Baltimore’s beloved Divine, the larger-than-life drag performer known for outrageous acts (ahem, eating dog poop) in John Waters movies, is an unexpected inspiration for a Disney movie. But the world works in mysterious ways.
Once you think about it, it kind of makes sense. In The Little Mermaid, Ursula is charismatic and a little intimidating; she’s wise to the ways of body language and femininity as performance. An article in Hazlitt describes how Baltimore’s shy, bullied Glenn Milstead adopted the persona of Divine, who was “angry, vain, and emphatically amoral—an aggressively sexual striver.” Sound like any octopi you know?
The Divine-Ursula connection can be traced back to Howard Ashman, a playwright from Baltimore who was hired by Disney to serve as an executive producer. “Like so many creative people who’d grown up in Baltimore during the 1950s and 1960s, the intersection of raunchy drag queens and fairy tales was Howard Ashman’s sweet spot,” Hazlitt notes. And when it came time to create a villain for the studio’s next animated film, Ashman’s input was invaluable:
Early on, The Little Mermaid’s directors and animators created several iterations of Ursula. One was a manta ray inspired by Joan Collins. Another was a “beautiful but deadly” scorpion fish, recalled director John Musker. None worked, until an animator named Rob Minkoff drew a vampy overweight matron who everyone agreed looked a lot like Divine.
The whole story is a fascinating read about queerness, performance, and pop culture — read it here. You’ll never see The Little Mermaid the same way again.
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