John Waters


What is the ultimate John Waters’ anecdote ?
A master of irony, renowned for his outrageous, scandalous wit, most Waters’ conversations offer quite a few; stories of dark bars in Baltimore, cult criminals and obscure ultra-cool movie stars. My favourite though concerns a chicken.
The animal featured in his 1972 classic Pink Flamingos, branded by Variety as “surely the most vile, stupid, repulsive film ever made”.
“That film has shocked and offended three generations,” Waters purred the first time I met him some 13 years ago. “Do you have any idea how difficult that is ?”
The film is remembered for Divine eating dog faeces. But that was not even the film’s most controversial shot. Waters told me a chicken really was involved in the notorious sex scene and killed on camera.
“The son is fucking Cookie. The chicken’s in the middle. He cuts the chicken’s head off and he shoves it in to his crotch.”
Waters’ defence was sublime.
“It got to be in a movie and it got fucked. That’s more than most chickens achieve in their lifetime ! And it’s still being talked about !”

HIS LATEST BOOK Role Models, a memoir about some of the influences that shaped him, provides another chance to add to the repertoire.
Chapters include tributes to: Tennessee Williams (“Hoping to one day own a dirty movie theatre, I planned to show Baby Doll for the rest of my life”); Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons (“fashion having a nervous breakdown”); and Jane Bowles (“you should never read for ‘enjoyment’. Read to make yourself smarter !”).
Less establishment idols include: Baltimore’s most notorious lesbian stripper (“Lady Zorro”); The Wizard Of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West (“who I have been copying my whole life”); and Patty McCormack, the 11 year-old who played Rhoda in The Bad Seed.
“I wanted to be Rhoda. I pretended I was her. Why ? I wanted to strike fear in the hearts of my playmates.”
Genuinely odd, intensely angry, Waters spent his youth rebelling against the Church, his school and suburban surroundings. Luckily, his parents stuck with him.
“My parents never blamed the crowd I ran with,” he writes in Role Models. “They knew I (italics) was the bad egg.”
When his mother saw Mondo Trasho, the poor woman started crying. “She said I was going to go crazy and die in a mental institution !” he laughs, delighted.
The success of films like Polyester, Cry-Baby and Hairspray (“Their Hair Was Perfect But The World Was A Mess”) changed that at least.
Whether he has become ‘respectable’ is another matter, even though he has been on the jury at Cannes and taught in prison. (“I can’t help it,” he once said, knowingly. “I enjoy the company of murders, rapists and child molesters.”)
William Burroughs dubbed him “The Pope of Bad Taste” but he stresses, it is society, not him, that has changed.
“I have become more popular without softening my viewpoints.”
He seems to have tired of such epithets.
“I don’t think the word ‘trash’ works anymore. And I would never utter the word ‘camp’. My tax form should say ‘irony dealer’. But then irony is elitist. I mean, does ‘camp’ exist in Albania ? Is Show Boat good when you’re hungry ?”

WATERS describes himself as “a workaholic 6 days of the week and an alcoholic on Fridays” – when he hits the town “like a coalminer.”
“I’m so anal even my hangovers are planned !”
Role Models details his passion for strip bars – gay and straight (“as long as they’re bad ones”) – and trawling Baltimore’s “monster bars.”“
His favourite song is The Monster Mash and he recalls nights “I’ve danced with the monsters I had brought home from my favourite redneck bars blurting out “it was a graveyard smash” while sniffing poppers.”
Well we’ve all done it.
Waters once spent weeks searching for a shot of what he calls “the last taboo in porn” – a dirty foot – for one of his art shows.
“The lowest-level entry job in show business is the crew member who has to wipe dirt off the bottom of porno stars’ feet.”
So it’s no surprise to find a chapter titled Outsider Porn describing the time he tracked down “the world’s most notorious underground Marine pornographer”, Bobby Garcia.
The chapter ends with Waters (who says necrophilia and scatophilia are “the only perversions I haven’t tried”) advocating the parlour game ‘which dead celebrity would you like to fuck ?’
Waters’ selection ? Luchino Visconti.
The most shocking chapter though is probably the first, which begins with the brilliant line “I wish I were Johnny Mathis.”
“So mainstream. So popular. So unironic, yet perfect…” he sighs
“It’s a cult !” Waters enthuses. “He’s beyond fame and beyond race.”
Another chapter is dedicated to his long friendship with Leslie Van Houten, one of the convicted murderers who followed Charles Manson. He writes that, when he saw the photo in the New York Daily News confirming the Manson Family’s capture, “I almost went into cardiac arrest. The Manson family looked just like my friends.”
Waters attended the Manson trial, and claimed to be so “jealous of their notoriety, I went back to Baltimore and made Pink Flamingos.”
To the critics’ horror, he even dedicated the film to Van Houten and Manson acolytes Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel.
“Maybe I had taken too much acid myself,” he later acknowledged.
Van Houten has now served 40 years, the same as Rudolph Hess and Waters admits he is “less smart alecky” about criminality.
The extensive collection of memorabilia I once saw displayed around his house (a piece of serial killer John Wayne Gacy’s front lawn here, some of Charles Manson’s hair – in the shape of a swastika – there) has been put away. These days he prefers collecting abstract artist Cy Twombly.
Nonetheless he can’t help sniping, “These suicide bombers… All this training and they forget Fashion Training. And that’s how they get caught ! Cos of the bad fashion and haircuts !”
Role Models charts his obsession with style, firing off aphorisms such as “you don’t need fashion designers when you’re young. Have faith in your own bad taste” and “Get on the nerves of your fashion peers, not your parents.”
He also reveals the secret behind his trademark moustache, first worn in tribute to Little Richard: Maybelline Expert Eyes in Velvet Black – “applied and sharpened twice a day.” It is, thus, “both iconic and ironic: the original pencil moustache !”
He says he has “no idea” when the next John Waters film will be coming out and is developing something for television.
Youth and beauty have often featured in his work. Eat Your Make-up for example features a deranged governess who kidnaps models and makes them model themselves to death.
Hopefully he will make something inspired by his theory that the only radical trend left would be for young people to imitate the old, and approximate our fear of ageing.
“Teenagers dressing old, drawing on bags, receding hair and a beer gut !” he chortles. “Faux old people !”
The most telling line in Role Models is his admission: “Every day of my life is STILL a campaign for popularity.”
He’s gone a funny way about it.
“Well, everyone in showbusiness is still trying to prove something. I’m honest. Every day is the search for a crowded funeral !”
He has his burial plot arranged by the way – near Divine’s.
“It’s a cult graveyard. We call it Disgraceland.”
To me, John Waters will always be an outsider, the King of Outsiders, and their jester, their story-teller. But he disagrees.
“The word ‘Outsider’ meant some thing when there was a cultural war going on but there isn’t one any more because everybody’s on the internet.”
The only form of subversion left, he says, is being a hacker “and hacking has not led to good haircuts or new fashions. I don’t feel like an outsider at all. I used to but now everyone feels like an outsider. My parents (italics) feel like outsiders. I feel like a happy INsider, which IS ironic. It’s the last irony in my life in a way.”