When it comes to Christmas spirit, you might not instantly think of the Baltimore-bred director of such cult classics as Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, as well as more mainstream hit Hairspray.
Then again, maybe you do.
For eleven years, John Waters, the 69-year-old cinematic icon and author, has traversed the country with his twisted look at the holiday season. This year’s edition, A John Waters Christmas: Holier & Dirtier, lights up The Birchmere with filthy-minded festivities on Monday, Dec. 21.
Waters, for his part, still loves doing the show, if only “for the fact that it pays for my Christmas presents.” And he’s not kidding, what with more than 75 gifts to buy for assorted friends, family and degenerates.
Who better, then, to turn to for advice on gift-giving than the auteur who for 40-plus years has ensured that pencil-thin mustaches remain the epitome of high fashion.
METRO WEEKLY: John, what do the holidays mean to you?
JOHN WATERS: Well, these days, the holidays mean that I’m like Elvira on Halloween — they mean I’m working because I’m going to nineteen cities in twenty-three days.
MW: But from a more traditional standpoint?
WATERS: Well, I am a traditionalist. I have the same Christmas party every year for two hundred people, which is catered — it’s like a big office party. And it’s my turn this year to cook the Christmas dinner for my family. So those are fairly traditional things that I do.
MW: What about decorating?
WATERS: I definitely have what other people call their “heirloom” Christmas decorations, but some of them might be alarming to others. I do a spin on traditional decorating. I used to decorate the electric chair that Divine got electrocuted in in Female Trouble. I have a wreath on the door, but it has sticker bushes on it. On the mantle, I have beautiful flowers, but I also have The Tingler and the “Unabomber Birdhouse.”
MW: Did you say you have The Tingler?
WATERS: Yes. It’s not the one that was in the film, but it looks exactly like it. The guy [who made it] calls it something else, like The Toungler. I think he was afraid of being sued. But it looks great. I’ve had this for many years and it’s a really good one. It makes a lovely Christmas present.
The Tingler was such an important movie to me when I was young. I saw it in the theater, and when it first opened the seats were all wired with — what was it called? — “Percepto,” which were these little buzzers that went off supposedly giving you an electric shock. One Christmas, my friend Dennis Dermody, the film critic, gave me the instruction book for “How to wire your theater” [with Percepto]. And it’s shockingly complicated. Each seat had three wires, they all had to go — I mean, that they actually ever did this was mindboggling, when you think about it.
MW: That sounds like an incredibly unique gift.
WATERS: That’s the thing. It’s not always about how much money you spend — it’s about how unique the gifts are. One year, this same person gave me for Christmas Ike Turner’s will. I also got the guest list with home addresses and phone numbers of every person who was at Rock Hudson’s funeral. These are the kind of items that you really want to keep. They are the best gifts.
I collect weird books that are from literature turned into porn parodies. Someone gave me “From Here to Maternity” and I was just thrilled. I never knew there was such a thing. That probably cost a dollar. It’s worth more than that in the right store with the right buyer, but it’s delighting someone about things they collect that they didn’t even know existed. All it takes is time.
MW: Yeah, it’s the thought that goes into it.
WATERS: Yes. And that’s why I’m so violently against gift cards, which just means, “I’m stupid and can’t think of anything.” I paid with a gift card at Starbucks. It was so embarrassing — it was like having an emergency food voucher. I’d probably just pay for my Starbucks coffee than have to take this pitiful gift card that a dumb person gave me, and admit to the person that works in Starbucks that I’m stupid too, because nobody could think of a present for me.
MW: So no gift cards, then.
WATERS: Unless it’s The Silk Road, where you can buy hit men and Morning Glory seeds.
MW: Who do you mainly get gifts from?
WATERS: I get gifts from friends, I get gifts from family, I get gifts from fans. I have a registry in my office for people who call up and say, “What can we give him?” I have a huge, giant library, but I have it all in the computer so I know every book I have. So people call and say, “What books does he want?” and Susan, my assistant has a list.
MW: Where are the best stores to find a gift for you?
WATERS: Kay-O Books in San Francisco. Or you could go to Atomic Books in Baltimore, which is where I get all my fan mail. It’s an amazingly great, extreme book shop where you would definitely be able to find something for me. They know my taste.
MW: And what is your taste?
WATERS: I love to get books. I read a lot of fiction — that’s how I relax. And I mostly give books for Christmas presents. I’m also a fan of Comme des Garcons — I like them because it’s clothes that make you look poorer than you are, but cost a lot.
MW: Sounds very Baltimore.
WATERS: Except we don’t have one here! You have to go to New York. [Laughs.] But in Baltimore, when I wear those clothes, people say, “That’s a shame about that coat.” And I just paid a lot of money for it. It’s like fashion in reverse. I don’t think you could not buy me a good present there but I don’t expect people to buy me expensive presents. I feel awkward when they do.
MW: What is the worst gift you’ve ever gotten?
WATERS: Well, I got mad that somebody once sent me a fruit gift basket. I can afford a fucking pear. Who would want to get a pear? I’m was excited, “Oh, good, what is it?” And I open it up and it’s six pears and a lot of tissue paper.
I’m for gift baskets, but they should be filled with things that people wouldn’t have the nerve to buy, like porn or sex toys or things that you don’t especially cherish going into to buy. I always wanted to do one that has Gun Oil Lubricant, poppers, cigarettes, porn — stuff that you’d be embarrassed to buy yourself. That’s what gift baskets should be. And I’m also against re-gifting because you can always tell instantly. I think then you should say, “Excuse me, can I have the receipt with that one?” just to make the person nervous.
MW: What are some of the best gifts you’ve ever gotten from fans?
WATERS: One fan sent me a painting that was just the wallpaper in Dawn Davenport’s apartment in Female Trouble. That was pretty good conceptual art. Another sent me a Christmas decoration of Divine knocking the Christmas tree onto her parents where the lights blink and everything.
MW: What about you? Who do you give gifts to?
WATERS: Oh, my God, I’ve just been going today with my assistant. I have about 75 gifts I have to buy every year, at least. My brothers and sisters, my nieces and nephews. Every person in [my production company] Dreamland that’s alive. The people that work for me. Friends I’ve had for 50 years.
MW: How do you choose for them? Is there a specific criteria?
WATERS: Well, I think of each person. I know what they like and I try to find the right thing for them every year. Many people I give very strange art books to.
MW: If you get a gift from John Waters, is it safe to assume it’s going to be unusual at the very least.
WATERS: I hope it is. But I hope it’s unusual and good. There’s books that are shocking but not good, that aren’t funny or witty or don’t change how you think about anything. I try to get something that would surprise me, basically. I like people to open it and say, “God, where’d you get this?” Very rarely do people open it and say “I have this.” I’m lucky, I travel all the time. If I know the right places to go, I can find good stuff. It’s usually an obscure book shop or an obscure clothing store.
MW: So you do your own shopping.
WATERS: Yes. Although I know a friend in Baltimore who, if he ever lived in New York or L.A., could be rich being a shopper to the stars because he knows how to find the exact present for someone. He shops all year round and is always Christmas shopping, basically.
MW: You mentioned your nieces and nephews. How do you get a younger person something that remains true to your spirit?
WATERS: I try to encourage whatever their interest is and usually give things that their parents may not have because I’m a much better uncle than I would be a father. I have a nephew who’s in a punk rock band, so I give him books about hideous rock and roll stories. My niece works in the fashion industry in New York, so I give her extreme fashion books.
MW: Is there any kind of gift that doesn’t actually exist that you’d like to give?
WATERS: I’d like to get someone a get out of jail certificate for Christmas. And I’d give an abortion for Christmas, if someone asked me. I don’t think they have gift certificates for that. They should.
MW: Wait, get out of jail?
WATERS: Yeah, it would be a “Get out of jail free” card that would literally work. Which would mean bail. In case you got busted the next year. That would be a nice present. And while I don’t encourage abortion, if you have to get one, you would be secure knowing you that you had a gift certificate to get one.
Or maybe I’ll pay all your traffic and parking tickets this year. I just read this great book by Joy Williams and there was a short story in it about mothers of people that killed people in drunk driving accidents. They would have meetings and would try to make each other feel better. They’d say, “What can you do?” and someone said, “Well, I just break into peoples’ mailboxes and take their gas and electric bill and pay it anonymously.” That was so great! I had to put the book down it was so great. Just break into peoples’ mail and pay their bills for no reason. That’s really the Christmas spirit.
MW: When you shop for people do you try to incorporate yourself into the gift?
WATERS: A little bit of myself. You know, sometimes I think “Will they ever read this book?” I don’t know. But these are the people I continue to give books like that to, and they have mentioned that they liked the books.
MW: What’s better — handmade or store bought gifts?
WATERS: It depends on if they’re good at making handmade gifts. I think you can buy store made gifts and alter them. You have to send a Christmas card, but you can buy a Hallmark card and if it says “Season’s Greetings,” change it to say “Season’s Beatings.” Or go get the cheapest Christmas balls and find the ugliest picture of your friends and glue them on the balls — that’s really a good ice-breaker for Christmas. You have to be creative. You can take the traditions and alter them, and that’s how you can have a fun Christmas.
MW: What’s a good price range for a gift?
WATERS: Oh, that’s tough. Because when I was young, we found everything in thrift shops and it was never expensive. But I can’t really find anything in thrift shops anymore because they all know what’s good now. When I went to thrift shops nobody knew what was good and sometimes the cheapest stuff was the best stuff, but now they all know what’s good. As soon as Goodwill started taking MasterCard, thrift shops were kind of over.
So it isn’t about money, but at the same time, you can’t always find something in the thrift shop. There’s nothing worse than a thrift shop present that doesn’t work. It’s cheap and not good. If it’s cheap, it has to be good.
MW: What are some of the books you’ve gotten over the years?
WATERS: Great book titles. I have a children’s book called “Dads in Prison.” I love the book “Teens and the Death Penalty.” There’s another one I have called, “Is Killing Wrong?” That’s a good philosophy book. I’ll go upstairs and read you a couple of titles. Hold on.
All right, I’m looking here. Bunghole Buddies.
I Was a Negro Playboy Bunnie. Roughneck Rimmers. That’s a good one. Girls and Their Four-Legged Lovers. Enter from the Rear. I love that one. Teen Girls Who Are Assaulted by Animals. Yodel in the Canyon. I even got one called Divine Head. How to Lick Anything. In my guest room is one called Single and Pregnant. That cover always makes me laugh, sitting next to the bed for guests.
Cockeyed Cruiser. Crotch Bait — oh, there’s so many great ones. Oh, here are my hitchhiking books. Hunky Hitchhiker, Two For the Road, The Hitcher, Thumb Trippers, Glory Hole — no, that’s a different section. [Laughs.]
So Dead, My Love. Hung Straight — that’s a good one! Gang Rumble. How Deep is My Love? America’s Major Air Disasters. The Wheelchair Corpse. Oral Extremists. I could go on forever. I have thousands of books.
MW: You haven’t actually read all of these, have you?
WATERS: Well, the porn ones I don’t really read. To me, they’re art objects, a cover. I collect them, they’re art objects.
MW: I once heard that you gave scenes of disasters to people as gifts.
WATERS: Yes, to somebody good — they’re not cheap. It’s called “Buildings of Disaster” and is a whole series. They’re highly collectible. They’re all nickel plated. There’s about 25.
MW: How does somebody react when they get one?
WATERS: The people I would give it to loved it. It used to be in the old days, when I was in love for Valentine’s Day, I’d always give someone a chicken heart, gift wrapped. And people said, “What did they think?” I said, “Well, the people that I was in love with would love that.”
MW: Has anybody ever been shocked by something you’ve given them?
WATERS: I don’t think so. They wouldn’t be invited to my party if they would be. Last year, my Christmas card was an advent calendar. You opened up different doors, but instead of religious scenes, there were alarming pictures waiting inside the windows. I don’t know if people were shocked, but nobody has ever said “Take me off your list.”
MW: How can somebody make their home a little more John Waters for Christmas?
WATERS: Do the standard things, but do them wrong. Take the weirdest things in their house and decorate them. Instead of a tree, decorate the ugliest thing in your house, or something that you’re about ready to throw out. Instead of decorating your mantle, decorate the toilet. Put a wreath on your door that could hurt you when you come in. Put ugly Christmas cards around your mantle or serve turkey tartar for Christmas.
MW: Turkey tartar sounds a bit dangerous.
WATERS: I didn’t say that style isn’t dangerous. That’s part of it. Christmas is a risk.
MW: Finally, this would not be an official John Waters interview without some mention of Divine.
WATERS: Oh, Divine loved Christmas. He almost went to jail every year for Christmas. When he was young he used to cut down Christmas trees that were decorated when he didn’t have any money and take them home. Real ones. In people’s lawns. Christmas is good for criminals, too.
John Waters performs A John Waters Christmas: Holier & Dirtier on Monday, Dec. 21 at the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave. in Alexandria, Va. Tickets are $49.50. Call 703-549-7500 or visit birchmere.com.