The Pope of Trash, as William Burroughs once called him, and Baltimore's favorite weirdo son, filmmaker John Waters is returning to perform his acclaimed, one-man Christmas show at the Byrd Theatre.
The legendary raconteur and best-selling author and artist will be finishing up a 19-city holiday tour of "A John Waters Christmas" with two stops in Virginia, the first in Richmond and the second at the Birchmere in Alexandria. The local show is a fundraiser for two nonprofits, the Byrd and WRIR 97.3 Richmond Independent Radio.
We spoke by phone with the feisty 71-year old, who last summer held his first adult sleep-away camp in Kent, Connecticut, with morning beer servings, Bloody Mary Bingo and an oversized bra hoisted atop the flagpole. His artistic career with a cast of misfits such as Divine, Edith Massey and Cookie Mueller has made us all more grateful and fulfilled as a nation.
Style Weekly: So what was Christmas like at the Waters household?
John Waters: Very traditional, actually. I have an old picture of me sitting under the tree with a hand puppet in one hand, 'cause I was a puppeteer, and in the other hand is "The Genius of Ray Charles" album. I'm really young, so already I had my taste buds.
We always had to go down on Christmas Eve to the little square in our neighborhood and Santa would come. Problem was, I could tell it was the man who lived up the street — I knew him! You could hear his voice, he didn't even hide it. They should've gotten someone from outside the community. So I was a skeptic even as a child, but I didn't go ruin it for everyone else.
Later, I realized Divine's mother Santa-abused him. She used to force him to dress up as Santa because he was fat, and they ran a nursery school. I think it was really traumatic. So, don't ever ask a fat person to dress up as Santa. I think they resent it.
Do you have any gift suggestions for Style readers this year?
Never give gift cards, because it makes you look like you think that person is stupid and has no interests. Fruit gift baskets always offend me. I think: I can afford six pears, why would you send me a pear? But really it isn't about how much a present costs, and you can also spend too much, which makes you look pretentious, or it's embarrassing to the person who gets it because maybe they don't like you that much.
It's all about the time you spend. If you go to a thrift shop and find something for 10 cents, it can be the best present they get all year — because it speaks to them and what they like, and if they've never seen it, it's an original idea.
Last time we met in Richmond, I gave you a used, beat-up photo book of demolition derby images by a relatively unknown high school librarian, Bill Lowenburg, that I bought online. That was a thank you for all the laughs you've given me.
Oh, I loved that book! Later I put him in a show because of that book. I curated a show in Provincetown at the Merola Gallery ("Catastrophe," which ran in summer 2016), and I put those pictures in it, and he came! So, you led me to a good thing. I even bought one and it's hanging in my office right now. [Laughs.]
Did you ever cash in on your Pope of Trash brand with a line of Target bathroom products? Think about it, toilet seats are a blank canvas in everyone's home. You could feature your pet facelift artwork or —
True. Well, I cash in enough. I did have John Waters camp this year. And I've been trying to get the Maybelline ad for years, and they won't give it to me. I already have the ad: "The eyebrow pencil that doesn't come off when you're getting off orally." I used to throw out Maybelline eyebrow pencils into the audience and people caught 'em. I really should be the Maybelline man. Then they did hire a man, kind of a twink.
Or you could sell a talking toilet wand that chipmunk whistles while it works, or maybe tells you the current weather.
(Laughs.) You know, in France whenever they say my name they laugh in my face because John Waters to them means toilet water. They used to always laugh and I finally figured that out. Yeah, there's all sort of products I could come up with — but I need one marketing deal with one place, though, you don't want to divide it up.
One of my favorite Christmas specials is the "Dusty Towne Sexy Holiday Special" featuring Divine and the Solid Gold Dancers. What's yours?
The whaaa? I don't even know what that is. Was it like "Hullabaloo" or something? Divine had some of the first techno songs ever. They came really early. He was ahead of his time. He was probably lip-syncing on the show. I'll have to check it out. (It's on YouTube here) They had "The Buddy Deane Show" here, which I fantasized about when I wrote "Hairspray." Later, they had a show in Baltimore called "Shakedown" that was so pitiful and scary. It was adults, but they really looked like the people who didn't get picked to be in my movies.
How about Christmas movies? I really like the 1956 Mexican sci-fi fantasy "Santa Claus" by Rene Cardona, distributed by K. Gordon Murray — ever see that one?
(Gasps.) Noooo! But I'd like to see it. I'm always pitching "Christmas Evil" [a 1980 horror movie] so much, because I can never find a Christmas movie I like more. Now all the ones they put out I really don't like because they try to purposely be bad taste movies because of "Bad Santa," which was a hit. So now they make 500 bad versions and imitations of that, which is what always happens in Hollywood.
My fans are great, they bring me really nice presents. But I've got 19 cities on this tour and I can't carry all that stuff. You should send it to me and I'll put it on at my Christmas party. I have all the TVs on with Christmas movies playing.
Oh, you'd love the film sets alone. And it's got a devil and angel fighting for this little girl Lupita's soul, whispering on each of her shoulders.
That happens to me every day.
On a sad note, I have some Richmond news to pass along: Dirtwoman passed a few months ago.
I'm sorry to hear that. I did send a message to him (Waters doesn't remember what it said.) after someone interviewed me from there, I think maybe for a documentary?
Let me tell you, he had a good run. I don't think I ever went anywhere in the world where someone from Richmond didn't ask me if I knew him. Wasn't he more of an outsider? Dirtwoman was more like a street person, right? I only met him once.
Yeah, [Donnie Corker] was a street celebrity, a former male prostitute who reportedly had been shot, stabbed, you name it. But nobody ever broke his spirit. People think of him as Richmond's Divine, but I think he was more like Richmond's Pencil [a Baltimore drag legend].
Yeah, Divine didn't have a desire to be a woman, he wanted to be Godzilla. He wasn't transgendered, never even dressed as a woman except when we made the movies or during his music career. Did Dirtwoman ever cash in on his following? Or rather turn it into anything that helped him?
He sold flowers on the street and did charity work with an annual Hamaganza event. He had a big heart and could cuss a blue streak.
If anything I think he's more like Edith Massey. Edith was not a street person, but she was an outsider actress. And she had a thrift shop where everyone just gave her stuff, she never bought anything.
In other local news, a guy got arrested recently for allegedly stealing panties from Laundromats all over town. Do you still visit public Laundromats?
Well, that's not very original. In Provincetown, I still have to go to the Laundromat because my summer rental doesn't have a washing machine. I always go on the best beach day because nobody's there, but people still say, "What are you doing here? Why are you here?" I still secretly like Laundromats. [Early on] I used to film in them because they have bright lights. I never stole things from Laundromats — but I think people do. Not for sex reasons, but because they need a new pair of underpants.
Whether in your movies, books, stand-up, art, you're a storyteller at heart — where did that initial love of storytelling come from?
Because I wanted people to listen, you know? If you ever want to change anybody's mind, you have to make 'em laugh, or scare them, or do something. So, I tried to do all three. And I've always been a writer, that's what I do in every field, since I was a kid. I guess it was some way that I could get control, probably.
I still have meetings about getting (a Christmas movie) "Fruitcake" made. I got paid by HBO to write the sequel to "Hairspray" last year – though nothing happened. But I'm still dealing with the movie business. We'll see.
Finally, I saw a recent photo of you in the New York Times from your inaugural John Waters Camp, where you're seated at the autograph table looking up at the guy with the pinkeye patch.
Well, he had just painted a portrait of me with his penis and asked for me to autograph it. But the pinkeye thing was amazing. I always secretly respect people who have pinkeye or impetigo. But no one would ever admit it to the New York Times style section. [Laughs.] I think he was making it up. If he did, that was pretty funny.
My favorite part of camp was that fans slipped under everyone's door at 6 in the morning the ransom note from "Serial Mom" that said: "I'll get you, Pussy Face." Anywhere else they'd be arrested for doing that these days, but it was taken in the good spirit it was slipped under with.
A John Waters Christmas takes place Wednesday, Dec. 20, at the Byrd Theatre. Doors at 6:30 p.m. Show at 8 p.m. Presale tickets are $40 (cash only) at Chop Suey Books or online at eventbrite.com. $50 at the door. A signing follows the show.