“I think if I died tomorrow, I did what I was put here on earth to do,” writer and filmmaker John Waters told an audience earlier this year.
“I don’t feel that I haven’t been heard…If anybody put me here — and I’m not so sure they did, but if they did — I’ve done what I was supposed to do.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s planning to retire.
“I’m not at all finished,” he said in the next breath. “I would be terrible, I think, if I retired. I would probably die the next day.”
The entertainment world is filled with celebrities who reach their 70s and seem to fade from the scene or disclose plans to retire, either for health reasons, lack of bookings or just running out of steam.
Waters, who turns 75 today, is not in that camp.
He insists he’s not ready to retire. He made that clear last weekend when he was on a Zoom call with fans in London and was asked whether he intends to stop working.
“No, God no,” he said. “I jump out of bed every morning. It hurts to jump out of bed. I have aches and pains. But no, I’d go nuts if I didn’t work.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Waters has been juggling a wide range of projects: showing his visual art at Spruth Magers gallery in Los Angeles, filming episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel; lending his voice to a country music video with Orville Peck and Shania Twain, giving a virtual commencement address for New York’s School of Visual Arts (complete with the first-ever product placement in a graduation speech, one of his John Waters face masks).
Just today, for his birthday, Waters released a new recording entitled “Prayer to Pasolini,” his tribute to the controversial Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini. The digital release, available on all digital music services, was recorded in Italy with Grammy-winning producer Ian Brennan. It includes the title composition as well as Waters speaking in tongues and additional clips of Waters sharing his thoughts about Pasolini’s work. A seven-inch vinyl is also being released by Sub Pop Records in a limited edition of 1,000 copies.
Waters told his London fans that he just finished writing his latest book, a novel called “Liarmouth” about a woman who steals luggage at the airport. He’s been turned into a collectible figure, a Funko POP! He didn’t even stop working when he went for a COVID vaccination recently. (“I signed an autograph when I was getting the shot,” he said. “Well, not at the moment, but right before.”)
Some of this activity is what Waters has called “fame maintenance”: Making a two-second cameo appearance in Tenacious D’s Time Warp video last fall (“You put your hands on your hips!”); kibitzing with Patricia Hearst for Town & Country magazine; holding a Hairspray reunion with Ricki Lake and Andy Cohen on Bravo.
He’s getting ready for the annual film festivals in Baltimore, Provincetown and New York. The Baltimore Museum of Art is naming its restrooms after him and planning an exhibit of the art collection he’s donating (“They don’t get all the work until I’m dead but we’re going to have the show of it before, hopefully.”)
That’s on top of 16 movies and nine books that already have brought him a cult-like following, including Cry-Baby, which turned 30 last year, and Pink Flamingos, which will mark its 50th anniversary in 2022.
This spring, Waters says he’s energized by the thought that the world may be opening up again, after losing 40 speaking engagements because of the pandemic. He has a strong desire to make in-person appearances again, meet his fans, hear what’s going on.
“I’m dying to get back on the road,” he said last weekend. “I’m still amazed that 20-something-year-old kids know who I am. I want to see what they look like…Will there ever be a meet-n-greet again?”
He hasn’t been a happy camper in lockdown, he admits.
“I want to be able to go out again. I want to go to a movie theater. I want to go to a concert…I want to be able to have even a dull day out with other people.”
Why is Waters so averse to slowing down?
A saving grace for him, he says, is that he’s primarily a writer, a storyteller. He can think up ideas wherever he is.
Another reason is that he’s the quintessential multi-tasker. If he can’t perform in person, he’ll hop on Zoom or figure out another way to tell stories or find something else to do.
Last summer, with a book of essays to promote but no safe way to travel, he went on a virtual book tour with his fans. They would pay a local bookstore to buy a signed copy of his book and get a link to take part in a live, hour-long Q&A session online, and maybe ask him a question or two as part of the deal.
Now, after virtual stops in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Brooklyn, N. Y., and Santa Cruz, California, he’s gone international. His London chat, a generous 90 minutes with Viktor Wynd from the Victor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, drew fans from Europe, North America and Australia.
Perhaps the biggest reason Waters wants to stay busy is that he can. He’s still sharp mentally, he can still get around and he’s still in demand, maybe as much as ever.
Since the 1970s, going back to movies such as Multiple Maniacs (1970) and Female Trouble (1974), Waters has cultivated a reputation for being edgy and funny, in a way that isn’t off-putting. He has a loyal LGBTQ following, too.
Even when he was showing his first movies in a church meeting hall, he was becoming a one-man brand, drawing a crowd and building on it.
“There was always an audience,” he said earlier this year. “They were always people that were angry, had a sense of humor and didn’t fit in their own communities. That’s always been my core audience.”
Now other companies and organizations, looking for a way to stand out from the competition, want some of his edginess to rub off and help them sell their products or call attention to their brands.
One of the best examples involves Nike and Nordstrom, which tapped him in 2019 to represent their Nordstrom x Nike campaign (along with soccer star Megan Rapinoe and supermodel Binx Walton). It was counterintuitive marketing, and it seemed to open the floodgates for Waters.
Nike didn’t want Waters because he’s an athlete. It has that market covered. Nike wanted him because he isn’t an athlete. In fact, Nike wanted him because he hates sports and has been very vocal about it, calling himself a “sports bigot.” For America’s biggest seller of sportswear, non-athletes are an untapped market to reach, and Nike saw Waters as a key to reaching it.
Since then, Saint Laurent flew him to France to model for its Fall 2020 menswear campaign. Henry Louis Gates Jr. put him on his Finding Your Roots program on PBS, where he discovered Waters has a slave-owning ancestor. Baltimore’s Calvert School, where Waters was a student in the 1950s, got him to host its annual fundraiser in January.
Waters is usually happy to oblige. Despite his general disdain for sports, he even autographed a skateboard recently for an auction to raise funds for a new skate park overlooking Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Is he in favor of sports now? “I’ve always been for skateboarders,” he explained. “They’re trouble makers, or used to be, so I’m happy for it.”
Waters says there are two things he won’t do: Parades and cruise ships.
“They ask me all the time to do my show there,” he said of the cruise ship operators. “Who wants to go on a cruise ship now? It sounds like the scariest possible thing…You have to go there and be stuck with people you don’t want to be with and everybody gets the disease?”
And then there’s the puking if the seas aren’t calm.
“I got seasick once in my life and it was the most horrible memory I’ve ever had,” he told his London fans. “You can have three days of everybody puking if it’s rough. So I can’t imagine being trapped puking with people, cruise ships and forced group activities. I don’t know. I wouldn’t be good on one. I wouldn’t be good. But each to their own.”
One thing he’d like to do, besides meeting Eminem: A commercial for Maybelline, the company that makes the eyeliner pencil he uses on his mustache.
“Maybelline Velvet Black, the only kind that works,” he said. “I’ve been trying to get that commercial for years and I think I should and they won’t go for it.”
Why is Waters in such demand at 75? He believes he knows the answer.
Although he first became known for his raunchy early movies — and that reputation has stayed with him, as seen by the tiny Pink Flamingo he holds in his brand new Funko POP! figure — he was raised in an upper-middle-class family.
He never disavowed his relatively traditional upbringing. Even though he has filmed and written about quirky, off-beat people and places, he brings an upper-middle-class sensibility to the stories he tells, and that helps put his audiences at ease. “I’ve always said, you have to learn the rules of good taste to make fun of bad taste,” he has said.
Waters knows tacky from campy, and he knows how to laugh at it all. That makes him palatable to people who might not otherwise watch a drag show or set foot in a lesbian biker bar but who wouldn’t mind, just like Nike and Nordstrom, to be considered a little bit edgy themselves.
In February, 10 people from around the country bid an average of $1600 apiece at auction to have him take them on a tour of secret “sex haunts” in Provincetown this summer. It’s the perfect metaphor for what he does.
Waters confides that one secret to his success is that he takes people on trips to places they may not want to visit on their own but are willing to explore because they feel comfortable with him as a guide.
As a young filmmaker, “I wanted to experience worlds that I had no idea about and that scared me a little, and try to understand them,” he said during the Calvert School fundraiser. “And then I would use that with humor to ask people to come with me and I would be their guide and take them into a world they might not be comfortable with if I wasn’t there.”
He likes taking people to the edge, to places that make them feel a little nervous – and make him feel nervous, too.
“I think people want me as a guide,” he told his Santa Cruz fans. “With me as their guide, they’ll come along because I’ll protect them and make them laugh.”
Humor is a good way to open eyes and minds, he said.
“Laughter to me is how you negotiate. It’s how you win. It’s how you disarm your enemy. If you can make them laugh with you, they’ll listen. They won’t if you start preaching.”
He always tries to impart a positive message.
“I think my best movie is Serial Mom,” he said. “I think my best movie with Divine is Female Trouble. But to me, they’re all the same movie, in a way. They all tell a story that shows what I believe, that you shouldn’t judge other people…”
Also working in his favor: He hasn’t made enemies the way some artists have. He’s not mean-spirited. As he puts it, he only makes fun of the things he loves, and he loves what he makes fun of.
So what’s next?
One hint came when Waters appeared with Ricki Lake on Bravo for a half-hour show and then a 12 minute “aftershow” pegged to Hairspray’s anniversary. Commenters on social media were quick to ask for more: a reunion with Johnny Depp to remember Cry-Baby, a session with Kathleen Turner for Serial Mom. He could go down the list of all the celebrities he’s cast (or wanted to): John Waters and Pia Zadora. John Waters and Melanie Griffith. John Waters and Johnny Knoxville, who has Jackass 4 coming out in September.
Waters said he’s been asked to do a talk show, but he knows that would take an enormous amount of time. “To do that right you have to give up your entire career and do that every day. Having a TV show is a full-time commitment.”
More movies aren’t out of the question, but they aren’t likely either.
“The books do just as well these days,” he told Andy Cohen. “I get to tell stories and it’s just me. I don’t have to go raise money. You don’t have test screenings for books. Imagine if you did.”
At the same time, he says there’s still interest in Fruitcake, the children’s Christmas movie he’s been trying for years to make. “There is new possibility,” he teased last week. “That’s all I’ll say. I’m not going to jinx it.”
He likes making surprise TV appearances on mainstream shows, such as the ones he’s done for Law & Order: SVU playing Floyd Cougat the Pornmonger Man. “I’m proud to be exploited by NBC,” he told Baltimore Magazine last year. “I like to do movies where people don’t expect me,” he told his fans in Tulsa.
Looking to the near future, Waters is optimistic that some of his annual events will come back this year, and he’s lining up speaking engagements for when the COVID pandemic is under control.
He says he believes his Camp John Waters “sleepaway” weekend in Connecticut for superfans will return this summer after a COVID-related hiatus, with Patricia Hearst and Kathleen Turner joining him as camp counselors. A new, renamed iteration of Burger Boogaloo, the punk rock music festival he hosts in Oakland, California, may be on for this October or, if not then, July 2022.
He’s waiting to hear about the several dozen spoken-word shows he performs around the country between Thanksgiving and Christmas. “I think a lot of those decisions are going to happen in September.”
Waters said his birthday will be fairly “low-key” this year, even though it’s a big one. He was scheduled to appear at Sony Hall in Manhattan on April 23, but that performance was postponed due to COVID. He’s still heading to New York for his birthday though.
“I’m going to New York with a friend,” he said. “Someone is having a small dinner party with me. Everybody has had their shots, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
The postponed Sony Hall performance has been rescheduled for Waters’ 76th birthday, April 22, 2022. That’s just one of the events he’s already booked for a year from now.
He’s scheduled to appear at The Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, California, next April 16 for John Waters Easter – conceived as a tribute to Edith “The Egg Lady” Massey that was supposed to happen in 2020. He has a This Filthy World show at the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, lined up for May 14 of next year, part of a John Waters Festival featuring screenings of Polyester and Hairspray. Farrar, Straus and Giroux is expected to release “Liarmouth” in 2022, triggering another book tour. He said he just might go to the ribbon-cutting for the Inner Harbor skate park.
In other words, his calendar is filling up, and that’s the way he likes it. That’s what he prefers to retirement.
“I’m always thinking of new projects, always got some back-up plans,” he said last weekend. “You’ve got to always have backup plans in life, and if you retire, you don’t have a backup plan — except death.”
The world is a much more fabulous place with John Waters in it. I hope his “Fruitcake” movie comes to … uh …. FRUITION.
I still have the “scratch and sniff” cards I got when I saw “Polyester”. Waters films are always such fun events.
He has some good outlooks about life. Love his opinion about retirement.
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