I Am Divine

In Jeffrey Schwarz debut feature documentary, Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story, he celebrated the legacy of the B-movie legend of the title. His next film, Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon, introduced the world to porn star and gay icon Jack Wrangler. In his third feature, Vito, Schwarz documented the life of author and activist Vito Russo, a man who helped move forward gay rights. With his latest subject, actor Glenn Milstead and his alter-ego Divine, he finds a subject who hits all bases.

Co-created with his long term friend and collaborator John Waters, Divine was the ultimate midnight movie grotesque. Schwarz love letter to Milstead shows how this shy, chubby kid from Baltimore found his voice as the foul-mouthed, dog shit-eating diva, and was starting to find mainstream success, both as his alter ego and in his own right, when he died of a heart attack in 1988, aged just 42. We spoke to Schwarz about this larger than life icon, ahead of its UK release.

The Skinny: When did you first hear about Divine and see him perform?

Jeffrey Schwarz: Since I was a teenager I’ve worshiped at the altar of Divine and of John Waters. Anyone who has felt like an outsider can certainly relate to Divine’s story and his journey. I had read about Pink Flamingos [Waters’ 1972 film, in which the notorious dog shit-eating scene takes place] years before actually seeing it, in Danny Peary’s Cult Movies and John Waters’ book Shock Value. At the time I had no tangible connections to gay culture, so John and Divine’s sensibility certainly helped lead me down a creative path and was an inspiration. And then finally getting to see Divine in those movies was just mind blowing. I’d never seen anything like it and watching him on screen was thrilling. He was so fully committed to the characters he played. I saw Hairspray first, and worked backwards from there.

What surprised you most while doing your research on Divine?

I was most surprised to find out more about his relationship with his high school sweetheart, who we interviewed. They dated all through junior high and high school. Divine, who was Glenn then, took her to the Prom and treated her so well. He even did her hair and makeup and told her how to dress. She was really smitten with him, in a very sweet high school puppy love kind of way. When he started dressing in drag she was completely unfazed and supportive. They even went to a high school party together with Glenn dressed as Elizabeth Taylor. When he started hanging out with John, David Lochary and all the cool Baltimore beatniks, she really felt left behind.

Your first feature (Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story) was about a B-movie legend, your next (Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon) was about a gay icon, and your last film (Vito) was about someone who helped move forward gay rights. It seems that with I Am Divine you get all of those things rolled into one character – is he your dream subject?

Definitely! He had of course a great sense of showmanship, which also ties him together with the subjects of my other films. And the idea of creating a larger than life public persona to cover up any insecurities these folks might have had. 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.

As you say, Divine wasn’t particularly political, but do you think he was aware of how inspiring and empowering his performances were for so many people?

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 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.

I only knew him from the movies; I didn’t realize he was a hit on stage and that he toured the world as a performer and singer. Was that one of your aims: to show Divine was more than “that guy in a dress who ate the dog shit”?

Absolutely. It was very important to go beyond the layers of eye liner and wigs and hairspray to find the very real man inside. Divine never considered himself a drag queen. He was a character actor who played female parts. He was a fantastic and brave performer, a fine actor, and a warm, generous person. I wanted people to get to know the man behind the mask of the Divine character. He couldn’t have been more different than the characters he played in the John Waters films, but people just assumed he was that way. It was actually a great frustration for him.

It was great to see those very early 8mm films John Waters and Divine made – what do you think made their collaboration so special?

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. And they both got famous in the process, which is what they wanted.
“He ate shit so we don’t have to” – Jeffrey Schwarz

How do you imagine Divine’s career would have panned out if he was still with us?

We’ll never know what would have happened to him after his first taste of mainstream acceptance in Hairspray. My feeling is that he he lived, today he’d be show business royalty. I hope this film gives him what he wanted in life, to be appreciated and respected and not dismissed as a novelty act. I’m convinced he would have gone on to have a successful career as a character actor, which is what he always wanted. I think he would have played more male roles, and taken the wig out of the box every once in a while for a special appearance. I would have loved to see him play Alfred Hitchcock.

The interviews with Divine’s mother are really moving, but there’s a sense that she feels her son lives on through his fans. I feel that about your film too – although it’s about someone who died just as his dreams are being realised, it doesn’t feel bitter or tragic. Was that your aim, to make a celebration of a life well lived?

Yes, and even though he was so young when he died look how much living he packed into those four decades. John Waters said he didn’t know how this film could have a happy ending, but that ended up being the case. Even though Divine reached mainstream success he didn’t live to reap the benefits of that, which is a tragedy, but at the same time he went to bed that night with a smile on his face. He was about to start filming on Married with Children, the happiest he had ever been, and he didn’t wake up. Of course it was a tragedy but I am not sure it’s the worst way in the world to go out.

Looking at the films you’ve directed and produced, you’re clearly a fan of the midnight movie and their stars. Who are today’s cinema equivalents of John Waters and Divine?

I don’t think there really is an equivalent because the underground world where Divine and John emerged from doesn’t really exist. Everything is so accessible with the click of a mouse. Divine became a star through word-of-mouth, with the right people in the big cities saying, “have you heard about this movie where this queen eats dog shit, you have to go and see it”. It was an authentic, grass roots way of becoming a star. He wasn’t being talked about on the front pages of the New York Times, but he was being talked about on the covers of all the underground gay publications. I don’t think kids today know that it was possible to be a superstar and not to make a dime off it. Divine wanted to feed himself, but at the beginning it was enough for Divine that people appreciated what he was doing. Now it seems that if there’s not a dollar sign attached it’s not worth doing. I’m not sure if that’s the right way to go.

Finally, which of Divine’s movies do you like best and why?

Female Trouble, for sure. That’s the movie that he gives the most insane performance in. He goes from a teenage delinquent to a criminal, prostitute, child abuser, fashion model, stripper, murderess, and death row prophet all in the same movie!