Spiked with Humor
Photographed by Sean Black
John Waters enters my home with a sidestep twirl: “Okay, okay, now what is happening here today? What will we be doing? Where ya wanna do this?” With his hyperkinetic demeanor one might think he’s rehearsing The Madison, revving up for the dance program The Corny Collins Show from his film Hairspray.
He’s fresh off the plane from San Francisco this morning and is anticipating the hectic schedule that lies ahead. I’m the first stop today on John’s promotional tour for his book, Role Models, which was recently released in paperback (the hardback edition was published June 2010). Role Models is an engaging and insightful tome so cleverly written that John reveals himself through his role models. So essentially it’s also an autobiography.
John’s introduction to the AIDS epidemic came when an editor at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine was diagnosed with GRID (gay-related immune deficiency, the original name for AIDS) and died a week later. This was typical in the early days of the disease. “Those days you got it and died four days later,” recounts John, in my living room. “I mean, people were going to visit people in the hospital wearing spacemen outfits.” In those early days no one knew how one got infected. The fear factor skyrocketed and people were propelled by fear. It was a distressing time. “And they [the medical community] thought it was [caused by] poppers. That was the first thing that came to mind since that’s what all these guys had in common.”
John crosses his legs, exposing his purposely-mismatched black and white striped socks, reminiscent of those worn by the Wicked Witch of the West. They complete an ensemble with his Vans, which sport a forest green camouflage military design. Casually dressed in a maroon turtleneck sweater, a dark sport jacket, and black slacks, John is dapper and could easily be mistaken for the local undertaker. But his effervescence is infectious, and he glows when he speaks.
“I think AIDS has been around a lot longer than we think,” he asserts, his grayish-brown eyes looking off into space. “I had a producer who I think had AIDS in the sixties. Someone else I knew died in the seventies and he fit every profile of how you get AIDS. He got sick and died in five days. I bet they had it in the forties and fifties, though I don’t think it was widespread,” he says thoughtfully. “And here they blame it on some poor ol’ steward,” counters John with a snicker, referring to Gaëtan Dugas, a French-Canadian flight attendant who became known as Patient Zero. Many of New York City’s HIV infections were traced to him and it was theorized that he had brought the virus out of Africa and introduced it into the gay community. Later, however, evidence suggests that the introduction of the virus into the U.S. happened around the late sixties.
“More than half my friends died of AIDS,” John continues, “In San Francisco, every one of my peers with the exception of one girl is gone. [A new film called We Were Here, about the impact of AIDS in San Francisco, will be released later this year, and John highly recommends it.] It wiped out many of the people I grew up with. To me, it’s still there. That’s why I attend Elton’s [The Elton John AIDS Foundation Academy Awards Viewing Party] event every year and that’s why I’m involved with AIDS Action Baltimore [AAB], because I know twenty-year-olds that have AIDS now….” John freezes then shouts as if he’s on a soundstage, “Pisses me off that you’re so stupid to get it!” He shoots a sidelong glance and yells in a wry reprimanding manner to the younger generation, “‘Haven’t ya heard?!’ Ya know what? They haven’t. They think it’s my generation that gets it.” He mimicks a young voice, “‘There’s pills for it.’ Yeah, if ya want to take five thousand horrible pills with side effects! To me, the new generation, I think, though not all, is pooh-poohing the danger and not understanding it. In every gay club they show barebacking videos. I’m against barebacking.” Pause. “I’m for porn,” he strongly declares. “I understand the freedom of it and everything, but still to encourage it when you’re drinking in a bar, I think it’s irresponsible. The best way to reach these people is maybe have young people who are ill [HIV-infected] go around to speak in these clubs.”
A grand idea. I elect John Waters as AIDS Preventionist. John’s anchored in reality, and he knows how to cut through the bullshit with his humor. He’s really this generation’s Oscar Wilde mixed with P.T. Barnum and a dash of Marilyn Manson. The kids would certainly pay attention. He speaks with a slight biting humor—his trademark—but there’s also an underlying empathy.
Having so many friends die from this disease, how did John deal with the loss? “You deal with it because you have to deal with it,” he says honestly. “And you just be with the people when they’re dying.” He grabs his shoe and briefly plays with it. “One of my editors, Bill Whitehead, when he was close to death from AIDS, was angry. He told me, ‘I just look at old people and hate them.’ I understand that. Bill knew he wasn’t going to grow old. I get his rage and anger.” When John watched loved ones die, he was keenly aware of their hopeless wish to survive. He says it’s so easy when we’re healthy to make a “living will” to cut the life cord on our deathbed. “But what I saw was people fighting for a gasp of breath,” notes John empathically. “When you’re close to death, you never know how it’s going to be.”
With all the suffering John witnessed, he asked himself at different times why it wasn’t him instead of them. He calls this period, “Survivor’s Guilt-Paranoia.” Just then, it hits me. I’m sitting with the Sultan of Sleaze (one of his many monikers). The scads of John Waters films I’ve seen swiftly pierce my brain: Polyester, Mondo Trasho, Cecil B. Demented, Cry-Baby, Pecker, Desperate Living, Serial Mom, and Female Trouble. Then—poof!—brassy and ballsy Divine materializes in my brain in all her colossal outrageous glory, John’s leading lady and muse—or was it the other way around? Departing too soon in 1988, Divine, aka Glenn Milstead, was John’s boyhood friend.
John continues. “For a long time I’ve known there’s no such thing as karma because why do so many great people get AIDS and why are a lot of the assholes I know”—he says the word as if spitting out cherry pits—“still alive today?!” He breaks and recomposes. “I don’t think it was punishment for anything,” he softly remarks, addressing the religious right’s belief that AIDS was invented to destroy homosexuality. “I do believe that my generation in this whole century will never see a time when people had sex everyday with strangers [like we did]—sometimes three or four. I’m glad I experienced that. However, it’s almost impossible for a young person to imagine what that was like and that it will never happen again. Nowadays you’re lucky if you just get crabs! I never hear anyone say they have crabs anymore,” he says curiously. It sounds funny but he means it. “And they don’t even get crabs anymore because all the young people shave their pubic hairs. So there’s a pubic hair generation gap.” (For the record, John does not shave his pubes.) He cups his hands around his knee bouncing his colorful feet a few times. His wide, lengthy, crimson-colored winter scarf lies close to him on the sofa.
John’s unique individual “throw-it-all-together” style of dress is an extension of his thought patterns. When speaking on one topic he’ll throw in another, lop them together, and then interject hints of humor. It keeps the listener absorbed and entertained.
With all the sex in a John Waters’ film, surprisingly, none have dealt with the subject of AIDS, nor has there been a character with HIV. Bringing this to his attention he offers: “No one has normal sex in any of my movies really. No one has sex where you can get AIDS. It’s so perverted.” He ponders while rotating his thumbs. “I don’t think I’ve shown anal sex in any of the movies, either. All of the sex is for comedy. Of course everyone’s sex life, except your own, is funny.”
How did AIDS affect John’s own sex life? “Oh, I’m not going into my sex life. I’ll make the money on that. If I’m going to talk about that it’s going to be in my book, not your magazine!,” he says in speedy tempo with sassy abrasiveness running the sentences together. He flaunts that oh-so recognizable mischievous smile with a got-you look and continues. “Of course [my sex life] is involved. Mercifully my favorite thing wasn’t that anyway. Let’s just put it that way.” As to a boyfriend, he admits to seeing a few. “The people I’m involved with are not famous and don’t want to be. That’s why I like ‘em. They don’t want to go to premieres and they don’t want to be in magazines. They just want to be friends and come over.” As to getting tested, he does, but hasn’t for a while. “I have safe sex all the time.”
If you know anything about John Waters, you know that he’s a Baltimore native. Indeed, as all his films are set in that seaport town. John and Baltimore twine together like Georgia O’Keeffe and New Mexico or Eva Perón and Argentina. Though he has two other homes and a summer rental in Provincetown, Baltimore is his main residence. According to the AIDS Action Baltimore Web site, in 2009, the city ranked tenth among metropolitan areas for new reports of AIDS cases. This concerns him deeply, which is why he’s committed to the organization. “Sixty to seventy percent of the population is black,” he says, denoting the current statistics that, from 2005–2009, HIV hit hardest in the African-American community with approximately eighty-five to ninety percent of the AIDS cases. “And it’s harder to raise money in Baltimore because not many wealthy folks are getting AIDS,” he scoffs, tongue-in-cheek. “The parents aren’t as guilt-ridden and thus less likely to donate the money—‘AIDS is in Africa and the poor countries,’” he mimicks. “Residents in the Baltimore ghetto don’t have money to pay their gas or electric bill much less give to AIDS charities.”
Enter John. One hundred percent of the proceeds from his film premieres in Baltimore go to AIDS Action Baltimore. “There would be no AIDS Action Baltimore without John Waters,” says Lynda Dee, executive director of AAB. “In the early days of the epidemic, his generosity sustained our organization and was literally responsible for keeping our doors open. Through our many years of service to the HIV-affected community in the Baltimore metropolitan area, John has been one of our greatest benefactors, asking only one thing of us, ‘Help the poorest of the poor, the most tragic people you can find.’ People will never know the extent of his inner altruism. What a prince!” So it seems John is a role model for others as well. One of his other supporters, Elton John, tells A&U, “John Waters has been a great, great personal friend of mine for a very long time. He’s a creative genius and I love his work as a filmmaker and a photographer. I also love his devotion to so many important causes. Near and dear to me is his loyal support of the Elton John AIDS Foundation—and for that I am so grateful!”
Why is John Waters so giving? He instantly responds, “Guilt!” Then, as if calling to the heavens, he announces, “I’m afraid if I don’t, I’ll get it.” Turning serious, he says, “In the creative community AIDS struck hard. Some of these people led extravagant lives and were probably wild in some way and experimented with a lot of things. Those were my friends. People who do that kind of experimentation are people that I like.” Returning to the subject of guilt, he admits it comes from being raised Catholic. His mother was Catholic, but his father wasn’t. In his early years he attended Sunday school “where they were really evil because they knew that your parents didn’t send you to Catholic school. They were really hateful.” He did however go to parochial high school “where every interest of mine was discouraged. That’s where I got the rage to make Pink Flamingos. So all things work out,” he says. “Bad things can help your career, too, especially in show business.”
For a few minutes we two fallen Catholics exchange our boyhood stories. I reminisce about how my nuns used to wear traditional habits and you could only see their faces. John adds, “And they had those ugly faces, too, because they were so bitter and mean and they were married to God. All they did was read us the list of movies we’d go to hell if we saw, which was so inappropriate because who would take a seven-year-old to see And God Created Woman with Brigitte Bardot?! It was not playing in my neighborhood! I mean, I didn’t get invited to a lot of birthday parties where the kids would go downtown to see Love Is My Profession. It was just ludicrous,” he says miffed, shaking his head. He tells me how the Christian brothers in his high school beat him. “They were allowed to!” he says in wonder of the standards of those times as child abuse was still in the closet. “I remember one beat me across the face with a rolled up Holiday magazine. At least it was press-related….” Boom. He waits a beat then flashes a deadpan grin.
The incident may be laughable now, but what currently gets John riled is the stand the Catholic Church takes on AIDS prevention. Basically there is none. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI stated that handing out condoms was not the solution to AIDS prevention and that using them could make the problem worse. Whaat??! John, who’s also known as “The Pope of Trash,” recently demonstrated against the “other” pope while he was visiting London. From popes and religion, we slide into a conversation about pedophilia among priests. “One of my teachers was a major child molester. Later they asked me about it and I said, ‘Well he didn’t fuck me.’ I was even rejected by the child molesters! So I don’t know if I should feel bad or good. They didn’t want me. No wonder I was nuts in high school…” He sits back, folds his arms, and faux pouts in a satisfied manner.
Ready for his next appointment, John must first check into his favorite haunt, the Château Marmont, so the interview winds down.
In his book, Role Models, John chooses unusual people as his role models, such as Manson family killer Leslie Van Houten and artist Cy Twombly. When it comes to role models in the AIDS epidemic, his heroes are the ones in the trenches everyday, like the nurses and volunteers. “People who were there in the very beginning that made it their life’s work. They’re the heroes,” he explains. “The people who deal with it everyday; unsung and not famous. They’re doing it for no reason except they want to help someone else,” says John passionately, blending it with gentle enthusiasm. He leans forward, scoops up his sunglasses from the coffee table, and concedes, “These people don’t do it for the glory.” For a rare moment John Waters’ humor takes a backseat and his signature Maybelline penciled moustache is stern and serious.
Makeup by Cheryl “Pickles” Kinion. She may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sean Black is a writer and photographer based in Florida. He may be contacted by e-mail via his Web site: www.seangblack.com.
Dann Dulin interviewed Jason Ritter for the June cover story. Learn more about John Waters by logging on to: www.DANNandKELLY.com.