Celebrity interviews


John Waters

The Observer

November 3, 2013

William Burroughs called the film director John Waters “the pope of trash”. Waters, 67, was born, raised and still lives in Baltimore, Maryland where his close friend Divine, whom he made a star, also grew up. Waters’s best-known movies include Pink Flamingos (in which Divine ate dog faeces), PolyesterHairsprayCry-Baby and Serial Mom. He is also a writer, artist and art collector and will perform his one-man show, This Filthy World – about film, his fascination with true crime, exploitation films and “fashion lunacy” – at this year’s Homotopia arts festival in Liverpool. Waters is writing a book about hitchhiking across America last year.

How was the road trip? 
I hitchhiked from my front door in Baltimore to my flat in San Francisco. I last hitchhiked when I was 16. It’s a bit different when you’re 66. Before, I had fantasies about both how brilliant it could be and how horrible. The reality was nowhere near either extreme. The indie band Here We Go Magic tweeted about picking me up in the middle of Ohio. That was so exhilarating: you’d be waiting in the rain for 15 hours for someone to stop, then someone does. Nobody hitchhikes now. I only saw one other hitchhiker the whole time.

Do you like performing? 
Doing the show is an effective anti-Alzheimer’s exercise. I talk about running an amusement park, the stars in my movies, drugs, religion, everything. I’ve never been to Liverpool but it sounds a lot like Baltimore – so my kind of town. Liverpool boys are kind of good-looking and the girls are kickass.

What kind of boy were you? 
My mother was Catholic, my father not. I went to Catholic high school. Every form of education failed me. I was trouble. When I was eight or nine in kindergarten, I told stories about this weird kid in class who drew with black crayons. One day my teacher called my parents to inform them: “That’s your son.” I was creating characters early. People didn’t beat me up. I scared them. I hated authority. I could also get people to do things, I was quite the early director. I could make people laugh, enough to get their defences down, and then brainwash them.

Were you into drink and drugs? 
I got arrested for underage drinking at a drive-in. There were all these girls puking from drink outside my car. I wanted to be a beatnik, then a hippie, then a yippie. I took LSD which gave me the courage to be the person I wanted to be. My parents were scared but supportive. They were horrified by my behaviour but my father paid for Pink Flamingos. He never saw it. I paid all the money back. He taught me business. He sold fire-protection equipment and built it into a big business which my niece now runs. I sold shock, which is also a product. I never had a real job except in a bookstore. I still drink. I smoke pot once in a while, but I used to smoke it every day. I was addicted to cigarettes. It’s been 3,926 days since I had my last one, although I fell off the wagon recently and had three.

Did your parents watch your films? 
My dad saw A Dirty Shame (2004). I felt bad about my father knowing what “felching” was. He said: “It’s funny but I hope I never see it again” – a great review from a parent. My mother asked what it was about. I said: “Sexual addiction,” and she said: “Maybe we’ll die before that one comes out.” They liked Hairspray, Cry-Baby and Polyester, the ones that weren’t quite as hideous. My mother is 89 and a great anglophile. We called her the Queen of Lutherville (the Baltimore suburb where they lived).

How was your coming out? 
Before I told them I was gay they were scared I was about to say I was a necrophiliac or something. “Do you have to say it to USA Today?” my father said. They were fine about me being on the cover of [gay magazine] Out, just not the publications their friends read. My parents were married for 60 years. They never had a fight. They were the perfect example of a good marriage. Now my mother wants me to get married. She’ll say: “Why aren’t you married to that nice friend?” who is usually a successful guy. But the successful gay men I know rarely have other successful gay men as boyfriends. They have hustlers. Marriage equality is a hustler’s feeding frenzy of gold-diggers. I campaigned for marriage equality in Maryland because I believe we should have the right to it, but I personally don’t want to get married. I don’t want to imitate the traditions of heterosexual people. I hate weddings: they make me uneasy.

Are you single?
I have been in love. Whether I’m good at it is another matter. It’s a job. I have “regulars” I see, let’s put it like that. Living alone is a great luxury. I love going out. Tonight I’m going to this really cool night where young people dance to the music of my generation. I play colleges. I connect to young people: they see me as their slightly insane uncle. You don’t have much choice when it comes to ageing: I don’t want plastic surgery and end up looking like those people in LA who look like aliens or science projects.

You last made a film in 2004. Why? 
It didn’t make any money. They want you to make independent films for half a million bucks, and for me a film would cost around $5m. It’s a great time to be a first-time film-maker, but not me. For the last five years I’ve been trying to get finance for a movie, Fruitcake. Johnny Knoxville is signed up to play the father, and if someone called tomorrow and said “Here’s the money”, I’d do it. I’m friends with nearly all the stars of my films – Kathleen Turner, Ricki Lake, Traci Lords and Johnny Depp. Divine hated being called Glenn [Milstead, his birth name], and didn’t respond to anything but Divine which I named him in 1966. I’m so glad he experienced some success before he died [in 1988].

Do you miss directing?
I’ve made 16 movies, it’s not like I haven’t spoken. I write, my last book was a bestseller. I create art. Thank God I didn’t depend on the movie business to make a living. This Christmas I’ll tour my show to 15 US cities. I’d love to write a novel. I’m proud I’ve been able to do all this, happy to work in my boxer shorts and T-shirt every day. I’m very sharp in the morning and get dumber as the day goes on.