John Waters Reflects On His 'Role Models' The writer and filmmaker known for the cult classics Pink Flamingos, Cry-Baby and Hairspray reflects on the many people who have inspired him throughout his life — from playwright Tennessee Williams to the crazed martyr Saint Catherine of Siena — in his memoir, Role Models.

John Waters Reflects On His 'Role Models'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

William Burroughs once called John Waters the pope of trash, and Waters says he's been milking that title for decades. His 1972 midnight movie classic "Pink Flamingos" helped earn him that title, but the Broadway musical adaptation of Waters' 1988 film "Hairspray" and its subsequent adaptation into a movie musical starring John Travolta won Waters a place in the heart of mainstream of America.

Waters has become an icon of the independent film world. Last year, he wrote a book called "Role Models," about people who have inspired him. It's now out in paperback. Terry spoke to John Waters last year when the hardback edition was published.

Among Waters' role models are Tennessee Williams, Leslie Van Houten - one of the Manson girls, who's now in prison and looks back in horror at her crimes -clothing designer Rei Kawakubo, a couple of pornographic filmmakers, and here's the real shocker: Johnny Mathis.

(Soundbite of song, "Chances Are")

Mr. JOHNNY MATHIS (Singer): (Singing) Chances are, 'cause I wear a silly grin the moment you come into view. Chances are you think that I'm in love with you.

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

Mr. JOHN WATERS (Filmmaker): 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?

Mr. WATERS: (Reading) I wish I were Johnny Mathis: so mainstream, so popular, so un-ironic, 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 was, like, the lead chapter...

Mr. WATERS: He probably was, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, I mean, he's - as a singer, he's such a, 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?

Mr. WATERS: Well, because Johnny Mathis is the opposite of me. First of all, he's - he doesn't do any publicity, 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, with no advance publicity.

He doesn't try too hard at all. He tries not at all, which is, you know, for my entire life, I always have to think up new projects, go out on the road. I'm like a carnie, basically. Go sell the work, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATERS: I have a one-man show. But so does Johnny Mathis, have a Christmas show. And so do I, but I try to imagine our very, very different audiences because Johnny Mathis, to me, is to me the type of mainstream that I will never, ever be able to have. And everyone 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 sometimes isn't exactly what you believed 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATERS: So 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.

Mr. 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 realize they don't have friends. That's what friends are for, not reporters.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: There's a line in the paragraph that you read in which you describe yourself as a minority who can't even fit with your own minority.

Mr. WATERS: That's very true. And most of my friends are like that, and my -yes. I like people like that. They can't really fit in anywhere, but they don't want to. That's the difference. The people that can't fit in anywhere and are uptight about it, I feel like I'm not one of them. Very early in my life, I knew I didn't fit in. And I guess I was lucky to have parents that were really loving, that made me feel safe...

GROSS: How did you...

Mr. WATERS: ...that let me go for that, even though they were horrified by it.

GROSS: How did you make peace with the fact that you couldn't fit in?

Mr. WATERS: I don't know that it was a war, ever, because I had such strong interests so young, that I didn't really care if anybody else was interested. I'm not saying I never had a moment of hassle ever in school or anything. But mostly, I had - as long as I could read and have playtime and be by myself and have some friends, I was satisfied in my creativeness as a kid. I gave puppet shows 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, nothing -rock and roll - everything that you weren't supposed to like. But somehow, that didn't seem to bother me. And then I read Tennessee Williams, in a way. And Tennessee Williams let me know early that through reading, certainly - and not the books they had me read in school. I didn't read because of those books. I learned that there was another world - bohemia, basically. And I didn't know about that. I lived in Lutherville, Maryland. My parents didn't know about that, and they certainly didn't want me in it.

GROSS: 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.

Mr. WATERS: OK. 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.

Mr. WATERS: (Reading) Years later, Tennessee Williams saved my life. The first time I went to 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 cruise 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 hardy.

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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

Mr. 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 know, you went into a field of all different kinds of rebels, and their sexuality was always still - my friends, or 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 with this agent. He has all gay people. Well, why would I go with him? It's like saying the guy 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 brining pain to themselves.

GROSS: So what were some of the cliches you did not want to be as a teenager, as...

Mr. WATERS: I wanted to be an outlaw, you know. That's why I have trouble now. You know, I understand wanting gay marriage. I would never vote for somebody that was against gay marriage. I purposely have no desire to imitate a rather corny tradition of heterosexuals, to me. I would owe three alimonies.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATERS: I basically think that it's more fun to go against the rules, or make up your own rules. Or sexual confusion, I think, is fun. Heteroflexibility is something that really makes me laugh, that term. And kids today are way more like that. You don't have to just 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.

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

Mr. 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 left in the house(ph) 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 in me the most deepest, darkest secrets, and I think because they think I'll 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 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 catalogued.

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

GROSS: Right. Now, we've kind of medicalized things like that. You know, it would come under the term, for a lot of people, obsessive-compulsive, because you not only read a lot, but you have to own a lot, and you catalogue them and everything. So have you ever fallen into the medicalization of your own passions?

Mr. WATERS: I think, you know, the terms are changing. I read today that there's no such thing as a nervous breakdown (unintelligible).

GROSS: I read that, too.

Mr. WATERS: I love that expression. And, you know, it goes the same way as, I guess, all things that - you know, being gay used to be...

GROSS: It's now burnout disorder.

Mr. WATERS: Yeah, now it's, like, ADD or all these ones they didn't have when I was young. Just pay attention. You know, no, I believe in some of this stuff. I think it's overprescribed. But I don't think it was ever a problem, me reading too much.

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. Cataloging them is being, just being nice to my heirs.

GROSS: Do you have heirs?

Mr. 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, where - it's, like, People's Temple Graveyard.

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

Mr. WATERS: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

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

Mr. WATERS: Because I love the idea of graveyards. I like people visiting. I used to go into graveyards when I was young, and Divine would steal flowers for parties. We'd have a couple beers. I like 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? 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 buried because, like, you really like graveyards.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATERS: Oh, yeah. And 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, Mink(ph), hi 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 your sister is 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?

Mr. 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?

Mr. WATERS: My father is buried.

GROSS: Oh, your father is buried, yeah.

Mr. 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 him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATERS: I've got, like, a lot of room around me, too, because the price is quite fair.

GROSS: Two bathrooms.

Mr. WATERS: Yeah. It's like a two-bedroom.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

Mr. WATERS: Oh, yes. I kind of want it to be modeled after Pasolini's. And I want mine to just say - my father's is 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 died.

Who wants to risk a joke that has to last eternity? Humor changes. Talk about an old joke that was on your - I think it's the only time it should be quite simple, on your gravestone.

GROSS: What's on Divine's stone?

Mr. WATERS: Praying hands. But his parents put his real name and Divine on it, which was...

GROSS: Ah, I was wondering. Yeah. Uh-huh.

Mr. WATERS: ...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.

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

Mr. WATERS: Kawakubo.

GROSS: Thank you. And he's a designer.

Mr. WATERS: It's a woman. Yeah.

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

Mr. WATERS: She's pretty famous. She did come to Garcon, one of the first Japanese fashion labels that deconstructed fashion. She's been around quite some time - hugely successful in Japan.

GROSS: Okay. You describe your look as disaster at the dry cleaners. Why?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATERS: Yeah, I like her clothes. She always has something the matter with it, something that - so I love the idea - when you spent more money than you should on an outfit for fashion, no one thinks you spent money. They think you got it for a nickel 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've got a bad coat on.

So I love the idea of the humor and the wit of that. I think over 40, you need a little help with clothes. I firmly believe in thrift shops. Young people are copied by what they can do with thrift shops, and the key to that is not getting on your parents' nerves, getting on the cooler people three years older than you nerves. That's how you start a trend.

And, of course, all designers watch trends. 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATERS: 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, and I was eager to get it.

GROSS: Now, in this chapter about clothing in your book, you write about, like, the kind of macho, gay S&M look that used to be popular, with the leather and chains. And you say: Young people today don't feel guilty about being homosexual. They don't need to be paddled or whipped anymore, or I suppose to wear that particular look.

Mr. WATERS: Well, the funniest thing about the S&M look and the biker look is it's exactly the same, only in Baltimore, there's only one store that sells those clothes. So both the shoppers have to go there looking for the same outfit, but they are very diametrically opposed in their real life, a tough guy, you know, bikers and the gay S&M men. But they really do wear the exact same look.

And they're both having a little trouble recruiting these days, because young bad boys want to be Eminem. They don't want to be Hell's Angels - although I love the Hell's Angels and still think they really have a look. What can you say, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATERS: I know a couple of them, and they went to the punk rock bar with me. You should have seen people's expressions when I walked in with them. And they knew it wasn't a Halloween costume.

And the same way that the S&M crowd, who I have nothing against - somebody told me recently I was wrong, that new ones, young ones, are coming in, and they dress like non-racist skinheads. That's the new S&M look, which I'm for that. I just thought, the other thing, it looks so silly at the beach.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, you...

Mr. WATERS: It's hard to be into sadism at the beach. I mean, I don't know. It just seems to negate that.

GROSS: So have you actually seen, like, bikers and gay S&M men shopping in the same store?

Mr. WATERS: Oh, yes, in this one store. It's closed now. It used to be right next to the Holiday House, which is my favorite real biker bar in Baltimore. But I still go there, and I filmed a lot of "A Dirty Shame" in.

GROSS: And do you think that that look came from the need to be paddled, which came from guilt?

Mr. WATERS: The gay version of it?

GROSS: The gay version of it, not the biker version.

Mr. WATERS: Some, yes, I think, but straight people will have the same thing. There are straight S&M bars. Hellfire used to be a great one in New York. It was a really good one.

I think it all comes from weirdness about sex when you're young and guilt and shame and all that. Yeah. But I don't think it's necessarily gay or straight, I think just S&M, period.

GROSS: Okay, this is far too personal...

Mr. WATERS: Yes.

GROSS: I'll try it, anyway. Do you like costuming when it comes to actual sex?

Mr. 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 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 that kind of...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATERS: No. I would start laughing. I would start laughing. Yeah.

GROSS: That's what I was wondering. Is there something that's inherently absurd at some point?

Mr. WATERS: Everyone's sex life is funny, except your own. Really. Every person's is. And yours never is.

GROSS: Why is that?

Mr. 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 the worker said never once. They don't know who their family is. They don't recognize - 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: In writing about pornography and pornographers in this chapter, you write: I know that true love is supposed to be companionship, growing old together, blah, blah, blah. I thought that's what friends were for, not sexual partners. Some of us want hot, lunatic, porn sex, and we want it forever.

Mr. WATERS: Yeah, that's true. I have great friends that I grow old with, that know everything about me, that I'm intimate with, intellectually and everything. But if I'm going to go to the trouble of living with somebody, sharing my life with them, I want great sex. I don't understand not doing that. I understand both things, but to me, they're separate - that I have friends that supply all that, and if I'm going to have a partner, I want to have great sex with them.

Still, not give that up. And that doesn't always happen, but a lot of times it does. I'm not criticizing that either. Every person is different. I'm a healthy neurotic. I know I'm neurotic. I don't want what everybody else has. I don't need another person to make me feel whole.

GROSS: But...

Mr. WATERS: I feel crowded.

GROSS: So you've stayed single.

Mr. WATERS: Yes. Oh, yes. I've had - yeah, certainly I've had - I've lived with people, but I'm not good with living with people - as roommates, boyfriends, anything - family, anybody. I'm better to live alone, because I don't want somebody that would allow them to live in my house that is so decorated that it's obviously I live there.

GROSS: Okay. So in the getting too personal category, so if you include yourself in the category of people who want hot, lunatic, porn sex forever...

Mr. WATERS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS:'re in your 60's now.

Mr. WATERS: Yeah.

GROSS: Is that desire quieting down a little bit with age?

Mr. WATERS: No. Not really. I'm not saying... You know, I don't think it is. I think in a way, you give up everything if that stops. I believe when you're 80 years old you still have sexual appetite, and I think it's healthy. And I think if you give up on that, it's like not going out anymore. It's I always think tomorrow is going to be better, even though in reality hey, you're 64. Are you going to get the - you know, no. But you never know. There is a thing as gerontophilia, an ugly word for a lovely thought. That's the sexual attraction to old people. There's somebody for everybody.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So in writing about being single...

Mr. WATERS: Yeah.

GROSS: write, who will surround us single men on our death beds? I've long accepted the fact that unless some hideous disease gets me first and I have to make forced small talk with dedicated caregivers, I will die alone.

Mr. WATERS: Oh, yes, everyone dies alone though, don't they? But I've always known I'll die alone. It's okay. You know, I sometimes visit people when they're very, very ill, and I don't want people to do that when I'm like that. I want people to remember me how they knew me. If that happens to me, certainly my closest friends, I want me to visit. But I'm saying every person I know I don't expect to file in some hospital and look at me as I'm hooked up to some machine. I don't want that. So I probably will die alone, and I think maybe I'll just drop dead in an airport. That's seems like what should happen. I'm always in them. And that wouldn't be so bad. Be public. You'd be going somewhere.

GROSS: Would you have to go through security if you're a corpse or?

Mr. WATERS: Well, I have a closed coffin. That's in my will, because they'd draw my mustache on wrong. But still, as long as - if I drop dead in public, what's the difference, really? I mean, when you're dead you don't know, and I know where I'm going and I would be well dressed.

GROSS: When you say you know where you're going, you mean the graveyard.

Mr. WATERS: To the, not to the afterlife. To the...

GROSS: Not the afterlife. Right.

Mr. WATERS: Yes. I'm going to limbo. No. No.

GROSS: You don't believe in an afterlife.

Mr. WATERS: I don't. But I'm not saying I don't know anything. There could be Mars. There could be whole other worlds we don't know about. Let's just say I don't believe in any of the ones I've heard so far. But I'm hopeful.

GROSS: Okay. So...

Mr. WATERS: And I have an imagination. So, you know, maybe there's something nobody knows about.

GROSS: So there are a lot of single men and women, a lot of people gay and straight, who are either not married or who think they will outlive their partner or spouse and who have no children, who wonder: What is old age going to be like without, you know, without like, the partner, the spouse, the children to watch out for you, take care of you, look in on you, whatever? Do you think about that?

Mr. WATERS: I do, certainly, especially when I have elderly parents myself, and you see it and you go through it. I had one prisoner that I helped get out of jail who said I can't pay you back, who said when you're old maybe I'll be your chauffer. Maybe I'll help out. Maybe I'll call him up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's a thought.

Mr. WATERS: That's not tragic to me. In a way that would be lovely. Yeah.

GROSS: That would be lovely. But do you seriously think about that?

Mr. WATERS: Yes. You can't not. Especially my dad died last year. You're in hospitals with people. My mother's had her ups and downs in health. You cannot think about that. I certainly do not expect my nieces and nephews to. And if you outlived your friends, it depends how old you get to be. But I have young friends. That's another thing. You got to keep making young friends for that exact reason. So somebody will bring you the eyebrow pencil when put it in the hospital.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You keep bringing up the eyebrow pencil. You pencil in your mustache.

Mr. WATERS: A little a bit.

GROSS: Part if it.

Mr. WATERS: I mean it's there but it needs help, just like everything needs help that causes, you know, that has some kind of style to it. It just doesn't come naturally. It needs a little help.

GROSS: So you mentioned you father died about three months ago?

Mr. WATERS: No, about two years ago.

GROSS: Two years ago. And so were you on good terms when he...

Mr. WATERS: Yes. My father, as I said, I don't know if I said this in the book or not, but we worked out all our issues, and the issues we didn't work out I turned into a career. My father - yes. I think he was proud of me at the end. It took a while. We had - yes. We learned maturity is learning not to push each other's buttons. Everybody can do it. And it's either that or carry a verbal abuse whistle with you. So whenever they get on your nerves or you get on their nerves you blow the whistle and that makes them stop.

I think my whole family, a long time ago, realized that we were lucky, everybody. There was no real tragedies in our family. My brother died last year. That was a terrible tragedy, with a brain tumor.

GROSS: Sorry.

Mr. WATERS: But however, people knew that our family turned out pretty well. And you can't order up your kids and you can't order up your parents. And once you realize that, I think you make the very best you can with whatever hands you are dealt, and that's what families are. And I think we did.

GROSS: So you made your peace with your father, not shortly before he died, but just like over the years?

Mr. WATERS: True, it was a work in progress for a long time. Yeah. And I'm happy now. That's the one good thing about having, you living longer and your parents living longer, because you're just so much more apt to be able to work those things out when you're elder - when you're older, not when you're 20 in the height of teen lunacy or craziness.

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

Mr. WATERS: Well, surprise I think.

GROSS: Surprise, yeah. And some of your films, particularly, some of your early films like "Pink Flamingo" have some very like vile, you know, repulsive thinking people in them.

Mr. WATERS: Hmm. I don't know that I totally agree, but okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. WATERS: They 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 and filth and...

Mr. WATERS: In the old days they did.

GROSS: I'm talking about the old days. Yeah.

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATERS: You know, 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: Okay. 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.

Mr. 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. 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 you're a minority group, you're an outsider of. And, I mean, you turn 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?

Mr. WATERS: No. I think it's probably being a healthy neurotic - everything that I'm trying to be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: A healthy neurotic, huh?

Mr. WATERS: Yeah. Only...

GROSS: That's paradoxical enough.

Mr. WATERS: But only a neurotic cares if everyone like them, you know? And in show business, certainly, it is a - 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. That's another reason to make younger friends.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Since you write about your mustache in the book, I feel like I should ask you about it. You know, we've talked many times over the years, but I don't think we've really talked about your mustache technique.

Mr. WATERS: Well, I reveal every possible moment of my mustache life in this book, even panic when I don't have it on right. But it's very simple. It's just, it's there. It's there for real. I shave it with a Bic razor or whatever kind of razor from the top every day. Use cuticle nail cuticles to cut it on the bottom. And then if it's a little gray or you miss a place you just sketch it in with Maybelline Velvet Black, which is my favorite. And I tried the expensive kind, the smear-proof kind, the waterproof kind, but they just don't do it like Maybelline. And it has to be sharpened every time. And those little sharpeners break all the time, but I keep buying them, and I have them in every place I live, in my car. It's always like - it's kryptonite. Is kryptonite what Superman made him not powerful?

GROSS: It makes him weak - kryptonite.

Mr. WATERS: Oh, it makes him weak? No, this is opposite. This is spinach for Popeye. It gives me power to have my mustache on right and I'm clicked in mentally. But, you know, I don't even think I have a mustache. I mean to be honest, I never think about it. If I shaved it off right now I think there would be a scar there, like white, where 'cause no sun has ever hit there. I don't even believe - I say I don't like mustaches. I don't even think I have one. I've had it so long. I'm 19. I'm 64. So that's the longest-running mustache. And it's never changed, either.

GROSS: Why do you think you need it?

Mr. WATERS: I don't need it anymore. Well, I fantasize if I ever committed a crime and went underground, I could grow a beard that would be probably - gray in it, certainly. And I'll wear a baseball hat, and no one would ever recognize me.

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

Mr. WATERS: Well, thank you very much, Terry.

DAVIES: Filmmaker John Waters, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded last June. Waters' book "Role Models" is now out in paperback.

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