John Waters’ 2020 Christmas card. Artwork by Noah Lyon.
John Waters’ 2020 Christmas card. Artwork by Noah Lyon.

In Australia, John Waters is gearing up for a concert tour in which he’ll sing favorites by John Lennon, starting at the Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace in North Sydney.

In Ireland, John Waters is leading an anti-masker brigade of protesters who resist wearing face coverings in a pandemic and challenge government lockdowns.

And in the United States, John Waters just donated his private art collection to the Baltimore Museum of Art, released his Artforum list of the Best Films of 2020 and sent out his Christmas cards, this year showing him poking himself in the eye with a candy cane.

Wait, what? America’s John Waters is the ultimate multi-tasker, with his fashion shoot for Saint Laurent and his country and western video with Shania Twain and Orville Peck supplementing his books, movies and “This Filthy World” spoken-word shows. We admire his initiative and energy. No one is busier. We’re exhausted just thinking about it.

But seriously, how does he do it? On three continents, no less.

Well, it turns out there is more than one John Waters. In fact, they’re quite different from each other. And that’s where it gets tricky.

“Part of being Australian is enduring the brief excitement followed by crushing disappointment when you come across something about the other John Waters,” says Robert Shaw, an Aussie who founded a popular Facebook page devoted to the one who lives in Baltimore, called At the Movies With John Waters.

Shaw said he recently was excited to see a poster at his local pizza joint about John Waters having a “WORLD PREMIERE” in Sydney — suggesting a new movie might be coming out. Then his heart sank when he read more and learned it was “the wrong John Waters” doing “the John Lennon thing.”

When Baltimore John went on a speaking tour in Australia last year to promote his latest book, the advance publicity caused some people to think they would be seeing Down Under John, who also makes films.

“It can be confusing,” said Trish Schweers, who works with Baltimore John.

How to keep them straight?

Here’s a summary of different people named John Waters and how to tell them apart: (One hint: Check the middle initial.)

John R. Waters, the Australian actor and singer.

John R. Waters, 72, Australia: This John Waters is one of Australia’s most recognized and respected film, theater and television actors, as well as a singer, guitarist, songwriter and musician. Born in London, the son of Scottish actor Russell Waters, he moved to Australia in 1968, taking advantage of the “ten pound” opportunity offered by the Australian government at the time to entice people to move there. After initially landing work at a “sheep station” in Queensland, this John Waters joined a cover band, acted in plays and musicals such as Hair and Godspell, and auditioned for television and movie roles. He’s been Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music, Gomez Addams in The Addams Family musical and The Narrator in Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show. Part of the children’s television series Play School for 18 years, he lives in Sydney with his third wife, Zoe Burton.

His latest live show, with collaborator Stewart D’Arrietta and the Mersey String Quartet and Band, is called The John Lennon Songbook and premieres January 9 in Sydney. Pegged to the 40th anniversary of Lennon’s murder on December 8, which is also this John’s birthday, it marks the second time that Waters and D’Arrietta have mounted a tribute to Lennon, after they wrote and staged a show called Lennon: Through a Glass Onion 28 years ago. After touring Australia in early 2021, they hope to bring The John Lennon Songbook to the United States. It would be a follow-up to a five-month visit to America, including Off-Broadway shows in New York City, that they completed in 2014 and 2015.

John A. Waters, the Irish activist. Photo via

John A. Waters, 65, Ireland: This John Waters is a newspaper columnist, author and social commentator turned activist known for his rants against compulsory mask-wearing, which he considers tyranny and destructive of the human spirit. In April, he and activist Gemma O’Doherty led a “liberate Ireland” rally in Dublin challenging the nation’s lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic. This fall, John A. appeared at another protest rally with a group that put up a banner reading, “Only Slaves Wear Masks.” He believes the mask is “a way of denying the very human face of the person,” and “turning us all into zombies.”

In 1996, this John Waters had a daughter named Roisin with the singer Sinead O’Connor, who famously four years earlier tore up a photo of then-Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live, prompting the next-day front-page headline in The New York Daily News: ‘HOLY TERROR.’ The two never married, which was probably just as well.

John S. Waters, 74, Baltimore, Maryland. This John Waters is a writer, filmmaker and visual artist with a cult-like following. His movies include Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Serial Mom and Hairspray; his books include Shock Value, Role Models, Carsick and Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder. Known for his edgy humor, he has been called the Pope of Trash, the Prince of Puke, the Sultan of Sleaze and the King of Camp. He’s been a fashion model for Nike, Nordstrom and Saint Laurent, and has appeared in videos and TV shows ranging from The Creep to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit to, in animated form, The Simpsons.

Although his holiday tour of spoken-word performances was put on hold this year because of the pandemic, this John Waters has become a popular speaker at college graduation ceremonies, including a virtual address in May for the School of Visual Arts in New York City. When he recently agreed to donate his private art collection to the Baltimore Museum of Art, the directors said they would name the museum’s toilets after him. Unlike the far-right John A. in Ireland, John S. encourages mask-wearing and launched his own line of face masks last spring. He even wore one at the beginning of his talk to the School of Visual Arts graduates, one of the first examples in history of product placement during a commencement speech.

There is actually at least one more John Waters who makes public appearances. John H. Waters is an architect and historian in Illinois who serves as preservation programs manager for the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, a consultant to Taliesin Preservation, and a director of the Chicago Summer School of the Victorian Society in America. If you go to one of his talks, instead of a rant about face masks and lockdowns, or observations about what shocks movie audiences today, you’ll likely hear about the architectural genius of Frank Lloyd Wright and H. H. Richardson. Chicago John is an erudite, upstanding, dues-paying member of the Society of Architectural Historians. Let’s not drag him into this any more than we have to.

Given the different people named John Waters, it’s not hard to see how the confusion starts. They’re all white men above a certain age, albeit with different accents. Australian John sings in a movie palace, which is where Baltimore John’s films are shown. Irish John’s ex, Sinead O’Connor, rips up the Pope’s photo, while Baltimore John is the Pope…of Trash. Chicago John is an expert on Wright’s Ennis House, which director William Castle used in his 1959 movie, House on Haunted Hill. Castle is one of Baltimore John’s favorite directors — “I wish I were William Castle,” he wrote in Crackpot — and he played him in Episode 6 of Ryan Murphy’s “Feud: Bette and Joan” on FX. Irish John hates face masks; Baltimore John endorses them, including one featuring his pencil-thin mustache.

As long as each John Waters stays in his own region, the worlds don’t collide. The chaos starts when they venture onto each other’s turf, as when Baltimore John visited Australia last year and, potentially, when Australian crooner John visits the U.S. on his John Lennon tour next year. One can already picture Carnegie Hall filled with bewildered fans seeing a different John Waters onstage than they expected. Crikey!

John S. Waters, the one in Baltimore who poked his eye out with a candy cane on his Christmas card, acknowledges that there’s potential for confusion but said he doesn’t believe it’s anything to worry about: “I don’t think it’s a problem.”

In a phone in interview, John S. said he’s toured Australia several times and always takes precautions to make it clear who’s appearing.

“When we go over there, we put ‘This Filthy World’ in big letters or ‘The Prince of Puke,’ or something like that. That’s how we made sure.”

He isn’t afraid to make light of the coincidence. During his 2019 trip to Australia, which included stops in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Hobart, he opened by singing “Imagine,” one of John Lennon’s best-known songs, in homage to John R. and his Lennon-themed shows.

“I didn’t do the whole song,” he said. “I just did a little bit.”

John S. said he has faith that audiences can tell the two performers apart.

“I don’t think he’s going to come out and do This Filthy World, and I’m not going to really do the entire John Lennon story. So I think you’d have to be pretty naïve to get us mixed up.”

He added that he’s never met his namesake in Australia and would like to.

He “sounds like a lovely man…I hope we meet one day and do a photo opportunity together.”

John S. said he hasn’t met the Irish John Waters either, but he did get mistaken for him when he toured Ireland years ago and was interviewed by a journalist there.

“She was being so mean to me and I thought, ‘What is the matter with this woman?’ She was really hateful,” he said. “And then she started talking about Sinead O’Connor. I said, ‘Wait a minute. I wasn’t married to Sinead O’Connor!” Then she went, ‘Oh my God. I’m sorry.’ She thought I was him.” After that, he said, “she was very nice and wrote a nice article.”

John S. said he doesn’t see a photo opportunity in the offing with that John Waters.

“I have read about him and I do hope to never meet him,” he said. “And I’m sure has no desire to meet me.”

The filmmaker has, however, met two other people named John Waters.

“I’ll tell you the most famous one I know. He was the window washer at the Charles Theatre [in Baltimore] for maybe 10 years…We used to joke all the time.”

Then there’s a man who had a strong influence on him – his late father, John Waters Sr.

“My father always used to say he is the real John Waters, because I was a junior,” the filmmaker said. “So it all depends where you’re sitting.”

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.

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