In starting this project, I wanted to focus on a prototype that would communicate Leslie Combemale’s vision of how we would describe aesthetically who was an ‘art outsider’. In thinking about this out in my warehouse in Athens, GA, I paced back and forth across my floor for days to determine the best subject of someone on the fringe of their craft. It was no surprise that Divine was the first part of the project. After all, I was a drag queen out in San Francisco, often portraying that “Nina Hagen with a chainsaw” persona for so many years.
Growing up in Georgia, my first encounters with queer culture were 76 miles from my home in the deep south of Athens when I was 17 in 1994. I ran away from home because I had come out of the closet, and was consistently getting beat up in school… and my parents, the hardcore Catholics that they were.. didn’t support it either. Without the support of my peers or my parents, I ran away from home to my sister who lived out there, and moved in with my boyfriend who was in college at UGA. It was there where I would encounter drag queens like Sasha Nicole Stephens, Pebbles, and Cherilyn (The Diva Who Could Be Reba) at my first gay bar called “Boneshakers” at the edge of downtown. At first I had no idea that these queens were lip syncing, and I really thought they could sing just like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, so much that I kept on tipping them while screaming “You should be in a talent show!!” like a crazy person.
While I wanted to be a drag queen myself, it would take years, a few moves from Atlanta, to Philadelphia, and a cross-country journey to Chicago, Denver, Las Vegas, to Santa Cruz and beyond. It wasn’t until a fateful night in Guerneville, CA at an event called “Russian River Massacre” on Halloween where I would befriend a queen named Peaches Christ, that I would realize my fate as a drag queen, and where exactly I would lie in that spectrum.
I always loved the idea of drag, but my circle-peg self never fit that circle-peg shape in the drag community until San Francisco. Fully realized, and fully supported by my aesthetic, I took to the stage as a weird, punk rock and campy drag queen out in the South of Market District at The Stud Bar for Heklina’s “Trannyshack”.
It was here where I became a painter, as the drag queens in the bar would watch me draw on napkins my various cartoons.. .and soon I would not only be booked for drag shows, but would be commissioned for portraits. While I wasn’t wholeheartedly accepted for my work by galleries and fine art society, I was, in fact, deeply accepted by the drag underground of San Francisco, and that was far more important to me than anything else.
This eccentric drag.. this acceptance to being beyond the norm in gender performance and the ability to paint eccentric drag personalities, would have never been an opportunity without the revolutionary style of Divine.
Harris Glen Milsted was born on October 19th, 1945 at the Women’s Hospital out in Baltimore, Maryland. He was raised in the suburbs of Baltimore in a town called Luthersville, where he would encounter many hardships for his weight and femininity. On life in Luthersville, Divine said “They used to wait for me everyday to beat me up after school, to the point where I was quite black and blue, and I was afraid to say anything cause they would have threatened my life… I really hated school and the whole situation”
Being an outsider, Divine found people like himself who were on the fringe of society, especially in the queer counter culture crowd of Baltimore, Maryland. David Lochary (hair stylist) and John Waters (aspiring film maker at the time) were two of his closest friends, and who would be the MOST influential people to develop his persona in his time. When Glen would travel with them to D.C., they’d take him to the underground (and illegal) drag pageants where he’d learn about drag culture. Because he was overweight, he never quite fit in with the drag crowd, who sought to replicate westernized homonormative culture by appearing as ‘passing’, “thin’, and ‘beautiful’ as possible. Realizing that he’d never fit in, and through the influence of being beyond homonormative through David and John, Divine transformed himself into the first gender illusionist to break all barriers by transforming himself beyond woman, and into a surrealist gender-bending sculpture of himself.
He became John Waters’ muse, often putting himself in shocking situations that forever imprinted his face in the minds of people. First films like Mondo Trasho, Eat Your Makeup, and Multiple Maniacs, to higher grossing films like Pink Flamingos, Polyester, Female Trouble, and the critically acclaimed “Hairspray”.. Divine became the pioneer for experimental drag and the face of counter-culture queer cinema in the 1960’s.
You could feel the remnants of him in San Francisco even in the early era of the millennium. His work with the legendary Cockettes (an experimental drag experience) out in SF anchored him into the theatre scene with plays such as “The Heartbreak of Psoriasis”, “Vice Palace”, “Journey to the Center of Uranus”, “Divine Saves the World”, and “Divine and Her Stimulating Studs”. This brought him to New York, and to his theatre work with Tom Eyen’s comedy “Women Behind Bars” and “The Neon Woman”.
His weight and femininity, his biggest personal handicaps in his childhood, became nothing more than minor assets to his extraordinary talent. He even went on to become a music star, selling out venues and clubs in an instant with his major hits “I’m So Beautiful”, “You Think You’re a Man”, and “Native Love”.
Divine’s story was and is inspirational and amazing. Rejected by his weight due to society’s unconventional, westernized beauty standards, rejected by his homosexuality, his “non-passing” non-masculinity, and rejected by his adaptation of drag.. Divine used society’s standards against him as a weapon for fame and adoration. Not only did he break the barriers of what people felt was acceptable, his used this rejection as a mirror back at people.. claiming his “queen of filth” title as a badge of honor, and reflected back people’s rejection in great pride.
It was Divine who gave me the energy to move past my turbulent childhood. It was Divine that made me accept my “sissyhood”, my queerness, my off kilter drag persona, and ultimately my love for painting drag queens and counter culture icons.
Divine passed away on March 7th, 1988, and lived for a total of 15,480 days. In this portrait labeled simply as “Divine”, carries his life story, his quotes, and details of his rise from insecure schoolboy to an unforgettable legendary star.