Interview: John Waters discusses his salacious career ahead of Glasgay! appearance
The Pope of Trash talks Divine, Pink Flamingos and hitchhiking across America
A paragon of the weird and wonderful, John Waters is heading to Scotland for Glasgay!. This veteran outsider tells Kaite Welsh why he yearns for those outlaw days of yore
For the past 50 years, John Waters has been shocking, horrifying and delighting audiences with his celebrated brand of bad taste. From defecating dogs, cult musicals and hitchhiking at 66 to sex addicts and a serial-killing Kathleen Turner, the man who was dubbed ‘the Pope of Trash’ has been pushing boundaries his whole life.
Now he's looking back on his salacious career and looking forward to championing the next generation of weirdos, activists and artists in a one-night only retrospective, This Filthy World Vol 2, as part of this year's Glasgay! festival. ‘It’s for crazy people that feel good about themselves,’ he says of his event, over the line from Baltimore. ‘I give you advice about fashion, about crime, about sex about voodoo, and about how to have a career in whatever it is that you want.’
So what advice would he give to today's emerging artists? Are there any taboos he hasn't broken, and what exactly was drag queen Divine eating in that scene from Pink Flamingos? ‘I just do what’s funny,’ he says of his more eyebrow-raising scenes. ‘I think I’ve held back ever since I made Pink Flamingos because I’d done it and I didn’t need to prove myself anymore. I’d made the filthiest gesture in the world, and I didn’t have to do it again. I don’t want to keep upstaging myself.’
His partnership with Divine (dubbed by People magazine as Drag Queen of the Century) whose larger-than-life attitude and legendary dress sense made him the inspiration for Ursula the Sea Witch in The Little Mermaid resulted in some of the best films of his career, and it's an artistic collaboration and personal friendship that has stayed with him.
This didn't stop Waters from writing one of the most infamous scenes in his back catalogue for Divine, where his character had to eat freshly-laid dog poo. ‘I’m not some kind of sadist, it was for anarchy, for art. We did it to startle people, to get their attention. It’s probably illegal now.’ For the record, getting the dog to perform on command was harder than for Waters to get the actor to eat it: ‘I had to follow him around all day with a camera!’
He might have started out on the fringes, but Waters is now undeniably part of the mainstream. His 1988 movie Hairspray was given new life on Broadway and as a 2007 remake, and he's witnessed the commodification of weird and wonderful as subcultures co-opted by the media and fashion industry. In fact, Waters isn't sure that there is such a thing as the outsider anymore. ‘The outsiders now are people who try too hard to be different but aren’t, people who try to be eccentric when they’re really quite square. I think society has changed so much that everyone wants to be an outsider when it used to be a dirty word. It’s much more radical to say that you’re an insider.’
Even the gay scene, once underground and taboo, has gone mainstream with gay marriage, corporate-sponsored Pride parades, and yes, culture festivals. ‘Gay culture has more rules than my parents had growing up. It’s getting so strangled, so politically correct. I yearn for the outlaw days.’ He confesses, only half-joking, that he’d like to make it harder to be gay: ‘there should be auditions and a gay passport. There are some people that should just go back in the closet.’
Aged 68, Waters is as fearless and groundbreaking as he was as an enfant terrible. In 2012, he hitchhiked across America with only his credit cards, phone and a GPS stick. ‘I’m interested in extreme situations, that’s why I hitchhiked. I’d like to see a return to people taking chances, taking risks.’ He may not be ready to step away from the spotlight, but who does he see as his cultural successors? ‘I think my torch is being carried by all young people that are still fucking with people and trying to get a reaction. You can see my influence, and often it’s a bad influence because people try to be gross and it’s not funny. I was always trying to be witty.’
He’s looking forward to being the agony aunt of the avant garde for Glasgow’s artists, weirdos and punks, but when it comes down to it, his philosophy is simple. ‘Ask for what you want from life. Don’t be afraid to hear “no”. When I was hitchhiking, I stood there with my thumb out and hundreds of cars went past. The only thing that was important is the driver that said “yes”.’
It’s hard not to be envious of that driver. The Pope of Trash, the king of bad taste, the world’s worst influence is someone worth stopping for. He cackles, part-witch, part-roué. ‘Somehow I’ve gotten away with it and you can too!’
This Filthy World Vol 2, O2 Academy, Glasgow, Fri 14 Nov.