Cult Icon John Waters On Breaking Taboos And Embracing Villains The filmmaker behind Hairspray and Pink Flamingos made his name setting new lows in bad taste. The Baltimore Museum of Art now has a retrospective of his work. Originally broadcast 2004 and 2010.
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Cult Icon John Waters On Breaking Taboos And Embracing Villains

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Cult Icon John Waters On Breaking Taboos And Embracing Villains

Cult Icon John Waters On Breaking Taboos And Embracing Villains

Cult Icon John Waters On Breaking Taboos And Embracing Villains

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/656571888/656953960" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The filmmaker behind Hairspray and Pink Flamingos made his name setting new lows in bad taste. The Baltimore Museum of Art now has a retrospective of his work. Originally broadcast 2004 and 2010.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TINGLER")

VINCENT PRICE: (As Dr. Warren Chapin) Ladies and gentlemen, please do not panic, but scream - scream for your lives. The tingler is lose...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, yelling).

PRICE: (As Dr. Warren Chapin) ...In this theater.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, yelling) It's on me.

PRICE: (As Dr. Warren Chapin) And if you don't scream, it may kill you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, yelling).

PRICE: (As Dr. Warren Chapin) Scream, scream.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, yelling).

PRICE: (As Dr. Warren Chapin) Keep screaming. Scream for your lives.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, yelling).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, yelling) It's here. It's over here. Help, help, help.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, yelling) My God, it's under my seat. Oh, my God, it's under my seat.

PRICE: (As Dr. Warren Chapin) Ladies and gentlemen, the tingler has been paralyzed by your screaming. There is no more danger. We will now resume the showing of the movie.

BIANCULLI: That's Vincent Price in a scene from "The Tingler" directed by William Castle. Castle's low-budget shock and hype made him a hero to today's guest, screenwriter and director John Waters. Waters started his own filmmaking career setting new lows in bad taste, most notably with the cult classic "Pink Flamingos." His film "Hairspray," which was adapted into a hit Broadway musical, was an affectionate and funny homage to the teen dance shows he used to watch in Baltimore.

Last Sunday, the Baltimore Museum of Art opened a major exhibit devoted to John Waters running through January 6. It's called "John Waters: Indecent Exposure" and is the first major retrospective of his visual art in his hometown of Baltimore. A companion catalog has been published compiling not only visuals from the works and photos of John Waters but also from other works that inspired him.

John Waters has been a frequent guest on FRESH AIR. In 2004, Terry interviewed him about an exhibition at New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art. It was a photographic series Waters began in the early '90s. Many of the photographs were tributes to his favorite films, which, not surprisingly, include many old exploitation films and tawdry melodramas. Most of the pieces Terry asked John Waters about in 2004 also were included in the new exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art, including a photographic sequence from the movie "Peyton Place." He told Terry why that film means so much to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JOHN WATERS: "Peyton Place" was the first dirty book I ever read. I love Grace Metalious. She's the author...

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: How dirty was it? I've never read the book.

WATERS: The V of Betty's crotch...

GROSS: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

WATERS: ...About that dirty. But in 1956, that was pretty dirty. And oh, it's a great - you ought to read "Peyton Place."

GROSS: You think?

WATERS: There's many sequels to it. It opens up, Indian summer is like a woman. That's the first line.

(LAUGHTER)

WATERS: But Grace Metalious, you know, has that famous author shot of her in the lumber jacket and the dirty ponytail sitting at the typewriter. And I was so obsessed I even went to her grave. I went in her house where she wrote the book. But "Peyton Place" itself - when the book came out, I remember the ad campaign is, how did they make a movie out of "Peyton Place" or something like that. But whenever they got to a sexual scene, they would cut to a cutaway shot of symbolism. Like, if someone was frigid, they'd have a frozen lake. Or if somebody was getting turned on, they'd show a blossom in spring.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: So it was all corny nature shots, and it looks like bad National Geographic shots. But actually, it's dirty shots. It's what they couldn't show then. So I tried to concentrate on what was thought of as sexy then and to show today how ludicrous but maybe even sexier if you don't see it. So we're - because we're so used to seeing everything today.

GROSS: When you were growing up and you started to watch films passionately, who were your first favorite movie stars?

WATERS: My first favorite movie stars - I guess Elvis Presley. You know, I liked directors when I was young. I liked William Castle. I liked Kroger Babb, the one that they told us we'd go to hell if we saw his movies...

GROSS: Who's that?

WATERS: ...Where he did "Mom And Dad." He showed the birth of a baby for the first time. And he was a carny. He later even made a movie called "One Too Many" that he only showed at AA meetings, which I really like.

(LAUGHTER)

WATERS: That's a new kind of exploitation that I'm all for. I'm a carny, too, basically.

GROSS: What are the movies that you used to watch over and over again as a kid on TV or going to the movies time and time again to see it?

WATERS: Yes, certainly "The Tingler" - all the William Castle movies. And I did a piece in the show that shows William Castle's face - no, it shows William Castle's face and then it has Alfred Hitchcock next to him because everybody accused William Castle, who was king of the gimmicks in his films, of ripping off Alfred Hitchcock. But in a way, it was the other way around because Alfred Hitchcock - people forget when "Psycho" came out, the big ad campaign was that no one can enter the theater once the feature has begun, which was unheard of at the time. You forget.

People used to go to the movies at any time and just stay through to the next part of a film. They never cleared the theater. So there was a clock in every box office so you'd know. And it was a big, big gimmick. So in a way, he was king of the gimmicks also, and he copied William Castle who in a way did it first.

So I've always in a way liked the second-rate better. I mean, William Castle I liked more than Alfred Hitchcock. Jayne Mansfield I liked more than Marilyn Monroe. Sal Mineo - I liked him really a lot, though. I didn't feel he was inferior, but he was maybe - I liked Sal Mineo even more than James Dean. I always liked the wrong person. I always rooted for the wrong person. And I always thought that the people that other people thought were ugly were better looking. That's always been my life, and my career has kind of been based on that.

GROSS: I know you really like the carny pitch for a movie like the William Castle come on. But were there movies...

WATERS: Right.

GROSS: ...That you felt really cheated by because they promised, like, sin and sex and sleaze and they didn't deliver?

WATERS: I never feel cheated when I go to the movies. Even if I hate it, it's an experience. It's a cinematic experience. And that's why I started taking these pictures. There's no such thing as a bad movie if you go to a movie watching detail only. If you really hate the movie, just look at the lamps in it and pretend the movie is about lamps. And...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: And then never is it boring. It's always exciting, and it's always surprising. You can even see continuity mistakes within the lamps.

GROSS: You also have a series called "Inga" that are - this is stills from a Swedish, quote, "art film."

WATERS: Well, art film - art meant dirty when I was young. And that's the way it should stay. "Inga" was one about Sweden - you know, the burden in movies when they first came out in Baltimore were sold as sex films because they had a little bit of nudity in them. And Sweden became a code word for dirty. It's still - the dirty bookshop in Baltimore is called the Sweden Bookshop. It...

(LAUGHTER)

WATERS: I'm not making this up. So I love the idea - I tried to put "Inga" in, but I just showed the back of somebody. I showed no nudity. I showed the one shot in a sex film that you would never reproduce, that would never become a still. It was the sexy girl walking away from you out of focus, a shot that no one would ever produce. All the stills in this show are ones that would never be produced. I did a whole series called "Marks" where I just took photographs of the floor when I was making my movie "Pecker" of the tape marks that the crew puts down that the actors have to hit to stay in focus. And that's the only thing in the shot. Everything that would be in a movie is gone - the actors, the costumes, the props. And all that's left is the one thing you can't show in a movie still.

GROSS: Since a few of the shots in your book allude to, you know, erotic movies or porn movies, I'm wondering how you discovered pornography as a kid.

WATERS: Gee, how did I discover porn as a kid? "Peyton Place" was the first dirty book I had ever read, and I had heard about it certainly. "Mandingo" was another one. And that's, like, kind of a great movie. And Playboy - I mean, Playboy was the first thing that you could ever really see. Now, gay porn was a very, very different thing. There was a store called Sherman’s downtown that had those magazines like Vim and Vigour. And they were supposedly muscleman magazines. But it was kind of a coded thing. It was the first gay magazine that I ever saw.

GROSS: Did your father have pornographic books or men's magazines around that you could sneak peeks at?

WATERS: No, he didn't. But he did have "Peyton Place," and I did read his copy of "Peyton Place." Everyone had "Peyton Place." My grandfather had "Peyton Place." "Peyton Place" was the biggest No. 1 bestseller for weeks and weeks and weeks. And it led to Jackie Susann. It led to Jackie Collins. It led to that entire genre of work. But she did it first, and she did it best. And she had such great titles. Another one of her books was "The Tight White Collar" about a priest. That's such a good title.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: But she didn't handle success so well. I mean, she divorced her husband. She moved to the Plaza Hotel. And she drank too much and died basically. So that's not the best success story. But the book was so famous that when I went back to New Hampshire where she wrote the book, they still talk mean about her there (laughter) in the town. And the library only had one tattered copy, but I did go to her grave. And Grace has been a great heroine of mine.

GROSS: When you started finding pornography - straight pornography - what was it like reading or seeing photos that were fetishizing women's bodies when women's bodies weren't what it was about for you?

WATERS: Well, when I looked at those pictures, I always looked at it in a way to see how far it could go - the same way I went to heterosexual sexploitation movies all the time that had no male nudity, to see how far it could go. I was interested in how the taboos would fall. How it started with - nudist camp movies were the first things I saw. And you would see bare breasts on women and sometimes asses. But once in a while, a male ass. But they had to be playing volleyball.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: So, you know, that was not so erotic to me.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: But I've never had a night where I'm not horny. Let's put it that way.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: How did you get to see the nudist camp movies? And these were movies - ostensibly, they're supposed to be documentaries about healthy alternative lifestyles and so on.

WATERS: Yes.

GROSS: But they were really about the nudity. Where did they play? Where did you get to see them?

WATERS: I can tell you right where - one of my favorite theaters, the Rex movie theater in Baltimore, which is now a church. And when I was young, it started out, and I saw "The Wizard Of Oz" there. But it later became a nudie movie theater where I not only saw nudist camp movies. I saw the early Russ Meyer movies. I saw the "Ghoulies" and the roughies. And it was one man who owned it who fought the censorship board. We had the Maryland Censorship Board. And censorship has always been something I've fought. So I've always dealt with censorship. So the Rex Theatre was where I got a lot of my film education in Baltimore.

BIANCULLI: John Waters speaking to Terry Gross in 2004. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JERRY GRANELLI'S "AIN'T THAT A SHAME")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2004 interview with filmmaker John Waters. The Baltimore Museum of Art in his hometown has just launched a three-month retrospective exhibition of his visual art. It's called John Waters: Indecent Exposure and runs through January 6.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Did you ever feel guilty for your tastes that were about violating all the standards of decency?

WATERS: No. I never felt guilty. I always knew - I've told the story before, but when I was young, I heard my parents talking about me. You know how you listen at the top of the steps. And my mom said, he's just an odd duck. And I thought, well, that's it, you know? So I didn't really ever care that the other kids weren't interested in what I was in because as long - I had a very rich fantasy life. And my parents allowed that. I had a little stage even as a kid. I - my parents brought me a reel-to-reel tape recorder so I could tape songs. I was the first downloader ever because I...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: ...With a reel-to-reel tape recorder taped songs off the radio. But then - so I could sing them all and lip sync them basically. So I always - I was a puppeteer as a kid. I had a job. I had a career when I was 12 years old as a puppeteer. So I always had an outlet for this that was encouraged even though the work I was doing was not exactly the work that they wished I was doing. But I guess they figured it was this or nothing, maybe, or prison (laughter).

But they were very supportive, which was very encouraging. And I always say that if you've got a kid that doesn't fit in and is rebelling in any way, encourage it. If your daughter comes home and she's just had her entire face tattooed, what can you do? Maybe she'll open a tattoo parlor that will do well. That's all you can do. You've got to deal with what you've got.

GROSS: Since you didn't feel guilty about watching things and being obsessively interesting - interested in things that weren't supposed to be healthy, did you go the other direction and figure, well, I might as well play it up to the hilt and, you know, take on the pose of the pervert?

WATERS: Oh, I never thought of it that way. I took on - I had to create a persona for myself in the beginning when we made these movies because I didn't have any advertising. No one knew who I was. We had to think of a way to publicize the movies. And Divine and I did that sort of as a - (laughter) I was the director, and he was the insane movie star. And certainly I dressed weirdly, but it was always confusing. I never - my audience in the beginning was never gay or straight. It was gay people that didn't like other gay people.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: It was straight (laughter) - it was hippies that didn't like hippies. It was always the outsider of another outsider group. That's what my audience began with. And certainly I encouraged that. But it seemed to work because, yes, in the beginning, underground movies when I made them - they were made in a way to offend the very people who would come there in a humorous way, though, always.

By doing the whole Kennedy assassination, which we did - and Divine plays Jackie Kennedy - and was shot in 1965, and it came out in '66. Believe me. That was - didn't go over very well at the time. But at the same time, it was a liberal taboo. I mean, I liked Kennedy. I loved Jacqueline Kennedy - or Jacqueleen (ph) Kennedy is how she pronounced it. So I was always making fun of things that I really, really liked and respected.

GROSS: Why don't you describe what you did in your version of the Kennedy assassination with Divine in the role of Jackie Kennedy?

WATERS: Well, this was in a movie called "Eat Your Makeup," and it's about people that kidnap models and force them to eat their makeup and model themselves to death. And Divine was not the star of it. He was a supporting player in it. And there's a scene where Divine is in drag - just weird drag but with no wig on because we were trying to even offend I guess drag queens at the time by not taking it seriously. And he starts looking through all these Jacqueline Kennedy magazines, which there were many of at the time - fan magazines. And he starts to imagine himself as Jacqueline Kennedy in the Kennedy assassination.

And we have the whole thing, the cavalcade - I mean, a pitiful version. But we have the chauffeur. We have all the people that were in the car. We have Secret Service agents. And Divine is waving to the crowds. There are no crowds. It was filmed on my parents' street in Lutherville, Md. - Morris Ave (laughter). And then it is scored to a classical music where there's one note that is the gunshot. And then Divine crawls over the trunk of the car with the blood and everything. And it's quite graphic.

But it was filmed so primitively - that's a nice way to say badly - black and white, 16-millimeter, grainy, overexposed - that when I took pictures of it 25, 30 years later, it began to look like the real Zapruder film, one of the most famous 8-millimeter movies ever. So - and it - I did a photo piece based on that - pictures of something I did a long time ago. And it goes around the wall, around a corner of the wall because I always joke that I'm a carney. Well, I believe in the art world that the frame is the height. The frame is the advertising campaign. So to me, it was too big for one wall.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: And it has to go around the wall.

GROSS: And for any of our listeners who aren't familiar with Divine, who in this film that you're referring to played Jackie Kennedy - Divine was, you know, a very heavy man who usually played a woman in your movies and patterned himself in some of those roles on Elizabeth...

WATERS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Taylor. And what did you think of real drag queens at the time?

WATERS: Well, they were square at the time. You know, I think Divine helped make drag queens a lot hipper. They all wanted to be Bes Myerson.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: Um, so they were really square. They weren't hip ever. Now all drag queens are hip. I mean, you see them at Wigstock, and they're all really funny. And they have a sense of humor, and they have funny names and everything. But then they were very, very serious. I remember in Philadelphia there's a great movie called "The Queen" about a drag beauty contest in Philadelphia - I know where you live. And Harlow was the winner - a very, very famous drag queen. But we used Elizabeth Coffee (ph), who was at the time much more ludicrous and much more funny and had a sense of humor about it and used being a drag queen as being a comedy tear or riff, which I think was much more useful in film than just a man trying to be a pretty woman.

GROSS: You know, early in your career, you said that your work is really about the sadness normal people feel because they're not involved in showbusiness.

(LAUGHTER)

WATERS: Somebody said that was the snottiest thing I've ever said. I didn't mean it to be snotty. But I believe that - that most everybody secretly imagines himself in show business. And every day on their way to work, they're a little bit depressed because they're not. People are sad they're not famous in America.

GROSS: (Laugher) Well, I guess you really needed to be famous.

WATERS: Well, I certainly can't complain about it. I hate to hear people that are in show business that complain about any of that kind of thing. Well, what on earth did you pick that field to go in for if you didn't want people to recognize you? I've always said that show business is filled with the most insecure people of all - that we base a life on having to get approval of strangers from everything we do, over and over and over on each project.

GROSS: You know, in your book, there's lots of stills of movies and lots of stills from movies that were transgressive in their time or, you know, violating some taboo in some small way. You also have to...

WATERS: Or failed.

GROSS: Or failed.

WATERS: Just failed.

GROSS: Yeah, but you also have a couple of photos of Clarabell, the Clown from "Howdy Doody" - not known as...

WATERS: Most.

GROSS: It's the most - but OK, next to...

WATERS: Clarabell.

GROSS: Yes.

WATERS: He was psychotic. Look at him. He was the first thing - and I was on "The Howdy Doody Show." My parents took me. I was on the peanut gallery at NBC studios. Clarabell was a psychotic clown who never spoke, who honked the horn and shot you in the face with seltzer water. And, you know, Captain Kangaroo and Clarabell were the same person. Imagine that life. I think Clarabell was frightening in the best sense of the word. It was the first psychotic person I remember from my childhood - his character.

GROSS: Did Bob Keeshan play Clarabell?

WATERS: Yes.

GROSS: If I knew that, I'd forgotten it.

WATERS: There was a couple Claribells. Yes, he was the first Claribell.

GROSS: So was that your first brush with real show business - being in the peanut gallery of "The Howdy Doody Show"?

WATERS: Yeah. And I saw it was fake. It was all a lie. And rather than be a disillusioned child, I was in on the secret. And I wanted to stay in on it.

GROSS: So you did puppet shows as a kid.

WATERS: Yeah, for a long time...

GROSS: What kind of characters?

WATERS: ...Or hand puppets. And I did Cinderella and then later "Punch And Judy." But at the end, I would come out from behind the stage, which is like breaking the third wall of puppetry and say to the kids, you know, stick out your hand, and the dragon puppet will bite it for good luck. Three-Fourths of the kids cheered, and they loved it and would go crazy. The other - the rest of them had nervous breakdowns and started sobbing. And this is basically what I still do.

BIANCULLI: John Waters speaking to Terry Gross in 2004. After a break, we'll listen to another conversation with Waters about his book "Role Models." And I'll review "The Romanoffs," the first TV series from Matt Weiner since he created "Mad Men." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR. Here's music featured in the John Waters film "Polyester" performed by the Ray Bryant Combo.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAY BRYANT COMBO SONG, "THE MADISON TIME, PART 1")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross, back with another of Terry's interviews with John Waters. This was in 2010 when Waters had just written a book called "Role Models" about the people who have inspired him. The sources of his inspirations also are at the center of a new retrospective of his visual art presented in his hometown by the Baltimore Museum of Art. That exhibition called "John Waters: Indecent Exposure" opened last Sunday and runs through January 6. In his book "Role Models," John Waters named some of the people who had inspired him and explained why. Some, like Tennessee Williams, weren't that surprising. But others were - like one of the female former followers of Charles Manson or like popular '50s singing star Johnny Mathis.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANCES ARE")

JOHNNY MATHIS: Chances are because I wear a silly grin the moment you come into view, chances are you think that I'm in love with you. Just because my composure....

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: John Waters, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's really great to have you here.

WATERS: Well, thank you for having me again.

GROSS: So I'm going to start by asking you to read from the first chapter of "Role Models." And this chapter is about Johnny Mathis, who was shockingly one of your role models. So why don't you read an excerpt of that for us?

WATERS: (Reading) I wish I were Johnny Mathis - so mainstream, so popular, so unironic yet perfect, effortlessly boyish at over 70 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. 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?

GROSS: That's John Waters reading from his new book "Role Models." I was shocked to see that Johnny Mathis (laughter) was like the lead chapter out of the book.

WATERS: He probably was too (laughter).

GROSS: Well, I mean, he's - as a singer, he's such like a romantic. And you're so not - in your art. I can't speak about your private life. So what is the attraction to him?

WATERS: Well, because Johnny Mathis is the opposite of me - because Johnny Mathis to me is the kind of mainstream that I will never ever be able to have. And everybody wants to have hits like that. But at the same time, Johnny Mathis said to me, I always wanted to be a jazz singer. So in a way, your opposite is sometimes isn't exactly what you believe him to be too. So I didn't know Johnny Mathis. And to get to meet him was not easy because I'm sure they googled me, and I'd be nervous too.

(LAUGHTER)

WATERS: He was lovely though when I went to his house and everything.

GROSS: So I always assumed that the reason why Johnny Mathis didn't do a lot of interviews was because he was in the closet and didn't want to have to speak about that.

WATERS: Well, I wrote to him saying that I was not coming to him with any agenda - sexist, moral, racial, anything. And I didn't. And I didn't. And I never asked him those questions. I don't really think - obviously if he wanted to talk about any of his personal life, he did. He just said, some of my fans think they're Mrs. Johnny Mathis, you know. And I know what he meant. What does he have to share his public life with? I'm not always for that. You know, I get weary of reading these people that tell every personal thing to reporters they just met that day. And that's when I realized they don't have friends. That's what friends are for, not reporters.

GROSS: (Laughter) So you mentioned Tennessee Williams. He's a chapter in your book "Role Models." And I'm going to ask you to read an excerpt of your chapter on Tennessee Williams.

WATERS: This one is called - OK, The Kindness Of Strangers.

GROSS: Let me just say this is John Waters, who is my guest. His new book is called "Role Models." And each chapter is about somebody else who, in one way or another, was a role model or an inspiration for him. So this is Tennessee Williams.

WATERS: (Reading) Years later, Tennessee Williams saved my life. The first time I went to a gay bar, I was 17 years old. It was called The Hut, and it was in Washington, D.C. Some referred to it as The Chicken Hut. And it was filled with early 1960s gay men in fluffy sweaters, who cruised one another by calling table to table on phones provided by the bar. I may be queer, but I ain't this I remember thinking.

Still, reading everything Tennessee Williams wrote, I knew he would understand my dilemma. Tennessee never seemed to fit the gay stereotype - even then. And sexual ambiguity and turmoil were always made appealing and exciting in his work. My type doesn't know who I am, he stated according to legend. And even if the sex lives of his characters weren't always healthy, they certainly seemed hearty. Tennessee Williams wasn't a gay cliche, so I had the confidence to try to not be one myself. Gay was not enough. It was a good start however.

GROSS: So he gave you confidence to be gay but not fit a stereotype of gay. What were some of the other...

WATERS: He gave me the confidence to be a beatnik really - to be a gay beatnik or to - not even - to be a beatnik who was gay, that's very different. You went into a field of all different kinds of rebels. And their sexuality was always still with my friends. It doesn't matter if they're gay or straight. If I'm friendly with somebody, that has literally no interest to me whether I like the person or not.

And I'm always amazed by people that say, oh, you should go to this agent. He has all gay people. Well, why would I go with him? That's like saying he has all black people. Are they good? Are they bad? I mean, that's what counts. So I always liked the gay people that had trouble even fitting in the gay stereotype because I don't like rules of any kind. And I seek people that break them with happiness and not bringing pain to themselves.

GROSS: So how have you changed in terms of what you want to do with your fame and with people's interest in your life because in some ways you've turned yourself into your art, you know, because you do shows...

WATERS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...One-man shows. You've written more personally, you know, over the years. And people are dying to hear about you.

WATERS: Well, I don't know. I use my own personality to find out about others. My personality is why probably Johnny Mathis let me in the house or why the outsider pornographers I let in the house let me in and trusted me. And I think I've only written about people that I look up to that have - even if they've had terrible things happen in their life because they've had a more extreme life than I've ever had. And I respect people. I as a writer everyday think, what would it be like to be that person? And if you're a journalist or a writer, you get to be that person. Wouldn't everybody like to barge in people's houses and ask them personal questions? I don't get why everybody doesn't want to do that.

But when you're writing a book, you're allowed to do that. That's acceptable. And that's why people tell me everything. On airplanes, strangers confide to me the most deepest, darkest secrets. And I think because they think I will understand. And I generally do understand. I've taught in prison. I've counseled people. I actually would be a good defense lawyer. I would be a good counselor. I would be a good shrink actually. And I believe in all those things. I've been arrested. I've been to the psychiatrist. So I think you have to participate in whatever business it in - you are trying to be involved in.

GROSS: So getting back to Tennessee Williams, you've read all of his books. And you've read all of lots of people's books. You collect books. You have over 8,400 books all cataloged.

WATERS: Well, I like to read books. I don't collect books. Sometimes people say they collect books, and they don't read them.

GROSS: Right, yes.

WATERS: I like to read. People always say to me, how can you read so much? And I say easy. You don't have a boyfriend or girlfriend. And you don't watch television. It's simple. You'll read all the time. And I'm on airplanes all the time. So it's - I love to read. It's how I relax. I don't find that a compulsion - cataloguing them is being - just being nice to my heirs.

GROSS: Do you have heirs?

WATERS: Of course. As much of a control freak as I am, you don't think I have my death plotted? I even know where I'm going to be buried. We all bought plots. A lot of my friends - it's like People's Temple graveyard.

GROSS: Well, I know - and you say that - is it the same cemetery that Divine is in?

WATERS: Yes.

GROSS: So why do you - if you don't mind me asking, why do you want to be buried?

WATERS: Because I love the idea of graveyards - I like people visiting. I used to go and drink in graveyards when I was young. And Divine would steal flowers for parties. We'd have a couple of beers. I liked the atmosphere. I liked the worms go in, and the worms go out. I believe - 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 we're (laughter) supposed to wear, and are we nude? So I go into that in the book, my paranoia about the recession.

GROSS: You're the only person I've ever asked that to who wants to be buried because, like, you really like graveyards (laughter).

WATERS: Oh, yeah. I do like graveyards. A lot of people like graveyards. They're peaceful. They're quiet. And we're all going to be buried, so all our friends can have one-stop shopping. You know, if you want to come, you can say, hi, man, to everybody around. And I like the idea of it. It's - and my mother - at first, I thought it would be strange to tell my own family because my mother said, I think it's a great idea because no - your sister's going to be buried where her husband is. You know, so I like the idea of...

GROSS: Did your parents feel bad that you're not getting buried next to them, that you're...?

WATERS: No, they didn't. I was afraid to tell them. They thought it was a fine idea. They totally understood. I went to the graveyard where he is buried. And they quoted me...

GROSS: Where Divine is buried?

WATERS: My father is buried.

GROSS: Oh, your father's buried. Yeah.

WATERS: And they quoted me prices that - I didn't know, I never bought a grave - but it sounded like a rip-off to me. And they showed me, like, tombs, like they thought Rudolph Valentino was coming out there they were going to sell to (laughter).

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: And I thought, wait a minute. So I went and asked the woman where Divine is because I liked the little graveyard. And she told me a price. I said, I'll take a double.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: I got, like, a lot of room around me too because the price was quite fair and nice.

GROSS: Two bathrooms (laughter).

WATERS: Yeah, it's like a two-bedroom.

GROSS: (Laughter) So have you thought it through, like, what kind of, like, tombstone you want?

WATERS: Oh, yes. I kind of want it to be modeled after Pasolini's. And I want mine to just say - my father's the same, and I didn't realize it until I saw it recently, his graveyard, because he only died a few years ago - just say, John S. Waters Jr, the day I was born, the day I was - died. Who wants to risk a joke that has to last eternity? Humor changes. (Laughter) Talk about an old joke if it was on your - I think it's the only time you should be quite simple on your gravestone.

GROSS: What's on Divine's stone?

WATERS: Praying hands. But his parents put his real name and Divine on it...

GROSS: I was wondering. Yeah.

WATERS: ...Which was quite loving. And people - oh, my God - they write stuff all over it. And they leave stuff and leave doughnuts and dresses, and it's visited quite a lot.

BIANCULLI: John Waters speaking to Terry Gross in 2010 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2010 interview with filmmaker John Waters. A major exhibition of his visual work is presented through January 6 at the Baltimore Museum of Art. It's called John Waters: Indecent Exposure. It explores his artistic influences, as does the book he and Terry were discussing at the time, which was titled "Role Models."

GROSS: So let's get to somebody else in the book. And this is Rei...

WATERS: Kawakubo.

GROSS: Thank you. (Laughter) And he's a designer.

WATERS: It's a woman. Yeah.

GROSS: She's a designer who was not known to me.

WATERS: She's pretty famous. She did Comme des Garcons, one of the first Japanese fashion labels that deconstructed fashion. She's been around quite some time, hugely successful in Japan.

GROSS: OK. You describe your look as disaster at the dry cleaners. (Laughter) Why?

WATERS: Yeah. I like her clothes. She always has something the matter with it, something that - so I love the idea. When you spend more money than you should on an outfit for fashion, no one thinks you spent money. They think you got it for a nickel (laughter) somewhere in a thrift shop. But actually, since it's on purpose, it's like getting dressed in reverse. It's sneaky fashion. It's wearing outfits that you like that regular people just think is something the matter with it, and you got a bad coat on. I mean, I see people on the street that are homeless that actually look like outfits that I've paid a lot of money for.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: (Laughter) And I find that delightful. I find it delightful. My father used to say, you bought that? Something is - they saw you coming, boy. But they did see me coming. (Laughter) And I was eager to get it.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK. This is far too personal.

WATERS: Yes.

GROSS: (Laughter) So I'll try it anyways. Do you like costuming when it comes to actual sex?

WATERS: No. You mean, does someone have to be in a certain outfit? No, I'm not that specific - thank God. But what somebody has on - I always really think that if boys turn their belt halfway to the (laughter) right, like, so the buckle is in - on the side - Marlon Brando did that, Joe Dallesandro did that - it's a look of confidence I like. I like somebody that pulls off an effortless look. But no, I don't have to have somebody dressed as an airline pilot or a kind of (laughter)...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: That - no. That (laughter) - I would start laughing.

GROSS: That's what I was wondering.

WATERS: I would start laughing. Yeah.

GROSS: Is there something that's inherently absurd at some point?

WATERS: Well, everyone's sex life is funny except your own.

GROSS: Uh-huh (laughter).

WATERS: (Laughter) Really, it is. Every person's is, and yours never is.

GROSS: What - why is that?

WATERS: Well, because the lengths that 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.

I - a friend of mine - I think I have it in this book - where her mother had Alzheimer's, and she - for years. So she knows a lot about Alzheimer's, the community. And I said, well, ask them. Do people forget if they're gay or straight? And they - the workers said, never once. They don't know who their family is. They don't recognize anybody. But no one suddenly doesn't remember if they're gay or straight. Well, doesn't that prove, really, that you're born that way?

GROSS: OK. So I want to quote something you say in the book. You talk a little bit about being in therapy. And you say, a psychiatrist once told me early in treatment, stop trying to make me like you. And what a sobering, welcome smack in the face that statement was. Yet, somehow, every day of my life is still a campaign for popularity or, better yet, a crowded funeral (laughter).

WATERS: Oh, isn't everybody in show business under the same thing, that they're insecure people that have to go into a field that - where strangers have to tell them they're good for the rest of their life? I figured that out a long time ago. Yes, I thought it was a great thing when the shrink said that. I'm not there to make friends. You're supposed to talk about the things that make you the most uncomfortable. Let's - I'm paying for this. Let's get my money's worth.

So I used to, after that, go in and think of the things that made me the most uptight to talk about, which is what you're supposed to do with a psychiatrist. I believe in the talking cure. You know, Freud said the best thing ever - that line that's, I think, so brilliant - is turning hysterical misery into common unhappiness. What a great, great line.

GROSS: But I find it such a paradox in what you spelled out there, that you're the person who has, like, defied every convention in your life and in your art, the person who you say, even your minority group, you're an outsider of. And, I mean, you turned that into an art and a career. And yet, you tried to get your psychiatrist to love you, and you say that every day in your life is a campaign for popularity. Isn't that a paradox?

WATERS: No. I think it's probably being a healthy neurotic.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: Everything that I'm trying to be.

GROSS: A healthy neurotic. That's paradoxical enough.

WATERS: But only a neurotic cares if everyone likes them. You know, and in show business certainly it is politics. It's all the same thing. You have to get people to like you. And by writing books, by making movies and everything, I think you're continuing to do that. And a crowded funeral is a nice thing. I like that. But the older you get, the less chance that has of happening. Now, it's another reason to make younger friends.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: So they can fill in, like at the Oscars when somebody goes to the bathroom, and they have something that sits in the seat. I want them at the funeral.

GROSS: (Laughter). You know, because, as you've said, you've made a living selling shock...

WATERS: Well, surprise, I think.

GROSS: Surprise, yeah. And some of your films, particularly some of your early films like "Pink Flamingos," have some very, like, vile, repulsive-thinking people in them (laughter).

WATERS: I don't know that I totally agree. But OK.

GROSS: OK.

WATERS: There were certainly using anarchy to get their point across, and they were rebelling against their particular worlds at the time and lusting after things that maybe you shouldn't. But I think the morals in all my films were quite obvious. And the good guy won in every one of the movies.

GROSS: Nevertheless, I think people are really surprised by how just kind of like nice and funny and easy to talk to you are. Like, earlier in your career, before there was as public a John Waters as there is now, I think people thought that you would be this really peculiar person who might really traffic in filth. And...

WATERS: In the old days, they did.

GROSS: I'm talking about the old days.

WATERS: I used to shop at colleges, and they'd have a pound of marijuana in the car for me.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: Please, please, I don't want to do this. Yeah, I think in the beginning. But I think through writing books maybe more. And more of my public speaking and stuff - is that they realize that I'm not the characters I think up. But no director is, usually. Not that many - does Stephen King go out there and do that? I mean, why do they think I would?

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. It's always really great to talk with you.

WATERS: Well, thank you very much, Terry.

BIANCULLI: John Waters speaking to Terry Gross in 2010. The Baltimore Museum of Art has just opened a major retrospective of his visual art and published a hefty companion volume. Both are called "John Waters: Indecent Exposure." And the exhibition runs through January 6. Coming up, I review "The Romanoffs," the new TV series from Matt Weiner, the creator of Mad Men. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRED KATZ'S "OLD PAINT")

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