John Waters: Humour Terrorist.

John Waters interview

John Waters will go to his grave as the “notorious” (he doesn’t like that word) movie director who got Divine to eat dog shit in the film Pink Flamingos. But that was a long time ago. Nowadays John Waters is almost part of the gay establishment. He flitted through London to promote his book, Role Models, and David McGillivray spoke to him…

In Role Models John Waters talks about, and sometimes to, some of his “favourite personalities.”  But as Waters is known as the Pope of Trash and the King of Puke, don’t expect these role models to be saints and other do-gooders. Well, actually one is a saint. But she’s the deranged St Catherine of Siena who flagellated herself and drank pus. For the rest, well, they’re pornographers, a stripper, two gay (ooh… mustn’t use that word) singers and, most controversially, a member of Charles Manson’s “Family”, who stabbed her victim 16 times. But Waters is no ghoul. He’s an intelligent counter-culture vulture who makes a forceful case for the rehabilitation of the outsider.

This is a case of we meet again. I first interviewed you when Pink Flamingos opened at the Screen on the Green in Islington.

Well! I remember that. When was that? 70s?


Yeah, probably. That’s great. So we’re both still here.

I have to say that, when I saw that film, I thought, well, he’s going to carry on making these underground movies. And yet now you’re an internationally acclaimed author. Is this as much of a surprise to you as it is to me?

Well, I was always a writer. I mean I wrote all the movies. I’ve written two other books that are still in print, Shock Value and Crackpot. To be honest, I could never imagine that I would be 65 years old. However, I was an ambitious kid. I got [the show biz trade paper] Variety when I was 12. It wasn’t like I was Pecker, like I was an idiot savant, you know, a naïve kid who accidentally did something. But I guess you don’t look ahead. I don’t know that I’ve changed that much. I actually think in a weird way that the public’s sense of humour has changed way more than mine ever has. I mean there’s chapters in Role Models about outsider pornographers and saints who eat pus. It’s not so different.

“We go into a field where for the rest of our lives strangers have to tell us we’re good. Only insecure people would ever do that” – John Waters

Are you still a film maker? It’s been a while since your last film.

It’s a good question. I can’t get my movie made right now. I have one ready to go called Fruitcake. I got a development deal from New Line Cinema. They paid me, they liked it, and then the New Line I knew is no longer there. But yes, I’m still hoping to do it.

I’d like to talk about so many of your role models. But let’s concentrate on some people we may not know here. Lady Zorro?

John Waters interview Nobody knows her. Well, maybe some dirty old men know who she is from seeing her being a stripper. I didn’t really know her. Divine and I used to go see her strip. She was butch. She looked like Johnny Cash. I wrote about her a tiny bit in Crackpot and later I read that she had died and that she had a daughter, which amazed me. Zorro was really ahead of her time as a lesbian with a child. She had it just to have a baby and was a terrible mother. However, her daughter told me that she knew she loved her. She turned out fine. So I’m always saying that I’m tired of gay people having to be good now. She was a bad lesbian mother. There’s a lot of bad heterosexual mothers. We should be able to make mistakes too.

What about Bobby Garcia? I like to think of myself as a porn expert. But I’d never heard of him.

You can go online and look at it his stuff right now. He pretends he doesn’t even know about it, but he sold all the stuff a long time ago. ( You have to join. But you can see free previews. For decades Bobby photographed, jerked off and blew marines, straight ones, well, some of them, I guess, who knows? To me it’s amazing, it just proves that you never know what anybody’s sexual life is really like.

Do you think he deserved what he got? Because he ended up in a pretty bad way.

I don’t even know where he is. He doesn’t even live in the squat where I visited him. You know, does he deserve more? I think Bobby was not unhappy. Bobby didn’t really do it for art, Bobby did it because he’s an outsider, he did it because he had to do it. He was driven to do it. He was lovely when I was there, even living in the squat with the rats that he fed and the scary dogs and the rooster glaring at me, I liked him, he was kind. I admire Bobby for being an artist. He doesn’t know he’s an artist but I think he is.

Let’s move on to a more controversial role model. She got you some bad press here, Leslie van Houten.

You’re talking about one bad review. I can give you 20 good reviews. I know the review you’re talking about, it’s the only bad one I ever read.

OK. Well, we’re talking about one of Charles Manson’s family. Can we use the word admiration?

Sympathy. My sympathy for her terrible, terrible predicament and my amazement that she continues not to despair. There’s this great remorse that she feels and she tries to become the better person she would have been if this horrible thing she did hadn’t happened.

You say you’ve changed your mind about her. You have regrets…

Not about her. I have regrets about using the whole Manson case in a jokey way. [Pink Flamingos is dedicated to her]. I followed the case way before I met Leslie. I went to the original Manson trial, I used it in my movies in a punk rock way. Marilyn Manson did the same thing later. I never dealt with the victims in any way and in this chapter [in Role Models] I found the most devastating things the victim’s family have said against her release and I printed them. A defence lawyer doesn’t do that.

You could be called a criminologist…

I teach in prison, yeah. My other career is correction!

How do you feel about Myra Hindley?  Do you have sympathy for her in the same way you have with van Houten?

Well, I think she’s more complicated because, half of her sentence, she lied and didn’t admit the other murders. I believe Leslie has more mitigating factors. Leslie was 17 when she met a madman, a known cult leader. She doesn’t let herself off easily. She says. “It’s my fault, a cult leader can’t be a leader without followers. I shouldn’t have taken the drugs.” I’m saying I believe in redemption. She shouldn’t have gone to jail for 40 years. All the psychiatrists say she’s fine. No one says it will happen again. She’s not a danger to anybody. But can you ever, ever make up for something so terrible? And that’s a question that I don’t know the answer to. That’s why it interests me so much. I believe a lot of people who have life imprisonment should not get out. People who are serial killers, people who harm children, that’s different. She’s none of them. She’s served longer than Nazi leaders.

All right. I want to quote the bad review for Role Models from The Observer…

Before I respond to this, can I say something?

Yes, go on.

Only an amateur answers his critics.

Are you going to answer this one?

It goes against what I believe. I think the dumbest thing to do if you get a bad review is to write a letter to the editor. But tell me what you’re saying and I’ll see.

All right…

He has a right to his opinion. I can’t say his opinion is wrong.

I think he’s got one good point. Try this.


He says, “Wanting to be notorious and also well-liked is an oddly forked ambition.”

I don’t know that I want to be notorious. I want to use material that surprises you. Notorious? I don’t know that I’m notorious. I haven’t done any real criminal acts. That’s what notorious means. If you’re known only for something bad.

Do you want to be well-liked?

Always, sure. That’s why show business is filled with insecure people. We go into a field where for the rest of our lives strangers have to tell us we’re good. Only insecure people would ever do that.

Let’s look at the world today. It seems that no one shocks us to the degree that John Waters used to.

I’m not saying these people are like me but I think Johnny Knoxville is completely in the spirit of everything I’ve done. Todd Solondz is a film maker I like very, very much. I’m not saying his films are like mine, but certainly I think he fucks with the public. I think Gaspar Noé fucks with the public. Lars von Trier fucks with the public big time. There are many film makers…do you mean gay ones?

Not necessarily.

Because none of those people are gay! Ha ha!

OK. Is there a gay film maker?

I think François Ozon is a really, really good film maker who happens to be gay. Pedro Almodovar probably. He’s the best film maker in the world right now. He continues to surprise, sure. But shock? To be honest I think people are trying too hard to be shocking these days. Although I must say Gaspar Noé shocks me in a great way.

I’m glad you mentioned people who try too hard. If you were to write a sequel to Role Models, would you include Lady GaGa?

I like Lady GaGa and I’m all for her, but I think I’m too old for her to be a role model for me. Pop stars are role models for young people. I’m thrilled with her influence, (a) for fashion, and ( b) she’s made every gay teenager feel better. She’s incredibly gay-friendly, she’s hugely successful and she’s a hard worker and I’m all for her. I’ve been around too long. But I’d like to meet her and I’m a fan.

If John Waters were growing up today do you think she’d be your role model?

She’s probably too popular. Except for Johnny Mathis no one in my book was accepted by everybody. Why I love Johnny Mathis so much is because he did it so effortlessly.

It’s been a while since I read Role Models and I can’t remember whether you asked Johnny Mathis the big question, the one we all want to know the answer to.

I didn’t because he’s already answered it in so many ways. And is that the big question? Do you really think that’s the biggest question? It isn’t to me. I couldn’t care less really. I assumed Johnny Mathis’ sexuality. He said in the book, “It’s a way of life one’s grown accustomed to.”  What a gentlemanly, low-key way to deal with the subject.

I can’t help but wonder, wouldn’t you be happier in another country where the right wing aren’t so hung up about atheism, abortion and homosexuality? Wouldn’t you be less annoyed in Europe?

I don’t get annoyed here. I do talk shows with right wing people sometimes. I get along with them. My assistant is Republican. Everyone has the right to believe in what they believe. It doesn’t make me angry. I love to argue with people and that’s the only way to change someone. What I hate is a liberal who says, “If this person gets elected I’m leaving the country.” As if you’re that important! You should stay and fight and the way you fight political things is to make the other side laugh. Then they’ll listen to you. I’m for terrorism. I’m for humour terrorism. I’m for embarrassing the enemy. That’s what Wikileaks did. To use humour to mortify your opponent. That’s the kind of terrorism I’m for.

Would you like to terrorise the ex-gay movement?

That seems so ridiculous to me. To me that helps gay people because even straight people laugh at that. Here’s what I feel. Anyone who’s that miserable being gay, I hope they do turn straight. Why would we want ‘em? They’d just make someone a terrible boyfriend. I don’t believe that being gay or straight is a numbers war. I know a lot of gay people, I wish they’d come in! Get away from me!


Role Models is published by Beautiful Books at £15.99.





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