‘Filth elder’ John Waters explores his ‘Role Models.’

Georgia Voice: “Role Models” is a literary self-portrait, but after reading the section on gay and straight boyfriends in the “Outsider Porn” chapter and accidentally killing someone in the “Leslie” chapter, I wondered if you were surprised during the course of writing the book about what you found yourself to be revealing.

John Waters: Well…you’re right. I think you have to reveal something in a memoir. I don’t name my boyfriends’ names, they’re not famous people. I know one or two of them might not like being in the book.

I do have a private life and I also talk about in the book that when I see celebrities revealing every personal thing to a journalist, I always think they don’t have friends. And they don’t! [Laughs] That’s why they have to tell a journalist.

The same principle applies to telemarketing. The reason some people go for it is that some people’s phones never ever ring except for that call and they’re lonely. I do have friends that I confide in.

But at the same time, when I’m talking about something as serious as the Leslie Van Houten chapter—there are no jokes in that chapter—is that basically that is something that I never revealed for a long, long time. It just seems that when you’re reflecting on somebody else’s horror that they’re trying to get it over, it was the closest I had to that horrible experience. I didn’t tell it with any humor, certainly.


‘Role Model’
By John Waters
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
May 2010
320 pages

And the stuff about the boyfriends is true. I don’t necessarily fit in all gay culture either. My friends are straight, gay. I love young people because they don’t care anymore so much. It’s not isolated or ghettoized. I usually like the gay people that don’t fit in gay culture either, that go to hipster bars, so it’s easier shopping, really. It might be a straight bar, and there might be three gay people there, but they’d be the three gay people I’d like if I was in an all-gay bar [laughs].

I’m glad that you mentioned that, because I laughed out loud on numerous appropriate occasions in the book, but never more so than when you wrote about the joke you and Gus Van Sant make about the press calling you “openly gay.”

They always say that, “openly gay.” Once I was on the cover of The Advocate, “Openly gay director, John Waters.” But they never asked me! So my joke now with my staff when someone says “openly gay” is “how dare they presume I’m gay!”

I’m just kidding, of course. I’ve always said I was gay. But “openly gay,” Gus and I always say, “What does that mean?” I guess it means that we’ve said we’re gay and it’s no big deal. But to me, “openly gay” somehow sounds like you’re running into parties screaming, “got any Judy Garland records?” Like the worst cliché of what it could be.

I love Judy Garland; I don’t think that’s a bad cliché. I’m a fan of Judy Garland’s, even more so now. It’s a term that’s taken the place of flamboyant, which used to mean gay when they couldn’t say it in a mean way.

At the very beginning of the book, in the “Johnny and Me” chapter, you pose an interesting question idolizing “our imagined opposites, yearning to become the role models for others we knew we could never be for ourselves.” How do you respond to people who tell you that you are their role model?

They do a lot now, these days, and I’m very flattered. I joke that I’m a “filth elder.” I played the Coachella Festival recently and I really felt like a “filth elder.” It was packed with 20 year old kids. That is the ultimate compliment that I can have.

I’ve been doing this for almost 50 years, I started in ’64. These kids weren’t even alive when I made my later movies! So it’s really flattering to me that something I’m saying is appealing to them. I still am interested in what’s going on. I never think, “It was more fun when I made ‘Pink Flamingos.’”

It was different. I don’t look backwards. I try to find out what is the next thing a kid is doing to get on people’s nerves, which has always interested me.

Speaking of things coming around again, in the “Baltimore Heroes” chapter, you wrote about Burlesque queen Lady Zorro. What do you think of the current burlesque revival?

It’s good and I love it, but they don’t have butch lesbian ones that are strippers. That come out nude and snarl, “What the fuck you lookin’ at?” I think they should. Just come out and say, “Yeah, what do you think you’re lookin’ at, you pig?” I’m still friends with Zorro’s daughter and she liked the book. And Playboy is printing that chapter, which I find so hilarious in a way, Zorro is finally in Playboy! [laughs].

Have you started your next film project?

No. I’m trying to get this one “Fruitcake” made. Right now, to be honest, in America I don’t know anyone who can get an independent five million dollar film made. Independent film is the worst it’s ever been since I started and it’s probably the best for Hollywood big budget movies since I started.


Top photo: Though John Waters has been associated with queer-inclusive independent film since its early days, he says he doesn’t necessarily fit in all gay culture. (publicity photo)