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Milstead as "Divine" at Disneyland.
Born Harris Glenn Milstead
October 19, 1945(1945-10-19)
Towson, Baltimore, Maryland,
United States
Died March 7, 1988 (aged 42)
Los Angeles, California,
United States

Harris Glenn Milstead (October 19, 1945 – March 7, 1988) was an American singer and actor best known by his drag persona Divine. He starred in many of John Waters' films, including Mondo Trasho, Multiple Maniacs, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Polyester, and Hairspray, as part of Waters' regular troupe of actors known as Dreamlanders. The New York Times said of Milstead's films in the 1980s, "Those who could get past the unremitting weirdness of Divine's performance discovered that the actor/actress had genuine talent, including a natural sense of comic timing and an uncanny gift for slapstick."[1]


Early life

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, on October 19, 1945, Milstead was the son of Harris Bernard Milstead (May 1, 1917 – March 4, 1993) and Frances Milstead, née Vukovich (April 12, 1920 – March 24, 2009).[2] His mother Frances had suffered two previous miscarriages in 1940 and 1943, and Milstead was raised as an only child. She always fought for the rights of her son and after his death kept his legacy alive, becoming a defender and supporter of gay rights. [2]

At the age of twelve, his family moved to Lutherville, a Baltimore suburb, where Milstead attended Towson High School. He graduated in 1963. It was during those years that he became acquainted with John Waters, who lived in his neighborhood.[2] Waters recalled in later years that Milstead was picked on in high school by other students.[2]

High school yearbook photo at age 17


In the 1970s, Milstead starred as Divine in a number of New York City theater pieces, including Tom Eyen's classic camp women's prison drama, Women Behind Bars, which was a major off-Broadway hit in 1976, playing the lead role of the evil matron, Pauline. Divine returned to the stage in another Tom Eyen off-Broadway play, The Neon Woman, where he played the role of Flash Storm, the owner of a sleazy strip club plagued by a series of murders. Eyen's play was loosely based on famed burlesque entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee's book, The G-String Murders.

Milstead starred in a number of films and was part of the regular cast known as the Dreamlanders. The Dreamlanders appeared in many of John Waters' earlier works such as Pink Flamingos (in 1972), Female Trouble, Polyester, and Hairspray. In 1985 Milstead appeared opposite Tab Hunter in their hit Lust in the Dust, repeating their successful pairing in Polyester.

He is also remembered as a major character in the documentary homage Divine Trash by Steve Yeager, covering the life and work of John Waters.

In 1988, the British film The Fruit Machine, also known as Wonderland in the United States, used Milstead's songs in a nightclub disco dance sequence that showcased an early Robbie Coltrane in drag as "Annabelle", the club's owner (a cross between Divine and Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz).

Late in his career, Milstead also played male roles in his last three films: Trouble in Mind, Hairspray, and Out of the Dark. In Hairspray he played two roles, one male and one female (which he had first done in the earlier Female Trouble). He was also the inspiration for the design of Ursula the Sea-Witch in the Disney classic The Little Mermaid.[3]

He visited Bergen, Norway, in the mid-1980s. At that time, Polyester had been a great success at the local cinema. He was treated as a real superstar by the press and by the audience to his live show. He told in an interview with Bergen Gay Radio that this was one of only a few times when he had experienced this kind of appreciation. Usually he felt he was just some kind of industrial entertainer.[citation needed]

Death and aftermath

On the evening of March 7, 1988, a week after Hairspray was released, he was in Los Angeles staying in the Regency Hotel. The next day, he was due to audition for a part in the Fox network's television series Married... with Children.[2]

After dining with friends, Milstead returned to the hotel, and before entering his room he leaned over the balcony and sang "Arrivederci Roma." Known for his punctuality when working, people became concerned when he did not appear on the set the next morning. His manager, Bernard Jay, went to the hotel at noon to check on him, and used his pass key for access. The autopsy found he had died in his sleep of an enlarged heart at the age of 42.[1]

Milstead's grave at Prospect Hill Park Cemetery, Towson, Maryland

The request was made that no money be donated to charity in Divine’s name, but for people to buy flowers, because he loved them so much. Elton John sent a huge batch, as did Tab Hunter and Whoopi Goldberg – along with a card that read, "See what a good review will do?" According to the E! True Hollywood Story documentary about Divine, the card from Fox read, "If you didn't want the job, all you had to do was say so."

In 1994, Milstead's manager, Bernard Jay, wrote a biography of him, Not Simply Divine.[4] Antony Hegarty of the band Antony and the Johnsons wrote a song about Divine which was included in the group's self-titled debut album, released in 1998. The song, titled "Divine", was an ode to Divine, who was one of Antony's life-long heroes. His admiration is especially evident in the lines: "He was my self-determined guru" and "I turn to think of you/Who walked the way with so much pain/Who holds the mirror up to fools".

In 2001, Milstead's mother Frances wrote My Son Divine about her sometimes fractious relationship with her son. She was later portrayed in a film Frances: A Mother Divine.[2][5] As of 2009, I Am Divine, a documentary on Milstead's life, is being developed by Los Angeles production company Automat Pictures and producer Jeffrey Schwarz.



Divine performing I'm So Beautiful.

In the 1980s, Divine released several dance music records which were club music hits in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia. Divine's records comprised synth-heavy Hi-NRG music, most of it composed, created, performed, and produced by Bobby Orlando. In the United States, Divine's highest-charting songs were "Native Love", peaking at #21 on the Club Play Singles chart, and "Shoot Your Shot", which reached #39 among Club Play Singles. Divine's early UK releases on the Design Communications label included "Love Reaction" (which "borrowed" elements of New Order's big hit "Blue Monday")[6], "Shake It Up", and "Shoot Your Shot". All of these releases were big gay club hits and minor mainstream chart hits[citation needed]. The Stock, Aitken & Waterman-produced song "You Think You're A Man" was Divine's most successful UK hit, reaching #16; the song was also a Top 10 hit in Australia, reaching #8 (Due in part to a popular promotional tour in that country which included an appearance on the popular Australian music show Countdown.) Among the material Divine released on the Proto label in the United Kingdom was "I'm So Beautiful" (the follow-up single to "You Think You're A Man"), "Walk Like A Man" and "Twistin' the Night Away". These Proto label tracks saw their initial CD release on the "Maid In England" album and compilation of tracks from his Proto catalogue, entitled The Essential Divine, is currently available on iTunes.



CD reissues

  • The Story So Far - (1988, Receiver Records, KNOB 3)
  • The Best Of & The Rest Of - (1989, Action Replay Records, CDAR 1007)
  • Maid In England - (1990, ZYX Records, CD 9066)
  • The Best Of Divine: Native Love - (1991, "O" Records, HTCD 16-2)
  • The 12" Collection - (1993, Unidisc Music Inc., SPLK-7098)
  • Jungle Jezebel - (1994, "O" Records, HTCD 6609)
  • The Cream Of Divine - (1994, Pickwick Group Ltd., PWKS 4228) UK compilation featuring the Proto label 12" versions.
  • Born To Be Cheap - (1994, Anagram Records, CDMGRAM 84) - Live album.
  • Shoot Your Shot - (1995, Mastertone Multimedia Ltd., AB 3013)
  • The Remixes - (1996, Avex UK, AVEXCD 29) - new remixes by Jon of the Pleased Wimmin, Mark Moore, Hybrid, Checkpoint Charlie, Hyper Go Go, & Aquarius.
  • The Originals - (1996, Avex UK, AVEXCD 30)
  • The Best Of Divine - (1997, Delta Music, 21 024)
  • Greatest Hits - (2005, Unidisc Music Inc., SPLK-8004)
  • The Greatest Hits - (2005, Forever Gold, FG351) - Dutch compilation featuring some rare mixes.
  • Greatest Hits: The Originals and the Remixes - (2009, Dance Street Records, DST 77226-2) - US 2CD reissue of the 1996 Avex UK CDs.


Disco and Hi-NRG dance hits:

  • Native Love (Step By Step) - (1982) (U.S. #21 Club Play Singles, NL #34)
  • Shoot Your Shot - (1983) (U.S. #39 Club Play Singles, NL #3)
  • Love Reaction - (1983) (UK #65, NL #18)
  • Shake It Up - (1983) (UK #82, NL #16)
  • You Think You're A Man - (1984) (UK #16, Australia #8)
  • I'm So Beautiful - (1984) (UK #52)
  • T Shirts and Tight Blue Jeans (1984)
  • Walk Like A Man - (1985) (UK #23)
  • Twistin' The Night Away - (1985) (UK #47)
  • Hard Magic - (1985) (UK #87)
  • Little Baby - (1987)
  • Hey You! - (1987)


External links


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