When “Christmas” is mentioned, you might be hard-pressed to find someone who says that “John Waters” immediately springs to mind. But if the director, writer, actor, artist, author, and bad taste auteur would have it, he ought to be the FIRST person, you’d think. While turtle doves, golden rings, and partridges in pear trees may populate the normal mind during the holidays, in John Waters’ world, that ain’t figgy pudding that the late iconic star/drag queen Divine eats at the end of Pink Flamingos.
With his annual Christmas show returning to the metro area on December 16th at NYC’s Sony Hall, not only does he want his name associated with the garland-strewn holiday, but he wants you to buy a ticket to see him do his one man show, too.
“I change my Christmas show every year. So even if you saw it last year, it’d be completely different, so you’ll have to see it again,” he says demurely through his pursed lips ever so delicately framed by his signature pencil-thin mustache. “This year, I talk about politics. I talk about fashion. I talk about movies. I talk about what I want for Christmas. I tackle the anger of this year,” he adds curtly. “This year was so angry.”
While his often off-color and conservatively off-putting films could anger the pearl-clutching Religious Right and culturally and sexually-repressed staunch Republicans with their common themes of divorce, fetishism, alcoholism, and other subversions, he finds himself frustrated not by the grotesque actions by those he is lampooning but by the mellowing out of the subversions he once amplified.
Labeled as “cult movies” or “midnight flicks” because of their brash exposure of risqué and deviant subcultures, Waters’ kitschy and transgressive films have suffered because of the branding. “‘Cult’ is a word that I’m unfortunately called, which hurt my career in Hollywood,” he discloses, pointing out that the tag deems his films distasteful to the wider, mainstream [READ: “ticket-buying] audience. “The studio folks hate that word. To them, it means that more smart people liked it and, therefore, it lost all the money… which is generally true.”
His films, while modest money makers because of their low-budget, are often beloved by the underground—even if their niche appeal often prevents them from being blockbusters. His most successful film, Hairspray, still had a seedy underbelly which writer David Edelstein quipped as “a family movie both the Bradys and the Mansons could adore.”
But, the whole idea of “camp” and “cult”–while not exactly Waters’ favorite adjectives used for his art–has become watered down due to the current political administration. “‘Camp’ is a word I think Trump has ruined,” he sighs, almost regretful that the term—once lavished on him unwantedly is now rendered fangless and without any bite. “Even ‘trash’ has been ruined. He’s really ruined every negative word. He even ruined the word ‘bad,’ so I think that, with the Trump Age coming in, it all seems so meaningless now.”
If all the bad and pejorative words have been sterilized and rendered impotent of their satirical impact, what is left to shift sensibilities and infuse it with bad taste… and make it… dangerous again?
“Well, I’ve done LSD two years ago for my book [2019’s Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder],” he replies. “I’ve only done it once and it was really strong. I haven’t done it since, and I doubt I’ll ever do it again… I don’t need to do it again.”
At 70-years-old, Waters decided to try the drug. Instead of purchasing it from any random dealer like a long-haired hippie from the seventies, Waters and two lifelong friends (including Mink Stole, a frequent star of his films) opted for the “strongest and purest LSD” and dropped acid in a very safe and controlled environment. “They don’t call it a trip for nothing and it lets you see the world differently,” he recollects. “It was great, and I want old people to take it. It really opens your mind.”
But would he take LSD and celebrate Christmas?
“Oh I’m sure I have celebrated Christmas while I was high at one point in my life,” he laughs. “But not on LSD. I only tried it once and I don’t need to do it again. I’ve had this Christmas party that I throw for 50 years now, so I’m sure I was high in the old days. I mean we had poppers and everyone smoked pot, but no… I was never tripping at Christmas.”
One would think that someone whose films include lobster rape (Multiple Maniacs), phalloplasty/penectomy (Desperate Living), and the late drag queen Divine’s much-celebrated and abhorred coprophagia (Pink Flamingos) would have the most unorthodox Christmas traditions, but Waters is iconoclastically rather traditional when it comes to celebrating the holiday.
“I always had a kind of traditional family Christmas,” he confesses. “Even after my parents moved into a retirement community, we would have Christmas dinner every year at one of my brothers’ or sisters’ houses. We still do that. We have a sit down dinner for 15 people and I’d cook. So it was traditional in many ways.”
But in Waters’ world, there has to be something twisted… something odd and askew, right?
“Instead of a Christmas tree, we redecorated the electric chair that Divine got electrocuted in in Female Trouble,” he laughs. “But that, in itself, is rather traditional. When it’s all decorated, you can’t even tell it’s an electric chair.
“I have a lot of decorations that I’ve collected over 30 years that fans have made me, like a statue of Divine knocking over the Christmas tree,” he says. “I have red Christmas balls with crazy things on them. And I also have needlepoint things that my mother made. One of the things she made was a needlepoint of a police car on fire at the Harvey Milk riots.”
Since bad taste is often associated with Waters, what does he feel is a Christmas present in bad taste?
“I think it is poor taste to give gift cards for Christmas,” he snickers. “It just means you think the person is stupid and has nothing interesting about them.”
With the holidays around the corner and his one-man Christmas show revving up to be unleashed this season just in time for Trump’s impeachment proceedings, the threat of uncomfortable dinner conversation tackling politics will be inevitable. “We’re in a Civil War currently and my show talks about what it’ll be like when you go home this year for the holidays,” he warns. “It’s scary because there are some people you just can’t talk about politics with because you get into huge fist fights around the tree. You get knocked over like Divine in Female Trouble.”
So what does Waters suggest would be good table conversation?
“Satanism,” he replies snappily. “I don’t care if people have religion, as long as you don’t make me do it. I believe in science, but I don’t care if people have religion. If it makes them do good, that’s fine but just don’t make me do it. It’s my business. Don’t make it public. Don’t mix church and state.”
What is it about Satanism that would placate everyone?
“You know, in my book it tells you that I am a Catholic basher because [Catholic people] have been bashing me and my culture for centuries,” he replies matter-of-factly. “The Pope asks, ‘Who am I to judge’ but you’re the fucking Pope! That’s who you are to judge.” (Since Waters’ mother was Catholic—his father wasn’t—he was raised Catholic).
“That’s why I like the Satanic Temple and their demonstrations…. not the hokey Anton LeVey/Satanism that has that black house and all that Jane Mansfield stuff. But the new sort of Satanism, with the radical demonstrations, is politically very smart. I’m hardly a Satanist, but I respect them because, while it’s a religion, they still have a sense of humor. That statue that they have in Middle America is brilliant and their demonstrations… hilarious!”
With the approaching end of the interview dawning, he crooks his mustache. “You know what I’m going to give YOU for Christmas? My Christmas nightmares.”
And, pray tell, what would those be?
“You’ll have to see my Christmas show to know what I’m talking about,” he smiles. “See, that’s how I get ya. Ho ho ho.”
Be sure to catch John Waters on December 16th at NYC’s Sony Hall!