John Waters is one of my favorite people in the world. As the writer and director of such outlandish films as Pink Flamingos, Polyester, Cry-Baby, and Hairspray, he has made a career out of celebrating crazy delinquent teenagers, making the weirdest things the coolest things, and choosing bad taste over socially approved taste every single time. He’s the Pope of Trash and is pretty much obsessed with everything from Justin Bieber to schoolgirls gone bad to wearing Band-Aids as jewelry. I hope after reading this interview you all get inspired to dress as dirty as possible, drop out of high school, and take every risk you can take while you’re young! Please get crazy in the name of John Waters! It’s the perfect way to honor him.
HAZEL: You once said, “Life is nothing if you’re not obsessed.” Why is obsession so important to you?
JOHN WATERS: Well, obsession can be good or bad. I mean, obsession can be the reason you wake up every day and love your job because you love what you’re doing, if you’re an artist or if you’re into something. But then there’s bad obsession! Like if you’re a drug addict, I guess you’re obsessed with heroin, aren’t you? Or a bad love affair, you know, where you can’t get over somebody —much later in life hopefully you look back and say, “God, why was I thinking about that person?”
But you can use that. You can use all kinds of obsession. You can use obsession for humor, you can use it for style, you can use it for fashion. Obsession is great if it brings you pleasure and helps you make your living doing something you love. It’s only bad if you make the same mistake over and over with some obsession that brings you unhappiness.
What are you currently obsessing over?
Whatever project I’m doing is what I obsess over. Right now I’m writing a book; obsessing over it is what gets me up in the morning to work on it.
I’m always obsessed, really, with culture and the news. I read five to six newspapers a day and I get over a hundred magazines a month and I read blogs. I just like to know what’s going on. I think it’s very important in my age to have “youth spies.” You could be a youth spy.
Oh my gosh! I wish! What’s the book you’re working on?
It’s sort of an undercover travel adventure, but I can’t really talk about it. I never talk about something before I do it; it’s bad luck. This is a secret book. But I just wrote an article for Playboy; I just wrote the introduction to Ricki Lake’s new book; and I wrote something for Vogue Hommes on my obsession, actually. I wrote about these sleazy soft-core porn paperbacks. There was one title called Teenage Girls Assaulted by Wild Animals!
That book sounds amazing. Speaking of assault, I know you’re very open about your love of and obsession with serial killers and crime.
I don’t love serial killers. I taught in prison for a long time, I still have friends that I visit in prison, and I wrote very seriously in my last book about my plea for parole for one woman [Leslie Van Houten] who had been involved with Charles Manson. I follow some serial-killer cases, but it’s not like I collect stuff about them. I mean, I do have a John Wayne Gacy painting because someone gave it to me, but I collect contemporary art, I didn’t collect that kind of thing.
But: I’m interested in extreme human behavior. The reason I was so interested in Leslie Van Houten was because she did something so terrible and so notorious, and how can you ever make up for that in life? How can she get beyond something she did when she was 17 years old, under the control of a madman? Just be glad you never met him.
You have always been drawn to these sorts of strange stories and weird obsessions, but have you been judged for them? Especially when you were younger?
For your whole life, people are always going to give you grief. Nobody who turns out to be great had an easy time in high school. People in the arts always have trouble in school. The prom queens and the football stars, their lives went downhill after they graduated. It was over.
They peaked too early.
Yes, exactly, those types peak too early. Look them up in your yearbook after you graduate. Look in your parents’ yearbook for those people, and you’ll see that they have pretty dull lives. But anything can happen to anybody; you don’t really know what’s going to happen. One thing you have to learn early on is that you can’t judge people until you know the whole story about what causes them to act like they do. In high school, everybody judges everybody. They’re the meanest they could ever be in high school! But things change, and I think high school probably is better than it was when I was young…
Well, at least they have schools you can go to for art and that kind of stuff. But certainly how you look in high school is incredibly important, because you identify what type [of person] you are. Usually you hang around with people who wear the same kind of fashion. Which I never quite understood, because I can hang around with any type of person, and I don’t pick friends by how they dress. I mean, they all have a style, but it doesn’t have to be mine.
If I was 15 today, I’d probably have my whole face pierced. Parents should be more relieved if [their kids] do that rather than tattoos, because [piercings come] out. Tattoos don’t!
That reminds me, when I saw you speak in Philadelphia a couple of years ago, you said something that really spoke to me about parents and kids. It was something along the lines of “Parents should be so happy that their kids are sort of weird.”
Yeah, because kids need encouragement. You can’t order up your kids, and you can’t order up your parents. Whatever you have, you gotta deal with. I always tell parents who come to me with their daughter and her whole face is tattooed, “Let her open a tattoo parlor.”
Yeah! Let her channel her obsession into a career.
[Parents] need to think of it in the best way. All of that anger and craziness when you’re a teenager and all those hormones going through you and everything—it does make you crazy! And how can you forget that if you’ve lived through it? But it’s tough when it’s your own kid, because you’re afraid for them. You’re afraid of what can happen.
But you have to take some risks when you’re a kid to find out who you are. You just have to learn which risks are safe and which are self-destructive. Everybody does weird stuff. As you get older, I believe if you’ve never been allowed to do all that weird shit, then you make it into some kind of obsession that you’re too old to have!
You seem to be drawn to those risk-taking teenagers—the juvenile delinquents or the schoolgirls gone bad, like Dawn Davenport. What do you find so fascinating about them?
Dawn Davenport was how the trashy girls looked when I was that age. What’s the look now?
Probably like really poker-straight ironed hair that’s been fried and tons of eyeliner all around the eyes.
Too much bronzer?
Yes! Well, I mean, I live in New Jersey, so there’s A LOT.
[Laughs] Everybody loves to write about the bad kids from their youth. It’s fun to be a juvenile delinquent, but it’s not fun to be an adult delinquent.
Why weren’t you ever a juvenile delinquent?
I was never a real juvenile delinquent because in the ’50s they were in gang fights! I would have lost. But I love the bad boys. Johnny Depp’s character in Cry-Baby was based on this boy who lived across the street. I thought he looked great, but all the parents hated him. He fixed his car in the driveway and was a high school dropout. I don’t know what happened to him—he’s probably dead. But I made that [character] on my memory of somebody. I exaggerated it and idealized him and made him Johnny Depp.
Memories from high school are so strong when you’re older that when you create anything you can play with those memories. If someone hassled you, you could make them the villain. You can mock them.
With your unique personality, I don’t even understand how you survived your suburban high school experience. How did you?!
Well, I wanted to get away from it. I wanted to go downtown and be a beatnik and find bohemia. I hung around with other kids—not always from my school but from my neighborhood—that didn’t fit in either. It was a very mixed group, though. It was straight, gay, rich, poor, black, white. We hung around together and built our own little family. We had fun together and protected one another. We didn’t care what the other ones thought! That’s the thing: there’s all those people in high school, and you have to endure them, but you don’t have to hang around with them.
I didn’t have a good time in school because I was bored. Boredom is the worst, because it turns into anger. I went to a Catholic high school, but you didn’t have to wear the school coat, so I wore hundreds of different ones. I never cut my hair, either. Hairdos and fashion are always what make teachers crazy.
I always used fashion to rebel and make people crazy, because you can sort of protect yourself with fashion. I wore ludicrous outfits that I would think back on and go, “Oh my god, I’m so glad there weren’t pictures.”
I wish there were pictures! I want to see them!
I’m glad there aren’t. Fashion can certainly help you identify yourself. It is your advertisement; it’s what you tell the world. Not “I’m goth,” or “I’m this, I’m that,” but, “I have my identity.” That’s why kids are obsessed with fashion. It’s what makes their parents crazy, because usually it’s against what [the parents] want to wear. Who wants to go shopping with their mother when they’re 16? Unless your mother’s Betsey Johnson. Like Madonna’s daughter: I’m surprised she doesn’t dress like Barbara Bush, just to rebel!
I always say to kids, with fashion, that they shouldn’t be wearing designer clothing—they should copy it. Go to the thrift shop and buy the worst thing that the coolest kid in school would never wear. It’ll be the thing that’s the most “out.” Buy it and turn it into something that’s funny and witty. Fashion is confidence. If you can get away with wearing it, it’s a new style.
All fashion pisses people off. When I was young, there was the sack dress—men hated it because it did look like a potato sack! It was the opposite of the clinging, Marilyn Monroe look. The designers look to kids to do something that nobody’s done. Like boys wearing their pants so they’re almost falling off—who thought that up? It’s hilarious! They’re really walking and it doesn’t fall down! But look how long it’s around. It lasts forever. I mean, hippie clothes are still around, and punk clothes too. I see kids with a mohawk and I think, That’s not real new!
I know you also believe in fashion rules.
Diana Vreeland said, “Bad taste is better than no taste.” It’s true. You have to take risks with fashion. But I do have all sorts of rules, like I still believe you shouldn’t wear white after Labor Day, no velvet before Thanksgiving, no patent leather before Easter, no leather pants ever, no skinny jeans for anyone over 30, and no “belt abuse,” where the first thing you notice about an outfit is the belt.
But that’s a lot of rules, and you can make up your own rules, with humor. I like when you notice someone for their fashion—you know they at least attempted to create a look.
Band-Aids are a good fashion accessory for teenagers, in inappropriate places for no reason. Rubber bands look really good, just 50 of them around your wrist. Looking dirty is also good when you’re young—looking dirty kind of works when you’re cute. But you have to be young to wear certain things. One thing I’ve always loved—and I think Tavi might have done this when she dyed her hair gray— is the “faux old” look. I say draw on crow’s feet and Ruth Gordon lips! Mock every generation’s fear of getting older.