Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of Harris Glenn Milstead, better known as Divine.
I remember the first time I saw the cover of Pink Flamingos. It was in a now-defunct but well-loved video store in downtown Halifax called Critic’s Choice. It was the kind of place that rented out art-house flicks, anime and British television comedy series. The videos were arranged by director or by country of origin. You could find Kieslowski standing next to Almodóvar, who was just around the corner from Waters. It was there that Divine stood, resplendent in her red fishtail dress, a loaded gun in her clenched fist. This was a movie I had to see.
The owner of the store gave me a knowing look as I brought it up to the counter. “Have you see this before?” she asked. I told her no, but that I had seen Waters’ later films, such as Cry Baby and Hairspray. “Do you know about the famous scene at the end?” she asked. Yes, I had heard about a large drag queen eating dog shit on screen. I wanted to see it, and see if I could handle it (this in the days before Goatse and fark.com). “The dog shit is nothing,” she said as her eyebrows went up, shooting me a “You don’t know what you’re in for” look.
She was right. I didn’t know what I was in for. And I would like to thank her, and thank Divine for opening my eyes.
But there is more to Divine than dog shit. Divine was a trailblazer in the truest sense. Her wardrobe and sense of style were beyond what most drag performers would dare to wear on their bodies and faces. She was out there, reeking of chutzpah and hairspray. The characters she brought to life — Dawn Davenport, Francine Fishpaw and Rosie Velez — were beyond belief, and not because they were performed by a man in a dress, but because Divine made us love her. She did more than just act. She modelled, did talk shows, and had a career as a singer, recording some of the most popular early hi-NRG records out there.
This is not to say that Divine always loved being Divine. He was quoted as saying that his favourite part of drag was getting out of drag: the clothes, the makeup. He wanted to be taken somewhat seriously as an actor and was about to tape a performance as Uncle Otto on Married with Children. Unfortunately, Divine passed away from an enlarged heart before taping the episode.
But the legend that is Divine has never died. New generations of filmgoers and queers discover her all the time and love her. Drag performers still perform homages to her, either in direct impersonation or by channelling her “fuck you” attitude to beauty and femininity.
On a personal note, I used to use Divine as a sort of litmus test for potential boyfriends: we would watch Pink Flamingos, and if they could handle it, then we would have another date.
When I returned the video to the store, the clerk asked me what I thought of my first viewing of Pink Flamingos. I told her I loved it and quoted a line or two from it. She went on to tell me that in Nova Scotia, there is a list of films that are not to be rented or distributed in stores. It’s mostly a list of pornographic titles, but amongst the cocksucking and fucking is a lone title: Pink Flamingos. She and the owners of the store would keep a copy on hand as long as possible – it would often get stolen or “not returned” – until some day when the “thought police” would come in and remove it, telling the owners of the store that it was not permissible to rent the film. They would walk out the door, and a call would be placed to get another copy.
I think Divine would be proud of that. She would probably pronounce her famous “Fuck you very much” to the people who put her on – and off – those shelves. As do I.