Volume 23, Number 9 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | July 9 - 15, 2010


By John Waters
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$25; 320 pages

John Waters, sitting in his home in Baltimore, was unapologetic about his love of his celebrity.

Ever battling good taste
John Waters talks about his heroes and what it takes to offend him


Who does John Waters, the man who created the notorious “Pink Flamingos,” look up to? He provides a book full of answers in “Role Models,” a hilarious and poignant collection of essays about everyone from Johnny Mathis to David Hurles and Rei Kawakubo.

During a recent chat in the filmmaker’s Baltimore home, Waters discussed why he admires Mathis — whom he describes in the book as “beyond fame.” “He never gives interviews,” Waters explained. “I have never seen him in the world of show business. He does not participate in fame.”

Yet Waters, who has been working as a filmmaker for almost 50 years, is proud of the fame he has achieved in his career.

“I am the happy medium,” he said. “Nothing bad happens in my life because of the level of fame I have. I don’t understand people that complain about going into show business, a business for insecure people that need other people to tell them how good they are for the rest of their life.”

Waters was on something of a roll with this theme.

“Generally, you get great tables in restaurants, people give you free things,” he continued. “At the Spirit Awards — and I love the Spirit Awards — they treat you like a Katrina victim. Better than a Katrina victim! Why do I need a year’s supply of free yogurt? Why not give that to poor people? I’m not complaining. I got a great vacuum cleaner.”

Waters’ house is clean, but cluttered.

“I don’t think I’m a hoarder, but I’m not a minimalist, as you can see…” he cracked.

Artwork lines every wall, and there are piles of books everywhere. He writes that he owns 8,089 titles, and one can’t help but notice the huge coffee table book of Tom of Finland’s work prominently displayed. That volume prompts a mention of the “Outsider Porn” chapter in “Role Models” and Waters’ fascination with the artists/pornographers Hurles and Bobby Garcia. According to Waters, these artists “break the rules of gay porn.” He acknowledged that they are aroused only by their own work. “They are not doing it to make money. They live outside the law, and outside the porn law. And they are gaily incorrect, because they are celebrating [photographing] people who are basically not that gay friendly.”

As we talked, Waters produced four David Hurles photos — portraits of seedy-looking men with impressive erections — that he had in a folder on his desk. These confrontational images dare you to look at the subjects in all their naked glory just as the Alberto Garcia Alix photo “Nacho y Michelle” does. This image, featuring a woman displaying her asshole and vagina, hangs in Waters’ guest bedroom between bookcases featuring titles like “Roughhouse Rimmer,” “I Am a Teenage Dope Addict,” and “I Was a Negro Playboy Bunny.” One can only imagine waking up in this slightly surreal room.

Waters seems to court outrage, even when it comes to his fashion sense. Wearing Comme des Garçons clothes designed by Kawakubo, he gets attention that amuses him.

“They write in the papers that I was [at a premiere] in ‘my thrift shop finest,’” Waters said, “but I love that, because you’re not being ostentatious. People think you got beat in the thrift shop. I never tell them this cost money, or it’s from a famous designer. It made my father crazy. ‘You bought that? And it costs more? It should have been on sale!’”

Waters even modeled for Kawakubo once, wearing too short black pants and a white dress shirt.

“The shirt tail came halfway down to your knees, ragged, like all the way around,” he recalled.

“Role Models” also reveals something that might jar Waters’ fans — his trademark pencil mustache is enhanced by Maybelline.

“People are surprised?” he asked, incredulous. “In memoirs, you have to reveal some secrets. That’s a fashion secret…. It’s real — here is hair there. You can see it. I just trimmed it. It just needs help. Especially with gray.”

An oft-times purveyor of scandal, Waters himself is sometimes surprised by outrageousness he comes across in society. He writes about “blow roasts,” claiming to be “shocked” when he heard about these dinners popular in some blue collar male haunts where bull roasts meet blow jobs. Regarding the women who work these events, he said, “It’s the lowest form of show business. Worse than a fluffer! — even though there is no such thing” in the porn business.

Still, Waters understands that blow roasts represent the same sort of cultural extreme that he’s always appreciated. “Filth,” he writes in “Role Models,” “is just the beginning battle in the war on taste.” He may not really dig a blow roast, but he hastened to add, “It’s the middle that I’ve always had trouble with and fled my whole life.”

That’s why John Waters has always been an outsider — and always inspired by others like him.


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