Glenn "Divine" Milstead's high school yearbook photo at age 17
Harris Glenn Milstead was born on October 19, 1945, at the Women's Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. His father, Harris Bernard Milstead (May 1, 1917 – March 4, 1993), after whom he was named, had been one of seven children born in Towson, Maryland to a plumber who worked for the Baltimore City Water Department. Divine's mother, Frances Milstead (née Vukovich; April 12, 1920 – March 24, 2009), was one of fifteen children born to an impoverished Serb immigrant couple who had grown up near Zagreb (in today's Croatia) before moving to the United States in 1891. When she was 16, Frances moved to Baltimore where she worked at a diner in Towson, here meeting Harris, who was a regular customer. Entering into a relationship, they were married in 1938 before both gaining employment working at the Black & Decker factory in Towson. Due to his problems with muscular dystrophy, Harris was not required to fight for the U.S. armed forces in the Second World War, and instead Harris and Frances worked throughout the war in what they saw as "good jobs". Attempting to conceive a child, Frances suffered two miscarriages in 1940 and 1943.
By the time of Divine's birth in 1945, the Milsteads were relatively wealthy and socially conservative Baptists. Later describing his upbringing, Divine would recollect: "I was an only child in, I guess, your upper middle-class American family. I was probably your American spoiled brat." His parents lavished almost anything that he wanted upon him, including food, and he became overweight, a condition he lived with for the rest of his life. Divine preferred to use his middle name, Glenn, to distinguish himself from his father, and was referred to as such by his parents and friends.
At age 12, Divine and his parents moved to Lutherville, a Baltimore suburb, where he attended Towson High School, graduating in 1963. Bullied because of his weight and perceived effeminacy, he later reminisced that he "wasn't rough and tough" but instead "loved painting and I always loved flowers and things." Due to this horticultural interest, at 15 he took a part-time job at a local florist's shop. Several years later, he went on a diet that enabled him to drop in weight from 180 to 145 pounds (82 to 66 kg), giving him a new sense of confidence. When he was 17, his parents sent him to a psychiatrist, where he first realized his sexual attraction to men as well as women, something then taboo in conventional American society. He helped out at his parents' day care business, for instance dressing up as Santa Claus to entertain the children at Christmas time. In 1963, he began attending the Marinella Beauty School, where he learned hair styling and, after completing his studies, gained employment at a couple of local salons, specializing in the creation of beehives and other upswept hairstyles. Milstead eventually gave up his job and for a while was financially supported by his parents, who catered to his expensive taste in clothes and cars. They reluctantly paid the many bills that he ran up financing lavish parties where he would dress up in drag as his favourite celebrity, actress Elizabeth Taylor.
John Waters and Divine's first films: 1966–68
Milstead built up a large collection of friends, among them David Lochary, who became an actor and costar in several of Divine's later films. In the mid-1960s, Milstead befriended John Waters through their mutual friend Carol Wernig; Waters and Milstead were the same age and from the same neighborhood, and both embraced Baltimore's countercultural and underground elements. Along with friends like Waters and Lochary, Milstead began hanging out at a beatnik bar in downtown Baltimore named Martick's, where they associated with hippies and smoked marijuana, bonding into what Waters described as "a family of sorts". Waters gave his friends new nicknames, and it was he who first called Milstead "Divine". Waters later remarked that he had borrowed the name from a character in Jean Genet's novel Our Lady of the Flowers (1943), a controversial book about homosexuals living on the margins of Parisian society, which Waters – himself a homosexual – was reading at the time. Waters also introduced Divine as "the most beautiful woman in the world, almost", a description widely repeated in ensuing years.
"Divine. That's my name. It's the name John [Waters] gave me. I like it. That's what everybody calls me now, even my close friends. Not many of them call me Glenn at all anymore, which I don't mind. They can call me whatever they want. They call me fatso, and they call me asshole, and I don't care. You always change your name when you're in the show business. Divine has stuck as my name. Did you ever look it up in the dictionary? I won't even go into it. It's unbelievable."
— Divine, 1973.
Waters was an aspiring filmmaker, intent on making "the trashiest motion pictures in cinema history". Many of his friends, a group which came to be known as "the Dreamlanders" (and who included Divine, Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce and Mink Stole), appeared in some of his low-budget productions, filmed on Sunday afternoons. Following the production of his first short film, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket (1964), Waters began production of a second work, Roman Candles (1966). This film was influenced by the pop artist Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls (1966), and consisted of three 8-millimeter movies played simultaneously side by side. Roman Candles was the first film to star Divine, in this instance in drag as a smoking nun. It featured the Dreamlanders modeling shoplifted clothes and performing various unrelated activities. Being both a short film and of an avant-garde nature, Roman Candles never received widespread distribution, instead holding its premier at the annual Mt. Vernon Flower Mart in Baltimore, which had become popular with "elderly dames, young faggots and hustlers, and of course a whole bunch of hippies". Waters went on to screen it at several local venues alongside Kenneth Anger's short film Eaux d'Artifice (1953).
Waters followed Roman Candles with a third short film, Eat Your Makeup (1968), in which Divine once more wore drag, this time to portray a fictionalized version of Jackie Kennedy, the widow of recently assassinated U.S. President John F. Kennedy. In the film, she turns to kidnapping models and forcing them to eat their own makeup. Divine kept his involvement with Waters and these early underground films a secret from his conservative parents, believing that they would not understand them or the reason for his involvement in such controversial and bad-taste films; they would not find out about them for many years. Divine's parents had bought him his own beauty shop in Towson, hoping that the financial responsibility would help him to settle down in life and stop spending so extravagantly. While agreeing to work there, he refused to be involved in owning and managing the establishment, leaving that to his mother. Not long after, in the summer of 1968, he moved out of his parental home, renting his own apartment.
The Diane Linkletter Story, Mondo Trasho, and Multiple Maniacs: 1969–70
Divine appeared in Waters's next short film, The Diane Linkletter Story (1969), which was initially designed to be a test for a new sound camera. A black comedy that carried on in Waters's tradition of making "bad taste" films to shock conventional American society, The Diane Linkletter Story was based upon the true story of Diane Linkletter, the daughter of media personality Art Linkletter, who had committed suicide earlier that year. Her death had led to a flurry of media interest and speculation, with various sources erroneously claiming that she had done so under the influence of the psychedelic LSD. Waters's dramatized version starred Divine in the leading role as the teenager who rebels against her conservative parents after they try to break up her relationship with hippie boyfriend Jim, before consuming a large quantity of LSD and committing suicide. Although screened at the first Baltimore Film Festival, the film was not publicly released at the time, largely for legal reasons.
Soon after the production of The Diane Linkletter Story, Waters began filming a full-length motion picture, Mondo Trasho, starring Divine as one of the main characters, an unnamed blonde woman who drives around town and runs over a hitchhiker. In one scene, an actor was required to walk along a street naked, which was a crime in the state of Maryland at the time, leading to the arrest of Waters and most of the actors associated with the film; Divine escaped, having speedily driven away from the police when they arrived to carry out the arrests. In their review of the film, the Los Angeles Free Press exclaimed that "The 300-pound (140 kg) sex-symbol Divine is undoubtedly some sort of discovery."
In 1970, Divine abandoned work as a hairdresser, opening up a vintage clothing store in Provincetown, Massachusetts using his parents' money. Opening in 1970 as "Divine Trash", the store sold items that Divine had purchased in thrift stores, flea markets and garage sales, although it had to move from its original location after he had failed to obtain a license from the local authorities. Realizing that this venture was not financially viable, Divine sold off his stock at very low prices. In the hope of raising some extra money, he sold the furniture of his rented, furnished apartment, leading the landlady to put out a warrant for his arrest. He evaded the local police by traveling to San Francisco, California, a city which had a large gay subculture that attracted Divine, who was then embracing his homosexuality.
In 1970, Divine played the role of Lady Divine, the operator of an exhibit known as The Cavalcade of Perversion who turns to murdering visitors in Waters's film Multiple Maniacs. The film contained several controversial scenes, notably one which involved Lady Divine masturbating using a rosary while sitting inside a church. In another, Lady Divine kills her boyfriend and proceeds to eat his heart; in actuality, Divine bit into a cow's heart which had gone rotten from being left out on the set all day. At the end of the film, Lady Divine is raped by a giant lobster named Lobstora, an act that drives her into madness; she subsequently goes on a killing spree in Fell's Point before being shot down by the National Guard. Due to its controversial nature, Waters feared that the film would be banned and confiscated by the Maryland Censor Board, so avoided their jurisdiction by only screening it at non-commercial venues, namely rented church premises. Multiple Maniacs was the first of Waters's films to receive widespread attention, as did Divine; KSFX remarked that "Divine is incredible! Could start a whole new trend in films."