Model' Citizen: An interview with John Waters

By Gregg Shapiro

For more than 40 years, John Waters has been one of the most original voices in contemporary pop culture. His films, including "Pink Flamingos," "Desperate Living," "Polyester," "Hairspray" and "Pecker," brought the underground and independent creative spirit to mainstream audiences. Waters is also the author of several books, including his latest, "Role Models" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010). In "Role Models," Waters pays homage to the people, some famous, some not, who helped to make him who he is today.

In the chapter "Little Richard, Happy At Last," you write about doing a difficult celebrity interview. Since you've done your share of interviewing, for the book, for example, how would you say that affects the way that you approach interviews when you are the subject?
To be honest, I read the press constantly. I'm not sure Little Richard reads the press that he isn't in. I don't know that. I am a journalist in a way. Some of these articles were journalistic. One of them, with Little Richard, was written for Playboy. In my other book, "Crackpot," from a long time ago, they were all journalistic pieces that were collected.
I would say that since I read the press – I get a hundred-and-some magazines a month, although that's dwindling, I'm afraid – and I read about six or seven newspapers every morning, I participate in the press, so therefore when I give (interviews) I try to make it good for the journalists. I try to vary what I say, even though it's hard when you do 30 interviews and they're about one subject – they're going to ask the same questions. But I don't hate the press and I think that's maybe why I don't have a horrible time doing it.

I know that "Role Models" is a literary self-portrait, but after reading the section on gay and straight boyfriends in the "Outsider Porn" chapter and accidentally killing someone in the "Leslie" chapter, I wondered if you were surprised during the course of writing the book about what you found yourself to be revealing.
Well…you're right. I think you have to reveal something in a memoir. I don't name my boyfriends' names; they're not famous people. I know one or two of them might not like being in the book. I do have a private life and I also talk about in the book that when I see celebrities revealing every personal thing to a journalist, I always think they don't have friends. And they don't! (Laughs) That's why they have to tell a journalist. The same principle applies to telemarketing. The reason some people go for it is that some people's phones never ever ring except for that call and they're lonely.
I do have friends that I confide in. But at the same time, when I'm talking about something as serious as the Leslie Van Houten chapter – there are no jokes in that chapter – is that basically that is something that I never revealed for a long, long time. It just seems that when you're reflecting on somebody else's horror that they're trying to get it over, it was the closest I had to that horrible experience. I didn't tell it with any humor, certainly. And the stuff about the boyfriends is true. I don't necessarily fit in all gay culture either. My friends are straight, gay. I love young people because they don't care anymore so much. It's not isolated or ghettoized. I usually like the gay people that don't fit in gay culture either, that go to hipster bars, so it's easier shopping, really. It might be a straight bar, and there might be three gay people there, but they'd be the three gay people I'd like if I was in an all-gay bar (laughs).

I'm glad that you mentioned that, because I laughed out loud on numerous appropriate occasions in the book, but never more so than when you wrote about the joke you and Gus Van Sant make about the press calling you "openly gay."
They always say that, "openly gay." Once I was on the cover of The Advocate (as), "Openly gay director, John Waters." But they never asked me! So my joke now with my staff when someone says "openly gay" is, "How dare they presume I'm gay!" I'm just kidding, of course. I've always said I was gay. But "openly gay," Gus and I always say, "What does that mean?" I guess it means that we've said we're gay and it's no big deal. But to me, "openly gay" somehow sounds like you're running into parties screaming, "Got any Judy Garland records?" (Laughs) Like the worst cliche of what it could be. I love Judy Garland; I don't think that's a bad cliche. I'm a fan of Judy Garland's, even more so now. It's a term that's taken the place of flamboyant, which used to mean gay when they couldn't say it in a mean way.

In addition to writing your own books, it's clear from reading "Role Models" that you are a voracious reader, citing other people's books in chapters such as "Bookworm," "Cult Leader," "Outsider Porn" and "Leslie." With the publishing industry in flux, how would you say that is affecting you?
I never stop to think that my readers might not know who somebody is. Look it up! I don't talk down. I recently did my spoken-word act "This Filthy World" at Michael Moore's Comedy Festival and Jeff Garlin said to me, "I love that you crack a Jean Rhys joke. Not many people know who Jean Rhys is." Well, look it up! I don't talk down. I assume my audience is intelligent. But at the same time, if you don't know who somebody is or if I read it, I would look it up. It's easy to look things up now. (Laughs) You don't have to go to the library anymore. You hit one word and it comes up on your computer.

People who have their smart phones with them could probably look it up in the middle of your show.
They could! In fact, they do! At the same time, I think my book is a beach read because it comes out in June. As long as the water is polluted in your area (laughs).

What would you do if Oprah invited you on her show to talk about your book?
I'd go in a minute. I know Oprah because she used to be in Baltimore. Every time I see Oprah she does a Baltimore accent for me. Which is very seldom; maybe I've seen her three times, if that. And it's always in the middle of a media event, the Vanity Fair party or something like that. I don't have her home address, certainly. But I'd do it in a minute. I think my message is hopeful. I have "The Secret" (laughs) to being a happy neurotic. I don't know if Oprah admits that you can be a happy neurotic, but I have my "Secret," too (laughs).

Thank you for sharing that secret.

At the very beginning of the book, in the "Johnny and Me" chapter, you pose an interesting question idolizing "our imagined opposites, yearning to become the role models for others we knew we could never be for ourselves." How do you respond to people who tell you that you are their role model?
They do a lot now, these days, and I'm very flattered. I joke that I'm a "filth elder." I played the Coachella Festival recently and I really felt like a "filth elder." It was packed with 20-year-old kids. That is the ultimate compliment that I can have. I've been doing this for almost 50 years; I started in '64. These kids weren't even alive when I made my later movies!
So it's really flattering to me that something I'm saying is appealing to them. I still am interested in what's going on. I never think, "It was more fun when I made "Pink Flamingos." It was different. I don't look backwards. I try to find out what is the next thing a kid is doing to get on people's nerves, which has always interested me.

Speaking of things coming around again, in the "Baltimore Heroes" chapter, you wrote about Burlesque queen Lady Zorro. What do you think of the current burlesque revival?
It's good and I love it, but they don't have butch lesbian ones that are strippers, that come out nude and snarl, "What the fuck you lookin' at?" I think they should. Just come out and say, "Yeah, what do you think you're lookin' at, you pig?" I'm still friends with Zorro's daughter and she liked the book. And Playboy is printing that chapter, which I find so hilarious in a way. Zorro is finally in Playboy!

Have you started work on your next film project?
No. I'm trying to get this one "Fruitcake" made. Right now, to be honest, in America I don't know anyone who can get an independent $5-million film made. Independent film is the worst it's ever been since I started and it's probably the best for Hollywood big budget movies since I started.

Having written a few of your own books, have you ever felt strongly enough about another author's book to adapt it for film?
Not that I'd want to adapt for film. But I write to authors when I read their books all the time and tell them how much I like it. I still write fan letters all the time. I just read Justin Spring's "Secret Historian" (about Samuel Steward) and let me say that that's my new favorite book. And this guy really knew how to top from the bottom (laughs).


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