in conversation

In Conversation: John Waters

The pope of trash on Anna Wintour, staying youthful, and why Trump ruined camp.

John Waters. Photo: Bobby Doherty
John Waters. Photo: Bobby Doherty
John Waters. Photo: Bobby Doherty

John Waters is not prone to sentimentality. He’s tough-minded and fastidious, waking up at 6 a.m. every weekday and then settling in to write for four hours. Lately, he writes books, including his most recent, Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder. When I visit his home in Baltimore, he greets me neatly pressed and ready in a deconstructed black jacket and signature mustache penciled on with Maybelline. He shows me around his four-story house, which he has packed with “11,000-something” books, and art on every available ledge and wall space, like a tasteful hoarder. (There’s a series of Twomblys in the dining room, a Kawamata with his plants.)

He’s still best known for giving bad taste a good name through his film work, including such movies as the Trash Trilogy (Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living) and his biggest commercial hit, 1988’s PG-rated Hairspray. And while his older films often played in the margins at underground festivals and midnight theaters, he has since been canonized into cinematic history. (Criterion plans to release Polyester complete with an Odorama sniff card next.) “I identified with outsiders my whole life. And I still do,” he says lounging back into his chair. “But I want to be an insider now because that’s the only thing nobody wants to be anymore.”

What did you think of the Met Gala and its choice of Camp: Notes on Fashion?
I knew you would ask that. I wasn’t invited even though I was in every article. I wasn’t invited to the Comme des Garçons one either. But I had the best of all worlds: I didn’t have to pay $40,000. I didn’t have to get in an outfit that I might’ve felt uncomfortable in. And I’m in every article about it. I didn’t have to go through all that or pay anything and got the same amount of coverage.

Still, it’s wild that you weren’t invited to a show about camp.
Well, do you think Anna Wintour is that funny? She’s an incredibly successful editor, but I’ve never heard her say anything that funny.

Did you think any of it was camp?
That is a word I haven’t said out loud in 40 years. It started as a secret gay word that only gay people understood. I had the book The Camp Followers’ Guide. I stole it on 8th Street. But then, everything evolved from that. Camp was a hidden thing only a few people understood. Now, straight people have basically taken gay culture, and they understand most everything about it. In my book, I try to push a new agenda on gay people: for gay men and gay women to have oral sex together for the first time. Which I don’t think anyone has ever advocated yet. So I’m trying to go beyond any of those terms — camp, trash, or filth — into another level of humor. But camp was always something that was so bad it was good, and didn’t know it. Trump ruined that. Even camp he ruined.

Could you elaborate on that?
It isn’t really camp, but some people said he looks like a white James Brown impersonator. Which he does now. But that’s not camp. You have to like what’s camp. It has to be so bad, it’s good. He’s so bad, he’s bad.

Do you think Trump has become successful in part because he deployed similar tactics of shock and attention grabbing as you did?
When I was on Bill Maher with Andrew Breitbart, [Breitbart] said to me, “I do the same thing you do; we’re just on different sides.” Which is true. So I get why Trump supporters like [Trump], because he is doing what he said he was going to do and we hate him so much he makes us crazy.

Does he offend liberal sensibilities in the way your work did?
I don’t think I actually do offend liberal sensibilities though. I’m a bleeding-heart liberal. I make fun of my own rules, but in some ways, I don’t violate the rules. I think I love everything I make fun of, and certainly Trump does not love what he makes fun of. Although he used to be what he makes fun of. He was a liberal, wasn’t he? I mean. A little bit of one.

Does he make you laugh?
Never. But neither do most of the Democrat character candidates running now either. And you could argue it’s not a funny time, which is true.

Is there a Democratic primary candidate you support?
Here’s what I think: [Trump] is gonna win again, because I say it myself and they all go “Ahhh!” when I say that. And I say, “Who are you gonna vote for?” Silence. There are 40 characters that are going to divide it all up. You know, the gay one I like. I’d vote for any of them, even though it would be really hard for me to vote for Elizabeth Warren who has never once said a funny thing in her entire life.

She is the best one, I would argue.
I think she will lose. Any of the ones that have already been out there will lose, big time. And any of the ones that try to be super left wing will really lose, too. And all the other ones just haven’t been around. I don’t know. I’m very much against Kamala [Harris] because she is a prisoner’s enemy. She made it so that you couldn’t get parole for ten years instead of five in California. She did a lot of things that are against prisoners’ rights, so I’m definitely against her. What’s the one, Mayor Pete? Is he the gay one?

Buttigieg, yeah.
To me it better be somebody young and somebody new. Who knows! It’s a civil war, and I believe that it could be decided by one vote. It’s split right down the middle. It’s just exhausting to me.

But I get why they like [Trump], because he infuriates us. And it’s everything he said he was gonna do. So he’s not lying to them. We were just too stupid and sat home and didn’t vote. Because the Democrats — so that’s what you get.

Although to be fair, Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote.
Yeah, but that’s not the way it works. If we won and he won the popular vote, we wouldn’t have said that. They’re always gonna say that. Well, then change it! But until they do, that’s the way it works. Look, I voted for Hillary. I like Hillary. She’d lose. They’d all lose. Amy Carter has a better chance.

How’s your sex life?
My sex life’s pretty good for 73 years old.

Do you feel like your sexual appetites have changed over the years?
It’s the exact opposite of today. When I was young, free love came out in the ’60s. Today you need a lawyer to ask somebody for a date. So, I have lived in the two most extreme ends of sexual manners. But I’ve adapted to the times, always. I’m certainly not going to a sex club now. I would be recognized. I’d have to be doing selfies. Part of a sex club was that it was anonymous, and that would be almost impossible for me. I did all that. I don’t need to do it again.

What did you learn about yourself when you were exploring sexually?
Well, the most interesting thing was the geography of the clubs and how they worked. You had to apply for membership to go to a club called the Toilet. I mean, who got turned away? I got turned away in the Mineshaft because I wasn’t butch enough, because you always had to have some macho thing. I’d have on a sport coat and say I’m a plainclothes goth, that’s my look. That was the only club that I remember didn’t let me in a couple times. At the door they had to see what you had on, and I might’ve had a sport coat, which is definitely a no-no. So I learned the manners of it, which I found so amazing. Those clubs led to a lot of bad things, but I’m glad I saw that era. It’ll never happen again. I don’t believe that will come back.

Why not?
Because AIDS ruined everything forever. Although maybe people aren’t scared about it anymore, which is even scarier. Half my friends died of AIDS; you can’t ever get over that in your life. But every generation has something horrible that happens like that. In the ’30s, it was syphilis. The artistic community has always had trouble with suicide and drugs and alcohol. All those things always struck in the artistic community, and they always will. That just happened to be my generation’s worst one.

What do you feel are the defining principles of sexual culture for younger generations?
I think it’s progress. Gay bars are closing. I’m against separatism. Why would young people only want to go to a place where they had to be just with people like them? They want to hang out with cool people, straight or gay. I always did. My crowd was completely mixed, and that’s why we were all so interested in each other, because everybody wasn’t the same. I don’t want to hang out with people exactly like me all the time. When I was young and went to gay bars, they were illegal. And the first one I ever went to was in Washington called the Chicken Hut, or the Hut, but it was known as the Chicken Hut and had phones on every table. It was people with sweaters and I thought, You know, I might be gay, but I ain’t this. This ain’t what I’m looking for. I went back to the beatnik bars. The kind of gay people I liked were in there.

I’ve never had sex from something on the internet. That was after my time. I live in Provincetown in the summer, and I realize now that if you went up to somebody after the bar is closed and said, “Hi, what are you doing?” they’d call the police. They wouldn’t even know what cruising was if they were a certain age. “Why are you talking to me while I’m on the phone?” That’s what somebody might say. And they’re dancing with each other, looking at their phone while they’re dancing. So it’s a different world out there.

Doesn’t that feel like a loss of something?
No, it’s a different time. I never think what I did was better. That’s when you get old. They’re having just as much fun as I did. Things change, and they’re not going back. It’s a whole new world; it’s a lot easier. It’s just right there, whatever you want. It’s like shopping. That was shopping, too. You just did it a different way. Did we have more fun? I don’t know. The argument is sometimes that it was more fun when it was illegal to be gay, but I certainly don’t want it to be now. It’s just ‘cause I was young and it was more of an outlaw thing. Now, it’s really great that it isn’t.

What motivated you to make films in those early years?
I wanted to make a genre that nobody had made, so I went to gore movies at the drive-in, horrible exploitation movies. In Baltimore, we were the king of it. Downtown every theater had that. I went to underground movies in New York. I’d run away on the bus and go to the Film-Makers’ Cooperative and see them. And foreign movies, like Ingmar Bergman’s. And I tried to put all three of those extremes together to make what I called trash epics, which was basically exploitation movies for art theaters. I didn’t quite realize that at the time, but that is what they still are. They don’t work in real exploitation because the audience knew I was making fun of them. People didn’t go see Russ Meyer movies because they thought they were funny; they went to jerk off. And nobody was jerking off in my movies, and if they were, they were in real trouble.

There are a lot of horror conventions and techniques in your films …
Well, I do my spoken-word show at horror conventions a lot, and people say, “Why? You didn’t make horror films.” My standard line is, “Ask my mother; she thought they were all horrible.” And they had moments — Multiple Maniacs was sort of a joke on a horror movie. Each one of the movies I made was a certain niche movie that was an exaggeration and a satire of a genre.

People thought Divine — they always think wrong — was trans. Divine never dressed as a woman except when he was working. He had no desire to be a woman. He was fat. It was too hot to wear all that shit. He couldn’t wait to get that wig off. The tits were so hot. He hated it. He didn’t want to pass as a woman; he wanted to pass as a monster. He was thought up to scare hippies. And that’s what he wanted to do. He wanted to be Godzilla. Well, he wanted to be Elizabeth Taylor and Godzilla put together.

Were there ever any lines that you felt like you couldn’t cross?
Sure. I don’t make a lot of Holocaust jokes. I’m not Jewish. I don’t think I’m ever mean. That’s the main thing. I make fun of things I like, while most people make fun of things they don’t like. That, in some way, is why I have been able to have this career for 50 years. Even in the book, I don’t mention any of the studio executives or anything that gave me trouble or I disagreed with. I never mentioned a name because I cashed the checks.

Is not being mean the general operating principle that you feel like you have when it comes to comedy?
Yes, [people] want to come with me into a world — even one that they might not feel comfortable with — but with me as a guide, I think they’re interested and they can at least open their ears to listen, which is the only way you get anybody to change their mind. And I’m always attracted to subjects I don’t know the correct answer to either. My job is to investigate the unfathomable humor, the unfathomable behavior of humans, and report back to the great unwashed public. I’m a reporter.

Photo: Bobby Doherty

Did you ever make porn?
Did I ever secretly make a porn movie? No. Well, Pink Flamingos has a scene where Divine gives Danny [Mills] head, which was really awkward because they were friends, and Danny was straight, and he doesn’t really even get a hard-on. And he has to shout out three pages of dialogue while he’s giving a blow job. So they were trying not to laugh. How can you say that without laughing, when you’re friends? So, yes, I guess.

Once they shot a porn movie in my house and paid me for the location. This was a really long time ago, around the time of Pink Flamingos. And watching it being filmed was mortifying. It wasn’t sex. It was just embarrassing. I felt bad for them because I knew ’em, too. That was what was worse. It was just so awkward to me. And even when I shoot sex scenes, it’s embarrassing. I feel bad, always, for everybody.

Were there lines of sexual propriety that you felt you shouldn’t cross?
Well, I set one a long time ago. The only thing I haven’t tried is necrophilia and coprophagia. And I don’t plan to do either, although necrophilia is just fear of performance.

Have you ever done drag?
I was only in drag once, and that was as the Wicked Witch at a birthday party when I was 8 years old. That ended my drag career. You have to be so careful of what you say. My friend told me this story, “You know, every gay man once tried on their mother’s shoes.” You did it once; you never did it again. But now, if you have a very liberal mother and they catch you, you have sexual reassignment lessons at 8 years old. And you might not really wanna do that.

I don’t think that would happen.
Well, people have babies. That’s why Trump will win. Because of things like babies, where you don’t tell your child what sex they are until they figure it out themselves when they’re 3 years old, and then you give ’em a party and say, “You’re a girl.” These children will be in mental institutions. Your parents are supposed to tell you what to do. Then later, if you disagree, you rebel and do the opposite. I think that’s a healthy lifestyle.

So, your point is that you need some sort of structure within which to define yourself.
You need boundaries as a kid; you need boundaries as a parent. And they can give you good ones and bad ones. I’m lucky. My parents had a 70-year happy marriage. I did stuff that was against everything they ever believed in, but they always made me feel safe. That’s why I didn’t go off the deep end. And most people don’t get that. In the last chapter of the book, in the thank-yous, I thank my parents for giving me the good taste to rebel against, to build a career on.

Did you feel your mother was ever suffocated by suburban respectability?
No, she was strangled by it because I violated it so much, and she said later that people used to send her, with no return address or name, clippings about my movies. Hideous clippings. Then when everybody else’s kids started experimenting with drugs, they all called her for advice. My favorite story: Both my mom and father and Jeff Koons’s aunt were in the same retirement community together. And they used to compare horror stories when they were young about going to openings and laugh. At opening night of Hairspray, Harvey Fierstein’s mom, whom my mom had never met, came over and said, “Didn’t we raise terrific sons?” And my mother started sobbing. My mother basically believed your name should only be in the paper when you’re born, when you get married, and when you die.

Ricki Lake as Tracy Turnblad in Waters’ 1988 film Hairspray. Photo: New Line Cinema

How do you view the recent canonization process of your work and career?
William Burroughs is the one that called me the pope of trash. Which was amazing to me. That was, like, the pope himself. But so, all right, the canonization or what about it?

Why do you think it’s happened?
Because I’ve managed to do the same thing for 50 years, and I haven’t really changed that much. The first movie I made was of a Ku Klux Klan guy marrying a black man and a white woman on the roof of my parents’ house. The last movie I made was sexploitation and got an NC-17 rating. I started and ended in the gutter. In between I did sneak attacks that worked into middle America, especially Hairspray. Even racists like Hairspray. That’s the only really perverse movie I made. Because it’s being done now in high schools everywhere in the world and it espouses your white daughter to date black guys, to have gay marriage, to have everything. But, now, what’s gotten so amazing about it that I’m even more for is that political correctness has hit it even more the other way. In public schools, you can’t cast by weight, race, anything. So I’ve seen Hairspray with a skinny black girl playing Tracy. It makes no sense, but what’s better, the kids don’t notice. So that’s progress. Just like when I saw King Lear on Broadway. It reminded me of the Theatre of the Ridiculous. Shakespeare wouldn’t be rolling in his grave; he’d be applauding.

So you liked it?
Yes. And I know some didn’t. And I can see the argument why some people might not. But it took diversity to Charles Ludlam length. They had tattoos. I love the deaf stuff. You could act butch and deaf. And then they had to learn how to act and sign at the same time. That’s really complicated. So, yeah, I like people doing extremes. I went to see the Isabelle Huppert play. I love that she always does extreme things. She’s my favorite actress in the world. That’s why I still love Lars von Trier. He has one of the best senses of humor of all film directors. My favorite is Gaspar Noé. Climax was my favorite movie. I loved it, loved it, loved it.

Do you still feel like subversion and provocation is possible in film right now?
Certainly, [Climax] is a perfect one. Let’s just say it’s a very altered version of The Red Shoes as a bad acid trip. Thank God I didn’t see it before I took acid. I was very startled by the movie. I thought it really delivered. And it’s even more intriguing because the easy way doesn’t work anymore. Just sex and violence. Hollywood does that and does it badly. They make $75 million gross-out comedies that nobody thinks are that funny. So, that’s over. You have to think of a new way. And it does involve political correctness of all the things you can and cannot do in comedy today. But I think that makes it even more of a challenge to pull it off and startle people today.

You’ve had lifelong friendships, including Mink Stole, one of the original Dreamlanders, with whom you take acid for your book. Do you think friendship takes a certain precedence over romantic love?
Oh yeah, I don’t trust anybody that doesn’t have friends. I do have a personal life. Over half of my restaurant receipts are not tax-deductible. And if yours aren’t, you don’t have a personal life. Friends for 50 years, that’s the most important thing.

What do you attribute to the resilience of those relationships?
It’s work. You have to keep in touch with people. You have to call people. You drift apart and you go, “I haven’t talked to that person.” It takes effort. You have to be fairly social; you have to want to see people. I have a Christmas party every year. People think it’s some celebrity party. It’s not. It’s my next-door neighbors that I’ve had in other places I’ve lived. It’s my family, relatives, and then some famous people. But mostly, it’s the people I’ve known for 50 years. Somebody said, “Who’s that guy? I see him every year.” “Oh, he’s the one with the singing asshole in Pink Flamingos.” He’s 70 now, but he and his wife come.

In the book, you write about how you and Divine had rough patches at various moments.
Yeah. Because where else could Divine get a job? That was the problem. I only made a movie every couple years. How is he supposed to live? Even in those days, we didn’t have much money. But Divine, up to the end, still got 4 percent of the profits of all those early movies. I still send it to the Divine estate. Mink and I had some problems in our life, too. But that’s what friendship for 50 years can do. Certainly, Divine, at the end, we were very close. Hairspray happened and everything. So, you got through things. When business and friendship meet, that can be complicated, too. That’s what Pecker was about, in a way.

You also briefly write about a camp counselor who jerked you off when you were 14, and I wanted to talk about that a little bit more.
All I said was, it didn’t freak me out. I was looking for it. But later, I realized that that was definitely illegal of him to do and everything.

How old was he?
Twenty-two or something. He’s dead now. But I did say okay! You work with what you got. It didn’t scar me or anything. But it could have scarred somebody else. I put that in just because it took me a long time to realize, Well, how do I feel about that? Believe me, I’m not scarred by it in any way; however, people could be, certainly, and are.

What is your lovemap?
Well, it’s a complicated thing. Because I do have a private life, and I don’t ever have a boyfriend that wants to be in books or wants to be on the red carpet. I’m friends with four of [my exes], and they’re all very different types. I like people that didn’t grow up how I grew up. I’m not looking for a twin. So, my lovemap would be someone that doesn’t really fit in in any obvious type. But at the same time, they have to have a good sense of humor. And they have to be able to deal with my obsessional scheduling; I’m very organized. But I don’t want them to be a fan. I’ve never had a boyfriend that quoted lines from my movies to me. That would make me crazy.

Have you been in love?
Oh certainly. Yes, and I believe in that. It’s hard; it’s another job. I say in the book, you just have to tell people you love them in their sleep. That way you can’t be disappointed, and they do hear you. And it doesn’t demand an answer, which is always the problem with saying it.

A drive for romantic companionship isn’t really — minus Cry-Baby maybe — a part of your films.
Hmm, let me think. No, the only one is in Polyester, I guess, because he’s horrible to her and having an affair with Mink, so there is a marital breakup there. But no, I’ve never made a romantic comedy. I hate romantic comedies. They’re never funny. And I pray no one ever goes, “Aw.” When anyone ever says that, it means I would hate whatever they just said. “Aw.” My God, I hate that. I hate whimsical.

What is your relationship to sentimentality in general?
I can be sentimental in real life, but in my work, it’s too obvious to me. If I do it, it would be exaggerated to be ridiculous. Hopefully. It’s too easy. It’s a cheap effect.

Are there other genres that you don’t like?
Science fiction I don’t understand. I would never know if it was good or bad. The worst science fiction or Star Wars, it would be exactly the same to me; I wouldn’t understand it. And I hate special-effects movies. I like them better when they’re bad. Now it’s a science project; it’s not a movie.

Did you feel like you were working through neuroses through your work?
If I was, I didn’t feel like that. Making all the movies was freeing to me, but I didn’t feel like I was suffering. As a teen, I got hassled. I didn’t care. I just wanted to get out of there. I knew what I wanted to do. I was not naïve, and I was trying to do a kind of humor that I always liked. I always went to all the exploitation movies. Nobody said they were good then. It’s not like today, where there are festivals showing them. You had to go downtown to Baltimore in a mostly, 95 percent, African-American theater to see them. And we went all the time. I would cut school and go, take speed, and see three movies a day on Black Beauties. Was I tortured? No. Maybe I was and didn’t realize it, and these movies helped me get un-tortured.

Did you feel a sense of creative freedom when you were self-financing and making films versus making films with Hollywood studios?
I wouldn’t have this house if I didn’t go to Hollywood — you gotta put up with shit. That’s how it works. The more money you get, the more stuff you’re gonna have to go through. Hollywood treated me fairly. Sometimes I was totally overpaid, and sometimes I didn’t get anything when I made it myself. But every person that lent me money personally to make a movie got their money back.

Were there studio notes on Hairspray that changed the direction of it early on?
In the beginning on Hairspray, the original script, Divine was gonna play the mother and the daughter like The Parent Trap. They said no, and probably correctly. The test screenings went terribly. Women hated it, so that was an odd one. There was a scene in the movie where we put real roaches in [Tracy’s] hair, which Ricki [Lake] to this day gives me shit about — and then we cut it, which is worse. But Bob Shaye, in the first cut of the film, said, “What is this, a Buñuel film all of a sudden?” And he was right. But that wasn’t bad. It made it better.

Hairspray was billed as your crossover movie.
Definitely it was. But I didn’t write it as that. I certainly never thought I was gonna get a PG rating. I was shocked when that happened. I guess each time I had to hope it was gonna be commercial. And I always thought up ad campaigns. I always thought up ways to sell. I always got movie stars to be in it. I always had soundtrack albums. I always had unit photography. I always wanted it to be commercially successful. I wasn’t the kind of director that was like, “I don’t care if people see the movie.”

Even Pink Flamingos?
All of ’em. Pink Flamingos was commercial. Are you kidding?

How are you defining commercial, then?
There was an audience for it. And I exploited it to that audience and wanted them to come pay to see it. For a midnight movie, it was very commercial.

I guess “mainstream” is the better way to put it.
Well, Pink Flamingos played on television uncut. Who could ever imagine that would be possible? I still don’t know how it was possible. It was on the Sundance channel.

What I mean is, did you think of those films as mainstream or populist?
I tried to always do it. I always wanted … the audience I had in mind, for it to work with them, which in Pink Flamingos’ days was midnight movies. And then, when video came out, I knew that was over. That’s why Polyester, I knew it had to be R-rated; I knew it had to be about normal people. Then Hairspray, then Cry-Baby was just, you know, I’d made a dance movie, so why not make a musical? And then, Serial Mom was about true crime. That was the most commercial movie. I had the most money to make that movie than any of ’em. Each one was personal, but at the same time I tried to make them as commercial as I possibly could.

Do you still want to make films?
I don’t care if I don’t make another one. I don’t know when I would. I’m busier than I’ve ever been in my whole life right now. I had this Fruitcake movie that I never made; there was gonna be animation. So, who knows? If I don’t, I am absolutely fine. I made 16 movies. It’s not like I haven’t spoken. Somebody said, “Why don’t you do Kickstarter?” I own three homes. What am I gonna go on Kickstarter, “Help me, I don’t have any money”? No, because today with independent film, they wanna give you a million bucks for a budget. I don’t wanna go backward. I’m not gonna be an anarchist filmmaker at 73. You can’t go back to asking people to work for nothing.

How would you describe what you’re attracted to in an actor?
A sense of humor. Even all the big stars that I’ve used, you have a “meeting” where they’re looking and thinking, Is this guy gonna ruin my career? And I’m thinking, Is she gonna survive two months in Baltimore with me? And if they use the word journey, I don’t hire them. That’s the whole thing.

Was there anything an actor was unwilling to do?
Well, Mink had the whole thing in Pink Flamingos, where I was gonna have her hair so red it caught on fire for real. She said, “Well, how are you gonna do that?” And I said, “We’ll light it and then throw a bucket of water on you.” She said, “No!” And I didn’t, and I look back … What was I thinking? I actually didn’t want to hurt her or anything. And then Cookie [Mueller] was supposed to smash a TV while it was on, and they said, “Well, no; it’ll blow up.”

Is that where the idea to light Melanie Griffith’s hair on fire in Cecil B. Demented came from?
Probably. The worst special effect. So bad. I shouldn’t have paid the company that did it, but this was before digital, you know. That is probably where it came from. It all comes from somewhere. Everything I ever wrote comes from something that you could tell me is based on some weird thing and something I know about.

When you cast Tab Hunter in Polyester, was part of the joke that he was known to be gay?
There was no joke in me hiring Tab Hunter. I would steer clear of that. Was part of the reason I collected him because of his image as a dreamboat Hollywood ’50s star, that we were parodying sort of a genre? Yes. You know, I knew probably that he was gay. I certainly didn’t know that he was a Republican, which he was until the day he died. He used to torture me with that. But there was no joke.

You’ve talked about enjoying two lives — the ritzy, society party life and then an underground, quasi-anarchist, punk scene. What did you like about both?
Well, because they were both extreme worlds, I could get along in both. It was the middle I always was terrified about.

Because they like to do things like go on mall walks and stuff. What would I do on a mall walk? I don’t even know what that is today. But I’ve seen it. I’ve seen people doing it and it’s very frightening to me. I was frightened when I went to Hudson Yards. It’s everything I came to New York to escape basically. It’s, like, a shopping mall. The whole thing is just like suburbia. In the middle of what used to be a great neighborhood for hookers. That to me is not progress, but I understand to most people it is. I’m not saying I don’t understand the other argument. It just doesn’t seem like New York to me.

Do you have a lot of young friends?
Yes. I do. The person I tripped with in the book is Mink and my other friend Frankie [Rice], who’s much, much younger. I can always go along with young people or old people. I always had youth spies, where I used to give ’em poppers when they tell you a new band. It’s a fair trade. You gotta have youth spies. Even after 30, you need a youth spy. You need ’em!

Young people always seem to come to me, too. Thank God because otherwise my audience would’ve dried up a long time ago. Half the people who come to my [shows], they weren’t even born when I made Pink Flamingos. Some weren’t even born when I made my last movie! Ha! So, you gotta keep replenishing the audience.

Can you tell me a story from one of the poppers parties that you used to throw?
Well, I’m not going to tell you who. I’ve seen Academy Award winners, A-list critics, all of ’em doing poppers in my house. And then it became like Mother! because the Boston Globe wrote [about] them and the entire town crashed it. And I never had it again. But I had it for maybe eight years. It was just funny because a lot of people had never done them. And one buddy drank one. They don’t even know how to take ’em right. It was a very low-rent drug for a high-class party, which made it kind of fun, just once a year. And it only lasts three minutes. And mostly just people were laughing. People weren’t having sex on it. We used to do poppers on the roller coaster at Coney Island, going up the hill, and in department stores. People would look at you like crazy when you’re like “Ahhhh just for three minutes. The sex stuff works, too, but it was more fun just to be out in public on poppers. People run from you because you look like you’re crazy laughing for no apparent reason and turning bright red.

Are you on social media?
No. I’m not on Facebook. I’m not on Instagram. I’m not interested in what you had for lunch. But I’m not against them. I work ten-hour days.

And you’re not on Twitter.
No. I’m not giving away for free all my jokes! What would I put in my books? I don’t get why anybody’s on there. That’s free material. I wouldn’t have anything left to write or talk about.

What do you feel your cultural legacy is?
Oh, that sounds a little grand. I always say this, but I made bad taste one percent more respectable.

I hope I have a legacy. I hope the day I die I’m not forgotten the next day. You don’t know. That’s why you work so hard, ‘cause you don’t want that to happen. No one in show business does. That’s why they’re the most insecure people in the entire world.

What do you think of Aperol Spritzes?
I don’t know what that is. Say it again?

Aperol Spritz.
I have no idea what that is. Tell me, what is it?

It’s a drink that has become very popular partially because of a campaign by Campari but mostly because of Instagram.
We live in different worlds.

Do you have a drink of choice?
On a school night, at dinner, a glass of wine. But on Friday night, I’ll have a Ketel One Martini straight up with an olive. It’s the closest thing you can get to LSD without drugs.

The Met Gala’s 2017 theme was Rei Kawakubo and her brand Comme des Garçons. Waters is a notable Comme head, and wrote a chapter about Kawakubo in his 2010 book, Role Models. Read this, if you must. The Toilet was a private club in the Meatpacking District to which you could apply for membership. Waters owns a framed copy of the application. The Mineshaft was another members-only BDSM sex club in the Meatpacking District that had an approved dress code that allowed fetish gear but prohibited suits and ties. Founded in 1961 by a group of 22 New York artists — including Jonas Mekas, Shirley Clarke, Stan Brakhage, and Andy Warhol — the Film-Makers’ Cooperative is one of the largest archives for experimental and avant-garde film work. It also distributed some of Waters’s early works like Mondo Trasho. Russ Meyer is a filmmaker best known for his sexploitation films, including Lorna, Mudhoney, and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, which Waters has called his Citizen Kane. Divine, born Harris Glenn Milstead, moved down the street from Waters during high school. Waters describes him as “an overweight, feminine nerd that got the shit beat of out him” who brought him into the gay world. Divine appeared in most of Waters’ films, starting with Roman Candles until his death after the premiere of Hairspray. Role Models includes a riveting chapter where he reports on outsider pornographers Bobby Garcia and David Hurles. Waters made his first film, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, in 1964 with an 8 mm camera he received for Christmas. The last feature film Waters made was the 2004 comedy A Dirty Shame starring Tracey Ullman as a raging sex addict. Charles Ludlam began the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in 1967 and would write and perform multiple avant-garde theater pieces (often in multiple roles, often in drag), most notably in The Mystery of Irma Vep. Russell Harvard, a deaf actor, played the Duke of Cornwall in the 2019 Broadway production of King Lear starring Glenda Jackson in the titular role. Earlier this year, Huppert starred in The Mother in a performance described as “a nightmare to remember.” Dreamlanders is the nickname given to Waters’s Baltimore cast and crew formed during his early years, including Divine, Mary Vivian Pearce, Mink Stole, David Lochary, Edith Massey, Cookie Mueller, Pat Moran, and many others. A “lovemap” is a term coined by the sexologist John Money that refers to the developmental template of an individual’s erotic desires. Simply put, it’s what you’re “into.” Fruitcake is a Christmas movie starring Johnny Knoxville and Parker Posey that was supposed to start filming in 2008, but has fallen through multiple times. In the final scene of Cecil B. Demented, Melanie Griffith’s character, Honey Whitlock, lights her hair on fire for a climax for an underground film she was kidnapped to star in. They did not actually light Melanie Griffith’s hair on fire. Tab Hunter was a Hollywood heartthrob, whose heyday happened when he was signed to Warner Bros. in the ’50s and also had a No. 1 single, “Young Love.” He later publicly came out in his 2005 autobiography, Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star, which was later turned into a documentary in 2015. It seems worth noting that the son in Polyester was an avid huffer and foot-stomper.
John Waters on Staying Youthful and Why Trump Ruined Camp