Disney’s live-action The Little Mermaid released its official trailer during the Oscars on Sunday, giving a better glimpse of everyone’s favorite villainous sea witch Ursula. Ursula, portrayed by Melissa McCarthy in the adaptation, was heavily inspired by a drag queen from the 60s through the 80s named Divine.
With thin and high-arching brows, solid blue eyeshadow, white coiffed hair and wide red lips, the distinction between Ursula’s makeup and Divine’s is uncanny. Divine, however, did not have purple skin like the half-woman half-octopus villain. Before landing on the final design of Ursula, there were several iterations of sketches. One was a manta ray inspired by Joan Collins while another was a scorpion fish. It all came together when animator named Rob Minkoff drew a vampy overweight matron who looked a lot like Divine.
Given the current legislative pushback against drag performance, the inspiration behind Ursula reminds us how drag artistry has deeply influenced culture but continues to get scrutinized as a threat to the wellbeing of young people. Just this past Monday, hundreds of white supremacists gathered in Wadsworth, Ohio to protest a drag queen story event. Last week, Tennessee became the first state to pass an anti-drag bill into law.
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“There’s a sense and rhetoric that this is somehow harmful to children,” said BenDeLaCreme, Seattle-based drag queen and RuPaul’s Drag Race alum, to MSNBC. “I would argue that seeing drag queens, seeing queer people, people from other walks of life is essential to children. It’s essential to children who may see themselves in this.”
Divine’s impact on The Little Mermaid, in which the film led Disney into its great 90s renaissance, shows that drag—despite today’s debate over its place in society—has artistic merit as well as historic influence on pop culture. Outside of the film, Divine’s influence can be seen in many places, including an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race dedicated to her, in Baltimore’s American Museum of Visionary Art where a 10-foot statue of Divine resides, and a 2013 documentary I Am Divine. In honor of her legacy and the highly anticipated release of The Little Mermaid, here are five facts about Divine, from her relationship with John Waters to her disco music career.
Divine and filmmaker John Waters became friends as teenagers
Harris Glenn Milstead, better known as Divine in drag, grew up in Baltimore, Md. around the same time as John Waters, a filmmaker of many cult classics that transgressed social norms. Waters would eventually direct major movies like Hairspray and Cry-Baby. When they met as teens, the two became friends and Waters convinced Milstead to be his filmmaking muse. Eventually, Waters helped the creation and characterization of Milstead’s drag persona Divine. As Waters was a bit of a father figure in their friend group, he assigned a nickname to everyone. Divine came from Our Lady of Flowers, a novel Waters was reading.
“To me, beauty is looks that you can never forget,” Waters said regarding Divine on David Letterman’s Late Night in 1982.
In 1972, John Waters released Pink Flamingos, a comedy drama movie that starred Divine, ultimately becoming the cultural reference that is most associated with the drag queen. Yes, including that dog poop-eating scene.
Divine went to beauty school
After graduating high school in 1963, Divine attended Marinella Schools of Beauty to learn how to style hair. Then, pursuing a career in the salon, Divine specialized in styling beehive haircuts. This career, however, did not last long. She quit her job and lived off of her parents’ money. She threw lavish parties and her parents paid for all of it. It was at one of the parties that Divine started experimenting with dressing up in drag with Elizabeth Taylor as the first inspiration.
Howard Ashman was to thank for discovering Divine as Ursula
A playwright and lyricist also from Baltimore, Howard Ashman was hired by Disney after his hit off-Broadway play, Little Shop of Horrors. The whimsy musical got Disney executives’ attention, hoping to bring the animation studio back to being successful after many failed attempts. In addition to Rob Minkoff’s role as the animator, Ashman had the power to weigh in on character developments for The Little Mermaid. Like many creatives who’d grown up in Baltimore during the 50s and 60s and therefore knew of Divine, the crux between raunchy drag queens and fairy tales was perfect for Ashman to helm Ursula’s creation.
Divine’s ostentatious aesthetic changed the game for drag queens everywhere
Divine became an underground rockstar after Pink Flamingos, even getting to perform with The Cockettes, an ensemble of hippie psychedelic drag queens in San Fransisco. At that time, Waters encouraged Milstead to exaggerate Divine even more by wearing tighter dresses and miniskirts. “[Milstead’s] legacy was that he made all drag queens cool. They were square then, they wanted to be Miss America and be their mothers,” Waters said in an interview with Baltimore Magazine. “He broke every rule. And now every drag queen, everyone that’s successful today is cutting edge.”
She had a serious music career
While her movies with John Waters set her career on a successful path, her agent Bernard Jay suggested she took on performing in nightclubs to supplement her income. As a result, Divine released several disco songs. The juxtaposition of the thumping disco beats and her raspy voice created an eclectic sound, in which Jay wrote in his book Not Simply Divine that her music was even more popular in the UK than it was in the states. Her singles included “I’m So Beautiful”, “You Think You’re A Man”, “Native Love”, and “Born To Be Cheap.”
It’s uncertain what Divine would say about the political turmoil that is persisting regarding drag artistry, but there is certainly a chance it wouldn’t be pretty. “Filth are my politics,” Divine says as Babs Johnson in Pink Flamingos. “Filth is my life!”