He’s a rebel and we’re not talking about Phil Spector. He, she (or is it it?) is Divine, the larger than life drag queen persona of Harris Glenn Milstead. And I Am Divine is his fabulous story, darling.

The documentary is directed by Jeffrey Schwarz and tells a warts-and-all account of this complicated character. Milstead was born in conservative Baltimore in 1945 and was a flamboyant, effeminate boy. He spent his early years becoming a hairdresser and was bullied at school. But a cataclysmic event happened when he decided to go to a costume party as Elizabeth Taylor and learned that he too wanted to be a movie star.

Over the years the Divine heroine-monster persona was born. Milstead would collaborate with make-up artist, Van Smith who advised him to shave his head. This allowed Divine to wear excessive, clown-like eye-makeup plus tight clothes, sequins and a fairy-floss-inspired wig. Milstead was also be the muse for filmmaker, John Waters and the two would breakdown social taboos and push boundaries, including those of good taste (consider their re-enactment of the JFK assassination and Divine eating dog poo – the latter event only increasing her notoriety).

The film does not resort to hagiography or over-the-top sentimentality. It instead deals with the serious issues like: Milstead’s weight problems and other addictions. There is also his estrangement and subsequent reunion with his family and his experience with depression over being typecast and burdened by this “huge” character. The documentary features lots of archive footage of Divine in her finest dress plus old photos and interview footage (sadly, some of the key players in Divine’s life – including the big man himself – are deceased).

Divine had a full and illustrious career, from pop star to princess, performer and the lead actress in films like Hairspray and Pink Flamingos. She was a pin-up for the freaks and outsiders because Milstead remembered first-hand what it was like to be bullied. He used the trauma he experienced as inspiration and hurled this abuse at his audiences, much to their delight. And Milstead was prepared to do almost anything, especially if it was considered over-the-top or anarchistic. This means the documentary often shares lots in common with the The British Guide To Showing Off.

I Am Divine is never boring; unbelievably camp and an honest look at one big, gregarious man/woman who could be a drag queen, superstar and miscreant in a single breath. It shows a performer who embraced their true self in order to make their wildest dreams and fantasies an actuality. It was outrageous, strange and unconventional but by gosh, what a life!

Originally published on 10 June 2013 at the following website:

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