Elton John Remembers ‘True Punk Rebel’ Divine in New Book Excerpt
In the upcoming book The Queer Bible, model, editor and queer activist Jack Guinness compiles a collection of essays celebrating LGBTQ history and culture through the eyes of some of art’s most prominent voices. In addition to essays by Tan France, Gus Kenworthy, Paris Lees, Russell Tovey and Munroe Bergdorf, Elton John discusses his life-long love for John Waters muse Divine, the “Queen of Filth” who made indelible impressions in such films as Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble.
In this exclusive excerpt, Guinness discusses the book’s genesis and John details how his love of Divine intersected with his own passion for drag.
Jack Guinness on The Queer Bible
There’s a lovely tradition in the world of Drag, where ‘Mothers’ initiate ingenue Drag Queens into the queer world, schooling the next generation in LGBQTIA culture. I wanted to be able to create a resource that did this for the entire queer community and their allies, and thus The Queer Bible was born. The book is a compendium of LGBTQIA icons writing about someone who helped them to become the person they are today: helping them embrace their sexuality or gender identity, or inspiring their careers. The book features contributors from many backgrounds including music, activism, sports, literature, comedy, art and film.
Elton John is my fairy Godmother – I’d met him and David a few times, but never in my wildest dreams did I think they’d agree to be part of The Queer Bible. It’s a testament to their generosity and passion for sharing queer history with younger generations that they joined the list of incredible contributors. Elton’s sheer joy and passion when talking about his chosen icon, the drag legend Divine, is life affirming.
The AIDS epidemic cut down an entire generation in its’ prime, and stole the lives of so many promising young men and women who would have gone on to educate the next generation on queer culture. Elton and David’s tireless work with the Elton John AIDS Foundation has raised millions, advocated for change and saved countless lives around the world – through education, prevention and treatment. It’s an honour to have them featured in the book.
Editing the essays I understood that there can never be one type of queer experience. No matter our sexual orientation or gender, our point of view is singular, though our trials, tribulations and triumphs may be common. The journey of self discovery is universal. We all have to break away, from the expectations of others and ourselves to live the most authentic versions of ourselves.
My journey, towards an authentic self – gosh I sound like a pound-shop Oprah – has been tumultuous. I spent years as male model selling a certain type of masculinity. I was told by numerous model agents to ‘butch’ it up, whatever that means. I policed my mannerisms trying not to appear too feminine, adopting a ‘straight jacket’ as Matthew Todd calls it in his fantastic book of the same name. In my essay in The Queer Bible – devoted to Ru Paul of course – I describe this act as performing oppressive drag; the opposite of everything real drag stands for. I wasn’t challenging, exploring or playing with gender, I was hiding behind its most restrictive socially accepted forms. I was complicit in my own imprisonment, trapped in a prison of toxic masculinity. So many people, gay or straight, cis or transgender, feel stuck performing gender roles. What a miserable existence. One day, I just had enough. It was making me sick. I lost a dangerous amount of weight and my anxiety was becoming unmanageable. Living a lie takes a terrible toll. When I eventually came out in an interview, a few clients stopped booking me, but then Levis cast me in their Pride campaign. They booked me for the very thing I’d been told to hide. It was completely overwhelming. Things have changed so quickly, there are so many out and proud models now with brilliantly successful careers – it makes me so happy to see!
In these politically unstable times, with LGBTQIA rights under threat the world over, this book couldn’t be more necessary. This was never plainer to me than when one of our contributors was violently assaulted in a homophobic hate crime. Our trans contributors have to deal with horrific daily attacks online and in the press. I see The Queer Bible as a platform to elevate, celebrate and amplify the voices of our community. As a white cis man I benefit from so much unearned privilege, and I’m so happy that this collection shines a light on members of our community who so often aren’t given the attention they deserve. I hope that the range of voices and the varied stories, shared speak to the richness and diversity of our global queer community.
These beautiful essays have taught me so much – Graham Norton’s will make you laugh and cry, Tan France will inspire, Founder Of Black Pride Lady Phyll will deeply move you, Munroe Bergdorf’s words will spur you to activism, supermodel Hanne Gaby Odiele will educate, Mae Martin will challenge you to question boundaries and live a freer life. Each piece and accompanying illustration will open up new worlds. All our lives are richer because of the works of queer individuals, and reading this book will shine a light on the impact of these queer figures on shaping the world around us. We stand on the shoulders of giants. It’s time to learn their names.
Elton John on Divine
The very first time I saw Pink Flamingos, I fell for Divine. The film opens on a shot of her mobile home, surrounded by kitsch garden ornaments. Divine’s in hiding with her misfit family because the tabloids have christened her the “Filthiest Person Alive.” Her look is instantly iconic: hairline shaved right back, a shock of tangerine hair and pointed high eyebrows. I felt an immediate connection. Firstly, because she was so funny. Secondly, there aren’t many human beings like Divine, a quintessential, true punk rebel.
Divine was christened Harris Glenn Milstead but was better known as Glenn. He grew up in Baltimore in the fifties, came of age in the sixties and made friends with fellow upstart John Waters, with whom he developed his drag persona, a larger-than-life Queen of Filth, Divine. Pink Flamingos was an exercise in deliberate, exquisite poor taste. It purposefully revolted audiences everywhere, dotted with cannibalism, bestiality and foot fetishism. The world and I had never seen anything like it. It was banned in numerous countries, so of course gained instant cult classic status. Divine mutated into an international star, continuing to make films with Waters.
My relationship with drag has been a life-long love affair. The first time I ever saw anyone in drag was the early seventies. My manager, John Reid – also the first person I ever slept with – took me to Danny La Rue’s club in London. I was a very sheltered gay man back then and I didn’t know much about this sort of thing. But schooled on the kind of campness sequestered away on Radio 4, like Kenneth Williams, I was hungry for it all. I had no idea real drag queens existed until that visit started the ball rolling.
I quickly developed favourites. Lee Sutton at the Vauxhall Tavern; Regina Fong at The Black Cap in Camden, who I would, incidentally, later get to appear with at a Stonewall benefit. The glamour of drag connected with something deep inside me. I can’t remember the first time I dressed in drag privately, but it soon transpired into a public habit and to this day comprises some of my happiest memories.
If there was a chance to drag up, I would take it. I’d rented a house in St. Tropez on holiday with my friend Tony King, who’s looked after me throughout my career. The first time I met John Lennon – another of Tony’s designated charges – was on a video shoot for the Mind Games album where Tony was in full drag as the Queen. So, Tony and I decided to throw a drag party in St. Tropez. The next day I took some of the other people out in drag and had pictures taken privately by the swimming pool on the diving board. Unbeknownst to us, there were paparazzi in the bushes and the photos ended up plastered all over Paris Match the next week. Another time, in Hawaii, I came down to dinner at the Four Seasons in full drag, looking like Audrey Hepburn. I appeared on the front of Richard Avedon’s Versace book in a sequined dress. I can make reasonable claims to being an actual cover girl, darling. I have paid my drag dues.
“Designating someone with a drag name was my way of telling them I loved them.”
When I came out as gay and met John Reid, he had so many gay friends and employees it felt natural to give each other drag names. In a way, designating someone with a drag name was my way of telling them I loved them: drag is a communal sport – I like to get everyone involved. Tony became ‘Joy’ and I became ‘Sharon’, because I was so common. Rod Stewart was always ‘Phyllis’. Freddie Mercury became ‘Melina’ after Melina Mercouri, the Greek actress and singer. He was a real Melina, I can assure you. John Lennon became ‘Carol Dakota’ after his New York building, the Dakota. If you can’t think of the correct name, you go to the surname first and work it out from there. Not everyone gets a drag name. But all of my dearest friends are bequeathed with one.
It’s a rare joy when you love the art, get to meet the artist and love them too. And that’s what happened when I met Divine – a friendship blossomed. Nights out on the town with Freddie Mercury and Divvy followed a certain rhythm. Divine would call, his raspy, lilting voice almost running his words together, ‘Can I come over to smoke a joint?’ He would, then we’d go out to dinner. Divvy was so lovely to be with. He was a very gentle character, nothing like as flamboyant as his film persona. Then again, a lot of performers aren’t. I’m not either. It was onstage and onscreen that he expressed himself, his alter-ego screaming to get out. He just wanted to be himself.
That is exactly who I was when I started wearing the costumes and flamboyant stage-wear that would become synonymous with “Elton John.” In my shows I’m forever stuck behind a piano, so the outfits had to count. I looked to people like Liberace, to anyone who had that essence of glamour within them and weren’t scared to let it out. Drag artists perform gender in exaggerated expressions which was exactly what I wanted to do. I lived my life so playfully and excessively in my twenties and thirties because I had never had the courage to live it in my teenage years. Like Divvy, I grew up in the fifties, a conservative era. I knew nothing about sex and wasn’t allowed to wear the clothes I wanted to. Glenn’s childhood had been similar in that respect, and I could see that Divine’s spirit was very close to mine.
“It’s a rare joy when you love the art, get to meet the artist and love them too. And that’s what happened when I met Divine – a friendship blossomed.”
For both of us, as soon as we could, we just burst onto the scene. Boy, did we make up for lost time. In 1976, I invited Divvy onstage to perform with me for an encore at Madison Square Garden. In hindsight, perhaps I should have warned my band first. Still a cult star under Waters’ direction, confined to the arthouse extremes, they had no idea who Divine was. I sat at my piano and watched in awe as she climbed up the stairs to the stage in an amazing foil dress. One of her heels snapped on the stairs, but of course she styled it out, screaming, into her mic, “Oh fuck, my heel’s just broken!” She rolled onstage and you could visibly read “Who the fuck is this?” on the band’s faces. They had absolutely no idea. That night was just me and Divvy having fun onstage in front of thousands of people.
Divvy set something of a precedent at that show. On a later night of my tour, I came onstage in drag as Tina Turner, in full “What’s Love Got To Do With It” regalia. Skirt, wig, everything. I didn’t tell my band about that either – just arrived onstage, sat down, and nobody knew who the fuck I was until I started playing.
The New York club scene in the seventies was incredible. It was all about the music. Crisco Disco, Le Jardin and 12 West were fabulous, even though one night, Crisco Disco refused Divvy and I entry. We’d gone out for a lovely dinner and had both stolen ashtrays from the restaurant. We turned up at Crisco Disco, Divine in a kaftan, me in some colourful, outrageous outfit. The doorman shouted, “What do you think this is? Fucking Halloween? You ain’t comin’ in here like this.” And Divine yelled, “Fuck you” exactly in the manner of Dawn Davenport in Female Trouble and we both threw and smashed our ashtrays and hotfooted it off to 12 West to dance the night away.
Divine and I certainly shared compulsive behaviours. I completely understand where Divvy ended up. I was just as ravenous for my addictions as he was for his. Luckily it didn’t kill me because I saw the light. For Divvy, eating got so out of control that he became very unhealthy. I didn’t do drugs all the time and was lucky in the sense that I worked, frequently on the road. If drugs had kept me from touring, I’d be dead by now. There were periods where I got and stayed clean, but I always went back to the drugs. I finally got clean for good in 1990. It’s different for everyone. As much as I loved Divvy, I can’t tell you what was going on inside him.
Divine passed away from a heart attack in 1988. It was the night before shooting was to begin on a role in the sitcom Married … With Children. Divvy was about to finally fulfill his dream of performing as Glenn, as himself, out of drag in a major role on television.
“For me, Glenn’s death will always feel tied up with the height of the AIDS epidemic.”
For me, Glenn’s death will always feel tied up with the height of the AIDS epidemic. It isn’t just the coincidence of the timing, at the height of the pandemic. His life and career were cut short just as he was breaking into the mainstream, on the eve of his acceptance as Glenn. That feeling of lives being cut short, abbreviated at the precise moment they were blossoming, was commonplace. It was simultaneously heartbreaking. In the eighties we lost an entire generation of young gay men in their prime. It was a period of intense loss, horrific both for me personally and for the gay community as a whole. I was losing two or three people a week and it was all so overwhelming. No one cared about what was happening. The press called AIDS the “gay plague,” as if we had caused it. It was fucking frightening.
Divine was the best of us. He was so brave, unique and fearless. He laughed in the face of a conservative society which ridiculed and rejected him. But Divvy internalised a lot of that trauma and pain and that certainly led to his premature death. That’s why we need to protect the next generation of LGBTQ+ people – especially those challenging gender norms – so that they can go on to have long, happy, brilliant lives, living however they want to, saying “fuck you” to all the hypocrisy, fear and shame built into so much of mainstream society.
“Divine was the best of us. He was so brave, unique and fearless. He laughed in the face of a conservative society which ridiculed and rejected him.”
I rewatched Female Trouble about a month ago with my husband David and was utterly overwhelmed by how ahead of its time it was. Divine was a ray of sunshine. And today I see so many drag queens performing, and non-binary and transgender activists doing the most incredibly brave things. They are the trailblazers, and we must applaud and support them. That’s what the Elton John AIDS Foundation does.
We want the people pushed out by society, the people John Waters loved and championed, to know what they are worth. “No one gets left behind” is our motto, and that’s what my life is all about. Whatever you’ve been through, whatever you’ve done, everyone deserves redemption. Divine’s fearlessness inspires me to this day. Divvy’s spirit will linger forever. Glenn was a lesson to us all.
From THE QUEER BIBLE: ESSAYS edited by Jack Guinness. Copyright 2021 © Elton John. To be published on June 15, 2021, by Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.