What do you keep in your freezer? Vodka? Coffee? Maybe some ice cream. John Waters uses his to store poppers. Boxes and boxes of them. 'Would you like some?' he asks, striding over to the kitchen in his Manhattan pied-'-terre and retrieving a bottle of them, the way other people might offer guests a soda. 'I made a giant bottle of Rush for my last art show, and the owner of the poppers company sent me a lifetime supply,' he confesses. 'It's really embarrassing 'cause I forget when people go to get ice and they see, like, a case of poppers.' He emulates an unsuspecting house guest recoiling in horror. 'Oh, my God, he's a poppers pig!' This picturesque expression prompts another tale. 'My friend told me the worst story,' he says. 'He went home with somebody that really was a poppers pig, who came out of the bedroom with a mask on that was hooked to a bottle of poppers so that he could give blowjobs and breathe poppers at the same time!' Waters laughs. 'I'm afraid people think that's what I am when they look in the freezer and don't say anything.'
John Waters is a terrifically entertaining storyteller, delighted by human foibles, and one of the least misanthropic people you can hope to meet. In his new book, Role Models -- a series of digressions on people who inspire him -- he claims to have been an angry child, but it's hard to imagine anyone less angry these days. 'I always say it's really great to be mad when you're 20, but if you're 60 and mad you're an asshole,' he says. 'You can bitch about your parents until you're 30; after that, shut up.'
His own parents seem to have spent a good part of their lives abetting their freakish -- and freakishly talented -- son, even if they didn't approve of his antics. Waters's father, who died last year, even fronted the money for Pink Flamingos, thereby doing more than anyone to facilitate his son's lifelong war on taste. (He did, however, draw the line at watching it.) His mother played her part, too, shuttling her son to Martick's, a bar in downtown Baltimore where he would stand outside chatting to the delinquents and fruitcakes that would later populate his movies. 'No matter how nuts I was, my parents made me feel safe, and that -- psychologically -- is the only thing you can do for your kid,' says Waters, trying to pin down the distance that separates his brand of lunacy from a cult like the Manson Family, whose hideous, theatrical, and deadly spree grabbed his attention in the summer of 1969 and never quite let go. He was working at the Provincetown Bookshop at the time and remembers being astonished by the physical resemblance of Manson's gang to his own. Was this just a twisted through-the-wardrobe version of his own social circle?
The comparison is not as outlandish as it first appears, and has since been sharpened by Waters's friendship with Leslie Van Houten -- 'one of those notorious 'Manson girls' who shaved their heads, carved X's in their foreheads, and laughed, joked, and sang their way though the courthouse.' In a lengthy, compassionate chapter in Role Models, Waters makes a strong case for her parole, while offering a mea culpa for lampooning the Manson murders in his early movies 'without the slightest feeling for the victims' families or the lives of the brainwashed Manson killer kids.' That mea culpa includes Multiple Maniacs, which he made just before the murder trial, and Pink Flamingos, which he made right after. In Maniacs, Divine even taunts David Lochary's character, Mr. David, with the line, 'How about Sharon Tate? How about that? Had yourself a real ball that night, didn't you?' Pink Flamingos is dedicated to three of the Manson women.
The distinctions, of course, are greater than the parallels. Waters and his Dreamlanders -- the collective name by which his actors are known -- were fighting a cultural war, not a real one. They were angry, but they weren't deluded. Although he attributes his teenage angst to boredom ('That's why rock 'n' roll exploded and everyone went crazy -- it was an implosion of boredom'), Waters channeled it into comic mayhem. There was nothing comic about Manson. Only one of them could have given us the indelible image of Divine being raped by a giant lobster. Like that three-foot bottle of poppers or his art pieces, such as Hollywood Smile Train -- a photographic series of digitally altered celebrities, including Meryl Streep, Alfred Hitchcock, and Elizabeth Taylor, with harelips -- Waters likes to screw with our perceptions for fun.
'What freaked me out was that they [the Manson Family] freaked out the world doing the same things we were doing in my movies as a joke against hippies,' says Waters. 'So it became a weird thing.' But while the Manson Family was sequestered in their compound hatching their diabolical plan, the Dreamlanders honed their mischief on the streets of Baltimore and Provincetown. Waters first hitched to P-Town in the summer of 1965 with his then-girlfriend, Mona Montgomery, and hasn't missed a summer since. When he returned the following year, he brought Mary Vivian Pearce along for the ride, and before long most of his group had established a summer routine there. They shoplifted, took a lot of speed, and played canasta. Divine opened a short-lived thrift store. Cookie Mueller got engaged to a 78-year-old homosexual. For one summer most of them lived in a tree fort. While Charles Manson was dreaming of a race war and world domination, the Dreamlanders were handing out candy lipsticks on Commercial Street to promote Waters's movie Eat Your Makeup, in which models are kidnapped and forced to eat their makeup.
And here's one other distinction: Waters is not quick to judge. His movies may follow a similar structure, in which the disreputable take on the respectable, but they never sermonize, except to tell us to lighten up. His appreciation of Johnny Mathis, which opens Role Models, is a case in point. Visiting the crooner in West Hollywood, he spots a framed photo of Mathis and George H.W. Bush, as well as a copy of Nixon's Six Crises on a bookshelf. Instead of the easy road of condescension, Waters, who likes to say he was among the few who voted for Obama because he was a friend of Bill Ayers, reverses the scenario: How might Mathis respond on a visit to Waters's Baltimore home? What would he make of the crucifix cigarette lighter on the living room table, or the brass knuckles Waters keeps beside his bed -- 'just in case?' And how about that set of Obama nesting dolls? Mathis may count Nancy Reagan among his drop-in guests -- they apparently like to duet together -- but Waters has Patricia Hearst popping by to debate what hair color she should wear on the witness stand. 'It's the same thing, just different extremes,' he says.
This process of transference -- how would I feel in their shoes? -- is what makes Waters so empathetic and delightful to be around. And it's what drives his campaign for Leslie Van Houten. 'I am obsessed by redemption'by people who have done something once that society thinks is so terrible and how they deal with that and get better,' he says. 'If you tortured animals as a child and read The Catcher in the Rye too many times, I'm against you getting out of jail, but there are some -- few -- that I think can make it.'
And there's one other skill that Waters has mastered: getting everyone to like him. In Role Models, he admits that his goal in life is securing himself a crowded funeral; even his shrink once told him to 'stop trying to make me like you.' But the man just can't help himself. He's likable through and through, all the while refusing to condescend to the center. 'I've never done things just to be popular, because I couldn't,' he says. 'I learned that a long time ago. I travel in two worlds -- the high and the low. The middle is where I've run from all my life.'
At the same time, he is astonished by how much the middle has come to be more like him. 'Pink Flamingos shows on television uncut on the Sundance Channel,' he says. 'How can that be? Pink Flamingos! Uncut! Singing assholes! Blowjobs! I don't have that much to complain about. I think things are pretty good in many ways.' In the book he tells a story of sending DVDs of Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble to the troops in Iraq at the request of a major stationed there. He got a note back telling him that a screening of his movies was interrupted by a mortar attack. 'That was moving to me,' he says. 'I want to do a USO tour. I want Beth Ditto to be my Marilyn Monroe, and have Iggy Pop wrestle with Bin Laden look-alikes. I want to do the 'don't ask, don't tell, we're going to hell' tour. It would be great.'
A patriotic John Waters? What next? 'Listen,' he says. 'Liberals can get on my nerves, too, with no humor. I've spoken at GLAAD events; I've given the awards. At the same time, they were against Br'no. I'm one of the only people in the world who loved Br'no. I thought it was fucking hilarious. Lighten up! When I was young, gay people had wit.
That stubborn nonconformity -- 'I don't even fit in with my minorities' -- is partly what keeps Waters in Baltimore for much of the year (he spends his summers exclusively in Provincetown, his spiritual home). He finds the city less susceptible to trends. 'I love when people there say, 'Why did you get an apartment in New York?' It's the opposite of everywhere else. And in New York everything is faux. There are no real biker bars, there are no real scary bars. Young people want to be black kids, they want to be gangsters. They don't want to be bikers -- that's a Halloween costume.'
It's no surprise to hear that Waters has already identified the plot in Baltimore where he intends to be buried. It sits next to Divine's, with neighboring plots for all his friends. As for his love life, Waters is adamantly not advertising for one. 'I have some lovely regulars that I'm quite fond of, but I don't need another person in my life to make me feel complete,' he says. 'I have friends for that, many of whom I've known for 30 or 40 years. I don't want that in a partner. I want porn sex. That doesn't last for 40 years.'
Role Models is available May 25 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.