I remember a few years back, I watched the documentary I Am Divine and realized that it never did tell me what pronouns the person born Harris Glenn Hansard used. I default to “he,” because he did not consider himself transgender. He was gay, though his manager advised him not to advocate for gay rights (so he’d keep getting work), and how promiscuous he was is apparently a matter of at least a little debate. Either way, anyone who starred repeatedly in John Waters movies is just going to be a gay icon no matter their own sexuality.
It cannot have been easy to be the only child of conservative Baptist parents and be, well, Divine. He was named after his father and went by his middle name to distinguish himself. He got his parents to finance him and considered himself in later years to have been spoiled. He would routinely throw lavish parties—where he’d dress up as Elizabeth Taylor. He’d gone to beauty school and was an expert at creating beehives, a skill you figure came in handy in his later years.
Growing up in Baltimore at the same time was, of course, another young gay man named John Waters. A mutual friend introduced the pair, and they became friends. It was Waters who gave him the nickname and the tagline of, “The most beautiful woman in the world, almost.” Waters cast Divine in his early short “Roman Candles” as a smoking nun and then as Jackie Kennedy in “Eat Your Makeup.” Divine kept these films secret from his parents, and in fact they didn’t know about their son’s acting for years. His mother even bought him a beauty parlor in the hopes that he’d settle down and be a productive businessman. Which clearly did not happen.
I honestly think it’s a tribute to Divine’s acting ability—which is frankly not spoken of often enough—that people keep insisting that the role of Edna Turnblad in Hairspray should be played by a man in drag. And I mean, okay, if you’ve got a man who’d be good at the role, that’s fine. But the role wasn’t written originally for a man in drag; the role was written for Divine. Who, yes, happened to be a man in drag, but that wasn’t the point of the character. You could have Melissa McCarthy in the role, and it wouldn’t change the role, because Edna is always treated as a female character. But it’s so linked to Divine that people forget that, I think.
Though I do suspect that Divine would’ve found it funny to have his role recreated by John Travolta, all things considered. Let’s face it—there are a lot more roles out there for John Travolta, no matter what he’s doing with his career, than there were ever going to be for Divine. Because no one looked at Divine and saw a performer. People looked at Divine and saw a fat man in a dress. Who, okay, literally ate dog feces for a role, presumably because working with John Waters gets you into a certain head space. I’ve heard stories. And I admit, I haven’t seen a ton of Divine’s films, because while I like John Waters, I don’t always actually like his movies, especially his early ones. But it has never been because I don’t like Divine!