The most radical thing I’ve ever said is that I am now in the middle.
Iker Seisdedos in conversation with John Waters
John Waters, the maestro of cinematic audacity, is an American filmmaker, writer, and visual artist whose works defy conventions and revel in subversive humour and provocative weirdness. Born in 1946 in Baltimore, Maryland, Waters has garnered a cult following since the early 1970s for his underground movies and unapologetic character. His unique ability to transform trash into treasure has made him a countercultural legend and a true iconoclast in the world of cinema.
Iker Seisdedos is a Spanish journalist based in Washington, where he works as a correspondent for the Spanish newspaper El País. He writes about erratic politicians, tornadoes, mass shootings, the fentanyl crisis and other aspects of the American dream. He grew up watching John Waters’ movies and wishing his hometown, Bilbao, was a little more like good old filthy Baltimore. Parallel to Greg Gorman photographing Waters for this DUST cover story, Iker finally made the pilgrimage to Baltimore to the house of his countercultural hero, discussing the past, the present, and Waters’ aspirations for his future burial.
PHOTOGRAPHY GREG GORMAN STYLING ANDREW SAUCEDA
Deconstructed cotton twill car coat BALENCIAGA, striped poplin shirt and leather tie BOTTEGA VENETA, shoes LOEWE, superfine cotton socks PRADA, sunglasses SAINT LAURENT BY ANTHONY VACARELLO, wool pants Stylist’s own.
The living room in John Waters’ house in residential Baltimore, a 1925 Mediterranean-style stucco four-story hidden in the trees, looks exactly like where you’d expect the author of this famous quote would live: “If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em!” So yes, there are books everywhere: pulp novels, art catalogs, plays and a lot of Jean Genet, Norman Mailer and William Burroughs, the guy who once memorably called Waters the Pope of Trash for directing some of the most filthy and legendary underground movies of all time: cult films like Pink Flamingos, Polyester, Hairspray, Cry-Baby or Serial Mom.
Also still primarily a visual artist, in recent years Waters has become a successful writer of non-fiction and a terrific stand-up comedian. In 2022, he even published his first work of fiction, Liarmouth, a novel which he defines as a “feel-bad romance” and is as uncleanly funny as the rest of his body of work.
In the room where this conversation takes place, there’s a self-portrait of one of his favorite authors, the great painter and writer Denton Welch. The rest of the art that usually hangs on these walls is gone, still on loan to a recently closed show that celebrated the bequest of his collection of 372 paintings, sculptures, photographs to the Baltimore Museum of Art. “That’s where they will go when I die. They’re about to be returned, but for now it feels like I’ve been robbed,” says Waters, dressed in a turtleneck and a camouflage jacket.
It is early afternoon, but the curtains are drawn. He apologises: the house is about to be closed. In a few days he’ll leave to spend yet another summer—just one shy of a sixtieth—in charming Provincetown, Massachusetts, the cult Cape Cod escape that’s as much of a home to him as Baltimore.
IKER SEISDEDOS – I can tell this place has a well-lived past…
JOHN WATERS – I’ve been here since 1990. I never moved. I have an apartment in San Francisco and one in New York. But this is my house. My offices are here, my art studio is here.
I.S. – It’s a very nice house. And it doesn’t look like the house of a disturbed film director.
J.W. – Well, you have to know the rules of good taste to have fun with bad taste. My parents’ house looked like this, but for the books, I mean, they had some, but not many, and they did not have contemporary art. They hated contemporary art, or at least they didn’t get it. Or maybe they did get it. My father did a piece when I bought a work of Cy Twombly [Five Greek Poets and a Philosopher, 1978]. It was a drawing that said C-R-A-Z-Y. It looked pretty much like a Twombly. I think he did get it without realizing it.
I.S. – So: no sex with illiterates.
J.W. – Unless they’re cute enough. When I said this I was talking about the famous pornographer David Hurles, who recently died. He was the real thing, and Robert Mapplethorpe, a pussy in comparison. He only took pictures of naked sociopathic men that he liked. They were straight and he was gay. So those boys didn’t have books. What I really believe is if they have books in the bathroom really don’t fuck’em. That’s really repulsive! If you go into someone’s bathroom and have a basket of magazines… well, first of all, one should never be eliminating in anyone’s home as a guest. Even pissing I think is rude. But especially, to sit there straining reading old copies of People magazine, or, worse, Jokes
John! That is the lowest possible literature that you can have in your house.
I.S. – Your work ethic is legendary.
J.W. – Legendary? I don’t understand why that’s so surprising.
I.S. – Maybe it’s because your movies are…
J.W. – Anarchic? Oh, yeah. I look back on some of those old movies and I think: “How did I ever make them?” My father taught me to be organized. To have plans. A backup plan. I can’t make a movie, I write a book. In this house, I punch the time clock on my own. But otherwise, I can work in my underpants. I don’t have to bathe before starting the job. Oh my, I never do that, but I could if I wanted to.
I.S. – Books and movies. But for quite a long time it’s only books. I have a friend that says that if you leave lust for three months, the lust leaves you for six. Is that what happened with you and directing?
J.W. – Sorry, I can’t talk about it because of Hollywood’s writer strike. No, really, I have been paid by Hollywood to write four movies that never happened. I’m not out of that business.
I.S. – You usually say you don’t trust filmmakers who don’t read the reviews of their movies. What about those who say they cannot live without filming, like Jonas Mekas?
J.W. – Oh, no, I sure can. I like to tell stories. To me, it’s the same if I’m writing a book or making a movie. Different process but the same thing. I’m just a writer. That’s basically what I am. More than a director. Actually, I’m a much better writer than a director. I could never direct a movie written by somebody else.
I.S. – Did you get better at directing with the years?
J.W. – Oh, yes. Of my early films people say they’re raw or amateurish, it means the same thing: the first group liked them, the others didn’t. And [the eponymous character of his 2000 movie] Cecil B. Demented says a line that I jokingly agree with:
“Technique is nothing more than failed style.” I always wanted to be commercial. In whatever world I was in. If it was an underground film, I wanted to have an underground movie that everybody came to see.
I didn’t expect to get them projected at Radio City Music Hall. I was a realist about it. But I always knew the business too. And I followed it.
I.S. – To the point of wanting to get rich?
J.W. – I always wanted my movies to make money so I could make the next one. If they make money you can and when they don’t you can’t.
But I was not a reluctant capitalist. In the 60s, I was a radical, much more than those January 6 guys. We bombed the Capitol! I didn’t personally, but people that I cheered on did. So people forget what those radicals did.
I.S. – That was in 1971, an action of the Weather Underground group to protest the Laos invasion. So, the people who stormed the Capitol were not radicals?
J.W. – Yeah, and they got prosecuted more than we ever did. I wanted to hire six of them to be go-go boys at my last office party, but I figured they might be anti-gay, so I didn’t. I probably do know some Proud Boys [the far-right militia] because I hang out in a biker bar. We don’t talk about politics there.
I.S. – Not easy nowadays!
J.W. – To me, the most radical thing I’ve ever said is that I am now in the middle. It had never happened before. But now I can’t stand either extremes. The left and the right are both humor-impaired. Both sides are self-righteous. I hate that. Even
terrorists aren’t self-righteous. Well, I
guess they are.
I.S. – Maybe it is you who have changed?
J.W. – I don’t think I’ve changed. I’m still doing what I always did. And I always made fun of myself in the very beginning. Only, if you make fun of yourself, you can make fun of others. And I make fun of things I really like, not that I hate, except for Donald Trump.
I.S. – Have you met him?
J.W. – No. I hated him even when he was at Studio 54, and he was a liberal. He was always a hair hopper asshole.
I.S. – Have you ever been to one of his rallies? Believe me, as the Pope of Trash, that’s probably the ultimate trash experience…
J.W. – I get why they like him. I get it because he makes us so mad.
I get that. It’s like the Proud Boys. They shat in Nancy Pelosi’s office. We would have shat in Spiro Agnew’s office. I mean, not me, personally, but, you know… Agnew was Nixon’s vice president, by the way.
People always want to figure out who was born on their birthday. Well, I wanted to see who died on my birthday. Guess what? Nixon did. I was so happy when I looked that up.
I.S. – And who was born on your birthday?
J.W. – Bettie Page and Jack Nicholson, but also Amber Heard and Lindsay Lohan. You just can’t control it.
I.S. – It could be worse. I was born on the same day as Bill Wyman, Roman Abramovic and Zac Posen.
J.W. – Don’t worry. I would never believe anybody who asked me what Zodiac sign I am…
I.S. – Talking about Heard: do you think Johnny Depp will recover his star status after that dirty trial in Virginia?
J.W. – I think he already has. He just opened the Cannes Film Festival and signed a $20 million deal with Dior.
I.S. – In Cannes, Pedro Almodóvar premiered his new movie. Would you ever direct a gay Western movie, as he did?
J.W. – Oh, he’s a good friend! There are two genres I could never do: Western and science fiction. I don’t watch those movies. I only make films of things I love. I’ve never seen Star
Wars. Not that I think it’s bad.
I just don’t know that genre. And I’m sure some people who saw Star
Wars may have never seen an underground movie. That’s all right. I like some commercial movies too. Pedro’s films are commercial; his movies do really well. I think he’s the best filmmaker in the world. Every actress wants to work with him. George Cukor, move over! He’s better.
I.S. – Do underground movies still exist?
J.W. – No. Where would you show them? Maybe at a film festival. Even midnight movies: I don’t think they exist anymore. Young people don’t even like art. They want to go see a comic book movie at the mall and then riot afterwards. That’s new. Going to see commercial movies and then riot! I still go to the movies, but I watch them at home too.
I.S. – I wouldn’t have thought so. There’s no TV here in your living room.
J.W. – I have one. But it’s not in the living room. I hate TV domination. That’s why when I go to a bar and they have five TVs, I need to run for my life. If I wanted to stay home and watch TV, I would be home.
I.S. – Do you still go to bars?
J.W. – Yeah. With some friends. Not as much as I used to, but yes. I like bars, the great seedy ones here in Baltimore are sadly gone.
I.S. – Is it possible for you to walk the streets of the city? You must be as famous here as Taylor Swift everywhere else…
J.W. – I get recognized everywhere. Not always, but most of the time. I do selfies. I don’t mind, except during COVID, when they wanted to talk very close without a mask. I remember a guy who complained about having to wear one in one of my shows. He said: “I didn’t expect that from the filthiest person on Earth!” It was funny.
Gore Vidal said the best thing about being famous: “It’s terrible, but it’s worse when it stops.” I don’t understand people who go into show business and are mad when people recognise them and take a picture. I thought that was the whole point.
I.S. – Reading Carsick, your memoir about hitchhiking across America, I couldn’t tell if you prefer being recognized or not.
J.W. – That was different. While hitchhiking I couldn’t wait to be recognized, cause nobody did. So I was standing up for 10 hours without getting a ride. Even if they did, they couldn’t believe it. Why was I gonna be there in the middle of Kansas, with a baseball hat? Anyway, people are lovely. I have the best fans. They’re smart. They dress up for me. The other day I was in Paris on a book tour, and a few 20 year-old French boys approached me, handing me the poetry they had written about me. So touching! Elton John told me once that the day you stop touring it’s over. It’s true. That’s why you have to keep meeting your fans. You have to see the world.
I.S. – Do you believe evil people can be geniuses?
J.W. – I know most of those who have been me-tooed so I’m not gonna go through each case. I’m not sad Harvey Weinstein’s in jail. He never said yes to my movies. Nobody I knew fucked him or would have. Who am I to criticize anybody when I tried to get murderers out of prison and testify and hope that they get out on parole? If you are convicted, and you really feel that you’re sorry, and you try to make yourself a better person… I’m all for a second chance for any crime.
I.S. – I heard you had the telephone number of five people sentenced to life…
J.W. – That’s not true. I had the numbers of five guys that were sentenced to death in my address book.
I.S. – And you’re not telling me what they did.
J.W. – Nope. I still go to jail, but it’s not a hobby anymore. I changed and I apologized for some of the flippant things I said in my book Role
I understand the victims. I can’t ever criticize them. Those guys didn’t kill my mother! But I still have two friends behind bars. If you ever get arrested, don’t worry: I’ll be the first one to visit. I remember when I once went to the penitentiary in Baltimore with my 16 millimeter projector to show Pink
Flamingos. The inmates were like: “What is this? Are you even allowed to show this crazy stuff to us?”
I.S. – Were you scared?
J.W. – I was scared… of the guards. I’ve been arrested, but never served time. If I did, I would probably work in the library. If they have one…
I.S. – Then you could put your novel in a good place so everybody could ask for it.
J.W. – I wrote it because I wanted to spend some time with somebody objectionable. I always loved people that are pathologically interesting. I don’t want to hang around them in real life, but I like to understand their thought processes. And I am always attracted to people, not attracted sexually, but to read about somebody who thinks they’re normal, but acts completely insane. And that’s a lot of people.
I.S. – Especially in America, 2023…
J.W. – Everybody’s angrier. COVID wrecked a lot of things.
I.S. – In the novel it’s clear you’re still in good shape when it comes to identifying weird subcultures, as with the tribe of the ‘trampoline addicts’.
J.W. – I know people that are addicted to running or to riding bicycles. And many of them were cocaine addicts before. It gives them the same high. They don’t say that, but it’s true. I did my research online and with trampolines there are some people that believe their spirits go up with the jumping. Gwyneth Paltrow might soon embrace it.
I.S. – What did you want to achieve with the novel?
J.W. – I was trying to make fun of political correctness by no being mean about it but by being more politically correct than those crazy people. I made up this character of somebody full of hate, as a new minority that we have to fight for. I made fun of political correctness because I knew there was going to be a sensitivity editor to revise the novel, but she never called us back. I went through the book with the people that work for me and with my editor. We were our own sensitivity editors knowing how touchy racism is. That’s why everything in the novel is ridiculously diverse. Every person has a different nationality.
I.S. – As a parody…
J.W. – Yes. By making fun of it, by being not mean about it, by making everybody laugh at their own political opinions.
Viscose twill shirt MAGLIANO, sunglasses THISTLES.
There are two personality flaws that really make me run: if you’re self-righteous and if you’re pretentious. Everybody is sick of talking about political correctness. It’s like using the term woke. No one says that except Republicans.
It helps them get so many votes. In my lifetime, Black Lives Matter did more than anything else since Martin Luther King, as far as being a successful movement for Blacks and Whites. Trans rights: I can get why they are pissed; they’re getting killed. But is everybody in the world suddenly trapped in the wrong body?
That’s ludicrous. I’ve always said this: what pronoun is mine? I looked at them but the one I am is not there, and that’s the royal We. That’s what I want. Me and my nation.
I.S. – Have you ever been canceled?
J.W. – It depends what you mean by that. I’ve got bad reviews. I always put them on the posters of my movies. I built a career on bad reviews. You wouldn’t the able to do so now. I guess I don’t get canceled because I make fun of myself and I make fun of both sides.
I.S. – And who would you cancel?
J.W. – Nobody. Trump maybe. And those actors that use the word ‘journey’ when they win the Spirit Award. A journey is escaping from Ukraine. Not winning the Spirit Award! It’s not up to me to cancel anybody. And if anyone was going to censor me, or other comedians, it would probably come from the Left. The Right? They don’t show up, they gave up on me 50 years ago! I go on Fox
whenever they ask. They’re very respectful. I just say ludicrous stuff and they laugh. I like to go to enemy territory.
I.S. – If you watched Fox
you could end up thinking drag queens are all over the place grooming children…
J.W. – Isn’t it crazy? They want to ban drag shows. And they’re banning books all over. Those books used to be hiding in the back. Now you have a shelf of banned books in the front window. Best promotion ever! For me, it’s shocking to see people objecting to drag queens in libraries’ events. Kids love drag queens, they see them as clowns. I never saw a child scared of Divine. Banning them just makes the drag community stronger and more militant, and I’d love to see a drag riot with a lot of tear gas!
I.S. – Like a drag January 6…
J.W. – Like Antifa drag queens. And on the other side, Proud Boys drag queens. Or better: drag kings!
I.S. – Almodóvar says the world is less free now than when he was younger, 40 years ago… He feels that conservatives are reversing some of the victories of your generation. Do you agree?
J.W. – When I was 20, people had sex with someone different every night. Now you need four lawyers to ask someone for a date to go to the movies. So it is the exact opposite, and it will never go back to how it was back then. And I’m not saying it should. I’m glad I experienced that. I’ve experienced both ends, where you can’t do a thing or you could do everything.
For the first time ever the most radical position is to be in the middle, where I suddenly am. Now it’s very easy to provoke but very hard to provoke in a way that changes things.
I.S. – Would you like to be young again?
J.W. – I would like to have 40 years more ahead, but not really. I’ve never been this busy in my whole life. You only get one life. I wish I believed otherwise, but I don’t. So I want to see every single thing, I want to read every book, I want to meet every person, I want to do every possible thing I can do while I’m still kicking.
I.S. – Was it like that 20 years ago?
J.W. – Yeah. But now I’m 77. So no matter how optimistic I am… both my parents were to be 90… but that’s still not that far away, though. When you’re old, your own time goes bang, bang, bang.
I.S. – At least you’re respectable now. That’s quite a victory!
J.W. – I don’t know why. Pink
Flamingos just got named in the National Registry of Great American Movies. If you watch it now, it’s way worse now than it was in 1972. And so I’m not sure why they did such a thing, but I’m delighted. I don’t see any revenge in that. I don’t feel any irony. I feel happy that I can live to see that. Many people don’t get to see if it ever happens. Usually, they’re dead. I told [the lead singer of Blondie] Debbie Harry the other day: “We’re lucky! We’re old, but so many great things happen and we’re still going.”
I.S. – Wasn’t she famous from day one?
J.W. – Yes, but she blanked for a while and Madonna stole her career. Let’s see who comes out on the finish line. I bet Debbie, but we haven’t seen the new Madonna tour…
I.S. – Are you a regular Madonna concert-goer?
J.W. – No. But I’ve seen Debbie live many times. I’m not against Madonna. She invited me once to one of her concerts and I went. Let’s say she didn’t fight me backstage. This was 40 years ago.
I.S. – How do you get along with feminists?
J.W. –I’m a radical feminist. I’ve signed lots of vasectomies but I haven’t signed any bottom surgery yet, and I’m looking forward to it.
Why are gays, trans and rights fighting? We are weakening the pervert brand. That’s what they used to do with left-wing groups back in the day: make them fight. That’s what’s happening now. I think any person can be whatever they want. I don’t care if you change five times in a month.
They used to say when I was growing up, a woman has the right to change their mind. I guess now it still is the case, unless you’re a trans woman.
I don’t know. I guess that’s a cliche that would probably be sexist. Kate Millet was my favorite feminist. Ti-Grace Atkinson, too, even Valerie Solanas. I can’t say that because all the world really hates her because Andy [Warhol] kind of died because of what she did [she shot him] in the long run. But her SCUM
Manifesto, as a radical book, stands alone.
I.S. – Did you get to meet her?
J.W. – No. Did you know she ended her days as a heterosexual hooker in San Francisco, in Tenderloin?
I.S. – I didn’t. Since I moved to America two years ago, the question I get asked more is: do we, American people, look crazy to an outsider? What do you think?
J.W. – I think they dress so badly now. It’s really a national problem. And, I realized when I was in Paris, no wonder everyone’s fat in America. You can eat whatever you want in France because you just get tiny portions. Americans are also too noisy. I can see that but I still say that America is the best country, although I would never say that out loud. I am very secretive in my patriotism. I think vocal, loud patriotism is in very poor taste. It’s like saying you have a lot of money. The Swiss are the only people that know how to be rich correctly, they deny it and hide it.
I.S. – Have you ever felt tempted to leave America?
J.W. – Oh, no. I like it here better, in Baltimore. I’m never gonna leave. Here’s where my old friends are. They aren’t in show business. They are regular people. How else could I write about life if all the people I knew were in show business? Say I was living in Los Angeles, for example. That would be the worst idea, to live there. They would get used to me. Now I come for one week, they listen to my pitch. Imagine if they saw me at a party every week!
I.S. – You went hitchhiking at 66, took LSD again at 70 and published your first novel. Any plans about your next first?
J.W. – I’m gonna turn heterosexual. I might become a squeegee boy, go in the streets wiping car windshields.
I.S. – How was the LSD experience?
J.W. – I loved it! But I don’t need to do it again.
I.S. – America seems to be going through a psychedelics revival.
J.W. – Oh, they do this pussy microdosing. I was hallucinating for 17 hours! I guess I’ve tried almost every drug. Even ecstasy: the worst trip of my life. I was there, sucking my thumb and feeling in love with everybody. I don’t like downers. I never liked heroin, I’m not a jazz musician, for God’s sake. For coke, I’m just too old, and worried I’ll die if they cut it with fentanyl. Pot makes me worry about things. The one I really miss are quaaludes. My mother used to tell me: “Please, John, don’t tell young people to take drugs.” Now it seems that I’m telling old people to do it.
I.S. – What is the best thing about getting old, if anything at all?
J.W. – Maybe you’ve learned from some of your mistakes. You have a little more hindsight. And you have good friends that outlive your family. We have a plan to all be buried where Divine is buried in Towson, three miles from where we grew up. With Pat Moran, Mink Stole and Dennis Dermody. We decided to call it Disgraceland. I don’t know why nobody gets buried with their friends.