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Here's How John Waters And Drag Icon Divine Forever Changed Pop Culture
Pride Month

Here's How John Waters And Drag Icon Divine Forever Changed Pop Culture


More than 50 years after his first feature film, John Waters remains one of queer cinema's most prolific visionaries, combining dark humor and a camp aesthetic to create a distinct, provocative style that defined his hometown of Baltimore for a generation of moviegoers.

In honor of LGBTQ Pride Month, Seattle journalist Matt Baume breaks down three early films that Waters himself dubbed the "trash trilogy": 1972's "Pink Flamingos," 1974's "Female Trouble," and 1977's "Desperate Living."

Two of those amateur films, "Pink Flamingos" and "Female Trouble," are best known for featuring indelible performances by drag icon Divine, dubbed the "drag queen of the century" by People. The actor was Waters' longtime muse, and their collaboration reached a creative apex with 1988's "Hairspray," which was well received by critics and became a cult classic.

Matt Baume's take on John Waters and Divine is available below.

Divine died of a heart attack three weeks after the film's release, so he never got to see it's success firsthand, but as Baume explains, the actor's legacy lives on in later iterations of the film and beyond.

“Hairspray” was reimagined as a Broadway musical in 2002, with Harvey Fierstein starring as Edna Turnblad, the role originated by Divine in the film, and it was adapted as a 2007 film with John Travolta as Edna. In 2016, NBC aired a live staging with Fierstein reprising his Tony-winning Broadway performance.

Divine has also been cited as the inspiration for Disney's "The Little Mermaid" sea witch Ursula. The film's lyricist, Howard Ashman, was a fan of Waters' films and is said to have suggested Ursula's Divine-like visage to both studio animators and actor Pat Carroll, who voiced the character.

Baume, author of the 2015 book "Defining Marriage," believes Waters and Divine's influence on family entertainment stems from a shared "vision of a world where honesty is valued above all else," despite their subversive legacies.

“Waters’ films have an unlikely morality hidden beneath all the sex and cannibalism,” Baume said, adding that “the real heroes are the ones who are unafraid to be their true selves; strange as it may seem, the word that I keep coming back to when trying to describe his movies is ‘wholesome.’”

“Who could have guessed that the road to such pleasant entertainment could have begun with a bunch of amateur films that were so trashy, sleazy, and queer that the crew got arrested in the middle of filming one of them?” he continued.

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