John Waters loves being called things like the “Pope of Trash,” the “People’s Pervert” and the “Prince of Puke,” but when you visit him at his home in Greenwich Village, he’s the consummate host. When you step off the elevator and you’re not sure which door belongs to him, you hear his voice call out, “Over here.” And when you step inside, he offers you coffee or water before retiring over to a marble table that overlooks a treelined street.
He’s wearing a white-and-black blazer and a gray turtleneck. His hair is lighter in color than it used to be, but he’s still maintaining his minute, Little Richard–inspired pencil mustache. He has a tall bookshelf, packed to the gills, and neat piles of books around the room. In one corner, there’s a small pile of CDs next to a broken, flat-screen TV. He has an oversized photograph of an airport runway framed on one of his olive-green walls.
The only item in the place that would suggest that he could live up to such sleazy sobriquets, that he could be the cineaste behind Polyester, Desperate Living, and Pink Flamingos, is a small embroidered throw pillow on his couch sporting the image of an electric chair. “It’s the electric chair from Female Trouble,” he says, referring to the death scene in one of his boundary-pushing films that starred the transvestite Divine. “My mom made that for me as a house-warming present when I bought this apartment. She asked what I wanted on it. She didn’t think it up herself. I have one in San Francisco that she did of a police car on fire in the Harvey Milk riot. And believe me, she didn’t think that one up either.”
Waters has spent some considerable time reflecting recently as he prepared his latest book of essays, Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder. It covers the making of his movies from Pink Flamingos through A Dirty Shame, as well as wittily detailed chapters on his dalliances with LSD, his admiration of Andy Warhol, and his music taste, among other subjects. Since the book is about his delightfully warped worldview — as is pretty much everything he’s ever done — we decided to ask him questions about what he’s learned in 73 years of living up to nicknames like the “Bon Vivant of Bad Taste,” as the New York Times recently dubbed him.
What’s the best part of success?
Flying first class when you don’t have to pay for it. The worst is when you’re sick, and people recognize you. I had a kidney stone a couple of years back, in the middle of a book tour, and had to be rushed to the hospital. You’re sitting there and people yell out, “Hey, it’s John Waters!” And somebody else says, “Who’s John Waters?”
So how do you define success?
Success is when you’re never around assholes. It takes your whole life to figure out how to do that.
What are the most important rules you live by?
“Don’t go backwards.” Also, “You can’t be an anarchist if you own three homes.” “You can fail upwards and you should learn how to do it.” And I still believe you can never wear white after Memorial Day or before Labor Day. No matter what anyone says, they’re wrong.
You’re from Baltimore. What’s the most Baltimorean thing about you?
I never pay to park. A Baltimorean would rather die than pay to park.
You’ve said that when you get old, you must choose between being fat or gaunt and that people should “choose gaunt.” What’s your fitness regime?
I walk in New York and San Francisco. I ride my bike in Provincetown. And in Baltimore, you run when people are after you.
What advice do you wish you could give your younger self?
Never smoke cigarettes. The fact that smoking can kill you is the only thing the government told you that’s true. [He gets up and retrieves an index card from another room.] I haven’t had a cigarette in 5,765 days.
Do you still smoke pot?
No, but I would. It doesn’t relax me anymore. But whenever I talk to politicians in Baltimore, I say, “Just give people pot.” Who shoots people on pot? You don’t get guns or have gang wars when you’re on pot. It might make you stupid, but you stay home. So I’m for giving pot to kids.
What did you learn from getting busted for smoking pot at NYU?
Well, that wasn’t NYU’s fault. I barely went to class. I stole books from the bookshop every day and then resold them to get money for pot or to go to the movies on 42nd Street. So I don’t blame them. What did I learn? That I should’ve quit school in the sixth grade. Actually, I take that back, because I learned about trashy girls in public junior high and religious mental abuse in high school.
What are your thoughts on Catholic guilt?
I’m glad I was raised Catholic because sex will always be dirty. But I hate the new pope. When he says, “Who am I to judge about gay marriage?” I go, “Who are you to judge? You’re the fucking pope, that’s who you are. You’re infallible.” It makes me insane. My favorite thing though is on Good Friday when he kisses the feet of the male prisoners. That’s called “shrimping” in my world.
You have built a cult following. How do you handle it when fans surprise you?
In Polyester, there’s a scene where [the character] Lu-Lu says she wants an abortion. Now when I’m walking down the street, somebody will say to me, “I wish I could get an abortion.” And I think, “Why did she say that to me? Oh, you wrote that. That’s a fan.” Then I say, “Oh, thank you.”
You remained close to Divine until his death. How did you keep the friendship going after convincing him to eat real dog feces on camera at the end of Pink Flamingos?
It was stressful for a while. Divine got very sick of talking about it. People would give him shit presents, and he got very weary of it. I think it held him back. I made the joke then that I could never live up to it and he could never live it down, which is true.
What have you learned about censorship over the years?
I’ve learned that the dumber the censor, the better for your career. The more liberal the censor, the bigger the chance you cannot win. Mary Avara [the late Maryland State Censor Board member who opposed Waters’ screenings in Baltimore] was basically a moron, and those kinds of censors are great. They help your career. They attack you; they look stupid; you win. The MPAA is a devious one. They’re liberal censors, and they’re the worst kind of all. And you lose with them.
Why do you say that?
The MPAA has had power too long. They never used lobbyists to change how NC-17 was received in the theater community. That Joan woman [ratings chairwoman Joan Graves] is finally retiring. You can’t win with her. When you appeal, you go to a [hearing] and she ends it. All the people who vote are her employees, so it’s not exactly an unbiased jury.
It’s a shame because when I was young, an X rating helped. When Midnight Cowboy came out and Russ Meyer was making movies, they had giant X’s blinking all over the theater, and it helped at first. The only revenge I got was when Pink Flamingos was released for the 25th anniversary, it had to get a rating. I said, “Just give it [NC-17].” And they said, “No, we have to watch it.” I thought, “Good. Good.“
What did you learn from getting a PG rating for Hairspray?
People always figured I’d get an NC-17, so getting a PG was a shock that worked. And Hairspray is a Trojan horse. It’s the only devious movie I ever made. It snuck in everywhere and encouraged gay marriage and interracial dating for your children, and no one ever noticed. The joke I make in the book is, “Even racists like Hairspray.”
What did you learn about racism from the way Hairspray was received?
That you can’t preach. You have to make people laugh if you want to get a point across. You can’t stand up there lecturing somebody. They rebel against it. But if you can make them laugh or put it a different way, they didn’t even realize I was making a pro-integration movie. If you disguise it with something entertaining, it changes how people think.
What have you learned about screen-testing films with audiences?
Imagine if Pink Flamingos had been test screened? Divine would be eating gummy worms at the end.
How do you handle negative criticism?
Bad reviews are easier to take when you’re young than when you’re old. When you’re young, you’re glad somebody noticed. There was a culture war going on when I was young; it was us versus them, and the critics were always “them.” They hated what I did so my ads were all just the bad reviews. That couldn’t happen today. The critics are too hip for that. So you have to read the good ones twice, the bad ones once, and put them away in a box ad never look at them again.
You made Cry-Baby with a heartthrob, Johnny Depp, a reformed porn star, Traci Lords, and a kidnapping victim, Patti Hearst. What did you learn from working with them?
Johnny wanted to do it because he hated being Justin Bieber, which he essentially was at the time. I said, “Stick with us. We’ll kill that.” And Traci had just escaped from the porn world, so I said, “Come with us and play a bad girl.” She made fun of it. Patti Hearst made fun of being a victim. You make fun of it, and they can’t use it against you.
Patti Hearst was protecting Traci Lords on the set, because the feds were raiding it. We all were like, “We’ve all had a past.” But Traci’s doing great. I still see her.
You have been out your whole life. How did that impact your life?
Was I out my whole life? I guess. Mink [Stole] lived me with me and didn’t know I was gay for a while. My father used to tell me, “Just don’t say it in USA Today,” which made me laugh. So I never did. And to this day, if I ever talk to USA Today, I’m “in the club,” in the memory of my father and his friends. He didn’t care if I was on the cover of Out. What person that he knew would see that? I still have a USA Today subscription, too.
But what did you learn from being true to yourself while seeing others struggle with their identities?
The first time I went to a gay bar, I thought, “I might be queer, but I ain’t this.” It was so square. I was looking for Bohemia not gaydom. Bohemia always had a percentage of gaydom but they didn’t fit in the gay world either. So I was looking for anybody who didn’t fit in, and we hung around with suburban kids who were bad. We went downtown to hang around with black kids that didn’t get along in that community, and then we met gay people, too, so it was all mixed. And we all took acid, and that formed our values.
What have you learned about selling out?
I tried to sell out with every one of my movies. I failed upwards. I eventually made some money on all the early films I was most famous for. I got all these really big salaries for the Hollywood movies but they all lost money. I don’t feel guilty about it. I don’t understand why Cecil B. Demented failed and Hairspray didn’t. You have to know the business end of what you’re doing, too, and strike while you can. Hollywood is about what appears to be hot, not what always is.
When you made Polyester you released it in “Smell-O-Vision” with scratch-and-sniff cards. Do you think people secretly like smelling farts or that it’s a compulsion because they saw it on screen?
That’s a good question. I believe the real truth is people like smelling their own farts and not others’.
How did you challenge yourself to get filthier or more shocking?
Well, I don’t try to do that on purpose. I’m trying to make you laugh. I hate all of these movies that people say are “John Waters-esque,” because they’re trying too hard.
Is anything too politically correct these days?
When I heard about “theybies,” where you don’t tell your child what sex they are until they decide, I had to roll my eyes. Give me a break. That child will be in a psychiatric unit early. I thought I was reading The Onion but it was New York magazine.
In Female Trouble, Divine’s character asks an audience, “Who wants to die for art,” and when someone says yes, he shoots the person. How do you view scenes like that today?
Can you imagine having that scene in it today? You watch that scene now and it’s horrifying because people have opened fire in audiences and in movie theaters and concerts, so it puts a certain edge to it.
There’s also a scene in Female Trouble where Divine’s character gets raped by … Divine. That sort of thing wouldn’t fly today.
Well, it’s rape but it’s self-rape. Is he raping her? Not really. He picks her up and she gets in, and then she fucks him to steal his wallet. So it’s not rape, to me. But she was supposed to be in high school, so I guess technically Dawn Davenport was underage. But there’s rape in Desperate Living and stuff in that movie that is so politically incorrect. And there’s a scene in Polyester, where she said, “Oh, Francine. Don’t you know it’s bad luck to let retarded people in your house?” Well, she’s the villain. Can’t the villain say politically incorrect stuff?
Well, do you feel you’ve had to adapt your thinking about making movies like that since the #MeToo movement?
No, because I haven’t made a movie since the #MeToo movement. I’ll say that I’m glad I’m not single. You need a lawyer to ask for a date.
Who are your heroes and why?
My heroes are the kids in high-school detention who will end up correct in what they believe in. Life isn’t fair. And there’s no such thing as karma. Mike Pence is alive and Edith Massey’s dead. Right there, there’s no such thing as karma. The people who realize that life is not fair and that they’ve got to take what they get in life and make it work, make it holler, those are heroes to me.
What are the best lessons you learned from Andy Warhol?
He was the first person I can think of who branded himself successfully. Salvador Dalí tried but he sold out his career by signing anything. That was greed. You never felt Andy was greedy. So I like sticking up for Andy. In every book, he’s portrayed as some kind of villain. Also, he reinvented cinema. One day his films will be known as the best thing he ever did.
What was your favorite book as a kid?
Slovenly Peter. It was from Germany. Some people really regret giving it to children. It was like, if you sucked your thumb, they came in and cut your thumb off. If you play with matches, your hair catches on fire; well, that’s true. These days someone would say “time out” but in the book your hair catches on fire. It was all hideous things that happened. That book helped form my sense of humor and my sense of drama. It’s politically incorrect now. The morals were so extreme.
What are you reading now?
I just finished Bret Easton Ellis’ book, White. I love to read smart people that I don’t always agree with, and that book has a lot of smart stuff in it even if I don’t agree with a lot of it. I hate Trump, y’know.
What do you do to relax?
Read, read, read. If I can have a day off, I just stay home and read books. Do I watch TV? Some. Do I go to the movies? I still go to the theaters in Baltimore all the time. I just saw Hail Satan? which is a hilarious, wonderful movie. The satanic people are my heroes because they’re like yippies. I don’t even know if they’re real Satanists. They just are for the separation of church and state, and I am, too. They use humor as terrorism, which I try to do, too.
You talk a lot about collecting in the book. How do you avoid becoming a hoarder?
I am a hoarder. I have a little thing that says, “Am I a hoarder or a book collector?” Luckily, I have a film archive at Wesleyan University, so for the past 30 years I’ve sent stuff there. Every paper, every piece of memorabilia about my career, I’ve sent it there. So it’s Wesleyan who are the hoarders. What’s the difference between an archive and hoarding? It’s the same thing.
How did you avoid becoming an acid casualty?
I never had a bad trip. I did it once a week for a couple of years and never had a bad trip. My mother said, “Don’t tell young people that.” But I’m not telling young people to take it, I’m telling old people to take it. I wrote about taking it again recently in my book. I hadn’t done it since 1973 or something. It turned out better than I thought. I always say, “When you’re young, you go, ‘Wow.’ When you’re older, you go, ‘Whoa.'” It’s the same feeling, you just add 50 years.
You write about being at ease with your age in the book. What’s the secret to aging gracefully?
Well, never be nude in public. Never go to a nude beach. If you go to the gym every day, people still don’t want to see you nude at 70. Never dye your hair, because people laugh. Never wear a wig. Never be in a convertible if you’re over 50. That’s the most embarrassing thing possible. Realize that you can’t wear clothes a 20-year-old is wearing; you can wear a version of it. But the main thing I’ve learned at my age is that you should never ever wear T-shirts, even if it’s hot. Bruce Springsteen got away with it, but it’s hard.