Still Waters

Photo: Nan Goldin

’What adult comes to the beach every summer?” John Waters asked, standing by the side of the road with his sunglasses on and his thumb in the air one Wednesday in August. “Isn’t that something you’re supposed to do when you’re 16? What adult can do that?” Waters wore red jeans over swim trunks, with pointy-toed Comme des Garçons slip-ons and a green shirt, and had his towel over his shoulder and, of course, his distinguishing skinny mustache above his lip, as it has been since Waters was 19 years old. He was hitchhiking from Longnook beach to his seafront summer rental on Commercial Street in Provincetown. “Hitchhiking,” he declared, “is my midlife crisis—I didn’t buy a sports car.” He drives a Buick LeSabre, which on that day was parked on Commercial Street with a valid beach sticker on the windshield. The hitching was just for kicks.

Waters is as infatuated with the romance of the juvenile delinquent now as he was as a sheltered suburban teenager growing up outside of Baltimore, yearning for trouble. Since his very first film, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, Waters’s work has been marked by his obsession with badness—bad taste, bad behavior, bad girls with bad hair. His aesthetic has always been trashy, his imagination filthy. None of that will ever go away, even if John Waters is too celebrated now to have anything left to rebel against.

“If people don’t stop, we curse at ’em,” he instructed as some lesbians in a hatchback sped by. “Assholes,” Waters said. “Recently I picked up this hitchhiker in Baltimore and this kid started huffing glue! I said, ‘In the daytime?’ He said, ‘You want some?’ I’m like 61! What am I gonna do? Start huffing glue in Baltimore, in the middle of the day? Actually, I almost did. I thought, well, that’ll be interesting. I gave him a ride the whole way.”

Also recently, Waters accidentally smoked crack. He was having a party at his house in Baltimore and someone passed him a pipe that he assumed was packed with pot, so he took a puff. “I thought, Am I addicted? Am I gonna rob my parents now? I had a horrible hangover, but I’d been drinking anyway. I was glad, actually, in a way. I would never now purposely try a new drug, I don’t think, but I’m secretly glad I know what it feels like. All I remember is it freezes your lungs. I did meth when I was young, but it was methedrine, which became like a terrible biker drug, like the lowest-class redneck drug, and how it ever became a gay drug is still a mystery to me, because it was so déclassé.” All of his friends—the Dreamlanders, they called themselves—did drugs, and some outgrew them, and others became addicted and died, and it was pretty surprising who went which way. “There was no rhyme or reason. It’s like some people, if they try heroin, it’s like this is what they’ve been looking for their whole lives—especially if you’re a jazz musician. Jazz is the sound of heroin. My mother was on pills this year because she was sick; she was on morphine for the first time. I said, ‘Let’s play Coltrane! Finally you’ll understand it.’ ”

Waters does exhibit some of the symptoms of adulthood. He’s quit smoking, for example … or, as he put it in his book Shock Value, “I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t even smoke cigarettes anymore.” He is a homeowner, thrice over. He has the kind of success that only a grown-up can have: He has made sixteen films and will start shooting another one, Fruitcake, in the coming months; his most popular film, Hairspray, was made into a Broadway musical that won eight Tonys and is now extremely successful in London too, and a film remake starring John Travolta came out last year. Waters’s 1990 film Cry-Baby has just been made into a musical that is currently in previews and will open on Broadway next month. He has an amazing collection of contemporary art. He employs a decorator. He drinks tea.

But his interests have remained intact: art, sex, drugs, class, and transgression. His most recent film, A Dirty Shame, received an NC-17 rating. A Dirty Shame is less shocking than Pink Flamingos, the 1972 movie that made Waters famous and featured a man with a singing asshole and the drag queen Divine (who grew up around the corner from Waters) literally eating dog shit. But then most movies are. A Dirty Shame is still both filthy and insanely creative: Its characters find themselves changed from genteel “neuters” to insatiable sex addicts of various stripes after they bump their heads. The final transformation occurs when Chris Isaak’s character is hit on the head by the petrified turd of David Hasselhoff, whom we see defecating in the bathroom of an airplane flying high overhead.

Waters at his first premiere, for Roman Candles, in 1966.Photo: Courtesy of the Waters Family Collection

“Brigid Berlin said the funniest thing about how do you be bad at 66. And there is no way really except through your work,” Waters said. (He has adjusted this quote over the years. In Shock Value it went like so: “Brigid Berlin, the best of the Warhol superstars, recently commented to me, ‘How can you be bad‚ in your fifties?’ ”) “Liar,” Waters growled at a man who indicated he was going in the opposite direction of town and did not stop to pick us up.

As Waters, the man William Burroughs called the Pope of Trash, has continued peddling indecency and irony, the audience that is experiencing his work—or some version of it—has changed drastically … it’s as if they’ve been bonked on the head by a very different kind of turd. When I went to see the musical Hairspray a few months ago, the woman sitting next to me had an American Girl Place shopping bag at her feet. The line “manipulating the justice system just to win a contest is un-American” was met with uncomprehending blankness—not that Waters would ever have included a line so baldly political in his original. Gone from the play are the truly weird bits; it’s a less subversive, less berserk Hairspray, as is the film remake. John Travolta in a fat suit is a fun gag. But when Divine played the role of the mother, Edna Turnblad, in the original Hairspray, Waters fans were reminded of the other times he cast Divine as a mother: electrocuted in Female Trouble, performing fellatio on her own son in Pink Flamingos. (Waters had the son say, “Oh, Mama, you’re the best,” throughout the act.)

Mark O’Donnell, who co-wrote the book for the musical Hairspray and has now co-written Cry-Baby (both with Thomas Meehan), says the stories are fundamentally similar: “All John Waters movies are the good guys versus the bad guys, but the bad guys are really the good guys—and the bad-good guys always win.” Which is true, except that in John Waters movies old and new, the winners aren’t the noble, lovable, persecuted variety of bad guys. In A Dirty Shame, the sexaholics really are freaks—they have addictions like mysophilia, the fetishization of grime, or they’re into Roman showers: drinking beer and vomiting on each other. In Serial Mom, Kathleen Turner’s unhinged heroine doesn’t just send obscene letters to her fellow housewives (“I’ll get you, Pussyface,” one threatens), she’s a murderer. In Pink Flamingos, two actors have sex on top of chickens and actually fuck them to death. Even Waters’s most charming and well-known heroine, Tracy Turnblad, is a horny, fat, fame-craving teenager—racial integration of the television show she wants to star in is a happy by-product of her quest for stardom in the Waters original. In the musical and the remade film, Tracy is a spunky freedom fighter.

Waters is entirely unconcerned about his oeuvre becoming softened as it goes broad. “In a way, the most subversive thing I ever did was think up Hairspray, because now families are sitting there watching two men sing a love song,” Waters said, as a car finally pulled over. “Who would ever have thought that Jerry Mathers, who I grew up with”—the child star in the title role on Leave It to Beaver, who now plays the father in Hairspray—“would be singing to a man in a dress on Broadway in something I wrote!”

He has the satisfaction of being a truly original, truly influential American artist. If many people know Waters only as that weird Hairspray guy (or, soon, perhaps, that weird Cry-Baby guy), he certainly isn’t going to let it disrupt his beauty sleep. Che Guevara becomes a T-shirt; Joey Ramone gets a street named after him; the Pope of Trash becomes the King of Broadway. The iconoclast becomes the icon, or he becomes irrelevant.

“Thanks for stopping!” Waters said to the driver who let us in. The man, who looked like James Taylor, said it was no problem, and that he knew Waters’s work, and pointed out his own house as he drove by it. “Were you the one who came out one time and we talked?” Waters asked. “No? Well, once I mentioned in a gossip column that I hitchhike here and this person who read it came out with coffee for me the next day and I was so shocked! I think it was this house over here.”

Waters is constitutionally inclined toward routines, which dovetails nicely with the demands of his particular type of fame. There are plenty of people who are more famous than Waters, but relatively few, living, who are more iconic. Because being an icon takes commitment. You have to develop a shtick and you have to stick with it and you have to publicize it. Anna Wintour better not get sick of bangs. Tom Wolfe has to keep on wearing white. It’s these little signature details that make all the difference. This works fine for Waters … he isn’t just hitching today, it’s one of his things. When he comes up with or hears a good line, he repeats it ad infinitum. When he develops an affection for something—Divine, filth, Provincetown—it’s permanent. And, as he’s fond of saying of Baltimore, “when you find a good look you stick with it.” When I contemplated the skinny mustache from close proximity in the car that day, it looked almost penciled on.

Waters backstage at a Cry-Baby dress rehearsal.Photo: Rachel Papo for New York Magazine

Waters’s summer place in P-town is the small top floor of a phenomenal, ramshackle house that he rents from the painter Pat De Groot, an old woman who looks like a white witch and has been painting the view of sea and sky from her studio on the ground floor over and over, every day, for ten years. (Waters appreciates her commitment.) In his room, which felt like the inside of a ship and was decorated with a cartoon of Alvin of Chipmunks fame holding an enormous erection in his rodent fist, Waters offered to reprise the speech he gave a few weeks earlier to investors in the Cry-Baby musical. “All my movies could work as theatrical productions—Pink Flamingos should be an opera! Hairspray on ice!” Waters read off an index card with enthusiasm. “If it ever was shocking, my sense of humor seems mainstream today. What’s on television is even ruder than anything I ever had.” His breath smelled like my father’s … a certain mustiness that happens to men in their sixties who used to be heavy smokers, a waft from a room no longer used.

I asked him what he missed about the past. “I don’t think my generation is better or had it better,” he said. “The one thing you’ll never see again—and I’m not so sure it’s bad you missed it—was the sexual revolution. You can’t imagine what it was like to go home and have sex with someone different every day … People really did! In Provincetown there was a bar called Piggies, totally mixed, gay and straight, but it was outside of town and everyone had to walk home and every person would just have sex in the graveyard along the way. I mean, those days will never happen again. Going to places like Hellfire in New York City, you look back and it’s so amazing, and that certainly did lead to terrible things like AIDS—and AIDS ruined everything for the rest of our lives. It ruined people taking chances. That’s over. You missed that.”

But does he miss it? “At 60!?” He shrieked. “What am I? I’m not gonna be goin’ out every night at 60 … That would be a little pitiful, hangin’ around the graveyard like, ‘Hey! You need a ride?’ No, I think for my dignity—I mean, old chickens make good soup—I’m glad I’m not out in the graveyard.” He thought about it for a minute. “The big difference when we were younger is, it was cool to be poor. But I have no favorite time. Tomorrow. Now is my favorite time. Because I mean I have great memories, but I don’t have nostalgia. Do I wanna be 20 now? Not really. I’d like to look in the mirror and be 20.”

I went to use Waters’s bathroom and gasped at what I saw on the sink next to a jar of Crème de la Mer: a Maybelline black eye pencil with a sharpener and a little pile of shavings.

It was like happening upon Andy’s white wig.

John Waters has a good relationship with his wife. She’s not a normal wife, obviously: Waters is a confirmed homosexual. But she’s not a fake wife, either, in the way that Waters keeps fake food, a fake cat, and an eerily realistic fake baby here in his house in Baltimore. (Bill, the fake baby, sits in the living room with a shiny patina of fake saliva on his rather hideous lips. “I told them I wanted an angry baby with bad hair,” Waters says.) Technically, Susan Allenback is one of Waters’s assistants, but she also appeared completely naked in A Dirty Shame, so sometimes he calls her Full Frontal Susan. “But Olga is her wife name,” Waters says. It’s what he’ll call her when she accompanies him to his niece’s wedding this weekend, for instance, or when he checks in with her by phone throughout the day as she sits in her glassed-in office in his house, organizing his affairs and making sure his life runs smoothly.

This is no casual project. Waters is unusually regimented. He wakes up at exactly 6:10 every morning and reads newspapers and drinks tea until 8. He starts writing “right at eight o’clock—not 8:01, not 7:59,” and works until lunchtime. Waters is rigidly devoted to these morning sessions, and his hired wife plans his travel accordingly. He will go somewhere a day early or stay a day late rather than fly in the morning, even if it means staying at an airport hotel, “because I need to write five days a week,” he says firmly. “As far as I can remember I have done that, at least for 25 years. I most never miss a day. When I was young and went out every night—like during the days of Multiple Maniacs and Pink Flamingos—I don’t know how I did it. I took pills and smoked pot every day, but I still made those movies. I don’t think I was as stringent in my Swiss personality, as I call it, but I did make those movies.”

Desperate Living (1977); Cry-Baby (2008).Photo: From left, Steve Yeager/courtesy of New Line Cinema; Rachel Papo for New York Magazine

Even his misbehaving is methodical. On weekends he “eats irresponsibly.” (The rest of the week he prepares his meals from recipes in Cooking Light magazine.) He goes to bars only on Friday night. “I’ve always drank like a coal miner with a paycheck every Friday night of my life, since I was 15 years old,” he says. It’s one of his things. Every other year he takes a Christmas vacation. “It sounds so ludicrous; I take a week off and go to Gstaad with my friend,” Waters says. “I go there every two years and I don’t work. We go to great dinner parties and they go skiing and I go to the top of the ski lift and drink Ovaltine and read hardbacks. I’m the only person that comes down on the ski lift.”

But other than that one week out of every 104, Waters says he “think[s] things up in the morning; I sell ’em in the afternoon.” At present he is juggling work on an upcoming art show for his dealer, Marianne Boesky, with getting financing for Fruitcake and writing a book. “It’s called Role Models, and it’s a self-portrait where I write profiles of other people and how much I love them and how much they changed my life and influenced me—famous people, criminals, people you’ve never heard of.”

“If it ever was shocking, my sense of humor seems mainstream today. What’s on television is even ruder than anything I ever had.”

Waters is fascinated by outlaws. He taught classes in a prison for six years and is close friends with Leslie Van Houten, who is serving a life sentence for stabbing Rosemary LaBianca sixteen times in 1969 at the behest of Charles Manson. Waters visits her regularly and has a magnet made out of her photograph stuck to the refrigerator at his place in New York City. “A psychiatrist once suggested that if I didn’t have the outlet for my rage that my films provide, I might be in prison myself. Who knows?” Waters wrote in 1983.

In one of the guest rooms at his house, there is a painting of the Wicked Witch from Snow White by the serial child killer John Wayne Gacy, which is only slightly more disturbing than the other artwork in that room: a door that seems like it leads to a closet in fact opens to a site-specific installation by Gregory Green called Work Table #7. It is the imagined room of a bomber, and it almost vibrates with psychosis. On the desk is an envelope of pubic hair, a hot glue gun, tools, and bits of metal. “There’s every single thing you need to build a bomb except gunpowder,” Waters says with satisfaction. A picture of Camden Yards hangs on the wall, sawdust is heaped in little piles on the desk, shreds of newspaper cover the floor with headlines of violence and destruction. “It has a certain aggression to it,” Waters says offhandedly. “I saw it at an art show and said, ‘Pack it up!’ And that was before 9/11. Talk about artistically incorrect!” He shuts the door. “I don’t show this to everybody.”

Besides being gay, the other reason Waters couldn’t have a regular wife is that he’s never lived with a lover and never wants to. “I have the luxury of being single,” he says, strolling past his bed. (On top of it, the letters J-O-H-N are rendered in stuffed felt, a gift from Paul Reubens.) “As a single man, you get invited to the best dinner parties.” When he’s had serious boyfriends in the past—three or four, depending on how he counts them—they’ve always lived apart. “Even when I’m in love I don’t want to live with them.” Waters divides his time between his homes in Baltimore, Provincetown, San Francisco, and New York, where he has a pied-à-terre off lower Fifth Avenue. “I can go wherever I want. So much better if you go to their house and they can come to yours. If you have a fight, you can get away, there’s no pouting room. Besides, I wouldn’t want someone who would allow themselves to live in my place without changing it to more of theirs.”

The pale-gold stucco house in North Baltimore Waters bought with money from Cry-Baby is a museum and a shrine. One of the first things you see upon entering is the electric chair Divine died in in Female Trouble. Across from it is a fake machine gun in a violin case from the set of Guys and Dolls that was given to Waters by Johnny Depp. There is a congratulatory note that came with flowers from Martin Scorsese stuck to a bulletin board above Waters’s enormous collection of Polaroids: He takes one of every single person who walks through his door. (After he dies, the Polaroids and all Waters’s papers and professional detritus will go to the Wesleyan University Cinema Archives, as will a portion of Scorsese’s.) A framed pair of Patty Hearst’s glasses (“She was wearing those when she got arrested!”) hangs on the wall in the bathroom downstairs, next to some photographs of couch cushions that somehow look a lot like a vagina. On top of the toilet there’s a bowl of fake brownies and cookies.

In fact, there is fake food in every room. Fake sushi in the dining room, a leg of lamb in Waters’s office, rubber blueberry pie in his bedroom. In the guest room that doesn’t lead to the bomber’s room, there is a bookshelf on which Waters has organized the books by category, one subject per shelf: extreme weather, psychological disorders, Nazis, Catholicism, high society.

Not all the art Waters has collected is creepy or obscure. There’s a Warhol his high-school girlfriend bought for him for $100 in 1964, a Weegee photo of Johnnie Ray, a piece by Man Ray tucked in the living-room windowsill. “Art is my midlife crisis,” Waters declares. “I don’t buy sports cars.” In the dining room, there’s a series by one of Waters’s favorites, Cy Twombly, the names of “Five Greek Poets and a Philosopher” scrawled on paper. “Twombly invented scribbles as art! His work is incredibly beautiful, and it infuriates people … People like my dad will say, ‘You bought that?’ ”

Since his 91-year-old father, John Waters Sr., has been sick with cancer, Waters has been spending a lot of time with his parents, who live nearby in a “very, very fancy retirement community with everyone they’ve known their whole life.” But today Waters is driving the LeSabre to their old house, where he grew up, in a placid suburb called Lutherville.

On the slanted front lawn of that house, Waters shot Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, Roman Candles, Multiple Maniacs, Eat Your Makeup, and Desperate Living. His father loaned him the money to make those early films. Though Waters mocks the decorum and conformity from which he sprang, the memory of this world has been essential to him. The thing he makes fun of is propriety: dancing school and suburbia, the traditional family and good taste. This is quaint. As Waters is the first to admit, popular culture is now as vulgar and vile as his wildest early films. (I’m thinking of an episode of the VH1 reality show A Shot at Love in which the bisexual MySpace star Tila Tequila has her male and female suitors eat the boiled penises of bulls to win her affection.) Waters, of course, has always been challenging authority, but now that there is very little authority left to challenge, it seems clear that he wouldn’t have spent his whole career thumbing his nose at a world for which he had no reverence. He wears suits, albeit deconstructed high-fashion versions. He sends out Christmas cards (this year’s pictured a car crash). Among his most prized possessions at both his apartment in New York and his house in Baltimore are needlepoints made for him by his mother and her friends. (Mrs. Waters stitched them to her son’s specifications: On his sofa in the city is a pillow picturing an electric chair.)

“I have this memory of wanting to be away from this. To be a delinquent, to be bad,” Waters says, pulling the LeSabre up in front of the big pink Victorian he was raised inside of before it was pink. (He matches it today, though, in his purple corduroys and a Comme des Garçons jacket with pink lining.) “Not against my parents … It was just a world they didn’t want me to be in. That’s what juvenile delinquents are about. I was never violent; I was never a drape,” he says of the Baltimore-specific term for bad teens, the stars of Cry-Baby. “I woulda been terrible! Squares coulda beat me up! But nobody ever really tried to, because they knew I hated authority even more than they did. Also I could make ’em laugh. And still I’m like that. My favorite places in Baltimore are these really real biker bars, and they’re lovely to me. They’ve even taken me to their clubhouses. It’s a different world—it’s Scorpio Rising. I don’t have to talk about movies; I don’t have to talk about art. We talk about their lives. My favorite anecdote, recently in Baltimore I asked this guy, ‘What do you do for a living?’ And he said, ‘Well, can I be frank? I trade deer meat for crack.’ ”

Waters warns me that he’s told this story before, and that by the time my article comes out this anecdote will be “all used up,” which strikes me as thoughtful but arbitrary, because much of what he says I’ve heard before. If you read Waters’s books and watch his one-man show This Filthy World, you will find that his conversation is peppered with reruns and standards. (“S&M looks silly at the beach”; “I know I look like a child molester.”) But it’s fine. John Waters’s recycling is more interesting than most people’s virgin material.

Still, it’s interesting to witness the extent to which Waters lives in the third person. Everything that happens is inspiration, fuel. His life barely has time to hit the ground before he turns it into something else—a movie, an artwork, a routine. “I trade deer meat for crack! I can’t make that up. So good. Every once in a while I love to be so stunned by something somebody says, and they say it without irony, without realizing how fucking brilliant it is … from my world.”

Cry-Baby is a story of drapes and squares battling it out for a pretty girl, and the protagonist (played by Johnny Depp in Waters’s film) is based on a boy named Morris who lived across the street in a small and slightly ragged house. “My parents were horrified that the family moved here—looked down on ’em. Morris never even would look at me or talk to me, but I hung around with his brother. He was Cry-Baby. My parents would never have allowed me to be a drape, but I was definitely a drape sympathizer and I thought they were really sexy. I’m sure it was a sexual thing that I didn’t even realize at the time.”

All his work, of course, is autobiographical. He points out his old bedroom—he would listen to people singing black spirituals on their way home from church, as Tracy Turnblad does in Hairspray. In A Dirty Shame, “in some ways I am Big Ethel,” the head neuter, who is appalled by the complexity and weirdness of all the perversions in her community. “I just don’t understand this coming-out-a-second-time thing—you’ve already told ’em you’re gay and now you’re gonna let ’em know you’re a bear? The poor parents! Here’s where I had a little horror house where I’d charge people a quarter and then spray ’em with a fire extinguisher and kick ’em,” he says, indicating a garage. Around the corner is the white house where Divine—Harris Glenn Milstead—used to live. “Carol Wernig introduced us. They would gamble for pimple medicine, Clearasil, that they used as lipstick.”

Divine, like many of the original Dreamlanders, is gone now; he died the week after Hairspray came out. “Things remind me of them,” Waters says of his old friends. “They don’t go away. The saddest is when somebody you know dies and everyone they’re friends with is already dead. You can’t even gossip about them.”

In Hampden, the Williamsburg of Baltimore, one of Waters’s assistant directors has started a feminist sex store with her now ex-girlfriend, and Waters goes in to say hello. He asks if they have anything for men. “We’re for people of all genders,” says a serious young woman with pink hair at the counter. She shows him the Black Orchid, a masturbatory device for men.

“People used to use liver!” Waters says. “Well, let me see the vibrating cock rings.”

She looks nervous. “I think we’re out.”

“I can get through the week,” he replies, and we leave to go to his art studio, a big room next to a wedding photographer’s office.

Inside, there’s a great picture on the wall by Waters’s friend Nan Goldin (who photographed him again for New York): Waters is in his twenties, sitting, talking, and smoking at a banquette with Cookie Mueller, one of the chicken fuckers in Pink Flamingos, who was also Fassbinder’s drug dealer. Her mother used to call Waters “Beelzebub” because she thought he was such a bad influence. Mueller died of AIDS in the eighties.

On the floor, there is what looks to be a kind of self-portrait-in-progress: dozens of empty Crème de la Mer jars, Maybelline eye pencils, and shavings Waters has arranged in a pile. “You see,” he says. “It all ends up in something.”

Still Waters