IT'S A DRAG FOR DIVINE, BUT IT'S MAINSTREAM

"I love making people laugh. I just happened to do it dressed as a woman."

When you're a 300-pound female impersonator whose notoriety stems from eating dog excrement in one of the most bizarre films of all time, you've gotta justify yourself anyway you can. The fact is, though, Harris Glenn Milstead, a k a Divine, who first entered America's consciousness in the John Waters cult classic "Pink Flamingoes," is slowly but surely becoming a mainstream movie regular, after years as a superstar on the underground freak circuit.

Divine's latest starring role is "Lust in the Dust," a Western spoof for New World Pictures featuring Tab Hunter and Lainie Kazan. It's playing in New York and San Francisco and is expected to open in Los Angeles in March. But Divine's not sitting still.

In March, he'll travel to Seattle, where he'll play his first non-drag role as a Sidney Greenstreet-type heavy in "Trouble in Mind," a film to be directed by Alan Rudolph ("Choose Me") and starring Kris Kristofferson. Score one more point for sexual liberation.

"I think I'm still in the freak category," said the 39-year-old star, who does not do interviews in drag, and is surprisingly low-keyed in person. "But I'm more accepted. I was typecast for a long time. A lot of people thought all Divine could do was play a loud, beefy blonde."

The reason for that, of course, is that in a series of John Waters pictures ("Female Trouble," "Polyester," etc.) Divine was just that: loud, raucous and foul-mouthed, dressed garishly, with makeup that seemed to owe more to embalming techniques than a department-store cosmetic counter. A bizarre combination of sexual perversity, avant-garde sensibility and camp attitudes, Divine became a favorite on the midnight movie scene, and a highly sought-after nightclub performer.

"The character is a real person," said Divine. "Sometimes she's just too bold, but she has socially redeeming qualities, no matter what she does. She's her own person, and a lot of people like that. The camp element especially is something out of the ordinary, this big man playing a sexy woman."

The camp element also tends to make Divine's real appearance something of a shock. Interviewed in his manager's trendily tasteful Upper West Side apartment (Warhol serigraphs on the wall, soothing color scheme and expensive trinkets scattered around), Divine was, except for his zebra-striped loafers, dressed as conservatively as any overweight stockbroker. About 5-feet-10, balding, with a fringe of cocaine-white hair, Divine was wearing a striped dress shirt, black pants and light lavender socks. Weighing in at slightly less than 300 pounds, with sallow skin and a husky voice, his puffiness made him look like a cross between a eunuch who had passed his prime and Uncle Fester on the TV show "The Munsters."

But his personality proved to be eons removed from his celluloid persona. In reality, he is composed, a bit shy, verbally clever and really no more different than any slightly strange-looking person you'd encounter on the streets of a major city.

"I don't know if they (people in general) expect me to walk in on my head and puke," chuckled the actor, referring to the contrast between his real and celluloid images. "They'll say, 'You are so nice,' like they're surprised. It's a part I play, and I've never confused the two."

Obviously not. Divine just happens to be one of those internalized people who lets it all hang out when on stage or in front of a camera. In that sense, his "big broad" characterization is emotionally cathartic, the result of growing up fat and unpopular in the Baltimore suburb of Lutherville. Only son of a middle-class businessman and his wife, Divine was tortured by his classmates, and lived a vivid fantasy life that revolved around female movie idols and personal dreams of stardom.

"I always loved that tragic look," he said, referring especially to Photoplay-type pictures of stars entering hospitals for police lockups, "the bigger-than-life women. They always have those big glasses and scarfs on, and doctors and nurses always around them. You felt sorry for them, but they had their lips together, no matter what was happening to them. They always looked like movie stars."

His transformation came after high school, when Divine was working as Mr. Glenn, a local hair dresser. One of his few friends from high school was a tall, skinny fellow named John Waters, who had an almost pathological love for trashy films. When Waters began making his own movies (the first one, in 1964, was called "Hag in a Black Leather Jacket"), he soon began casting his fat friend in increasingly more outrageous roles.

The big breakthrough came with "Pink Flamingoes," in which Divine vied for the title of "filthiest person alive." As part of the contest, the actor ate some dog droppings in a scene that has now become as famous as it is gross.checking on this

"I never took John (Waters) seriously at first, when he asked me to do it," said Divine, "but I eventually agreed."

To this day people ask, 'What did it taste like?'

"What do you think it tasted like?" he screamed, going into the cackly voice familiar to Divine fanatics worldwide, "What did you think, I savored the flavor?"

From such moments are cult stars born. Divine became an instant media attraction, but both his parents and the press had a hard time dealing with his fame. "The press criticism made me feel at times like I was someone who had landed from outer space," he said, "and to my parents, being in show business was the worst thing you could be. Especially because I did drag, they didn't think much of it."

In fact, Divine and his parents were estranged for several years. But as the actor's fame grew, not just in movies but also in the recording industry, where he has had several European disco hits (with titles like "Born to be Cheap"), his folks began to forgive and accept. "In the last five years, a lot of that estrangement has changed," Divine reflected. "In fact, I asked my dad, 'Are you embarrassed by what I do?' and he said, 'At first I was, but I feel if I made as much money wearing a dress as you do, I'd wear dresses too.' "

Divine really began to move into the mainstream four years ago, with the release of John Waters' "Polyester." Portraying Francine Fishpaw, a sexually frustrated suburban housewife, Divine was paired with Hunter, and a business relationship was born.

"America is ready for Divine," said Hunter, who, as co-producer of "Lust in the Dust," cast Divine in the role of a trampy dance-hall girl. "There's a vulnerability about this big whale that makes you smile and laugh. Fun is fun, and that's what Divine is all about."

That also seems to be the attitude that the movie industry in general is taking regarding the porcine star. He's been offered roles in horror movies and teen exploitation flicks, and even read for a part in Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner." His visibility is such that, he said, "it's becoming more typical" to be sent major scripts.

Does this mean that Divine is now a mainstream wonder? Is he so tamed down that he will soon be starring in a sitcom or wind up selling oral hygiene products to middle America? Not quite.

"I've never had anyone say they were disappointed in me. I can stand on stage and do nothing, and people will write, 'Divine was outrageous.' "

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