Even if you’ve never seen Pink Flamingos, Polyester, Hairspray, Cry-Baby, or the rest of his colourful filmography, you probably still know plenty about the American institution that is John Waters. He’s the dandy with the pencil-thin moustache who turns up as talk show guest, essayist, documentary talking head, and all-around droll raconteur. He’s the provocateur whom William S. Burroughs famously called “the Pope of Trash.” A modern-day Wilde, if Wilde had been inordinately interested in serial killers and bizarre sexual fetishes. And yes, he’s the one who filmed Divine eating dog doo in that movie all those years ago, though perhaps you’re a little tired of hearing that too.
Waters is one of our leading ironists, which is why Role Models, his third prose book following Shock Value and Crackpot, is something of a surprise. It is a personal collection of profiles of Waters’ influences, a group that includes mainstream entertainers Johnny Mathis and Little Richard; underground pornographers Bobby Garcia and David Hurles; artist Cy Twombly; and even “Manson Girl” Leslie Van Houten, a friend of Waters. He writes about these and others with a mixture of affection and — here’s the surprising part — respect.
The Varsity: The book caught me off guard because compared to Crackpot and Shock Value it feels a little more personal, a little less arch. Because a lot of your work deals in irony, did this book’s tone seem like more of a challenge, or maybe a little intimidating?
John Waters: Well yeah, I don’t think it’s ironic at all. No, it came really naturally to me, because I wanted to write about people I really did respect even though, y’know, when people think of “role models” they wouldn’t usually pick some of the people I’ve picked. But still, I thought that every person in this book I do look up to for being braver than I have to be, or even because of something maybe they did that was terrible, or maybe because they’ve had great success, or maybe because they’ve had a tiny bit of success with just one thing. Each one of those things involves a certain progress in being able to deal with it to get through life, and I think they all have, so I’ve learned something from every one of these people. I didn’t write about one person, ever, that I thought was “so bad they were good,” which certainly I have written about in the past.
TV: I found the chapter where you talk about your friendship with Leslie Van Houten and advocate for her parole unexpectedly moving. I know you published it on the Huffington Post about a year ago — what sort of reaction has it had?
JW: I published that because it was the 40-year anniversary of Helter Skelter and I knew there would be a lot of sensational coverage, and, y’know, let’s be honest, it’s pretty clear that the people convicted of that crime don’t have many good reviews. But I think I did more than the defence lawyer because I also put in all the most devastating things that the victims’ families had said against her release, which I think I had to do.
I was very serious about it. I do like Leslie, she’s my friend, and she’s told me since that she can feel the difference the article has made just in the visiting room, with people saying stuff to her, and the guards and everything, but she was, I think, fairly brutally turned down again [for parole] this summer. They didn’t use [the article] against her, which is something I feared. But it’s a tough case, and it’s just too famous, and she did do a terrible thing and no one is ever saying she didn’t do a terrible thing, but she didn’t think it up, and she was a 17-year-old girl and met a madman. She does not say that, I say that. She said, “It’s my fault for making him a cult leader, because you can’t be a leader if you don’t have followers.” You can never turn back the hands of a clock – the only thing you can do is what she’s trying to do, which is become a better person than she would be if she’d never committed the crime. And I think she is that person today. Whether that is ever enough? From society’s viewpoint, I think that is. From a personal viewpoint of her victims? I can’t answer that.
TV: There’s a recurring motif in the book of people being very suspicious of you when you ask for interviews.
JW: I would be too! With Johnny Mathis, his lawyer was, although I don’t think the lawyer knew me, and then if he Googled me, oh god, I don’t know what comes up first. The funny thing was, some of Leslie’s supporters were uptight about it, and she’s like, “God, somebody’s gonna hurt MY reputation? That’s quite a feat.” But I don’t think that happens too much anymore. I mean, Johnny Mathis was a good sport. He certainly didn’t know when I came to interview him for that chapter in the book that I was also going to be writing about killers, or, y’know, my apartment, but I did use him as a springboard in a way, and I think I respected him, and every time I do a TV or a radio show now they play “Chances Are” when I come on. I would have been really upset if anybody that I wrote about didn’t like it, and I’ve heard from almost everybody and they’ve been very favourable about it. I would have been very devastated if they hated it.
TV: Your reputation does precede you. There are certain things I’ve read about you maybe a thousand times, like Divine eating the dog shit in Pink Flamingos – – –
JW: Well, that’s the thing. I mean, yes, that happened, and there’s nothing you can do about that. Yeah, I’m proud of that too – it was part of me. I actually realized the other day I filmed that scene 40 years ago this fall, that’s when it was shot. So, it is certainly from a long time ago, but my sister said, “Y’know, it just opened in Washington again, it’s playing as a midnight movie.” Isn’t that amazing? It certainly never became old hat.
TV: There’s also that quote, “If someone throws up at one of my movies – – -”
JW: Oh, that quote. Well, that’s an old quote. Y’know, that was said in Shock Value, and Shock Value is still in print. It’s never gone out of print since 1981. What can I say? I said that as humour then, and…what was the line? “If somebody throws up at one of my films, it’s like a standing ovation”?
TV: Yeah, I think that’s it.
JW: Depends which film! For Pink Flamingos it doesn’t hurt. It’s good for publicity in the old William Castle kind of tradition. I remember some theatre owners used to put sawdust down. It was just a joke, but at amusement parks, that was the easiest way to clean up vomit, they always put that outside the rides. It’s more theatrical, so I should have hired fake people to puke – that would’ve been good!
TV: I think what I’m trying to get at is, I sense an undercurrent of the book where now that you’re older and all this is in the past, you’re kind of dealing with “the John Waters persona.” You know what I mean?
JW: I think…yes, I’m proud of my career. I don’t think those days are “better” or anything, and I don’t have many regrets, but I think some of the stuff I talk about in the Leslie chapter I do regret because I was pretty inconsiderate of the victims when I made humour of it [in my early films]. But many, many people use Manson in the punk rock way. There’s Marilyn Manson – I mean, it’s not just me who seized on that as basically a Halloween costume, ‘“merica’s boogeyman.” But the problem with that is, these are real people, and the people that were in his cult were, I think, victims themselves, also dealing with interminable guilt of something they never would have done and would never do again.
TV: The book profiles some people, like Little Richard and Johnny Mathis, who are very different from you, and others, like the ‘Outsider Porn’ filmmakers, who seem like extreme versions of you.
JW: No, I think the opposite: I think I’m more like Johnny Mathis and Little Richard than I am like the outsider porn people, because as much as I respect them, I don’t think I’m an “outsider artist” at all. An outsider artist is naïve; an outsider artist doesn’t care if the world notices. I think I’m much closer to Johnny Mathis and Little Richard — not comparing my talent, but the fact that I’ve had a long career in show business and have had to always reinvent myself to keep going, whereas the outsider porn people are compulsively driven. They don’t have a choice but to do what they do, and I find that fascinating, but I think I’m much less like that in real life.
TV: Maybe I’m getting distracted by the fact that in the Johnny Mathis chapter, you talk about how he’s had mass middle-American success, and reaches a certain audience that you don’t. Is that something you desire?
JW: Well, in a comic way, yes. I’m not losing sleep over it. I love my audience, and I think I have great fame, because the kind of fame I have means you can always go out, and the people that recognize me are the people I probably wanna meet… Do I want their life? No, but I always tell every publicist I ever have for a book or movie, “The only magazine I really want to do is be on the cover of Parade!” I don’t know if you get it, but Parade is a weekly supplement that goes in every Sunday newspaper in the country, and it’s incredibly middle-of-the-road.
TV: All I really know about it is they used to have Jerry Lewis on the cover every year for the Telethon.
JW: Well, I’m jealous of Jerry Lewis, too, in a way. Oh, I love Jerry Lewis, but I don’t know that he was a role model because his personality seems to be a little…off base to me. [Laughs] So, I jokingly say I want that kind of fame, but…everybody does! I talk to everybody all the time, even peers my age who have had success, and they say, “Why do we keep doing this?” I had someone who said to me, “What are you trying to prove? God, do you ever stop?” And no, we never can stop, because we’re insecure, that’s why we’re in show business, and we have to keep being driven to have other people tell us we’re good, which is really a sickness. So, I think everybody in show business is basically insane. Including me.
John Waters will be participating in a reading/interview for the International Festival of Authors on October 22, 8 p.m. at the Fleck Dance Theatre. He will also be introducing a screening of Salo, or The 210 Days of Sodom on October 23, 8:30pm at TIFF Bell Lightbox.