Today in LGBTQ+ history…
On March 7, 1988, Harris Glenn Milstead – better known as Divine, the larger-than-life drag queen – died in his sleep of a heart attack attributed to his obesity, at the Regency Plaza Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard in a Los Angeles, where he was staying as a guest. He was 42.
“He was finally getting respect within the industry,” said Milstead’s manager, Bernard Jay, shortly after Milstead’s death. “He was getting the legitimate screen and television offers that showed the industry had finally accepted him as the very good character actor he always knew he was.”
According to Jay, Milstead had had a medical checkup the previous week and was declared in excellent health, other than his weight, “which had been a constant problem throughout his life.”
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, on October 19, 1945, to a conservative middle-class family, Milstead developed an early interest in drag while working as a women’s hairdresser. By the mid-1960s, he had embraced the city’s countercultural scene and befriended filmmaker John Waters, who gave him the name “Divine” and the tagline of “the most beautiful woman in the world, almost.” After appearing in several short films, Divine took a lead role in Waters’ early films including Mondo Trasho (1969), Multiple Maniacs (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974), all of which have achieved cult status over the years, but at the time created a stir with film censors. (No one who’s seen Pink Flamingos will ever forget the infamous scene when Divine as Babs Johnson eats dog feces.)
The risqué movies provided Milstead and his character Divine with a vehicle for fame and notoriety. He went on to have a successful cabaret career in Europe, achieved international chart success with pop hits like “You Think You’re a Man,” “I’m So Beautiful” and “Walk Like a Man,” all of which were performed in drag, and secured movie roles outside of Waters’ universe… although he remained a muse to Waters and would later appear in Polyester(1981) and Hairspray (1988), the latter of which represented his breakthrough into mainstream cinema.
Divine died of heart failure just three weeks after Hairspray was given a wide release in movie theatres. At the time of his death he was preparing for another mainstream role, Uncle Otto on the hit TV sitcom Married …With Children.
Milstead avoided speaking about his sexuality early in his career, but identified as gay and was more open about his sexuality in his final years. Today he remains a cult figure, particularly within the LGBTQ+ community, with his music played in queer clubs, serving as an inspiration to many.