He was the Drag Queen of the Century. He weighed 320 lbs. and ballooned at the midriff like the south side of a hippopotamus. Add to all that a 40-lb. blizzard-blond fright wig, a face like a big, eerie, poster-colored subway graffito, and a set of humongous foam-rubber falsies—each packed with 50 lbs. of uncooked lentils. It was easy to laugh him off as the Goddess of Gross, the Punk Elephant, the Big Bad Mama of the Midnight Movies. He called himself Divine and he was proud of his creation: a unique and hilarious high-camp cartoon, a Miss Piggy for the blissfully depraved. But he dreamed of the day when at last he would be seen as a gifted actor who could animate any number of fascinating characters.

That day came just two weeks ago, when critics hailed Divine's performance as the dull-eyed domestic drudge in the new film Hairspray. "I've never seen him happier," says his manager, Bernard Jay. "His career was taking off. He was actually going to play a very good character role on a network television show [Fox's Married...with Children]. That's what he wanted. To show them that he didn't have to play women, that he was respected as an actor, that he was not regarded as a freak. Today was the big day. But he didn't make it." Half an hour before Divine was due on the set, Jay found him in his bed in room 261 of the Plaza Suite Regency, the hotel where he usually stayed in Hollywood. He was smiling. And he was dead.

It was the end of a grotesque but somehow touching journey that began in Baltimore 42 years ago. Divine grew up as Harris Glenn Milstead in a big old Victorian house on a charming 30-acre estate in suburban Baltimore. His parents ran a nursery school and were pillars of the community, but it soon became apparent that there was something odd about Glenn: Every day after school, the overweight boy would dress up in his mother's clothes and go prancing happily about the house. School itself was a nightmare. The other boys, he said, saw him as "this big Nellie queer" and beat him. Things got so bad that he was transferred to a girls' gym class and ferried to school in a police car.

Glenn consoled himself with daydreams of celebrity to come. He idolized Elizabeth Taylor and resolved that someday, somehow, he too would become the most beautiful woman in the world. Keeping to a strict diet, he lost more than 80 lbs. and stabilized at a svelte 140. He also did his best to wow the locals by dying his hair red, and his efforts paid off. At 16, this gaudy young Galatea attracted his Pygmalion, the director who would mastermind his future film career, an equally bizarre teenager named John Waters, who lived just down the street.

Waters promptly renamed "the girl next door" Divine and reveled in his new friend's excesses—which were lurid, to say the least. Divine took to renting luxury apartments, staffing them with servants and throwing huge parties for his friends. Everything was charged to his father, but when the bills arrived at his parents' house, Divine intercepted and destroyed them. Before his creditors could catch up with him, Divine moved on to another fancy flat and another round of parties. The game ended, of course, when Mr. Milstead's credit soured.

Father got an even bigger shock when he saw the John Waters movies in which his son began to appear. In Eat Your Makeup (1968) Divine played a loony who gets her kicks by beating up on fashion models and mainlining eyeliner. In Multiple Maniacs (1970) he was violated by a 15-foot-long broiled lobster. In Female Trouble (1974), playing both a man and a woman, he made love to himself in a garbage dump. But it was in Pink Flamingos (1972), the grodiest product of Waters' sleazoid sensibility, that Divine sank to the nadir of disgust: In full view of the camera he actually ate a dog turd—and then flashed a big bleep-eating grin.

Divine's parents were appalled. They moved to Florida and for the next nine years would have nothing to do with him. But millions of moviegoers sat up and took delighted notice of this overdecorated titan of bad taste. For the first time he was sought out for personal appearances. Overnight, Divine popped into a choice niche in the national pantheon of porn.

But after a few years, he began to get sick of playing a sicko. As a private person, his friends agree, Divine was nothing at all like the monster of vulgarity he played on stage and screen. They remember him as a gentle, likable, quiet-spoken man who loved to entertain a few friends quietly at tea. Depressed by almost everything about his life, he took to smoking marijuana daily and soon found himself "completely losing touch with reality, and I didn't care." He got off the weed about eight months ago, but he continued to overeat. At one sitting a few years back he downed two whole pies, a quart of ice cream and a gallon of milk. Far too fat, he was often alarmingly short of breath, and sometimes during the night would wake just in time to stave off asphyxiation. In the early morning hours of Monday, March 7, his friends believe, Divine failed to wake in time.

—By Brad Darrach, with bureaus in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.