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A Conversation with John Waters, the Pope of Trash 

JOHN WATERS

Enjoying that outrageously funny movie, politically incorrect comic, or zingy retort from a friend? Then you should send a thank-you to John Waters, the man who started shaking up the culture in the 1970s with his subversive, hilariously campy, deeply influential “midnight movies” like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble. Waters’s impact hardly ended there. He went on to write and direct two films (Hairspray and Cry-Baby) that were turned into Broadway musicals, and he’s also an author, speaker, and éminence grise who continues to cast a wacky spell on a society that needs him. From November 29 through December 23, the bard of Baltimore travels to 18 cities with A John Waters Christmas—Holier and Dirtier. I called him in Baltimore to ask about that, and about whether our community may have lost something as it hurtles toward acceptance.

Hello, John. Obviously, Christmas means a lot to you.
Nowadays, it’s when I work. It started when I wrote “Why I Love Christmas” in my book Crackpot, and then I did a show of that, and it mushroomed.

I’ve always wanted to ask if the Female Trouble scene of the Christmas tree landing on Dawn Davenport’s ma was inspired by the tree falling in the original Poseidon Adventure.
No, because what really happened was that a Christmas tree fell on my grandmother. I forgot that happened in The Poseidon Adventure. That movie did inspire me, though. When the lights come on [in his Christmas show] and I see the audience, I say, “Oh, The Poseidon Adventure!” because it feels like the whole thing is going to tip over. People have told me stories in their cities. Usually, cats or liquor are involved. I recommend everybody rig their own tree so it tips over at the height of opening the presents. I’m rigging everything to go wrong at Christmas so no one can be disappointed.

When people say “John Waters must love this movie,” do you?
They’re usually wrong. I think of all the terrible, 150 million–dollar, bad Hollywood gross-out comedies. I have had no way of causing them. Or maybe I have been a bad influence, with these terrible comedies that aren’t funny. The Jackass movies are the only ones…I love those movies.

Where do you stand in the movie-making business these days?
I don’t think I even do that right now. My last two books did great, and I’m involved in a TV project that might happen. I’m going to London for a big tribute at the British Film Institute.

And you’re a public speaker.
About 50 times a year. And I had an art show in New York this year. I have lots of careers and no hobbies. That’s the only thing I get furious about in an interview — if someone dares to ask if I have a hobby. The other worst question is, “Is there anything else you’d like to say?” Hold on, if I have to ask the questions too, give me part of your paycheck. And I hate when people say, “Let’s have fun with it.”

They mean well.
I know. In Baltimore, we use the term “hate” much more freely. Here, it just connotes mild discomfort or vague disliking.

Speaking of mild discomfort, did your fabulous drag star Divine have any angst problems, as some authors suggest?
I think Divine, when he died, was very, very happy. We got along great. Hairspray was a big hit, he got great reviews, and he was about to play a gay male part on Married With Children. Did he have moments of angstiness? Sure — when he was young, he was bullied and beaten up, and that’s where all that anger came from that he used for his characters.

And he wasn’t trans.
He didn’t want to be a woman. He wanted to pass as a monster.

Trans is so trendy now, it’s like the new navy blue of India. Is that worrisome?
It doesn’t worry me. I think maybe the refugee situation in Europe worries me more than transgender acceptance. By the way, I love drag kings — I think they look great. They show me their mastectomy scars and ask me to sign them and I love that. And I love radical feminists, even though I sometimes don’t agree with them. I don’t like women-hating gay men, but I don’t mind women that hate men. They have more reason.

Could you ever go back to basics and shoot a midnight movie with an iPhone?
No. I have no desire to be a 70-year-old faux underground filmmaker. And I’m not 70 yet.

You’ve been quite articulate about what we’ve lost as a community as we veer toward acceptance.
I always make fun of any kind of rules. But we’ve gained a huge amount. I was touched when I saw that Obama lit up the White House in gay colors [in June, to celebrate gay marriage]. Do I have my house in gay colors? Hell, no. It would seem corny in my house, but at the White House, it’s a radical political statement and something I wildly approve of.

But is there a price for assimilation?
I don’t want to hang around with just gay people. From the very beginning, I’ve thought of separatism as defeat.

Would you eliminate some gay people?
[Laughing] Some should be suspended. I want to give out gay deficiency slips. People that make gay people look like such clichés — Well, I guess they have the right to do that.

What are your thoughts on Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who was jailed for refusing to issue same-sex marital licenses in view of her religious beliefs?
I’ve applauded that kind of civil disobedience when it happens on the other side, but when you work for the government, it’s different. If she wanted to quit because of that, I’d applaud that because she’s standing up for what she believes in. But if you work at a job for an employer, you can’t just make up the rules. I think she’s a moron and an idiot and people should picket her home, but she has the right to quit.  I’d send her to beauty school, though.

Can any good come from all this?
Anita Bryant [a homophobic singer who stirred trouble in the 1970s] was one of the best things to happen to the gay movement. [She helped mobilize activism.] Well, we got a new villain!

Do you long for the days before we became so mainstream?
I don’t long for anything. But I hope the main thing we don’t lose is self-parody and a sense of humor, because then we become just mall walkers. There’s nothing the matter with wanting to be a gay, middle-class mall walker — though it’s different values than I have — but so what? That’s the whole point — you should have the right to be whatever kind of gay you want. Gay people can be bad mothers just like straight ones. You have a right to be a bad mother!

Is there anything else you’d like to say? Kidding!

MICHAEL MUSTO
MICHAEL MUSTO is the author of Manhattan on the Rocks, Downtown, and Fork on the Left, Knife in the Back, and a weekly columnist for OUT.com.

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