How an outrageous drag queen found mainstream fame in ‘The Little Mermaid’

“The way the character was described in the script was as a Joan Collins-esque character. So most of the designs that people were doing were of a very slender woman with a high forehead, broad cheekbones and very dark hair,” Minkoff told NBC News. “And then, I suggested this alternative approach based on Divine from John Waters’ films.” Minkoff, who went on to co-direct 1994’s “The Lion King” and other Disney films, said he incorporated Divine into at least one drawing that ended up being displayed on a storyboard. And when Howard Ashman — the brilliant lyricist widely credited with a “Disney Renaissance” that started in the late ‘80s — looked through the designs, that’s the one that caught his eye. 

“Howard looked through all the designs and focused on that one,” Minkoff recalled Musker telling him at the time. “So John came back to me and said, ‘Howard liked your drawing, and that’s the way we want to go with it.’” 

Ashman, along with his creative partner, the composer Alan Menken, had been recruited by Disney after the success of their off-Broadway play “Little Shop of Horrors,” in the hopes that they could deliver the studio a much-needed hit.

Once Ashman arrived in Los Angeles — as detailed in Don Hanh’s documentary “Howard” — he gravitated toward the animation arm of the studio, seeing an opportunity to marry his musical theater background with the more offbeat, experimental approach of the illustrators. And that’s just what he did with “The Little Mermaid,” which became the first in a string of animated hits for Disney.

Looking back at that era of the studio, Minkoff said people had forgotten that Walt Disney, the man, was an “innovator who had broken all the rules throughout his career.” 

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken.
Howard Ashman, left, and Alan Menken.Disney+

“There’s a lot of really edgy stuff in the early animated films that people had forgotten about, not the least of which was killing Bambi’s mother, but Disney had gotten very safe with the kinds of stories and films that it was making at that time,” Minkoff said of the company before Ashman’s arrival. “I think all of the people in animation during that period in the ‘80s were big fans of the earlier Disney classics and wanted to make the modern films reach those same heights — and the only way to do it, we all knew, was to push the boundaries of what seemed acceptable.”

Minkoff’s idea to model Ursula — a take on the sea witch in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” — on a drag queen that embraced the bizarre and grotesque certainly pushed boundaries. 

During his illustrious career, Divine, born Harris Glenn Milstead, was the muse of avant-garde director John Waters, who lovingly referred to the drag queen as “the most beautiful woman in the world, almost.” As Waters’ favorite leading lady, Divine helped the director pioneer the “trash cinema” genre: low-budget productions that exaggerated and satirized exploitation films.

The pair’s lifelong friendship and storied collaboration began when the Baltimore natives met as teenagers in the mid-1960s. Their first film together, 1966’s “Roman Candles,” an homage to Andy Warhol’s “The Chelsea Girls,” featured a dialed-back version of Divine. But as they continued to work together, the drag queen, with the help of Waters, morphed into an infamous over-the-top persona: a shapely queen with homicidal tendencies, a shaved-back hairline and extreme, arched brows. 

It was this Divine that shocked audiences and angered film censors everywhere — for, among other things, eating dog feces on screen — in Waters’ disturbing 1972 trash cinema classic “Pink Flamingos.” Unlike the director’s 1988 film “Hairspray,” which starred Divine as the mother of Ricki Lake’s Tracy Turnblad in his one brush with mainstream fame, “Pink Flamingos” dares audiences to keep looking as a deranged group of outcasts commits more and more depraved acts to earn the title of “the filthiest person alive.”

Divine in "Pink Flamingos," in 1972.
Divine in the 1972 film “Pink Flamingos.”Courtesy Everett Collection

This was the film stuck in Minkoff’s mind when he did the sketch that caught Ashman’s attention. Because, as the former character illustrator remembers it, “Pink Flamingos” was playing on loop in a theater at the Walt Disney-founded California Institute of the Arts, where Minkoff had once been a student.

“It was not the most obvious place to get inspiration from, certainly,” Minkoff said. “But when you have a character, and especially a villain, you really want to find an interesting angle. I think Disney villains can be the most interesting characters in the films, and so you want to create something that’s larger than life — something that really has a lot of personality.” 

It seems that Ashman, a Baltimore native who spotted Minkoff’s inspiration immediately, agreed that what the film needed was a supervillain of monstrous proportions. The idea for a Divine-inspired Ursula was eventually greenlit, and Ashman, along with the directors and a small group of animators, began working with live-action reference models to bring the characters to life, using a process that the studio had depended on since its first feature-length animated film, 1937’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” 

Minkoff said he suggested his former CalArts roommate, Max Kirby, be hired as the live-action reference for Ursula. Ashman and the directors took his suggestion and, as Minkoff tells it, Kirby did a rendition of Ursula’s signature number, “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” for the group — fittingly, “dressed basically in drag.”

Ursula in Disney's "The Little Mermaid."
Ursula in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”Walt Disney Studios

Ultimately, it took years and many illustrators before the unforgettable villain of “The Little Mermaid,” voiced by Pat Carroll, appeared on movie-theater screens around the country. 

The final product was a queer-coded antihero that harkened back to the complex evil queens and witches in Disney films like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and 1959’s “Sleeping Beauty,” whose over-the-top style, performative body language and all-around immorality works to highlight the purity of the film’s heteronormative heroine and hero.

Thanks in no small part to this subversive, sinister appeal and the villainous cecaelia’s meaning-laden, signature musical number “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” “The Little Mermaid” went on to be a major win for Disney. The film’s popularity at the box office and two Oscar wins — for best original song and best original score — marked a turnaround for Disney’s animation arm, which hadn’t had a massive hit in decades, and it set the studio on the path to a string of future hits, including early ‘90s favorites “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin,” which feature lyrics and composition by Ashman and Menken. 

Sadly, Ashman, who tragically died from AIDS in 1991, did not live to see the full impact of the new style of animated, musical feature that he pioneered. And Divine, who died a year before the release of “The Little Mermaid,” never saw himself lording over a kingdom of demented polyps, to the delight of children everywhere. 

Though one can imagine the larger-than-life drag queen would have relished the legacy and shared the sentiments of Waters, who in 2016 was quoted as saying: “When I was young, all I wanted to be was a Disney villain.”

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