Once Upon a Time, Ursula Was a Drag Queen
Credit - Walt Disney Co./Everett Collection; Steve Rapport—Getty Images; Disney
The face of Ursula—the villainous sea witch of The Little Mermaid infamy—might feel uniquely familiar to a child of the ‘70s—or the ‘80s, for that matter. The original character in the 1989 movie was inspired by the triple threat drag queen, actor, and singer Divine, a fact that was mere speculation at first, but has since been confirmed by those involved with the film.
Divine catapulted to cult fame after appearing in Pink Flamingos, John Waters’ filthy 1972 comedy. With his signature look—an unnaturally high hairline with gigantic eyebrows and over-the-top makeup, crafted by the makeup artist Van Smith—Divine resembled Ursula. To Waters, who met Divine when they were teens in the outskirts of Baltimore and became his close friend and creative partner, the similarities between Divine and Ursula go beyond the corporeal. Divine took what the world used against him, Waters says, and exaggerated it.
“Ursula was an outsider. She was magic. She had a style that some people might not understand,” Waters tells TIME. “But she was proud of herself. She was confident. She never questioned her look. She never felt—as other people might have—that she looked weird or anything. She looked beautiful on her own terms.”
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Ursula will return to screen on May 26 in Disney’s live-action Little Mermaid, with Melissa McCarthy playing the witch with campy, raspy relish. At the film’s premiere in early May, the actor acknowledged Divine’s influence on the character.
“I’ve watched The Little Mermaid more times than any other movie,” McCarthy said. “I was a nanny, and we used to watch it every night. And I always was like, I know for a fact—but I couldn’t prove it—that she had to be based on Divine. She just had to be. I was like, ‘the makeup, the look, the attitude.’ And now we know that yes, she was of course based on Divine.”
How Divine directly inspired the creation of Ursula
A minor character in Hans Christian Andersen’s original fairy tale, Ursula came to animated life through the work of Howard Ashman, a writer and lyricist from Baltimore well-positioned to fuse the drag culture of his hometown with a Disney tale.
In 1989, Disney would have never openly acknowledged Divine’s influence, says Jeffrey Schwarz, who chronicled the longtime collaboration between Waters and Divine on Waters’ avant-garde “midnight movies,” like Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living, in the 2013 documentary I Am Divine. Disney has a long, fraught relationship with the LGBTQ+ community. Last year, then-CEO Bob Chapek defended the company’s reported $250,000 in donations to backers of Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Disney seemed to want to walk a tightrope between appeasing queer fans—many of whom have long seen themselves reflected in its characters—and not alienating those who oppose gay rights. It has toed a similar line with its practice of queer coding villains: Disney has been soundly criticized both for not making them overtly out and for assigning an evil connotation to being queer. But in Ursula, audiences find otherworldly beauty—and now, a clear recognition of her roots.
Divine, who also went by the name Harris Glenn Milstead, was born in 1945 and died of heart failure in 1988. He started making films with Waters in the 1960s, in Baltimore. Back then, drag balls differed drastically from those of today. Four decades before RuPaul’s Drag Race, drag was “the opposite of hip,” Waters says. In a sea of queens who “wanted to be Miss America,” glamorous and feminine, Divine, with his fierce refusal to abide by beauty standards, stood out.
“He was a pioneer, and we would not have the landscape of drag the way we know it today without Divine,” Schwarz says. “And I think Divine was somebody who really opened up the possibilities of what drag could be.”
How Melissa McCarthy’s Ursula recognizes Divine and drag culture
Disney can no longer avoid saying that Ursula and Divine are inextricable. Composer Alan Menken, who co-wrote the music with Ashman for the original animated Little Mermaid, also worked on the live-action movie and confirmed in April that Divine was the inspiration behind Ursula. McCarthy, who corroborated this on the Little Mermaid blue carpet in May, said that she is a “huge fan of drag.” “It’s just so fun, it’s irreverent, you can poke fun and pay homage to someone at the same time,” she said. “It’s all delicious things wrapped up in one.”
McCarthy herself got her start as a performer in New York City in her early 20s as the drag queen Miss Y. In a gold lamé swing coat, a huge wig, and big eyelashes, she gave stand-up comedy her first try. Two decades later, she paid homage to “the queen of all drag queens” in Entertainment Weekly, dressed as Divine in Pink Flamingos.
“I just hope to do every incredible drag queen proud, and Divine proud,” McCarthy said at the May premiere. “Just to give it that same—to give it your all, to throw it out there, no apologies, do it your way. Do no harm, but back up a little. I wanted to give her everything that she was due.”
Schwarz says McCarthy speaking openly is significant, “because we’re in such a fraught moment surrounding these issues about drag, which is an all-American art form.” (Drag bans are becoming increasingly common, adding to the more than 475 anti-LGBTQ legislative bills introduced across the country this year.) “So the fact that she’s out there promoting a Disney movie and acknowledging the influence of one of the great drag queens of all time, I really have a lot of respect for that.”
McCarthy and Divine also share the chasm they’ve forged between the roles they play and their individual identities. Their standout characters are larger than life, satirical, raunchy, and rough around the edges.
“As Divine, he could be outrageous, in your face, shocking, aggressive, terrifying, and hilarious,” Schwarz says. “But as Glenn, he was a very soft-spoken, quiet, shy, sweet man. And that was something that I was very touched by: that he could unleash all that anger within him from growing up gay and overweight at a time where you had to keep all that hidden from the world.”
McCarthy’s performance has not gone without criticism. When Disney released a featurette of Ursula’s live-action transformation, drag queens from Art Simone to Sierra La Puerta roasted the uneven makeup application. “Absolutely why we should hire up and coming queer artists with a pulse on the present and a vision for the future more often,” tweeted RuPaul’s Drag Race star and trans activist Kerri Colby. For years, the drag community has asked for an actual drag queen to be cast in the iconic role. RuPaul alum Ginger Minj said in 2019 that playing the sea witch was her biggest goal. She grew up watching Divine; “she was my savior,” she told Gay Times, “she was my RuPaul.”
“If you’re gonna have a drag artist do it, I’m probably one of the most qualified to do it,” she said. “I can sing and I can act it, I love that role and I cherish it, it’s a huge part of my life. I think that I should at least be given the opportunity to fight for that role.”
Though Divine died a year before the original Little Mermaid came out, Schwarz and Waters agree that he unequivocally would have wanted to play Ursula in the live-action movie. “He didn’t want an homage, he wanted to be it,” Schwarz says. “I’m sure he would want to play that part.”