Shortly before I phone John Waters at his hotel in New York, I post an update on Facebook saying that I'm about to interview him. Within minutes there are dozens of comments from adoring fans.
'Really?' Waters laughs when I tell him. 'That's so funny. And do you know what the funniest part is? I've never been on Facebook in my entire life! Just so you know, there are lots of fakes. And one of them is so good at it, it sounded like I was answering people! Maybe I should get him to do my interviews?'
Today's interview is not about Facebook, but about Waters's book 'Role Models'. And it's definitely the real Waters I'm talking to. The voice is unmistakable, as is the laugh. And he laughs a lot.
There's been a recent spate of teen suicides in America. There's also a severe lack of gay role models. Are these two facts related?
It could be related. You know I said recently in a magazine that I was never bullied, even though I was gay and weird and didn't fit in, because the bullies knew that I hated authority even more than they did. But you can't really teach your children that as protection! You can't say to your kids: “Look, you just really hate authority and the teachers and the principal, and then people will leave you alone.”
But everybody could write a book about their own role models. The problem is that most people think they have to be saints, or people that are good all the time. I'm so tired of people who have to be positive. People who have done negative things can be role models too, because it is how they deal with the negative things, which is incredibly important. In fact, they're probably better role models than somebody that has been seemingly perfect.
How do you feel about gay people on reality shows? Can they be role models?
They can be, but I don't know how many people on reality TV shows are role models to people. Because most of those shows are made so the viewer thinks they're better than the people in it. I think they're made to look down on the subject matter and I'm very against that, and I think I do the opposite of that in “Role Models”. I think that the appeal of most reality television is to laugh at the people, not with them. What's amazing now is that, with every reality show they make...
… they have to have 'the gay one'!
Exactly! And they always have to be good. Why can't we have gay villains? I'm for that possibility, and it seems to be that now people are afraid not to have every gay person be like Gandhi! Or Martin Luther King. And I'm sure even Martin Luther King had his off days. So I think it's important that when we have role models, that we know the good and the bad about them, and not just idealise them as something that's impossible for anybody to be.
The role models you talk about in the book are very diverse. You've got Tennessee Williams, Johnny Mathis and a lesbian stripper called Zorro. I hadn't heard of her…
Nobody has! I mean, she was just a local stripper in Baltimore. She wasn't famous or anything. Divine and I were her biggest fans, I think. I got to know her daughter after she died. That was what was so amazing to me: somebody with authority and a certain viewpoint would have taken that child away from Zorro. But at the same time that child turned out fine, and that is something that I am saying: can bad parents turn out good kids? Well, if the kid knows that they love them, even if their mother is incredibly dysfunctional, as Zorro was, then I think the answer is yes.
If you were a young kid just coming out now, who would be your role models?
Wow, that's a good one! You know, they wouldn't necessarily have to be gay for me to love them. For me, gay is not enough! [laughs]. I've always said it's a good start, but I've also said that progress in the gay community is admitting there are bad gay movies, and that gay people can be bad parents. I don't really care what someone's sexuality is. I just like them to somehow subvert what came before them in an interesting, witty way.
One thing that struck me about the book was that it's incredibly warm-hearted. One reviewer even said it was sentimental. Is that fair?
Well, I didn't write about anybody in the book who, to me, was so bad they were good. I don't think there was anybody I wrote about with irony. I think I really did respect every person in that book. As for being sentimental? I don't know, maybe about my family, maybe about looking back at what I really put my parents through, and how supportive they were when there was no way to figure out what to do with a kid like me.
You've been stuck with the nickname 'The Pope of Trash'. Does that bother you?
No, because Burroughs called me that. That's the one that lasted the most. I've also been called the “The Prince of Puke”, “The Anal Ambassador”, “The Duke of Dirt”, “The Ayatolla of Assholes”…' (Laughs)
I remember when Divine died, you said how sweet it was that his last role was playing a mum in Hairspray.
His last two roles were, because in Polyester he played an alcoholic suburban mom. And he got the best reviews, because his original image was of a frightening monster made to scare off hippies!
Hairspray has become this massive phenomenon. Did you see that coming?
I didn't see it coming, but I wasn't an idiot savant either. Just because I stayed in Baltimore, I wasn't naive. I got Variety when I was 13 years old. I was ambitious, I hoped that things could happen. I've always been a guarded optimist. But, if you'd have asked me if any of my movies would become a Broadway hit musical, what would it be, I probably would have said Female Trouble!'
Has Hairspray set you up for life now? Are you rolling in it?
Oh, it's bought me an apartment in San Fransisco. It didn't set me up for life. But it was the musical of Hairspray, not the movies. The musical made more money than any other thing I've ever done in my life.