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John Waters Pays Homage to his Role Models (Book Review)

by William Hughes Tuesday, Jun. 08, 2010 at 7:20 PM

John Waters is a Baltimore Icon! He’s a film director, producer, author and a recovering Catholic. The then-Maryland Censor Board panned many of his early flicks, “as pure garbage.” Waters is openly gay. His latest book is “Role Models.” In it, Waters reveals the people who have influenced and have helped to shape his own complex persona. Waters confesses in his tome that he voted for Barack Obama because “he ‘was’ a friend of Bill Ayers!”

John Waters Pays Hom...
rolemodelscover.jpeg, image/jpeg, 418x576

“I hope [my headstone] doesn’t end up reading, ‘The Duke of Dirt!’” - John Waters

It was awfully humid, with the heat index hovering around 95 degrees. I waited my turn standing outside the Atomic Books store on the Falls Road in Baltimore, MD, in the quirky Hampden area of the city. It was Saturday evening, June 5, 2010, and the line waiting to buy the book, “Role Models,” by John Waters, went around the block. After downing a bottle of cold water outside, I was finally able to get inside the store to buy my copy and get it signed by Waters--a genuine Baltimore icon--if there ever was one. (1)

I couldn’t help thinking, however, that Waters, the anointed “Pope of Trash,” has come a long way from the 60s--70s era, in this town. When the late Mary Avara was head of the Maryland Censor Board, she regularly cut, slashed and harshly panned his low budget, bad taste films, such as: “Eat Your Make-Up” and “Mondo Trasho.” She labeled them as “pure garbage!” The mere mention of Waters’ name would send Avara off into a rant. (2)

It’s true that times have change, but not necessarily all the people. Some of Waters’ classmates from Calvert Hall H.S., a Roman Catholic institution branded him a “faggot” and “pornographer,” at a recent reunion. Can you imagine what Right Wing characters, like that, would have done to him if the Inquisition were still around?

This is Waters’ sixth book and his funniest; it is also one in which he shows more of himself--his serious side. The book is about people whose lifestyles have served as an inspiration to him and have helped him to come to grip with his own complex persona. Singer Johnny Mathis; playwright Tennessee Williams; Charley Manson groupie, Leslie Van Houten; fashion designer Rei Kawakubo; Lesbian stripper, Lady Zoro; and Little Richard, among others, get top billing from Waters. It’s, indeed, a motley crew.

There is even a chapter in the book on Waters’ “Baltimore Heroes.” This includes the late Esther Martin. She ran a dive, called the “Wigwam,” later know as “Club Charles,” opposite the Charles Theatre. The folks that hung out there weren’t celebrities, he said. They were “alcoholics, mental patients, and vets.” Waters says that one night he was in the bar, when he saw a homeless guy “bite off the nose of another and spit it out on the bar!”

There are even bigger shockers in this book, too. I did not know that Waters had killed a person in an automobile accident! It happened back in 1970, near the Broadway Market. An elderly man who sold peanuts at the market walked out in front of Waters’ car as he was driving on that boulevard. “His body,” Waters writes, “flipped up and landed on the hood with his face pressed towards mine through the driver-side windshield.”

Lucky for Waters, there was a key eyewitness--a cop! He saw the accident happen rushed over to him and said: “It wasn’t your fault.” Waters was greatly relieved, since then, he had “long oily hair” and was dressed in a “thrift-shop-pimp-meets-hillbilly outfit.” The actress Mink Stole was in the car with Waters. (3) He said she was still in her “religious whore” period--dressed in all black with “tons of rosaries around her neck way before Goth.”

In any event, Waters had to go to court on a manslaughter charge, which, thanks to the cop’s testimony, was dropped. He said that the image of that elderly man’s face pressed against his windshield so “horrified” him, that he has used it in three of his later films, “Polyester,” “Serial Mom” and “Cecil B. Demented.” Waters added that in “Cry-Baby,” he put in a scene where Patricia Hearst is playing a school crossing guard, and she tells Johnny Depp, as he exits school: “Look left. Look right. ‘Then’ walk.”

Waters, now age 64, says that when he was six years old he wanted to be Dagmar! She was a busty, TV personality, in the 50s, nearly six feet tall, who played a “dumb blonde.” Waters says he “daydreamed” about her in grade school. Later, he tracked her down in 1979, in Southern Connecticut. Walters let her know that he liked hanging out over in Provincetown, MA. Dagmar responded: “Oh yes, I was there, I was ‘Queen of the Fairies!’”

Waters, who is openly gay, describes himself as a “bleeding-heart liberal, a one time Yippie sympathizer and full time Weatherman hag.” He added this crack: “I’m one of the few who voted for [Barack] Obama because he ‘was’ a friend of Bill Ayers.”

If you could snoop around his uniquely styled town house in Baltimore, Waters confesses that you would find: a “crucifix” cigarette lighter; a “Baader-Meinhoff Gang” wanted-poster kit and, of course, “brass knuckles.” He also brags in the book about his spoken-word Christmas album, which includes this anti-Capitalist spiel: “Here Comes Fatty Clause (With His Sack of Shit).

As mentioned, Tennessee Williams was one of Waters’ idols. When he tried to check out his books in the library cards, it would read, “See Librarian.” This only made Waters even more determined to get his “adolescent” hands on one of his books. So, when the librarian was helping some “normal” kids out, Waters sneaked behind the checkout desk and “stole” Williams’ book, “One Arm.” It’s a collection of his short stories.

Williams’ very popular movie, “Baby Doll,” was also banned by the RC Church. The nuns had told Waters that he would “go to hell” if he saw the film. He remembers Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York City, (who never saw a war that he couldn’t bless), throwing a “nationwide hissy fit” over it. When he grew up, Waters says that he wanted to own “a dirty movie theater,” and to show “Baby Doll” over and over again to attract “the wrath of the Pope” and to also cause “a scandal in my parents’ neighborhood.”

Even though Waters praises Williams’ talents to the high heavens, he’s also convinced that his art film, “Boom,” was a mega stinker. Recently, Waters presented “Boom” at the Maryland Film Festival. I was in the audience and he had us roaring with laughter as he described the film, its silly plot, and the God-awful performances given by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Waters, a lover of comedy, appreciates the absurd. He says that whenever they have “look-alike contests [of him] at the colleges where he appears, lesbians win!” (4)

Finally, when Waters checks out, he plans to be buried in a graveyard out in Towson, MD, near his beloved “Divine.” (5) I suggest you buy “Role Models,” a real treat of a book, to see just exactly what has helped to make the one and only John Waters--tick! (6)


1. Here are some photos I took at the Waters’ book signing: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=62408&id=1334685315&l=564d864093

2. I knew Mary Avara from South Baltimore politics.

3. The talented Mink Stole is one of Waters’ original cast members. Like him, she’s a recovering Catholic.

4. Check out John Waters’ views on “Free Speech,” at: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8123246752838558441#

5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divine_(actor)

6. By way of full disclosure, this writer has appeared in four of John Waters’ films. (“Pecker” is my favorite!)

©2010, William Hughes, All Rights Reserved.

William Hughes is a author and videographer. Email Contact: liamhughes@comcast.net

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