By Ashley Naftule; photos courtesy of Noisy Ghost PR, April 2020 issue.
“I can’t stand gay men who don’t like women,” John Waters says over the phone with uncharacteristic venom.
The Baltimore legend is as genial and wry as you’d expect. Some performers turn “off” when they’re not onstage, but the Waters riffing through the speaker on Dinah Shore and Twitter sounds exactly like the Waters you’d see onstage and on the silver screen. There are moments, though, where that smooth Uncle Beetlejuice veneer cracks a bit and something sharp and barbed slips out. And few things bring the sharp bits out of him faster than the subject of sticking-with-your-own-kind.
“I feel like I’ve crossed a line,” Waters says. “Which I love to do cause I’m against separatism. I think everybody should hang around together.”
In the words of the late Charlie Murphy: John Waters is a “habitual line-stepper.”
A director, writer, storyteller, comedian, artist, and actor, Waters has been pushing envelopes, buttons, and limits ever since he first started cutting short films in the late ‘60s with names like Hag in a Black Leather Jacket and Mondo Trasho with his leading lady/maniac-muse Divine. A charming raconteur, Waters seems to come most alive when he offends and rankles. That irrepressible desire children have to do what they’re told not to do — that impish gleam in the eye that shines at its brightest when you know you’re getting away with something — Waters has held onto that feeling over the course of a career that spans 56 years.
His latest act of line-stepping came via invitation from the folks who organize the Club Skirts Dinah Shore Weekend. Dubbed (by Waters) “The Lesbian Coachella,” The Dinah is a five-day weekend of music and festivities that caters to the lesbian community. Taking place in Palm Springs, California, it’s considered the largest annual lesbian event in the United States. And for the first time, The Dinah is booking a man to be one of their featured headliners.
“I’ve been with the lesbian community in Baltimore and Provincetown — I am a proud Lezbro,” Waters says about his affinity for the L in LGBTQ.
While Waters, who looks like a sun-dried version of Gomez Addams with his pencil mustache and Talcum-powder pale skin, seems to be an odd choice to headline a banging lesbian music festival in sunny Palm Springs, it’s far from the weirdest audiences he performed for as a traveling comic/storyteller.
“I’ve done my show in prisons,” Waters says with a laugh. “The prisoners would say to me, ‘you’re allowed to be in here telling us this?!’”
For Waters, talking in front of a new type of crowd is just continuing a tradition he’s been a proud member of for over half a century: one misfit vamping for the benefit of other misfits.
“I love to go into outlaw worlds that I’ve never been able to really explore,” Waters says. “When my movies first came out, they had an audience: It was bikers, it was criminals and crazy gay people and hippies. Radical left-wing people. They always come to see my movies.”
If you ever doubt the power of capitalism and pop culture to subsume everything that opposes it, consider John Waters’ venerable old timer status as America’s weird gay grandad. The man who got his start filming drag queens eating dogshit now has three of his films enshrined in the Criterion Collection, shelved next to arthouse classics by Fellini and Godard. Baltimore’s enfant terrible is now America’s beloved weird gay grandpa.
It’s a transition whose immense irony is not lost on Waters.
“I’m still doing the same thing, but the group of people who accept it just got bigger,” Waters says. “When I started, I didn’t see myself getting to the point where Hairspray is playing in every school in America — which is the best sneak attack I ever did in my life.”
As one of the guests of honor at this year’s Dinah Shore event, Waters won’t have to sneak on or off the stage. He’s the honored elder, whose trash vision quests of pink flamingos and monstrous women in trouble inspired generations of queer radicals. “I love to think up new ways to push you to the edge,” Waters says. “Humor that gets people to that edge but at the same time has the audience embrace you for it.”
This year’s Dinah Shore Weekend marks the event’s 30th anniversary. The queer women event will be jam-packed with concerts, comedy shows, pool parties, dance nights, and Waters’ Mr. Rogers-on-acid-and-poppers live show.
When asked if he had an appreciation for the festival’s namesake, Waters is effusive about the hopelessly square Shore. ““She was like the female Perry Como,” Waters says. “She was the most wholesome, goody-goody kind of TV host. I always liked her, but she was anything but edgy.”
One might wonder if it’s even possible for Waters to cross lines anymore. It’s not simply that so much that was once verboten and taboo is now commonplace (in the 21st, everyone and their mother eats ass!), it’s that our sensitivity to being poked by provocateurs like Waters has been heightened to. It’s hard to imagine the kind of reception Pink Flamingos would have gotten if it came out during the age of Twitter.
Unlike most aging comedians, Waters isn’t interested in denouncing political correctness. But he is quick to point out that prudery and tribalism exists even in outsider communities.
“There are so many splits within the gay community now about what is sexually allowed and what words can you say and everything,” Waters sighs. “Sometimes we have as many rules as my parents had these days.”
At the age of 73 years, Waters hasn’t lost his appreciation for the trashy, the strange, and the unappreciated. His work continues to be influential: try to imagine the existence of Adult Swim shows like the Tim & Eric show without Waters’ pioneering efforts as a D.I.Y. oddball. Hell, Jackass wouldn’t exist without Waters’ lunatic trailer park cinema sensibilities.
He’s a true American original — a countercultural icon who hasn’t lost his transgressive streak even as he’s become the welcoming face of an entire culture (a sea change you could see coming from a mile away from his cameo in The Simpsons as Homer’s new gay friend in the “Homer’s Phobia” episode).
While Waters has carved out a respectable niche for himself as a prolific writer and storyteller — like someone stuck David Sedaris, Spalding Gray, and a DVD of Grey Gardens in a blender and let it rip — he hasn’t directed a motion picture since 2004’s A Dirty Shame. While he’s had a chance to play a fair share of memorable roles in front of the camera — whether as a hapless victim in Seed of Chucky or being cast (perfectly) as P.T. Barnum-esque schlockmeister director William Castle in Feud: Bette and Joan — he hasn’t been behind one in a while.
Maybe it’d be redundant to put out another John Waters mondo movie in a world gone wild with Furries, Two Girls One Cup, and Pornhub. We’re living in the world where he made — we’re all his multiple maniacs now.