Waters World

Baltimore's legendary John Waters reveals his festive side during the holiday season

In the annals of cinema, there are few Christmas moments more uproarious than the one launching 1974′s Female Trouble, as teen bad girl Dawn Davenport flies into a rampage after discovering the gift bestowed upon her by her parents is not the one she’d requested.

John Waters
John Waters
(Photo by Todd Franson)


Dawn: What are these?
Mom: Those are your new shoes, Dawn!
Dawn: Those aren’t the right kind! I told you cha-cha heels! Black ones!
Dad: Nice girls don’t wear cha-cha heels!
Dawn: I’ll never wear those ugly shoes! I told you the kind I wanted! You ruined my Christmas!

It’s at that point all hell breaks loose. Dawn violently stomps on the package as her mother begs, “Please, Dawn! Not on Christmas!” “Get off me you ugly witch,” Dawn replies, shoving Mom into the Christmas tree.

Dawn: I hate you! Fuck you! Fuck you both, you awful people! You’re not my parents! I hate you, I hate this house, and I hate Christmas!
Mom: Not on Christmas! Not on Christmas!

It is an unforgettable scene — expertly played by the late drag actor Divine — sprung from the trashy, twisted mind of John Waters, a man who helped turn underground filmmaking into something mainstream without sacrificing its core, trash-cult values.

Waters, who still maintains a residence in his hometown of Baltimore, became notorious for Pink Flamingos, a midnight-movie circuit staple in the early ’70s. Waters, of course, had his greatest hit with Hairspray, turned into a hit Broadway musical in 2002 and back into a mainstream hit film in 2007. But to fully appreciate the various incarnations, one must go back to the stunning 1988 original, directed by Waters and starring Divine in what was the actor’s finest, most fully realized performance as Edna Turnblad, an overworked housewife contending with a feisty overweight daughter who, in her own way, joins the fight for civil rights.

Waters is well known to be a collector of things eccentric — his home in Baltimore is strewn with everything from platters of fake, rubber food to rare collectibles by artists like Damien Hirst. He is a collector, an intellect, a proud gay man, and incredibly modest about the enduring impact his works have had on American society.

And while he hasn’t made a film since 2004′s extravagantly profane — and NC-17 rated — A Dirty Shame, he remains firmly ensconced on the pop-culture radar with a new book, Role Models, due out in the spring of 2010, and a current tour of his one-man holiday show, A John Waters Christmas, which lights up The Birchmere in Alexandria on Thursday, Dec. 17, a show motivated by the man’s genuine love for Christmas.

Naturally, when it comes to holiday spirit, John Waters has his own spin. And it’s exactly what you’d expect it to be.

METRO WEEKLY: Let’s start with your holiday show. Tell me a little about it.

JOHN WATERS: This is about the seventh year I’ve done a Christmas tour, so I just feel like Johnny Mathis. It’s about my obsession for Christmas — and I really do like Christmas. I understand why some people hate it and I address that heavily in the show, but I think you have to give in to it and do it the best you can. But there’s all sorts of protections you can have against people that get abusive at Christmas. For example, if you go to your family’s house you know that they’re going to say things that get on your nerves. So carry a little verbal-abuse siren in your pocket. When they get on your nerves, just pierce their ears with it and they’ll get the point.

The show covers every possible thing about bad behavior at Christmas parties, what I want for Christmas, what I’m going to give you for Christmas, how to deal with Christmas. Is Christmas sexy? Is Christmas a gay holiday?

MW: Is Christmas a gay holiday in your estimation?

WATERS: Well, it can be, certainly. Is Santa erotic? That is a question with the bear movement. Is he a silver fox? Is he a bear? But at the same time, is asking an overweight person to play Santa Claus at your office party an insult? And it is. It’s the “fattist” thing to do. Divine’s mother always made him be Santa Claus, so I think he was Santabused.

MW: I’ve never really pondered the idea of whether or not Santa was erotic.

WATERS: It’s a complicated question: Is Santa erotic? Suppose you are attracted to Santa — does that make you a Santa hag? Can you have sex in a chimney? Are you a flue queen? There are all sorts of possibilities that I talk about.

MW: And let’s not forget the elves.

WATERS: Well, that’s a whole different story. That would be child molesting, which I would be against. But bestiality with Rudolph — I’m a little more liberal.

MW: I don’t think elves are children. They’re grown-ups. They’re just really little little people.

WATERS: No they’re not. [Pauses.] Aren’t they children?

MW: Are they?

WATERS: Most of the people I knew who thought there were elves were out of their minds on LSD. And in Iceland they really do believe in elves. Everybody does. For real. Look it up, it’s true. So maybe there is such a thing as elves. And maybe you’re right, maybe they are adults. I know in Japan my favorite designer, Comme des Garçons, some of their clothes, only elves could wear them. And they’re very expensive. I mean, who buys these, other than little rich elves?

MW: Do you have a Christmas party?

WATERS: I do. It’s a giant big party with open bar and very strict door policy and I’ve had it every year since I was 18, and I’m 63, so that’s how many years I’ve had it. And everybody comes, from the guy who played the singing asshole in Pink Flamingos — who is now probably 60 and so the muscles ain’t what they used to be — to my mom. It’s kind of a party that I have for everybody I’ve known in Baltimore. A third of the guests I only see once a year at that party, but some of them are friends I’ve had for 50 years.

MW: I’ll bet that’s one hot invite.

WATERS: I hope it is a hot invite. You’re allowed to bring a guest, but I encourage you not to bring one. And I hate it when people call up and say, ”I have someone else in town…” I say, ”No, not only can you not bring a third person, now you’re not invited.”

And another thing is RSVP. It doesn’t mean you call and say ”Yes.” In L.A., they think it means that if you’re not coming you don’t call. But that isn’t what RSVP means. RSVP means let me know either way.

MW: Some people don’t do that.

WATERS: Well, anyone that had proper manners training as a child does. Otherwise, you show your lack of good taste, and if you lack good taste, how can you ever appreciate bad taste?

MW: You should have stepped in for Judith Martin when she retired Miss Manners.

WATERS: There are certain rules I’m sticklers about. You have to know the rules to break the rules.

MW: Were you always like that?

WATERS: Yes. I’m a Swiss person trapped in an American’s body. Obnoxiously on time, overly prepared.

MW: What kinds of Christmas presents do you get?

WATERS: Oh, I get great presents. Fans give me great stuff. One of the best ones I ever got from a fan was a sculpture with blinking Christmas lights of Divine knocking over the Christmas tree with her parents pinned under the tree. I take that out every Christmas and plug it in and it looks great. I give really great presents, too.

MW: What makes a present great?

WATERS: The best present ever, really, is something you don’t know existed but you collect. If someone gives you a present of something you collect that you didn’t know existed, you should reward them sexually, in a severe manner. So they get a rim job. I would say that’s showing appreciation.

MW: Apart from possible rim jobs, what kind of Christmas gifts do you give people?

WATERS: Well, I don’t want to tell. But I usually give books. I believe books are the best presents, but I shop all year for especially weird books that people don’t know about. My mother always gives me what I ask her for, and I always try to get the Buildings of Disaster. They’re this company called BOYM, and they do these four-inch nickel-plated replicas of buildings where terrible things have happened. I have Oklahoma, the Unabomber’s house, Waco, all of them. They’re great presents. They’re a hundred bucks. I’ve even given Princess Di’s tunnel as a wedding present.

MW: What’s happening on the filmmaking front?

WATERS: Well, in this economy, I don’t know anyone in America that’s getting a $5-to-$7-million independent film made, but I do have a movie called Fruitcake ready to go. It’s fallen through twice. It’s a terribly wonderful children’s Christmas adventure about a very functional family that steals meat. A door-to-door meat salesman, which we have in Baltimore, will knock on your door and say ”Meatman.” You say ”I want two porterhouses and a pound of ground beef.” And they shoplift it for you, bring it back and you pay half of what’s on the label. The people who paid me to write it liked it, and now the company is no longer there. That’s the thing — no matter what field you’re in, if you’re in the arts in any possible way, you’re highly affected by what’s going on in the economy.

MW: But you’re John Waters. You have a track record. Your last film, A Dirty Shame

WATERS: A Dirty Shame did not make much money because it got an NC-17 rating and none of the chains will carry NC-17 DVDs. But I’m not whining. Things are going great. I have a lot of projects that are happening. I’ve been doing this for 40 years, so you constantly reinvent yourself, you constantly change to keep up with the times.

MW: I thought A Dirty Shame was hilarious.

WATERS: Not everybody felt that way. It got some very bad reviews. But I never answer reviews. I always say you read the good ones twice and the bad ones once and put them all away and don’t look at them. But I went to the French premiere in Paris and I took Jeanne Moreau as my date because I knew her from being on the jury in the Cannes Film Festival and I adore her. She’s really an icon to me. We’re sitting there watching this movie and I thought, ”What is she going to think about it?” And it was over and I just was nervous and I said, “We had a lot of censorship problems,” and she said, ”Why, darling? It was pure poetry.” And I said, ”Well, no one’s ever called it that before.” That’s one of the highlights of my life, Jeanne Moreau saying that to me. Poetry — “the P word” — has never been mentioned in any of my reviews.

MW: Do you ever consider the irony of Hairspray becoming a Broadway musical and then being remade from the musical as another film?

WATERS: You don’t get many things that work that well in your life, so I’m thrilled with all of it. Hairspray was really the only thing in my life where I actually did make a lot of money. I think they did a great job. I loved the movie they made, too. They changed it every time, that’s why it worked.

I’ve since written a sequel called Hairspray: White Lipstick, and whether it will ever get made I don’t know. I wrote the treatment where I thought up every single thing that could happen to the characters when the real ’60s hit — with revolution and the British invasion and drugs and the show going off the air and everything. I don’t know if it will get made or not. I hope it does.

MW: Have you thought about some of the earlier films for Broadway potential?

WATERS: Sure. But you know, once Cry-Baby didn’t work I think my Broadway career ended. If Cry-Baby had been successful, I think Serial Mom would have been next. But I think Serial Mom would be a better television show, like a weekly series where mom kills the political correctness.

MW: I think Female Trouble would be great musical.

WATERS: That’s the one Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman [who wrote the musical Hairspray] want to do. But they say off-Broadway and I don’t know how off-Broadway works anymore. I see Pink Flamingos as an opera. People think I’m kidding, but it would make a good opera because there are so many mad scenes in it of Divine flipping out. At the end she could fly away over the whole audience like Wicked. It could be great. The fat lady sings at the end, eats dog shit and then flies away on a turd over the entire audience.

MW: You mention today’s difficult economic climate for independent film. Is there, however, an underground filmmaking movement as there was in the late 60s, early 70s?

John Waters
John Waters
(Photo by Todd Franson)

WATERS: Sure there is. And the thing is, studios are looking for it now. When we were making those movies they never would even consider us. But Paranormal Activity grossed a hundred million dollars and cost $10,000. The movie Tarnation was, I thought, the best underground movie in the last 20 years.

So, yes, there will always be brilliant, angry, crazy kids out there that are doing something [creative with film]. And the good thing for young filmmakers is all the equipment they have — it’s so much easier to make a movie now. It’s worse for people on film juries who have to look at them all — there are so many bad ones because now everybody can make a movie. The difference is that the next big sensation is not going to be a midnight movie, it’s going to be online. But every business I’ve been in has been ruined by giving it away free online. Nobody can figure out how to make money.

My next movie I’m sure will be shot in digital. Everybody does it now. It’s cheaper. And you can barely tell the difference if you do it well. So technology is rapidly changing. I know it’s never going to go back. If I had my choice I’d make my movies in Technicolor in CinemaScope. But I recognize that today’s kids are perfectly happy to watch David Lean movies on their iPhones.

MW: James Cameron is pushing 3D as the next big cinematic breakthrough.

WATERS: I think 3D is for porn -- what are they waiting for? Let’s see Jeff Stryker’s return in 3D! I want all the old porn stars that are alive to have a reunion film. That would be the hit of the season, wouldn’t it? ”Old Chickens Make Good Soup.” That should be the title.

MW: You’d have to put a few young chickens in there, too, don’t you think?

WATERS: No, no, no. They’ll be watching it. They’re for wrinkle queens.

MW: Do you have a gay political side?

WATERS: Sure. But instead of ACT UP, I’m for “Act Bad.” Let’s embarrass our enemies with humor.

MW: What do you think of the marriage-equality fight?

WATERS: I think the marriage thing is being fought badly. We keep losing. Why are we losing? Call it something else. Or let’s fight for heterosexual divorce to be illegal. Let’s change the thing. I don’t think we should be allowed to vote for it. In the ’60s, do you think if you had to vote for integration it would have passed? It wouldn’t have. Let’s not vote on gay marriage. They’re never going to win a vote. Let’s make it law some other way.

MW: How?

WATERS: It’s a human-rights issue. I’m saying it has to be overturned in the courts. Look, I’m for it, of course, and anybody that votes against it, we should go to their house and embarrass them. I’m for pie-ing the pope! Let’s not hurt him. Let’s just ruin his outfit.

MW: What about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?

WATERS: I have a whole thing in the show where I talk about the USO tour I’d want to do — Do Ask, Do Tell, Let’s Go To Hell! I’m giving away too much stuff from my show!

MW: Okay, let’s try something else. If you were casting a movie today, would you cast someone like Levi Johnston?

WATERS: I talk a lot about him in my show.

MW: Boy, I’m hitting all the untouchable topics.

WATERS: You are.

MW: Well, Levi Johnston has said he won’t fly coach. Will John Waters?

WATERS: Nope. I flew coach till I was 40. I don’t do it anymore. Except nobody’s cute in first class, that’s the problem. They’re all ugly.

MW: This is one topic I can’t avoid: Divine.

WATERS: I miss Divine, especially at Christmas. I’m still shocked he’s dead, if you want to know the truth. Someone said something shocking to me the other day, they said, ”You know, when your friends die, you still think of them as your age.” And I’m 63. Divine was my age. But Divine, when he died, was the age of my friends’ children, he was 42. That’s what’s shocking when you think how young he was when he died.

MW: It was a great loss.

WATERS: The day before he died, he was supposed to shoot Married with Children, playing the gay uncle, which would have made him the first gay television sitcom character on a very popular show. It could have been a huge success. That’s why he was in L.A., he was supposed to shoot the next day. He went out to dinner with [photographer] Greg Gorman, they had a great meal, and he just dropped dead in his sleep.

MW: People underestimate what a fine actor he was.

WATERS: Well, they don’t anymore. Each year he has been dead, he gets better and better reviews. It is amazing, and it’s reinventing things. But you know what? You get a good review any way you can get it.

MW: Did you and Divine ever have an official coming-out moment to one another?

WATERS: No, it seemed too square to say those words. We just were always gay. We always were gay and it just seemed why did we have to say it? It was quite obvious.

MW: How old were you when you met?

WATERS: About 16 or 17.

MW: Was he doing drag then?

WATERS: A little. He would dress like Elizabeth Taylor. He was obsessed by Elizabeth Taylor. He went on a date with his girlfriend [at the time], and showed up at her parents’ house dressed as Elizabeth Taylor!

MW: What do you look for in a man?

WATERS: You mean a boyfriend man?

MW: Yes.

WATERS: My favorite is a blue-collar closet queen because they don’t want to be in my movies. They don’t want to meet famous people. They don’t want to go on tour with me. They want to come over to my house and hang out. I’ve never had a famous boyfriend. Anybody that would want to walk the red carpet with me would be a bad boyfriend. I don’t go to work with them. Why should they want to go to work with me? People have to be able to make me laugh. I like people that have had some backstory. I don’t want somebody like me especially, they don’t have to be intellectual at all. I know enough smart people. Who wants to talk about books in bed?

MW: Do you have a boyfriend at the moment?

WATERS: No, but I have a couple friends I see — that I always see.

MW: Have you ever had a long-term boyfriend?

WATERS: Yeah, three.

MW: What’s the longest?

WATERS: Five years. But I never lived with ‘em. I could never live with anybody that would allow me to dominate them enough so that they could live in this house, the way it looks, totally my taste. I wouldn’t want to be my boyfriend.

MW: Clearly they wanted to be your boyfriend.

WATERS: That isn’t a boyfriend, that’s a groupie.

MW: So no marriage for John Waters?

WATERS: Oh, God, no. I have a great life as a single man. You kidding? At Elton John’s party, I got seated next to Yoko Ono. Joan Kennedy, at another party. I have a great life as a single man. I live in four cities. I am very happy to be a single man. I don’t need somebody else to make me feel better.

MW: In Metro Weekly we do a feature where we ask a series of questions to our Nightlife Coverboys. I want to ask you three questions from that list, the obvious one being what’s on you nightstand?

WATERS: I have two nightstands because I have a bed with a table on each side of it. So I’ll tell you each side. On the left side is three books, The Story of Chicken Little, Slovenly Peter and Baltimore Afire. I also collect fake food — so there’s a bowl of fake grits. There is a can opener Patty Hearst gave me that is a horse’s ass. There is a picture of the Queen from Snow White.

On the right side table there’s more fake food — a bowl of cereal that really looks real, a little piece of bacon, a pickle, five books — Impossible Princess by Kevin Killian, Monkey Painting by Thierry Lenain, All Around Atlantis by Deborah Eisenberg, and Hotel Theory by Wayne Kostenbaum — a box of Kleenex, brass knuckles, an eight-ball that tells your fortune — it’s broken — and a rubber knife.

MW: Do you keep anything in the drawers of the nightstands?

WATERS: Yeah. But I’m not telling you what’s in there. I’ve told you enough, haven’t I?

MW: Where is the most unusual place that John Waters has ever had sex?

WATERS: That I wouldn’t tell you. Because here’s the thing — people that tell a journalist that have no friends.

MW: Fair enough. Finally, state your life philosophy in 10 words or less.

WATERS: Don’t judge others. Know the whole story. And be curious.

John Waters presents A John Waters Christmas, Thursday, Dec. 17, 7:30 p.m., at The Birchmere, 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave. The show is sold out. Call 703-549-7500 or visit birchmere.com.

Randy Shulman is Metro Weekly's Publisher and Editor-in-Chief. He can be reached at rshulman@metroweekly.com.

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