Ursula, the treacherous sea witch who steals Ariel’s voice in the 1989 animated classic The Little Mermaid and the new live-action reboot, is not a drag queen. At least according to official Disney canon.
But the iconic villainess’s creation was, in fact, inspired by one of the most famous drag queens in pop culture history: Divine (born Harris Glenn Milstead), the star of John Waters’s notorious NC-17-rated 1972 cult hit Pink Flamingos, among other films by the auteur of campy films.
The story in a nutshell: Original Little Mermaid producer and songwriter Howard Ashman, like Waters and Milstead, was a gay man from Baltimore who ran in the same social circles. After the Little Shop of Horrors playwright saw Rob Minkoff’s initial sketches of Ursula, he encouraged the animator to lean into visual similarities he recognized between the Ursula and Divine. “The makeup is very much Divine, with the eyebrows painted on much higher than her own eyebrows. [She] was built from that template, [who was] such a wonderful character,” explains Rob Marshall, who directs the new musical film. Ashman later coached Pat Carroll, the late actress who voiced the original character, to approach her similarly. (Milstead died in 1988, just a year before Little Mermaid was released.)
Once the live-action reboot was announced in 2016, a faction of fans wanted to see a drag queen cast as the new Ursula. Marshall ultimately cast Oscar-nominated actress Melissa McCarthy, noting that the popular Bridesmaids and Ghostbusters star does have experience in drag.
“When I first sat down with Melissa, the first thing she said to me was, ‘You know I started in drag,’” recounts Marshall (Chicago, Mary Poppins Returns). In the early ’90s, McCarthy performed as a drag queen named Miss Y around various venues and events in New York.
McCarthy confirms she also channeled Divine for her new in-the-flesh iteration of Ursula.
“My inner-Divine is always with me,” she says. “I’m a huge John Waters fan. [His films were] on loop for me all through like high school and college. And I always knew when I watched the original one, like I didn’t have any facts to back it up, but I was like, ‘I am convinced that’s based on Divine.’ She looks like Divine. The bodiness is there. And when I found out, I was like, ‘I knew it.’ But I think I totally brought that in. That humor, that self-deprecation. The homage to what you love and also poking fun at it is what makes drag so entertaining and fantastic. So that certainly played a big part in this for me. I’m a huge fan of drag.”
And Marshall is a huge fan of McCarthy, who’s drawing early raves for her performance, most notably the show-stopping number “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” (Watch clip above.)
“The great thing about Melissa is she’s such a good actor, she really wanted to find the nuances of the character,” the director says. “It’s so surprising sometimes. She’s kind of funny, sometimes she’s scary, sometimes she’s kind of vulnerable and hurt and angry. I mean, it’s so many things and she just gives you the full palette of colors, you know? It’s incredible.”
The Little Mermaid opens May 26.
Watch the trailer: