.
As fickle fate would have it, Glenn’s family would move just six houses down the street from a future lifelong friend. The off-beat child was John Waters.
Like many of us inside the pink transgendered cloud, Glenn loved to dress up in his mother’s clothes and wigs. Dressing became his private sanctuary and shining secret. As a teen he would frequent a local drag club and for the first time met a group of people who liked him and understood how he felt. (Sound familiar? Me too.) At a high school Halloween dance Glenn decided to go dressed as Elizabeth Taylor! It was an epiphany that would turn into a career.
In 1967, his friend, neighbor and aspiring film director, John Waters asked him to appear in “Roman Candles.” Glenn had a small but enjoyable part. In John’s next film “Eat Your Makeup” (1967), Glenn would star in a re-enactment of the Kennedy assassination as pill box hat wearing Jackie Bouvier Kennedy.
During this time John came to nickname Glenn – and so was born Divine. Also at this time, John Waters’ mock production company which operated out of his basement, was named Dreamland Studios. Divine, cast and crew became known as Dreamlanders.
Divine and Waters continued making underground movies. In 1969 Divine starred in the “Diane Linkletter Story.” Divine played a teenage Diane battling her parents. It was Waters’ first film with actual dialog.
Divine’s first full-length feature film was Waters’ 1969 “Mondo Trasho.” Blonde bombshell Divine is driving and distracted by a hitchhiker, who she imagines nude, and runs over a young fashion fanatic (Mary Vivian Pearce).
Let’s put down our mascara and take a break from the history lesson to hear from Divine, “People don’t even know the meaning of the word ‘transvestite.’ I don’t live in drag. Now Candy Darling was a transvestite, and a very beautiful one. But I don’t sit around in negligees and I don’t wear little Adolfo suits to lunch. Of course, if I had a couple of Bob Mackie outfits, things might be different…”
While promoting a film in San Francisco Divine met and joined the “Cockettes.” A crazy-quilt caravan of performing bearded drag queens. Some of their storied shows included “Divine and Her Stimulating Studs,” Divine Saves the World,” and “Vice Palace.”
1972 was the year that forever changed cult cinema history. Divine plays Babs Johnson in her most notorious role ever in “Pink Flamingos.” You probably already know what happens in the final scene as Divine follows a poodle around. Suffice to say bon apetit will never mean the same, ha! The outrageous scene has never before been repeated in any film and for good reason! It did launch Divine, Waters and Dreamland into cult celebrity status.
Divine’s favorite film was “Female Trouble” in 1975. She stars as a teenage brat (Dawn Davenport) who runs away from home on Christmas day. She suffers many “refined” mishaps and dies in the electric chair. Oh, to harken back on sweet memories.
After a mistake in booking in which Divine was expected to show up at a Ft.Lauderdale club for a disco act and found an angry mob when she wasn’t prepared, personal manager, Bernard Jay got the idea to take Divine into a recording studio. “Born to be Cheap” (1979) was recorded for Wax Trax Records. Divine begins performing the songs at each appearance. It was the start of Divine’s recording career.
Divine and Waters’ first attempt at a mainstream film was in 1981 with “Polyester.” With 1950s heart throb actor Tab Hunter, the film opens in 50 theatres across America and garners critical praise. The fat lady seems to be on a roll.
Divine’s first recording hit comes in 1981 with “Native Love.” Within months Divine records “Shoot Your Shot” and “Jungle Jezebel.”
Divine is awarded a gold record for the sale of one hundred thousand copies of “Shoot Your Shot” in Holland.
Divine’s biggest recording hit comes in 1984 with “You Think You’re A Man.” It climbed the English pop charts and Divine is invited to perform on the BBC, “Top of the Pops.”
“Lust in the Dust” (1985) is Divine’s first feature film not directed by John Waters. It also starred Tab Hunter and was a popular rental but proved abysmal at the box office.
Divine was offered a male role along with Kris Kristopherson in a film called “Trouble in Mind” (1986). Playing a rough gangster Hilly Blue was totally opposite of any Divine role. He received good reviews but other offers never came. Needing money he returned to the studio for his final single, “Hey You” in 1987.
At long last John Waters calls with a script called “Hairspray” in 1988. The movie, which later became a smash hit on Broadway, was the breakthrough success of both Divine and John Waters’ careers. Divine had serious offers pouring in for both acting and music. Divine effused, “Imagine me a concerned mother. Now that’s acting.”
John Waters recalls, “I remember Divine dressed as Edna Trunblad in ‘Hairspray,’ in a housecoat and greasy wig held back with hairpins, trudging across the studio floor in house slippers and saying ‘No one can ever call me a drag queen again. What drag queen would allow herself to look like this? I look like half the women from Baltimore.’ And he’s right. That’s acting; that ain’t drag.”
When everything seems to being going right that old grand improbability of life cuts in on the dance. Divine was slated to play Uncle Otto, a character Fox Television hoped would become a regular on “Married With Children.” Divine never showed up on the set. Divine was only 42 and just about to embark on mainstream network television in a male role.
On the morning of March 7, 1988, his manager Bernard Jay discovered him dead in his hotel suite, “Divine died of happiness,” declared Jay. The coroner cited heart failure.
Friends called Divine, “Divi.” Last year, 2005 would have been Divi’s 60th birthday. Divine was really a sweet person at heart not deserving of those cruel names hurled at him in childhood. We’ll never know what else he might have done to entertain us. Was he a “Divine Wind?” There was once a great storm of the same name that saved a nation from invasion. Divine helped save us all from taking ourselves too seriously.
When asked about her secret to soft skin a very glam Divine spewed, “Lots of oil in the diet, plenty of French fries and lots of sex!”
Hungry for more Divine? You’ll find Divine movies on DVD. More morsels like Divine was the inspiration for the character Ursula in Disney’s “Little Mermaid” are easy to find on the web. You won’t even have to follow a poodle around to find a book written by Divine’s mother, “My Son Divine.” He may have been Glenny to his mother but to us he’ll always be… Divine.

This article was originally published in Transformation Magazine 61