Pop culture would look very different if John Waters had chosen a different career path. What would punk have looked like if John Waters hadn’t made Pink Flamingos in 1972, for instance? For 50 years, Waters – the biggest cult in show business – has proved time and again that “bad taste is what entertainment is all about”. Whether in the role of director, performer, writer, visual artist or fashion plate, what has always been impressive is Waters’ joyful refusal to compromise.
WE’VE BEEN FANS OF HIS FOR YEARS AND, AT LAST, WE WERE GRANTED AN AUDIENCE WITH THE ELUSIVE POPE OF TRASH! JOHN WATERS INVENTED BAD TASTE AS HIGH ART AND IS BEING HONOURED WITH A COMPLETE MOVIE RETROSPECTIVE IN LONDON THIS AUTUMN. NOW PERILOUSLY CLOSE TO RESPECTABILITY, HE CHATS TO PIPPA BROOKS ABOUT ART, DRAG, WARHOL – AND BIEBER
PORTRAITS BY SARAH LEE
For someone who set out to “glorify carnage”, Waters has perversely enjoyed a gradual mainstream acceptance. This autumn in London, Waters is to be honoured by the British Film Institute with a month-long retrospective of all his films – as the press release says, “Every Goddam one of them!” – many of them never before seen in the UK. His art show Beverly Hills John at Sprüth Magers in Mayfair – home of such art-world heavyweights as Barbara Kruger and Richard Prince – was well received by press and public. In the heady doggy-doo-eating, chicken-fucking, serial-killing early days of the Waters oeuvre, who knew he would enjoy such respectability?
Pippa: For your UK fans, the prospect of seeing the very early 8mm films in the BFI retrospective, made when you were a teenager, is very exciting. What can we expect?
John Waters: It’s almost like source material, really, to see what we started. I mean, I lived with my parents! These were made in my bedroom at my parents’ house! But you get to see what Divine looked like as a teenager. It’s to show how it all began.
I’m particularly excited to see Eat Your Makeup [above]!
Eat Your Makeup has the scene where we do the entire Kennedy assassination with Divine playing Jackie, crawling over the back of the car in the pink Chanel suit. That’s OK. I mean, it’s too long, but it’s good. It was filmed just a few years after it happened, I still lived at home and the neighbours were so furious! My mother had said, “What are you shooting today?” and I’d gone, “Oh nothin’, nothin’… “ and the neighbours, when they saw it go by, with the whole cavalcade and everything, were just: “Oh my God!” And I liked Kennedy – I wasn’t against Kennedy. I mean, I still like the whole idea of him.
I remember seeing stills from that in your book Director’s Cut  and wanting to see the film itself.
That’s right. And it looks very much like the Zapruder film! [the amateur film by Abraham Zapruder, which inadvertently captured the assassination of JFK]
So it’s not necessarily that you’re dying to show your early stuff?
Well, Andy Warhol once said, “My early films are better to talk about than to actually see,” and I will second him on that!
Your Dreamland repertory company, made up of extraordinary Baltimore misfits like yourself, is obviously what makes your films so unique. That fabulous realisation that you could turn your difference into a genre!
But then, doesn’t every kid today start out making films and using his friends? My friends might have just been a little more alarming than other people’s!
Pedro Almodóvar, Woody Allen, Andy Warhol and you have all done that very successfully, though. Of all of those people, I imagine Warhol was the biggest influence on your work?
Andy Warhol was a huge influence on me. Because he brought straight people and gay people and drugs together… at last. He made gay people so much hipper!
The female characters – Divine, Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller – are the strongest in your films…
Of course they are! What gay man doesn’t write strong female characters?!
You have always cast interesting non-actors in your films, from Iggy Pop to Patty Hearst, but I particularly loved [stripper, author, painter and B-movie star] Liz Renay [above] in Desperate Living.
I knew her from her memoir, My Face for the World to Seeand another book called How to Attract Men, which was full of the best advice, like, “Be nude… and have a bar next to your bed.” That’s right down to it, isn’t it?!
But Candy Darling wrote My Face for the World to See too, didn’t she? I have a copy of that!
I know! But, you know what? She stole it from her, and I told Liz about that, and she said, “Oh, I don’t care: I stole the title too, from someone else!”
I love it when you show a clip from another film within one of your own movies, and it makes you want to see the whole thing. Like in Serial Mom , Kathleen Turner’s son is watching Joan Crawford as an axe-murderer in William Castle’s Strait-Jacket . That made me seek out the film – and, interestingly, both films feature an older, former sex symbol playing a horrific murderer.
In Strait-Jacket they were trying to talk William Castle out of using gimmicks, so in a way, Joan Crawford was the ultimate gimmick! He promised he wouldn’t, and then right at the end, he went in the theatre and put seatbelts on some of the seats, like you’d be so shocked you needed a seatbelt! Of course, it didn’t really catch on! I think I was imitating William Castle more in Polyester  when I did the Odorama thing, with the scratch-and-sniff cards.
The past 10 years have seen you move away from film, focusing more on your writing, artwork and stand-up. Do you miss film?
Right now, TV is better than independent film-making.
Having always been behind the camera, do you get nervous before your stand-up shows? I always think stand-up comedy is about the bravest thing a person can do!
No, not really. I know I should! In fact, I’ve got a big Christmas show coming up, so I’m working on that now. I go on stage for 70 minutes with no notes, so there’s no safety net. But I’ve been doing it so long… I’d be nervous if no one was hiring me!
I very much enjoyed your art show at Sprüth Magers. Is it liberating to be able to express yourself without the whole production that film-making entails?
I have art assistants and people who assist me with research for my books, so it’s never just me. All my careers are the same to me, all equally important. It’s the way I tell stories – it’s just a different way to tell them.
I particularly enjoyed the hilarious piece entitled Did Not Sell, made out of red “SOLD” stickers, and Cancel Ansel, where you wreck the original Ansel Adams photographic landscapes for comic effect. There is a horrific, imagined self-portrait with extreme plastic surgery, one of Lassie and of Justin Bieber, too. Has Bieber seen his portrait?
I don’t know. But we met and he drew on my moustache a while ago. So I think he’d get a chuckle out of it.
As you’ve become more famous you’ve become more accessible to your fans, and it’s usually the other way around. At your book signings, you always sit there, however long the queue, until the last person is seen to, which is so sweet.
Well, you’ve gotta remember, each of them is buying a book, so..!
[roars with laughter]
Yes, I believe the ones that wait the longest are the ones you should really wait for. What am I gonna do? Get up after an hour and leave, after all those people have stayed? I would never do that. A few times recently, the end is people who ask me to marry them! And they have all the paperwork! It startled me, but it’s happened twice now! And I did do it. As long as it was quick!
At 69, Waters professes himself “pretty much always happy”. It’s hard to imagine him having any regrets, and he has succeeded in the way we would all love to: by being successful doing what he absolutely loves. Despite the cries of “Obscenity!”, “Perversion!” and “Filth!” that have dogged Waters as he pushed the boundaries of taste for the common good, his genius has always been to take what society hates, or fears, and make it hilarious. We love him because his success represents the triumph of the outsider. And anyway, he would have taken those cries as a compliment!
THE WYLDE QUESTIONNAIRE: JOHN WATERS
What is your biggest extravagance?
Who would play you in a movie of your life?
Oh, of course if it was my age today, it would be Steve Buscemi. Younger me, I’ll say Matthew Gray Gubler.
Who is your ultimate pin-up?
Dead Brad Renfro [below].
What was the first record you ever bought?
I didn’t buy it, I stole it, and it was Tonight You Belong To Me by Patience and Prudence.
Would you ever go on a celebrity reality-TV show?
No, because they ask you to feel superior to the subjects.
Who or what do you hate?
Whatever it was, I wouldn’t give it the media attention.
Who was your first crush?
What TV shows do you watch?
In the history of TV I have three favourite shows: Howdy Doody, Pee-wee’s Playhouse [below] and The Wire.
Have you ever done drag?
Once, as the Wicked Witch of the West! And I realised I have not got a transgender bone in my body!
Do you have a hero or heroine?
I do, yes. Her name is Judy Clarke [below]. She’s a lawyer who takes on the most atrocious criminals and if she wins, they get life imprisonment, not death.
How often do you look in the mirror?
Oh, as little as possible! When you’re 69 years old…
Do you cook? If so, do you have a signature dish?
I do cook, yes. I cook everything out of Cooking Lightmagazine.
Do you vote?
I always vote, sometimes I vote more than once, illegally! Well, not for years, but in my youth I did that… Picture ID ruined everything!
What music do you listen to at home?
I like to listen to Outlaw Country on the radio. The Chipmunks are my all-time favourites, though. Recently I got my assistant to remix Eminem’s song Puke, sung by The Chipmunks. I just play if for myself and it puts me in a good mood.
Do you have any pets?
No, all pets try to bite me!
It Isn’t Very Pretty… The Complete Films of John Waters (Every Goddam One of Them…) runs from 1st September to 6th October at BFI Southbank in London.
It also features a night with John Waters onstage in conversation with the season’s curator Justin Johnson.
BFI Box office: 020 7928 3232