Happy birthday to John Waters, who turns 74 years old on April 22. To celebrate, we’re republishing the following interview from the January, 1983 issue of High Times.
“If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation.”
Those are the words, and the self-professed artistic credo, of John Waters—the Cinematic Sleaze King of Baltimore, Maryland, the Self-Crowned Nabob of nausea, the Sheik of Shock and Schlock, the Emperor of Enemas and the American cinema’s one-and-only Prince of Puke—this last title earned on the strength of the never-to-be-forgotten climax of Pink Flamingos, where Waters showed his superstar—a 300-pound, balding transvestite named Divine—getting down in the street on all fours and wolfing down a pile of dogshit (thereby locking up the title of “The Filthiest Person Alive”).
Waters’s incredible movies—ranging from juvenilia like Hag in a Black Leather Jacket and Eat Your Makeup; to such fullblown and fully ripened masterpieces as Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble; all the way up (or down) to the recent Polyester (costarring “dream couple” Divine and Tab Hunter, and released in odorama)—have redefined all past concepts of “bad taste” in cinema. He and his wild and weirdly talented “stock company” (which also includes Edie the Egg Lady, saturnine Mink Stole and the ethereal Mary Vivian Pearce) have plunged into the nether realms of tastelessness, boldly striking backward where no explorer has ventured before. In Waters’s world those old movie staples, sex and violence, are fused with grotesque table etiquette, abominable bathroom habits, rampaging lust and disgraceful misbehavior of all kinds.
High Times’ editor Larry “Ratso” Sloman—whose own habits are so depraved and unspeakable that he obviously finds in Waters a kindred spirit—decided to meet the Sleaze King on his stamping grounds, Baltimore. There he found a polite and quiet-spoken, apparently typical middle-class young man with a pencil-thin mustache, whose mild appearance seemed to belie the unforgivable cinematic atrocities he has wreaked upon an unsuspecting world. Waters even had kind words for Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. But the man who gave a new meaning to the phrase “Underground Cinema” soon began running true to form. Read on…
High Times: What is your mail like?
John Waters: Well, since the book has come out I’ve gotten more mail than I ever got from the movies. One letter was fifteen pages single-spaced about how ugly their mother was. Someone sent me a jar of soil from Gacey’s yard in Chicago. I got a letter from a girl in Germany that wrote to every single John Waters in the phone book. She wrote stuff like, “Your deathly face haunts me. I’m coming to see you.” And she did. From Germany. Rang the bell downstairs.
High Times: And?
Waters: I met her at the Charles Theatre and she turned out to be a very nice girl. The letters I get from the movies are mostly from people that want to be in films—people that I would never use because they’re crazy in real life. Like, a million drag queens write me.
But my favorite letter was from this kid who was sixteen. He wrote, “I make films too. But the problem is you, they all say how great you are. Me, they send me to the school psychiatrist. What’s the difference?” I wrote back, “When you make a film you say it’s gross. Just gross is not enough. Make ’em funny too.” And then he wrote me back and said, “I did, Mr. Waters, and my teacher gave me an A. The whole class loved it. And I’m going to go to NYU film school.” He was a nice kid.
High Times: Have you been harassed at all from Moral Majority types because of your films?
Waters: I would welcome the Moral Majority to hassle me. It would help at the box office. But they won’t pick on me because they know that the people who enjoy my films are lost causes to them anyway.
Now, if I was on television where I could reach their angelic children who might be influenced by me, maybe they’d harass me. But the whole Moral Majority thing is so weird. I don’t know how much influence they really have. I have never met a person anywhere in my life that believes in that. It’s a hype. Besides, those people haven’t been to a movie in ten years. The ones that want movie censorship never go to movies.
High Times: You had some trouble through the years from the local Maryland censor woman.
Waters: She helped me. She was a press agent for years. I don’t miss her. She was a moron. I could work, kill myself for two years making a movie, borrow all this money, and then go down to the Censor Office and ask this woman’s opinion who couldn’t even speak English.
I used to have this fantasy that when Desperate Living was banned the whole cast would go down and chain ourselves to the furniture. And with my cast there would have been some good news photos of cops hauling us out. But then I figured it would end up costing a fortune, and we were a little too old to do that kind of thing. But I’d have given anything to see their faces when four-hundred-pound Jean Hill chained herself to their desk.
High Times: I understand that when you’re not writing a script or shooting a movie, you travel all around the country attending trials.
Waters: Yeah. I missed Gacey’s trial, I was shooting then. But I’m going to go to Kathy Boudin’s trial. That’s the next biggie. I think it’ll be splashy. I wonder if she’ll snitch. I wouldn’t blame her—she’s in a lot of trouble.
High Times: I understand her father is really upset about the whole thing.
Waters: Well, it wasn’t like she was a girl scout all her life. I mean, she did blow up the house, didn’t she? I think it’ll be a pretty good trial, the kind of trial that’ll last way too long. It’ll probably be easy to get into after awhile. I’ve always enjoyed the Weathermen. And now, in 1982, it’s so weird to see them in a courtroom. Especially if they’re screaming out stuff and refusing to cooperate and refusing to stand up when the judge comes in. That always makes for entertainment.
High Times: Did you go to the Chicago Seven trial?
Waters: No. I went to the Move trial, though. The black Philadelphia group. I loved them so much. They all got life and stuff, but they were really good in the courtroom because they would stand up and scream “Fuck you.” Everything. The judge had to be so patient, and all of their last names were “Africa”: “Miss Africa,” “Mr. Africa,” it was just so ludicrous. But they were incredibly good-looking. They had the dread locks, but I mean really radical ones. And all the girls had little pocketbooks that said, “I live in Africa,” meaning the state of mind. They were hand-embroidered.
I loved their unity together. They really believed in what they were doing. I always like crackpots who are willing to go to jail the rest of their lives for crackpot theory. They have my respect.
High Times: Did you go to the Jean Harris trial?
Waters: No, that was too PBS for me. I mean, everyone’s been jealous before. I like the ones where you can’t figure out why they would have done this. I liked the letter she wrote, though, that was the only good, juicy part. I read the book on the trial because I like Diana Trilling. But the People’s Temple is one of my all-time favorites. Do you know how many books there are about it? Nineteen. I’ve got ’em all. I even have the tapes of all of them killing themselves.
High Times: I think the best scene in all of your films is in Female Trouble, when Divine does the trampoline act and then goes into that incredible monologue, “I framed Leslie Bacon, I snitched on Abbie Hoffman, I blew Richard Speck.”
How much of that Divine character is your creation? It seems like all your obsessions are pouring out of his mouth.
Waters: Divine is nothing like how Divine is in the movies.
High Times: I know that. But how much of the character is a collaboration? Or is it just a mouthpiece for you?
Waters: It’s not a mouthpiece. Nobody could say it like Divine says it. No one else could play Divine. It’s a character we have worked on together, as far as how Divine moves, how Divine talks. The words about Juan Corona and all that is totally me. I mean, Divine might not even know who Leslie Bacon was. But the whole thing is, Divine and I are like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. I could never write that stuff for another character. She might not have known who Leslie Bacon was but she could figure it out. It was all just reversals of who you would ever idolize, Corona, Speck. Divine never went to the murder trials with me. We would have caused too much attention.
High Times: Didn’t she go to the murder trial of Dan White?
Waters: No, she went to the funeral of Harvey Milk. To be on television.
High Times: Did you go to the White trial?
Waters: No. It was a great one, though. He should be out soon. I bet he doesn’t stay around San Francisco. There’d probably be a gay hit squad after him.
High Times: Son of Sam. You didn’t think much of him.
Waters: He was boring. I loved it until they caught him. He’s so ugly. He had no charisma as a murderer. I think they at least have to look good. The case that has obsessed me most was the Manson case. They wanted to scare the world and they did. Not that I approve of what they did, but they did really scare people. It finally ended the hippie movement, thank God.
High Times: You’ve gotten close to Tex Watson.
Waters: He’s a nice person, and the more I talk about him the less chance he will ever have to get out of jail. He was a victim too.
High Times: Did you make the Atlanta trial? Wayne Williams, wasn’t it?
Waters: That didn’t interest me. All that dreary fiber testimony… I don’t think he killed them all, though. I think a lot of parents started killing their kids figuring they could get away with it.
I went to the Watergate trial. I actually heard the tapes. I went with my mother. That was the hardest trial of all to get into. We waited from midnight until two in the afternoon in the rain for it. But it was worth it. I was there the day Nixon called Mitchell the big enchilada. You should have seen Mitchell’s face when he heard that. Aggh.
High Times: What was the weirdest trial you’ve been to?
Waters: One in Baltimore—the penis collector. He had a little lunch box full of them. Creative. Then there was the nurse that shoved turds down her patient’s mouth.
High Times: She obviously had seen Pink Flamingos.
Waters: They didn’t ask her. That was a good trial. I was the only person in the courtroom, and the district attorney looked at me like, “Oh, great.” Her defense was she had her period that day.
High Times: Did you go to the Johnny Holmes trial in L.A.?
Waters: No, I would have loved to. He’ll make out well in jail. One thing, Johnny Wadd won’t have any trouble in jail.
High Times: So what’s the source of all these dark obsessions?
Waters: I guess it’s just Catholicism. I’ve always been fascinated by all the things you’re not supposed to be fascinated by. They used to tell us you’d go to hell if you saw this movie. I’d never heard of the movies, they weren’t playing up the street from my parents. But I’d go to see them because they told me not to.
High Times: Weren’t you also fascinated by car crashes when you were young? You’d get new model cars and smash them with a hammer and get your parents to take you to wrecked-car dumps.
Waters: Yeah. But now I won’t even look at a crash. I think maybe it’ll happen to me. What a lowbrow way to die.
High Times: What’s the best way to check out?
Waters: In your private jet, crashing into the Empire State Building, accidentally taking a lot of people with you. I always wanted to die on a roller coaster, jumping the track and smashing into a cotton-candy stand. But as a kid, I wasn’t so much interested in seeing a car accident as looking at the wreckage of the cars when it was over. Going through those junkyards, it was looking at something damaged, something decaying. I used to keep scrapbooks of all the ’50s cars, like the Roadmaster and the Century. There was that ’50s car culture, cars were almost a superhuman thing you had to envy and want. To see that destroyed is the same thing I do in all of my films—trashing things that are supposed to be held dear to people. Trashing them and reversing it.
High Times: That’s like Nietzsche, the reevaluation of all values.
Waters: But the murder things and going to trials came about because I’ve always liked villains. They’re the most interesting characters in a book. And this was real. People that were villains in real life and not just in storybooks or movies. That would fascinate me, the banality of evil. It’s such a true cliche. These murderers, just one second in their life and they’re famous. But they’re just like normal people. Think of what their families go through—as much as the people who get murdered. There are always two victims.
High Times: Don’t you think that there’s some empirical validity to the notion of pathology?
Waters: They weren’t born that way. They didn’t come out of the womb with a knife in their hands. I’m not saying I’m for what they do. But it can happen to anyone. It’s in every one of us for something like that to happen. I’m sure that the kids in the Manson family could be let out today and they’re never going to harm anybody. But from those two nights a lot of them are never going to get out. Because the public has turned them into real-life Captain Hooks. I think more people know who Charles Manson is than know Ronald Reagan. That’s the interesting thing—that there’s no difference anymore between notoriety and fame.
High Times: What’s great about your films is that you take these horrific things from real life and twist them into humor.
Waters: In all my films people laugh at things that would be so cruel to laugh at if they happened to somebody you knew. But it’s so ridiculous and exaggerated, that you can’t really think it could possibly happen that way. It could. People could throw acid in your face, it happens all the time. But the thing that interests me most about the trials is how they handle the sudden glare of publicity. It’s really true that anyone can become famous overnight. Look at Hinckley.
High Times: He did it for Jody.
Waters: Poor Jody. Divine said, “I wish it would have happened to me. What is she thinking about? I would have been blowing kisses in the courtroom screaming ‘I love you John!”‘ That stuff interests me. If I didn’t make films I think I would have been a criminal lawyer or a reporter.
High Times: I read that you consider Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill by Russ Meyer to be the best film of all time. Why?
Waters: It has the meanest, funniest dialogue I’ve ever heard. It’s about three lesbian go-go dancers that go around killing men and stealing money. And the girls look great. It was enough of an influence on me where I wanted Divine to play a mean kind of woman. Except her tits were dishrags.
High Times: So that was the model for films like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble?
Waters: It wasn’t the model. I just wanted to make jokes on the drive-in movies that I saw growing up. They were my Citizen Kane. I’d much rather watch Mud Honey than Citizen Kane.
High Times: What’s the sleaziest film you ever saw?
Waters: There’s good sleaze and bad sleaze. Bad sleaze is just distasteful with no humor. Good bad taste is funny bad, it makes you laugh at the audacity that there is such a thing as what you’re laughing at. Bad bad taste you just wish it wasn’t there. I think Choir Boys exemplifies the latter.
High Times: So what’s your favorite good bad-taste film?
Waters: Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill. And early Hershel Gordon Lewis films. But I’m ashamed to admit that at the same time I was going to the drive-ins I was also going to see Bergman films. I went to see both. I still do. I’ll go to see almost any movie. I didn’t go see Yes, Giorgio. I draw the line somewhere. The Greek Tycoon, the film about Jackie O, could have been good trash. I could have directed that well. I mean, they didn’t even show her shopping. They should have had Jackie clutching hundreds of bags. So I see Bergman and trash. Then I try to put them together, do arty-trashy movies.
High Times: How do you feel about all the sociological arguments, that people imitate what they see on the screen?
Waters: I think if a film can make you kill someone it’s a great movie. If a film can be that powerful, to influence your life that heavily, it must be a pretty good movie. I think that the theories are a crock of shit. There are always people who can say, “This tree told me to kill somebody.” If you’re going to worry about that, then you can’t have entertainment.
High Times: You wanted me to ask you about drugs.
Waters: I know my drug views would be very anti your magazine. But taking drugs at my age is like being a punk after you’re twenty-five. It looks silly. Drugs are part of growing up, like getting pimples. But afterward… I think pot does make you stupid. It makes you settle for less. When I was growing up I took so many drugs. I’m not sorry I did. I never had a bad experience, but then I was lucky—I moved on. Whereas other people I know didn’t, and they’re drug addicts. I even took morning-glory seeds like some giant parakeet.
High Times: So you’re saying kids should take drugs and then give them up. That’s a different idea, that’s for sure.
Waters: Sixteen to twenty-one. Those are the ripe drug years, but after that, echh. That’s like having a mohawk at thirty.
High Times: By the way, I was amazed to see how you anticipated all those visual styles. Divine had a mohawk in ’72.
Waters: A lot of that was Van Smith. Give him credit. He did all the costumes and makeup.
High Times: Besides pot, what drugs were you familiar with?
Waters: I used to do a lot of speed growing up. I felt like taking speed again after I read the Edie Sedgwick book. But I’m too old for that.
High Times: Have you gone on to other drugs? Prescription drugs like Valium?
Waters: I always hated downs. Valiums make me mean. When I was a teenager I wanted to shoot heroin to see what it was like. The first time I did it someone shot me up and this huge black bubble grew in my arm. I thought, “Oh, isn’t this pretty for school.” I mean, drugs were just too much trouble. Now if I want anything it’s a martini straight up. I figure it looks prettier than a needle or carrying around things in tinfoil.
High Times: Coke?
Waters: Cocaine makes me just want to drink and talk a lot. To telephone poles. “Hi, look in refrigerator. Cold in there?” It really gets me ridiculous. I have friends that take drugs. But I wouldn’t vote for them to become legal. I think pot takes away ambition.
High Times: The pot that people are smoking today is much stronger than the pot that was around when you were smoking.
Waters: No matter how much I liked it I could never say to someone, “I’d like some Maui wowie.” I would be so mortified to say that to someone. The high could never compensate.
High Times: But you recently smoked grass with William Burroughs.
Waters: Well, from him how could you not? It would have been a sacrilege. He has the most incredible sense of humor. We did a thing together in Washington. He read, and I showed Desperate Living, which I thought was a good mix from the old wave.
High Times: What was smoking with him like?
Waters: All I could remember was thinking, “Here I am sitting smoking pot with William Burroughs.” I used to read him in high school when I was supposed to be paying attention to the teacher. So it made me feel happy, I felt I had chosen the right direction to go in.
High Times: So you see yourself as old wave?
Waters: That was just a joke. I have nothing against the new wave. It’s a great look for ugly girls. I mean, the hate generation. I had been waiting for that for a long time. I was too early for the hate generation. When I was there it was all love and peace, which I had definite problems with.
High Times: What do you think of new-wave style?
Waters: When I first saw it I thought it looked very good. Divine and I went to London when it first came out, and Divine said it was the first time he ever felt like Plain Jane. But the new-wave style has a lot of humor, and it perks me up when I’m walking down the street and I see it. It makes me smile. Then I always imagine what it’s like when they’re with their parents. At home at Christmas with their parents under the tree with a mohawk.
High Times: In retrospect, are you embarrassed by your early long-hair incarnation?
Waters: I was never a hippie. I had long hair and I went to the riots, but just because they were good parties. I wasn’t socially involved.
High Times: You come more from the beat tradition, right?
Waters: That was the first way I rebelled. Beatnik. Moondog. I’d run away to New York to see the beatniks, then I’d think, “This is the way I want to go.” They were glamorous to me. I read all about them, I knew their sense of humor and their interests and it was everything I identified with. I read Genet. I was thirteen, living in a suburban-type home in Baltimore, so I couldn’t go to North Beach, but I read about it all the time.
High Times: Have you gotten more conservative as you’ve grown up?
Waters: Politically I’m so different. Some things I’m pretty radical, some things I support Reagan. It depends on the issue. I decided recently that locally I’ll vote for the most radical left-wing candidate and then vote for Reagan for president. Somewhere it will equal out.
High Times: What’s Reagan’s appeal to you?
Waters: I don’t like to pay as much income tax. Totally selfish, monetary reasons. Then I feel guilty about that, so I’ll vote for all the radical local things. They’ll give him a tough time so he can’t pass any of the right-wing laws, and I’ll get to keep the money I’ve worked for twenty years to make.
High Times: You always were very ambitious—
Waters: In a way, to do what I wanted to do. If I wanted to just make money I would probably be making TV movies now.
High Times: You must have done well with Pink Flamingos?
Waters: I don’t have a helicopter waiting outside to whisk us downtown. But I am a thousandaire.
High Times: Well, you really seem to have mellowed. You’re not the same guy who made Multiple Maniacs, that’s for sure.
Waters: I grew. I want to try and grow old gracefully. I like old people. I like to go to parties where everyone is sixty years old. They have much better parties, better food, better liquor. The stench of pot isn’t in the air.
Getting older isn’t a crisis for me. I had fun, I went through all the teenage things. I rebelled against my parents. Now I think they were right about almost everything. I would have hated to have had parents who took drugs and went to Plato’s Retreat and tried to be “with it.” I’m glad I was arrested, I’m glad I took drugs. But I don’t want to do that now. It was part of growing up, I got a lot of good material out of it.
High Times: How would you describe yourself as a child?
Waters: You know that picture in the Diane Arbus book of a kid holding a hand grenade? That’s what I felt like as a kid. Not that I was an especially angry child. But I was never interested in what I was supposed to be interested in. I would make my own scrapbooks, draw imaginary characters, make up horror stories.
My first obsession was the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz. I used to have pictures of her all around my room. I still think she’s the best character, Obie, Obie. I saw that movie over and over. I liked the witch and the tornado and the winged monkeys. That’s why I couldn’t imagine why on earth she wanted to go to Kansas. Villains are always the best characters.
High Times: Maybe you were just reacting to the blandness of the ’50s.
Waters: The “Leave It to Beaver” atmosphere? Everybody was raised to believe that was reality. And everyone knew it wasn’t. They all say how great the ’50s were, I thought the ’50s were terrible. So oppressive. Go see Atomic Cafe, that’s what the ’50s were like, diving under desks. It wasn’t fun. Then Elvis came and I loved him. I had every record. I even thought I was Elvis Presley. I had a Top Ten board over my bed which I changed daily with clear plastic after each number. That was my second obsession. I would call all the record stores every day, impersonating a local radio station that really did that, and they would give me all the information. And then I work out….number eight, number seven, ripping off the clear plastic and dancing around the room by myself. Like a lunatic. That’s what I was doing when I was nine.
High Times: What about school?
Waters: I went to a private grade school, grades one to six. Then I was going to go to Catholic high school. So for grades seven and eight I had to go to a public school where I encountered a whole new world of girl juvenile delinquents. I used to watch them all the time, people who really acted like Elvis Presley. These girls looked so monstrous. White lipstick and big, teased hair. The other kids had baseball cards, I would go home and draw these girls and exaggerate them and savor these drawings like baseball cards. Look at them every day. Those were the first characters that I thought up. That’s what Divine played in Female Trouble, exactly that kind of girl.
Then, in high school, drugs entered my life. That changed everything. I took LSD in ’64 before it was even illegal.
High Times: How did you get into that scene?
Waters: I met people that lived in my neighborhood that didn’t hang out in my neighborhood. That was the key. Beatniky people, with Cleopatra eye makeup and fishnet nylons. They had poetry readings at this beatnik bar downtown. I would go to the bar but I couldn’t get in because I wasn’t twenty-one, so I’d sit in the alley, right outside the door. And for some reason my parents would drive me there and let me off.
High Times: Let you off so you could hang out in the alley?
Waters: Yes, I thought that was nice. I’ll never forget—my mother said, “Is this camp or slums?” I guess my parents realized it wasn’t going to work for me the other way, being a jock in a fraternity. So this was the first time I was ever around drugs, homosexuality, beatniks, all of it mixed, totally mixed. It wasn’t a gay scene, it wasn’t a drug scene, it was completely mixed. And that’s when I first started making the movies. Eight-millimeter black and white, no editing. They were terrible. We’d show them in these coffeehouses.
High Times: You talked in your book about sickniks?
Waters: We would just go to a public park where families went, but the girls would really dress for the occasion. Thrift-shop outlandish. This was before there was even the word hippie. When the hippie movement came around, all of the people I knew hated it. They thought we were being coopted. What is this horrible trend that is making us look normal? So we used to go to these parks, and everyone would get loaded on pot and liquor and they would see us coming, twenty-strong, and families would literally pick up their picnic baskets and run to the safety of their cars.
Also, the people that I hung around with were very big on robberies, they were antique thieves. So it was really a ring of pot-heads and people that stole Oriental rugs that was the nucleus of my first downtown friends.
High Times: You were tripping a lot when you were making the first films?
Waters: Not while I was doing them. I was tripping about once a week from ’66 to ’70. Real strong acid. I don’t know if I got any ideas from it, but it helped me further break the suburban mold. Divine, all of us, did it together and it brought everyone much closer, I think. We hung around together, sort of like an extended family.
High Times: Sounds like the love generation.
Waters: It does. But then again, what it brought us closer to do was hideous violent movies. Instead of ending the war, we wanted to start a war. That’s the difference. I took acid about two years ago. I hadn’t done it in ten years and I thought maybe it would be like a tune-up, but it was just boring. I couldn’t go to sleep, I kept seeing all these colors jumping around. It wasn’t new anymore, it was a rerun.
High Times: Didn’t you have any profound insights on acid?
Waters: No, thank God. That would have been a bad trip, if some profound thought had come to me. It didn’t change my life, it just made it more fun for the week. Maybe it changed me a little. It made me take everything even less seriously than I already took it. I think it gave all of us that worked together a sense of humor about ourselves. We never thought what we were doing was going to change the world.
I don’t want to change the world. I like everything that’s bad in the world. The worst stuff, that’s where my material comes from. I’m no missionary. But profound? How about Divine doing Dionne Warwick imitations two hours into a trip, with shower rings for earrings and an old dirty towel wrapped around his head for hair? That’s about the most profound thing I can remember.
High Times: Isn’t he a big pothead?
Waters: You said that, I didn’t. You’d better ask him on that. I wouldn’t say you’re far off. He’s got the munchies all right. Chronically. Permanently.
High Times: Is it true that your mother left one of your screenings crying?
Waters: Yes, but that was a long time ago. They loved Polyester. But why force them to see Pink Flamingos?They would have hated it.
High Times: They never saw it?
Waters: No, but they know what it’s about. They said, “If you want us to, we’ll see it.” Why should they see it? It would really upset them. But I guess if I had a kid that made a movie I would have to see it. If I had a kid, he’d try to make something that would appall me. A Walt Disney movie. That’s a bad analogy. I like Walt Disney movies. A lot of the characters in my films are even modeled after some of the Disney characters.
High Times: So what shocks you now? Other than your royalty statements?
Waters: The thing that offends me are male pickets against abortion. Television. Also Pink Flamingos, the last time I saw it. I haven’t seen it for four years and I was shocked when I saw it again. I thought, “Oh my God, I made that?” No wonder people get pissed off.
High Times: I guess you’ll be forever living down or living up to that shit-eating scene.
Waters: I think that’s pretty much over with. Many people saw Polyester who hadn’t seen any of my other films.
High Times: But you became the self-admitted Dr. Joyce Brothers of dog shit.
Waters: Well, you got to start somewhere. It worked.
High Times: Were there Waters purists who hated Polyester?
Waters: Some. I think it was just reverse snobbism. Polyester was the only film where Divine didn’t want his costumes. He said no drag queen in the world would put these shoes on. I think Divine was especially good in Polyester because he was playing something completely different than in my other films: a victim. Divine’s a really good actor. I think he could play male roles too. He isn’t just costumes and makeup. I’m working on a script now where he’ll play triplets.
High Times: Did you feel happy getting those rave reviews in establishment journals like Newsweek and the New York Times when Polyester came out?
Waters: I was ecstatic.
High Times: You didn’t feel coopted? Like maybe you were doing something wrong?
Waters: No, I always try to sell out. The early bad reviews helped us out at the time. We didn’t feel one bit coopted. We wound up selling the film to thirty-three countries. Israel, Iceland, Argentina. I went to eighteen cities in Germany to promote it.
High Times: What’s your impression of Germany?
Waters: My favorite country. A nation of villains.
High Times: I already know the answer to this question: Did you visit Dauchau?
Waters: As soon as I got off the plane. They picked me up and took me straight there.
High Times: Who would you like to work with in the future?
Waters: Pia Zadora more than anyone. Pam Grier. Tina Turner. Victor Mature. Lana Turner. Benji. All the real stars.
High Times: Do you think there are any taboos now?
Waters: With me? Sure. I’m not a necrophiliac. I’m not a coprophiliac. There are a lot of things that I think are strictly no-no’s. For me. Other people can do it all they like. I think if you’re a necrophiliac you have to become an undertaker. It’s about the only place you can meet dead people. No, some discos you can meet dead people.
High Times: You get a lot of questions about your personal sex life?
Waters: No, because I never talk about it. I enjoy when I don’t know what a person’s story is. I have no desire to share my sex life with the readers of High Times. I don’t feel any real inner urge to do that. I have friends that I confide in. I always wonder when I read about these movie stars crying over their breakups. I think, “Don’t you have friends you tell this to?”
What is it you want to know?
High Times: I don’t want to know anything. Actually, a lot of people urged me to ask about your sex life. I’m personally not too interested in your sex life.
Waters: Tom Snyder kept trying to find out if Divine and I were gay. It’s hardly a stop-the-press issue. No kidding.
High Times: I’ve read interviews where you talk about being gay. Like in the Advocate. In some way has your sexuality—
Waters: It’s my own business, that’s what I think.
High Times: I don’t mean that. Has it somehow influenced the way you look at the whole world?
Waters: Sure, but I reverse it. I always have heterosexual people playing homosexuals, and homosexuals playing heterosexuals. Almost always. I change it around to further confuse people because that’s what’s the most fun about sexuality—confusion.
High Times: In Female Trouble, Edie gives that long speech to her son urging him to turn gay, how gay is better than straight—
Waters: That’s just market research so I can tell how much of my audience is gay and how much straight. They applaud accordingly. That’s another reversal—a mother trying to talk her son into becoming gay. Usually it’s the other way.
High Times: There wasn’t real ideology behind it?
Waters: Just more reversal. Believe me, I don’t think one is better than the other. They’re both quite difficult, straight or gay. I don’t think it’s easy, all these ludicrous positions. All sex, you’ve got to think, “Why am I doing this?”
I don’t think that my films appeal only to gay people. I think the breakdown is just like in real life. In all my films Divine is never portrayed as a man playing a woman. That’s never revealed at the end, like old drag shows. The guy that mixed Polyester, when we were talking about it after we finished, I told him and he was stunned. He sat at the film for eight days and he didn’t know. I think in my films sex is just as ridiculous as everything else. Ludicrous.
High Times: Have you ever been attacked by gay or feminist groups?
Waters: Once in Boston a gay group tried to stop Desperate Living because it “made fun” of lesbians. Well, it does. But what makes them immune from satire? I didn’t hear them bitching when I made fun of everyone else. I don’t know how any gay group could attack our films, it would be really pushing it. I don’t know, I’ve been to some of those bars where no one smiles. It’s the opposite of what the word gay is. Everybody is so dead serious and they’re all dressed up like people that beat them up all their lives. That’s the thing I don’t get.
High Times: Are you familiar with some of the recent sociobiological theories about criminality being genetic?
Waters: I don’t believe that. I think it’s all parents and environment. I think the answer to crime is abortion and education.
High Times: You’re a walking bundle of contradictions.
Waters: It depends on the issue.
High Times: Or the hour. Or the weather?
Waters: No, I’m pretty consistent in keeping the same opinions.
High Times: You vote a lot?
Waters: I try to vote as much as I can.
High Times: Five, six times, I read.
Waters: Well, I’ve calmed down. I used to vote a lot each election. Every city I was in, because it made the newspapers more interesting. I felt more civic-minded if I voted six times in an election. I love to vote.
High Times: Yeah, but then they have your name and you can get called for jury duty.
Waters: I certainly wouldn’t mind that. I’d be so happy.
High Times: Sorry, I forgot.
Waters: They’d never let me on a jury. Are you kidding? They’d question me, “Have you ever been in a courtroom?” “Well, I’ve traveled thousands of miles at my own expense to go to them, yes. Every day I go to court.” Forget it, they’d never let me on a jury.
Featured image of John Waters by Peter Hudson.