John Waters: A Bad Influence Picks His 'Role Models'

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John Waters darkens his mustache with an eyebrow pencil. "It's there," he says, "but it needs help, just like everything needs help that has some kind of style to it. It doesn't come naturally. It needs a little bit of help." Greg Gorman hide caption

itoggle caption Greg Gorman
John Waters

John Waters darkens his mustache with an eyebrow pencil. "It's there," he says, "but it needs help, just like everything needs help that has some kind of style to it. It doesn't come naturally. It needs a little bit of help."

Greg Gorman
Role Models
By John Waters
Hardcover, 320 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List price: $25
Read an Excerpt

John Waters describes himself as a "cult filmmaker whose core audience consists of minorities who can't even fit in with their own minorities." In a new memoir, Role Models, the director and writer of such films as Hairspray, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Cry-Baby profiles the many people — from singer Johnny Mathis to a stripper named Zorro — who have inspired him over the years, both in his personal life and in his transgressive cinematic career.

Waters says he has only written about people he has looked up to — even if they've had terrible things happen in their lives.

"That's why people tell me everything," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "On airplanes, strangers confide in me the most deepest, darkest secrets. And I think they think I'll understand. And I generally do understand. I've taught in prison; I've counseled people. ... I've been arrested; I've been to the psychiatrist. So I think you have to participate in whatever business you're trying to be involved in."

Waters says he purposefully surrounds himself with others whose personalities fit with his unique brand of perverse humor.

"I don't like rules of any kind," he says. "And I seek people who break rules with happiness — and not bringing pain to themselves."


Interview Highlights

On why he admires Johnny Mathis — 'the polar opposite of me'

Cover Detail: Role Models
Illustration by Eric Hanson

"Johnny Mathis is the opposite of me. He doesn't do any promotion, ever. Have you ever seen a picture of Johnny Mathis at a world premiere? At a party? He does no promotion whenever he has a big tour — which he does constantly still. I went to them. They're sold out. He doesn't try too hard at all. He tries not at all. ... I always have to think up new projects, go out on the road: I'm like a carnie, basically. Go sell the work. ... [He] is to me the type of mainstream that I'll never, ever be able to achieve. And everyone wants to have hits like that. And Johnny Mathis said to me, 'I always wanted to be a jazz singer.' So in a way, your opposite isn't what you believed him to be, too."

On not fitting in

"I had such strong interests so young that I didn't really care if anyone else was interested. I'm not saying I never had a moment of hassle in school or anything. But mostly, as long as I could read and have playtime and be by myself and have some friends, I was satisfied. ... When I was 12, I had a career in show business. I knew what I wanted to do. I was unhealthily interested in everything — the condemned movies, rock 'n' roll — everything that you weren't supposed to like. Somehow that didn't seem to bother me. And then I read Tennessee Williams. ... I learned that there was another world — bohemia, basically."

On gay marriage

"I understand wanting gay marriage. I would never vote for somebody who was against gay marriage. [But] I purposefully have no desire to imitate a rather corny tradition of heterosexuals to me. I would owe three alimonies. I basically think that it's more fun to go against the rules ... to make up your own rules. Sexual confusion is fun. 'Heteroflexibility' is something that really makes me laugh, that term. And kids today are like that; you don't have to be gay or straight. They don't care, really. And I like that. I think it's funny and more liberating in a way. It's sexual anarchy, which is exciting."

On his strong desire to be buried in the ground

"I love the idea of graveyards. I like people visiting. I used to go in graveyards when I was young and [drag performer] Divine would steal flowers for parties and I'd bring a couple beers. I love the atmosphere. I like 'the worms go in, the worms go out.' Maybe I believe in the Resurrection, the only thing I've been ever taught that sounds like a good idea. But then I panic about real estate prices and what are we supposed to wear, and are we nude?"

On the essential absurdity of sex

"Everyone's sex life is funny except your own. Every person's is, and yours never is. The lengths people go to — and the extremes and the conditions and the mental exercises and guilt and shame and happiness that everybody goes through — and what they'll do for sex is never-ending and mind-boggling and very interesting to me. And I don't think a lot of times people choose any of it."

Excerpt: 'Role Models'

Cover Detail: Role Models
Illustration by Eric Hanson
Role Models
By John Waters
Hardcover, 320 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List price: $25

johnny and me

I wish I were Johnny Mathis. So mainstream. So popular. So unironic, yet perfect. Effortlessly boyish at over seventy years old, with a voice that still makes all of America want to make out. Heavenly, warm. Yes, I'll say it out loud — wonderful, wonderful. I saw Johnny Mathis in real life once, but he didn't see me — the best way to glimpse a role model. I had just pulled into the parking lot of Tower Video, off Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, with my good friend the photog­rapher Greg Gorman. "Oh my God," said Greg, who is never impressed with celebrities, having shot them for billboards, movie posters, and album covers for thirty years, "don't look up, but Johnny Mathis just pulled in next to us." And there he was. In a sports car with the top down and a cashmere sweater tied around his shoulders. Good Lord. Johnny Mathis himself. The legend you never hear about, never see on the red carpet, never read about in gossip columns. Highly successful but nearly invisible. Smooth for ever and ever. As my favorite girl group of the sixties, the Shangri-Las, might have said about how I felt that day, "That's called impressed."

I never got over seeing Johnny Mathis in the parking lot. I'd secretly think about those thirty seconds at odd moments, like when the Acela train between Baltimore and New York would have to stop so inspectors could examine the corpses of suicide victims who threw themselves on the tracks. Or waiting in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles to renew my driver's license. Or sometimes right when I woke up — bam! — for no ap­parent reason, there he'd be: Johnny Mathis in that car with that sweater. Is it because Johnny Mathis is the polar opposite of me? A man whose Greatest Hits album was on the Billboard charts for 490 consecutive weeks. Versus me, a cult filmmaker whose core audience, no matter how much I've crossed over, consists of minorities who can't even fit in with their own minorities.

Do we secretly idolize our imagined opposites, yearning to become the role models for others we know we could never be for ourselves? When I taught filmmaking at a jail in Maryland in the 1980s, I always got my class to loosen up by doing improv and asking them to play "the exact opposite of yourself." If Freud described psychotherapy as "transforming hysterical misery into common unhappiness," I figured this might be a revealing way to rehabilitate. Bikers wound up playing girls, blacks chose characters with wealth and power, whites became docile maids or butlers, and child molesters became tough guys. But did I need my own prison counselor because I kept reliving that Johnny Mathis "opposite" moment? Why would the mere sight of a performer so far outside the standard boundaries of my hero worship launch me into such a blissful, rapturous obses­sion? At this point in my career, could my misplaced idolatry become a road map to ruin? Was I in danger of becoming a Johnny Mathis stalker? I figured I'd better try to meet him in a more legitimate way before I got in trouble.

It's not like I wanted to be Johnny Mathis as a kid. His music, however, did become the sound track for the end of my 1950s childhood innocence. Our thirteen-year-old babysitter, who lived across the street at the time, had a record hop, and because she wanted to borrow my 45 rpm records to play, she had to invite eleven-year-old me. Little did I imagine that the gathering would turn into a red-hot "necking" party! While her innocent parents (who were good friends of my mom and dad) were upstairs happily laying out refreshments, all the kids downstairs were grinding and French-kissing to Johnny Mathis's music, and I knew then that not only did I want to be a teenager — I wanted to be an exaggeration of a teenager.

But I had always felt nuts, not romantic. Too angry to be smooth. Too happily guilty to yearn for virtue. Before Johnny Mathis, Clarabell, the psychotic clown on The Howdy Doody Show, whose makeup later inspired Divine's, had been my role model. The man I saw in person in the early fifties at the height of Howdy Doody's success, when I was just a child and my par­ents somehow got me on the show. The scary freak I watched from the Peanut Gallery who never spoke but communicated his hostility by honking twin bicycle horns or by squirting you in the face from a seltzer bottle. The same TV character parents complained about for getting their children too "excited" before dinner. Excited? I was apoplectic. Especially every time Clara-bell got near Princess Summerfall Winterspring, the goody-goody but sexy Indian maiden nonpuppet star of the show. If only he could have burst out of his glorious "muteness" to say her name out loud — the best name ever! The only other name I wish were mine today (except for Lord or Lady Haw-Haw, which I can't use because they were Nazis). Matter of fact, readers of this book, if you see me on the street and call me Prince Summerfall Winter-spring in a nice tone of voice, I will probably respond.

I followed the careers of Clarabell and Princess Summerfall Winterspring forever, hoping that I, too, could someday have an extreme career in show business. I mourned the fact that I was unable (and uninvited) to attend the 1957 funeral of Judy Tyler (the actress who played Summerfall Winterspring) after her tragic death in a car accident right before the release of the El­vis movie she had costarred in, Jailhouse Rock. All "Doodyville" was there that day in Hartsdale, New York, and I bet Bob Keeshan was sobbing out loud. Yes, that's the real name of the first Clarabell the Clown, who went even further in television career lunacy and became Captain Kangaroo for thirty years after. Imagine his life, his schizophrenia. Am I Clarabell? Or Captain Kangaroo? Why are those children staring at me? Who am I? Claraboo? Captain Kangabell? God, what a life! What a career! Bob Keeshan, I wish I were you, too!

But would Johnny Mathis understand all this? Luckily we both were represented by the same talent agency, so I called Steve Rabineau, my film agent, and he called Johnny's people, who suggested I write a letter to Mr. Mathis explaining why I wanted to talk to him. Hmmmmmm . . . "explain." Explain what? A role model? Someone who has led a life even more explosive than mine, a person whose exaggerated fame or notori­ety has made him or her somehow smarter and more glamorous than I could ever be? A personality frozen in an unruly, blown-out-of-proportion position in society who earns my unmitigated respect for his or her other turbulent, ferocious will to survive frightening success or failure? Maybe Johnny Mathis could understand, but I'd better leave out the Princess Summerfall Winterspring part of my explanation. So I wrote a personal letter telling Mr. Mathis who I was (I still don't know if he had ever heard of me) and described the Tower Video parking lot imag­ery and how this book was an attempt to pay tribute to "amaz­ing people who have inspired me." I added that I was not coming to him with any agenda (sexual, racial, ageist, or political), and I really wasn't. My Johnny Mathis lunacy was way beyond that anyway, but I tried to sound . . . well, reasonable.

Then I was told to get in touch with his legal representation, which, naturally, scared me, but at least I had passed the first audition. The lawyer was lovely on the phone and just what I expected; old-school Hollywood, incredibly loyal and protective of Mr. Mathis's career and, rightfully, suspicious of me. I ex­plained my book idea as normally as I could and he asked if Mr. Mathis could approve what I wrote. I explained the journalistic mortal sin of his request and he said he'd get back to me. Lo and behold, a few days later an assistant to Mr. Mathis called to set up the meeting at 9:30 a.m. at Mr. Mathis's West Hollywood home. I felt like Prince Summerfall Winterspring. Until the night be­fore, when I got an e-mail casually mentioning that the lawyer would also be present. Great.

Hoping for the best anyway, and arriving on time at Mr. Mathis's lovely, unostentatious thirty-year home overlooking Los Angeles from the hills above Sunset Boulevard, I ring the bell. Here goes. "The King of Puke" meets "Mr. Wild Is the Wind." Op­posites attract? We'll just see. An Asian housekeeper who has clearly worked here for decades lets me in and leads me to a cozy corner off the living room, and there he is with a handsome smile and an outstretched hand to shake. And the lawyer. "What? Did you Google me?" I joke, and the lawyer is caught off guard by my question but then laughs and admits, "Yes." I set up my tape recorder and the goddamn thing doesn't work even though I had tested it that morning! I'm sweating, losing my cool. Mr. Mathis offers me his own recorder, but I give up and take notes. Johnny is called John by all his real friends, I begin to notice (I'm Johnny only to two people — my mother, who can never switch from my childhood name, and a certain friend in prison you'll meet in a later chapter). Mr. Mathis is dressed just as I had hoped — all in white: white shirt, unbuttoned three buttons to reveal hairless gym-bodied chest; white pants; white thick socks, no shoes. Just like Johnny Mathis should look, like he always has. Effortless. Twenty or seventy. Johnny Mathis is beyond fame itself — something I will never be.

We start off at the beginning — how he was "singing in white bars in the Tenderloin section of San Francisco" with his parents' permission, "doing great" right from the beginning and "feeling no racial prejudice." "Never?" I ask. "Not really," he says with understated charm. Amazingly, my own mother said to me after hearing I was going to meet him, "Johnny Mathis is black?" How could a beautiful black man who sang romantic love songs that white girls responded to not feel racism in the fifties? Maybe he's beyond race, too.

If Johnny Mathis has any regrets, it's that he listened to an early manager who advised him, "Don't mention jazz. There's no money in it." "I wanted to be Miles Davis," Johnny remem­bers. "Jazz legends. That's what I wanted to be. They were artists." He was "embarrassed around jazz people to be known for romantic music," "trivialized." When I mention that Johnny was a millionaire at twenty years old, he almost doesn't hear. "That had nothing to do with what I was about. I never wanted to be anything but a good singer."

God, who I wanted to be when I was six years old was Dag­mar, the 5'11" supposed dumb blonde I watched on early black­-and-white TV. Too young to stay up to see her on the show that came on at eleven p.m. and made her famous, Broadway Open House, hosted by Jerry Lester, I had to make do by catching her guest appearances on The Milton Berle Show. Predating Cher or Madonna, Dagmar was the first single-name bombshell, and I always knew she was smart. She hung out with Bob Hope and Joey Bishop when I was just an obsessive toddler in Lutherville, Maryland, and I daydreamed about her all day in grade school, hoping to become a caricature of myself the way she was. But for a child to form a fan club for his idol, he needs more than himself in the audience, and I could never find another kid who knew who she was. I finally met Dagmar herself, the older ver­sion, when I tracked her down in 1979. She was long retired and living as a guest on an amazingly plush horse farm in Southbury, Connecticut, and I tried to talk her into playing Divine's character's mother in Polyester. This great lady may have turned me down, but joked when she heard I'd come from Provincetown, Massachusetts, that beautiful beach town on the very tip of Cape Cod so popular with gay people: "Oh, yes, I was there; I was queen of the fairies." Would Johnny Mathis understand?

Of course he would. Like myself, Johnny realized some of his heroes "would be odd." He "loved" Liberace because "he used his money." I bring up another of my role models, the hy­pochondriac and germ-freak pianist Glenn Gould. "Oh, yes," Johnny recalls, "when I shook his hand he gasped, 'Are you trying to kill me?!' " He knew them all — every single deliriously original musician whose vocation seemed to be "going to extremes." "Johnnie Ray?" I dare mention, only hoping Mr. Mathis had met the white guy heartthrob singer who was deaf, hand­some, skinny, gay, and immensely popular for a short time right before rock and roll was invented. The sexy one who wore a giant hearing aid and was called "the first great white soul singer." The crooner Frank Sinatra hated, who cried, sobbed, and made emotional breakdowns part of his song delivery. The guy who survived two "morals charges," arrested once in a bar and once in a men's room, and later had an intense love affair with the married, famously chinless crime columnist Dorothy Kilgallen. "Oh, yes," Johnny Mathis easily responds. "I visited him when he was dying [of liver failure]." "The Twelfth of Never," I silently title this beautiful imaginary hospital pa­parazzi photograph in my mind before realizing, hell, no — the two of them together in this situation could only be "The Thir­teenth of Always."

Johnny Mathis's role model? "Lena Horne," he chuckles. "Some reviewer even said I stole every thing but her gown." I know what he means; I have been copying Margaret Hamilton my whole life, and I am proud to admit it. The Wicked Witch of the West, the jolie laide heroine of every bad little boy's and girl's dream of notoriety and style, whose twelve minutes of screen time in The Wizard of Oz can never be topped. And her outfit! The Wicked Witch inspired my lifetime obsession with wearing weirdly striped socks (Tim Burton does, too). My God, this great character actress even worked later with William Castle in 13 Ghosts, and appeared in Gunsmoke, The Addams Family, and The Paul Lynde Halloween Special! I never did get to meet Margaret Hamilton before she died, but she did send me a personally autographed Wicked Witch of the West photo, and the monogram "WWW" followed her signature. What an iconic monogram! Did her towels have "WWW" on them? Her sheets? If only I could have visited her at her summer house on a private island in Southport, off Boothbay Harbor, in Maine. So what if it didn't have electricity or phone service? More quality time with a real movie star!

I ask Johnny if he's a recluse, since I never see him at award ceremonies, parties, or nightclubs. "No, I'm not a recluse," he explains, "but I don't like social functions and I don't feel that newsworthy. It gets in the way." "Of what?" I wonder, remem­bering the art dealer Matthew Marks once saying to me, "You have the best kind of fame: only the people you'd want to rec­ognize you do." What does Johnny hate about celebrity? Free travel? Free clothes? Gift bags? I never mind. I fondly recall whispering to Jeanne Moreau, "More free food!" every time we had to attend black-tie dinners when we served together on the jury of the Cannes Film Festival in 1995. Johnny Mathis admits he does go to private events, and we both recall happily those wonderfully insane dinner party salons that the late Roddy McDowell used to give for the most bizarrely mixed guest list ever. "He included everybody," Johnny says, laughing, and boy, did he! I remember being lucky enough to be invited there and meeting George Axelrod, and how happy I was to gush to him in person about the brilliance of his screenplay and his direction of the movie Lord Love a Duck. Then I turned around and there was an elderly couple dressed in full fringed cowboy outfits with holsters and guns. "Oh, John," Roddy asked casually, "do you know Roy Rogers and Dale Evans?" "No," I stammered, almost speechless. How could I? I live in Baltimore!

Johnny Mathis understands a lot about me. I can tell. He's a gentleman who lives alone and he's from another era. "Who wants people to know every thing?" Johnny asks shyly. "A lot of life is putting things in perspective." How right he is! One thing I learned early was that if you're in any way famous, guaranteeing yourself a private life is very important for your mental health. Fans can't be friends; neither can the press. And even if certain critics have been supportive, there will always be a fu­ture project of yours they might not like, so palling around with reviewers can be awkward. The ultimate level of celebrity ac­complishment is convincing the press and public that they know every thing about your personal life without really revealing anything. Mr. Mathis only once responded to sexual preference questions from the press, in 1982, and he answered in a lovely way. His preference was "a way of life one's grown accustomed to." I had promised "no agenda" but I bring up this quote and compliment him on it, and he smiles and says, "It's a normal everyday part of my life."

I've always been pretty up-front about my sexuality (even though Mink Stole today says she didn't even know I was gay for a long time), but I understand Hollywood royalty's reticence about revealing anything personal, hetero or homo. Gus Van Sant and I always joke about the press saying we are "openly" gay. What's that supposed to mean? It sounds like we're arriv­ing at a premiere shrieking, "Hey, Mary! Got any Judy Garland records?" When I read about any celebrity baring his or her soul to a journalist, I just figure the star doesn't have anyone else to confide in. "As the public started to mature," Johnny explains unapologetically, "I had to wait until the rest of the world caught up to celebrities being human beings." His fans? "Some of them," he chuckles kindly, "think they are Mrs. Johnny Mathis."

What do I know about anyone's sexuality? I always thought, and still do, that Tom Cruise is straight. When John Travolta got cast as Edna in the Hollywood remake of my film and the Broadway musical Hairspray, one wrongheaded gay militant reporter, an army of one, actually protested that John Travolta was a Scientologist and that this "religion" tried to "cure" people of their gay sexual preference. Well, first, if John Travolta were in any way homophobic, he'd be dead after filming that movie. Dancing in drag, dealing with the demands of the almost exclusively gay creative team — he would have had a heart attack. Implying Travolta was gay seemed wrong to me — he had a lovely wife and children, and how does the journalist know whom he sleeps with? And what do I care about the cast's religious beliefs, as long as they don't try to proselytize? Travolta never mentioned Scientology to me. And when a friend included in his Christmas card the funniest line Hallmark could never come up with — "A generous donation has been made in your name to the Church of Scientology" — I didn't repeat the joke to John Travolta, either. Am I supposed to police the religions of everyone who is cast in future projects? Should I never consider Nicole Kidman (whom I love as an actress) because she's a Catholic? I mean, there's a religion where I can show you homophobic dogma, but I've never actually seen proof that Scientology says being gay is wrong. And even if Travolta did experiment sexually sometime in his life, what business is it of mine? Let's even say for the sake of argument that Scientology (even though the church denies this) does claim it can make gay people turn straight. If some­one is that miserable being gay, why would my team want them? It's not a numbers game! "Go on," I'd tell them, "let Scientology have you! Go back in the closet where you're happy — we don't want you anyway!"

As a kid, I'm not sure the term "closet" had been invented, and who knows if my other hero in entertainment at the time felt trapped? His name was Cyril Ritchard and he played Captain Hook in that Mary Martin-starring version of Peter Pan, first produced on Broadway and then filmed for television and broadcast in the fifties. If Margaret Hamilton was my showbiz "mother" in my ten-year-old mind, then Cyril Ritchard was definitely my "father." All I knew then was that I was a budding clotheshorse, and here was a character who knew how to dress — a real fashion plate! I didn't yet understand the word "fop," but I sure wanted to be one, even if I had to cut off one of my own hands to look this dashing. As an adult I rewatched Cyril's villainous performance and was immediately struck by the charac­ter's jeweled fingers, ruffled shirt, and tight pants. Captain Hook now was over the top in a way that seemed much closer to The Boys in the Band than Never-Never Land, but he was still my favorite hambone actor and no learned gaydar could ever take that away from me.

Then again, maybe I'm wrong about his sexual preference. Despite being labeled "queer as a coot" by Noel Coward, Cyril was, as described by associates, happily married to Madge Elliott for thirty-five years, and together they were glamorous stars of the popular stage, first in Australia and then in London. Cyril claimed they were "never separated" from the day they were married until she died of bone cancer in 1955, while he was playing Captain Hook on the Broadway stage. They sure seemed to love each other no matter what they did or didn't do in bed. Maybe they just didn't care for sex. It is messy. Or maybe they agreed with the writer Paul Bowles, who supposedly tried sex with a man and a woman and found both unappealing. Cyril remained a man of contradictions and theatrical affectations, a "devout" Catholic who loved his poodle, named Trim, and once commented, "My background may be common but I have spe­cialized in elegance." He's buried in Saint Mary's Cemetery in Ridgefield, Connecticut. I went there recently to pay my re­spects, and even though I was thrilled to see that his headstone actually says "Captain Hook," I hope mine doesn't end up read­ing "The Duke of Dirt."

Johnny Mathis is impossible to parody today; no one makes fun of him. No drag kings ever "do" Johnny Mathis. "I saw a kid on the Johnny Carson show once who did an impersonation of me," he vaguely remembers. Whenever they have John Wa­ters look-alike contests at the colleges where I appear, lesbians win! But what about his music? Am I serious when I say I really love it? Mr. Mathis invites me to his touring Christmas show, and I go when he plays Baltimore at the Lyric Opera House. I have a Christmas compilation album out that includes every­thing from the horrifying "Happy Birthday Jesus" by Little Cindy to the anticapitalist "Here Comes Fatty Clause (With His Sack of Shit)." I also tour every year or so with a spoken-word Christmas show and thought, gee, both Johnny Mathis and I have Christmas programs; what would happen if we switched tours and did each other's acts? Imagine his audience's surprise at me singing "O Holy Night," and picture the shock of my au­dience at seeing Johnny come out and talk about how Santa Claus could be erotic if you were a "chubby chaser." Johnny and I are like drag queens on Halloween: if it's Christmas, we'll be working!

Excerpted from Role Models by John Waters. Copyright 2010 by John Waters. Published June 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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