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DIVINE Loewe Greg Gorman
Photography Greg Gorman

A new exhibition is set to put unseen photos of Divine on show

Ahead of a new Loewe exhibition and collection devoted to the iconoclastic camp star, photographer and friend Greg Gorman recounts tales of Divine’s dark sense of humour and the time he stood him up at Ibiza Airport

If you’ve ever watched John Waters’ cult classics Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, or Hairspray, you’ll know just how magnetic Divine is. Tearing across the screen spitting profanities, demanding a pair of glittering cha-cha heels, and literally eating dog shit, the legendary performance artist cemented his place in cinematic history as ‘the filthiest person alive’, amassing legions of fans both back then and in the 33 years since his death.  

Now, the subversive legend formerly known as Harris Glenn Milstead is the subject of a new exhibition, taking place first online (s/o to the coronavirus for that one), and later IRL, at next year’s PhotoEspaña festival in Madrid. Conceptualised by Jonathan Anderson for Loewe, the show will celebrate the larger-than-life character through previously unseen memorabilia uncovered from his estate, with record sleeves, school photos, gig posters, letters, and his well-worn, toolbox-style make-up kit among the items captured by longtime collaborator and good friend, photographer Greg Gorman.

“It was great to see his make-up kit, which I’d seen many times on all the shoots we’d been on together, and his diploma was really cool to see,” explains Gorman of the items he shot as part of the project. “A lot of the early records and discs I’d never actually seen in person before, outside of the photos I took myself, and of course the gowns were amazing too. I think the show’s going to be a lot of fun.” 

Alongside the trashy, technicolour memorabilia, a high-camp Loewe collection embellished with marabou feathers, trashy jewels, and the actor’s face will also go on show (though whether the collection itself will ever go into production sadly remains to be seen). In the meantime, the label has released a limited collection of t-shirts and a tote bag, with 15 per cent of proceeds going to Visual Aids: an organisation supporting artists living with HIV, and a donation being made to Black-led LGBTQ+ initiative Baltimore Pride (the city where both Divine and John Waters called their home). 

Ahead of the exhibition’s launch in the digital realm on June 25, we caught up with Greg Gorman to discuss his first impressions of Divine, the time he stood him up at Ibiza Airport, and the upcoming exhibition.

When did you first encounter Divine and what were your first impressions of him? 

Greg Gorman: I first came across Divine and John Waters in the early 70s. I was in film school and like many I’d seen Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble at midnight screenings at the theatre, and then I followed everything they did. I actually met Divine through Tab Hunter when he was shooting a film called Lust in the Dust with Paul Bartel. They were shooting in Los Angeles and Tab asked “Would you like to come take some PR photos, we’re trying to raise money to make this movie, so we’re going up to these two old ranches up in Mission Hills, California with Divine” and I was like “Yes great, I would love to come meet Divine!” I had no idea what I was going to be doing, or what he was going to be like. 

What was your first meeting like?

Greg Gorman: We totally connected and got along great. He was one of the most consistent professionals I’ve ever met in my life, a total pro, A-Z, and incredible to work with. We became really good friends over the years and I spent a lot of time with him – in London when I was over there working with David Bowie on the Blue Jean video, when he was staying with Zandra Rhodes for example. I used to spend Christmas with Divine when he’d go to his home in upstate New York, and when he’d come to LA he’d often stay with me. 

What was Divine like on camera versus off? 

Greg Gorman: Oh, he was a very soft-spoken person off camera, not really outrageous. People on screen are often very different than they are in real life, and Divine could be timid even. People were always kind of afraid of him – we’d go to dinner and people didn’t know what to expect but he was actually very quiet. 

Then when he’d come out on stage, I don’t know how he would do it, because as heavy as he was, he would always come out with 40 pounds of padding strapped to him, that wig, the lot. He wasn’t much of a party goer, it was all that character. In fact, Divine suffered from narcolepsy, I don’t know if many people know that. He’d just be somewhere and fall asleep, so I think he enjoyed being with a smaller group of people than a big group – he liked to be able to have a conversation, you know?

What is your favourite memory of Divine? 

Greg Gorman: I remember I spent a summer with him, a few weeks in Ibiza, and in typical Divine behaviour he told me he would pick me up at the airport and didn’t show, so I was like ‘I don’t know what to do!’ So I drove into town, parked at the square, and here he comes with his big 'Smile' t-shirt on. Then we get to his house where like 15 people are, and he goes “I’m having a dinner party for you tonight” but guess who had to cook? I ended up gathering timber in the yard and cooking a bunch of chickens for us all! 

But one of the funniest memories I have of him was one night when he was doing a gig at a straight club in downtown LA in front of a lot of people. So Divine was on stage performing, and at some point, all of a sudden, all the people on the stage ran from one side to the other. At that point Divine’s manager Bernard Jay came and grabbed me and said ‘Come on we’re leaving’. Divine got wind of what was happening – someone in the audience had shot a policeman – and just before he left the stage said “See, I told you it would take a murder to upstage me” into the mic. He had such a great sense of humour. 

Tell me a little about the digital exhibition – how did you choose which pieces of memorabilia should go into it?

Greg Gorman: For now, we’ve not done so much with my photographs just yet – I think they’ll become a bigger part in the next chapter, when we show at PhotoEspaña. Basically though, Noah Brodie, who’s in charge of Divine’s estate, brought over a lot of his items as he thought it would be nice for me to photograph them because of our relationship. It was great fun to see his make-up kit, which I’d seen many times at all the shoots we’d been on together, his diploma was cool to see, a lot of the early records and discs which I’d never seen in person before outside of the photos I took myself, and of course the gowns. It was a really fun project to put together with Loewe, you know. I think the show next year is going to be a lot of fun. 

Do you have a favourite piece, or perhaps something that, to you, sums Divine up perfectly? 

Greg Gorman: There’s this picture I took when we did the LA Hours campaign in colour where he looks really glamorous, it’s a very good picture of him. But there are a few photos of him in my upcoming book that I really like, of him in and out of drag. One of them is actually used in the Loewe collection, on some of the bags and a dress I think, the one with the blonde wig! Those pieces I know haven’t been commercialised just yet, but hopefully they will be at some point. 

How would you sum up Divine’s legacy?  

Greg Gorman: Along with John Waters, I think Divine is one of the greatest cult figures in cinematic history, for sure.

The exhibition and accompanying capsule collection is set to launch on June 25 on