| TOM QUEEN
IN THIS DEBUT column about Columbus LGBTQ History, it seems fitting that we tie in to this issue’s pet theme with the gay icon whose infamous scene with a canine co-star remains unforgettable to any person who has ever watched John Waters’ Pink Flamingos.
The legendary Divine was, in real life, Harris Glenn Milstead,
the only child in a conservative middle-class family who lived in the Baltimore suburbs. Falling in with a group of free-spirited “ artsy-fartsy” types headed by hometown pal, John Waters, Glenn, as he chose to be called, soon began appearing in low-budget homemade films as “Divine,”
a very portly, in-your-face drag queen. Divine’s character
was as over-the-top as her makeup, and as Waters’ films, such as Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Desperate Living, were embraced by the art film crowd, Divine’s legendary career began.
Divine’s fame spread as she recorded a series of disco songs (Walk Like a Man, Shoot Your Shot) that became huge hits in the gay nightclub world. To promote her records, Divine traveled across the country and throughout Europe, appearing to huge crowds of devoted LGBTQ fans (and quite a few straight ones) including three appearances during the late 70s and early 80s at Corbett Reynolds’ legendary venue, Rudely Elegant, which was located in a converted Art Deco movie theater in the then rough-and-tumble Franklinton area of the city. (Look for more about Corbett in the months to come, as his contributions to the city of Columbus and its thriving gay community are very important aspects of our local LGBTQ history.)
By the time of Divine’s last appearance at Rudely Elegant in 1983, her expanding waistline, which had resulted from a legendary appetite, began to take its toll on her health. The dining area in Corbett’s grand manor home on Neil Avenue involved a trip down some rickety stairs to the basement. To accommodate Divine’s decreased mobility, and to prevent an accident, Corbett and his son, Andy Jensen, served lunch to Divine on the cozy front porch of the home. Imagine driving down Neil Avenue that day, and seeing the first international drag superstar nibbling on a sandwich!
Divine’s star continued to rise, thanks in large part to the crossover popularity of Waters’ hit film, Hairspray. Just as Divine was set to achieve mainstream success, playing a recurring role as a man in the Fox sitcom Married With Children, she passed away in her sleep, due to complications of an enlarged heart, at the age of 42. Divine’s character and image remain an important part of pop culture today, including serving as the inspiration for the character of Ursula the sea witch in the Disney animated film, The Little Mermaid.
For those who would like to learn more about Divine, I highly recommend the recently-released documentary film, I Am Divine, which chronicles the drag legend’s rise to stardom. And for all of you dog lovers, you need to spend some time viewing Pink Flamingos. Don’t miss the final scene—you’ll never look at doggie doo-doo quite the same way again.
| Tom Queen