I Am Divine


US | 2013 | Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz

Logline: A documentary on the life and career of Divine, a drag queen, and the muse of director John Waters.

Harris Glenn Milstead was never going to be the shy and retiring type. From his time spent in hair salons as a young boy, he knew from an early age he was destined to perform a little differently. He was bullied at school and although he dated a girl for several years, deep down he knew he needed to step up to the plate to bat for the other team. But it was Baltimore maverick film director John Waters who was instrumental in creating the extreme exhibitionist sensation known to the world as Divine.


This isn’t an “underground” documentary, and as such it doesn’t get its paws anywhere near as grubby as one of Waters’ early features, but it still manages to successfully champion the body of work and the work of body that was Divine, “the most beautiful woman in the world”, and at one career defining point, “the filthiest person alive!”


Divine’s rise to stardom has the result of several key elements: John Waters no-holds-barred approach to no-wave stylistic excess, the early 70s climate of sexuality in society, and Glenn Milstead’s sheer tenacity and fearlessness. After appearing in several of John Waters’ early black and white Super-8mm and 16mm movies that had been showing on the underground Midnight Movie circuit it was the dirty shock glamour of Waters’ first colour feature (a 35mm blow-up), Pink Flamingoes (1972) - made for ten grand, which was a huge budget for Waters at the time – that propelled the drag queen to the attention of Hollywood A-listers who queued with others to see the movie.


It wasn’t until 1984 that Divine finally reached the mainstream he (she) always had dreamed of. It was Hairspray, also John Waters’ most accessible and successful movie. Divine had been on the up and up, having appeared in several more of Waters’ features since Pink Flamingoes, including Female Trouble and Polyester, and also Paul Bartel’s Western spoof Lust in the Dust.


Divine was set to star in a guest capacity on Married ... With Children which, at the time, was one of the most successful sit-coms in America. But Milstead’s obsession with eating had done irreparable harm to his heart and on the night before he was due to start work on the TV show he suffered a massive coronary and died in his sleep.

Jeffrey Schwarz has made a very affectionate and endearing portrait of Divine and his conquering of the world of female impersonation to become an international drag icon. Numerous celebrities are interviewed including many of his film colleagues, John Waters, Mink Stole, Tab Hunter, Ricki Lake, but also his mother (whom the film is dedicated to, as she passed away during post-production).


I Am Divine screens as part of Revelation - Perth International Film Festival, Monday 8 July, 7pm, Paradiso, and Saturday 13 July, 11pm, C1 Luna.