'The Little Mermaid': Disney's iconic villain Ursula was inspired by a drag queen

'The Little Mermaid': Disney's iconic villain Ursula was inspired by a drag queen
Ursula of the 1985 'The Little Mermaid' was originally inspired by drag queen Divine (IMDB/Walt Disney Studios and Instagram/@divineofficial)

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA: In a time, when drag performance and drag culture are the topics of the moment, a Disney movie in the late 1980s made an instance of creating a character inspired by a drag queen. As the live-action remake of Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ is all set to hit the theaters on Friday, May 26, 2023, it is a good time to revisit one of the most iconic  villains of Disney universe who has forever linked the culture of queerness to an animated classic.

In the 1989 animated Disney movie ‘The Little Mermaid’, the character of Ursula, the sea witch, has been inspired by a Baltimore-based drag queen, who not only inspired the character’s looks, but also the mannerisms. Harris Glenn Milstead, or famously known as Divine, is the person behind the iconic looks for the character of Ursula, who has entertained viewers for multiple generations, as per Insider


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Who was Divine?

The drag queen Divine’s original name was Harris Glenn Milstead. He was a multi-talented entertainer who was skilled in drag performances, acting and singing. Milstead, who was born in Baltimore in 1945, quickly met the famed filmmaker John Waters, who lived on the same block as him. He worked as a hairdresser after graduating from high school, which ignited his interest in drag. Waters was responsible for Divine's name and tagline, "the most beautiful woman in the world...almost," as per Movie Web. Later, Divine swiftly became Waters' muse, and the two began making films together.



Some of the collaborations between Divine and Walkers were on the projects like ‘Eat Your Makeup’, ‘Hairspray’, ‘Female Troubles’ and ‘Roman Candles’. Divine was a famed iconoclast as he broke away from the then tradition of putting conventional make up looks closely resembling female looks. He instead chose to go the different path as his motto was to exaggerate what was opposite the beauty standard. As he told NPR, the intention behind his appearance  was to appear "the exact opposite of what normally would be beautiful."


How did Divine influence Ursula?

In a time when the presence of drags in a cultural product may wag tongues, it was quite surprising as well as liberating to find a full-time drag performer could inspire one of the most well-known Disney villains. The person to whom the credit is due is Howard Ashman. The famed songwriter of ‘Part of Your World’, Howard Ashman, who was also from Baltimore, was responsible for the link between Disney and Divine.

Ashman, who tasted success with the play ‘Little Shop of Horrors’, was hired by Disney as a producer and songwriter. Ashman could resonate Divine’s cultural feelings as another homosexual man from Baltimore, recognized for his crass humor and grandiose pursuit of women and beauty. Divine’s portrayal of femininity not only affected the look of the character, but also the personality traits. In fact, Ashman himself trained Pat Carroll, the voice artist for Ursula, in imitating Divine’s gait and diction.


Don't miss out on ‘The Little Mermaid’ theater premiere on Friday, May 26, 2023.

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 Who is 'Divine'? How a drag queen inspired creation of iconic villain Ursula in Disney's 'The Little Mermaid'