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Divine, Cookie Mueller and Susan Walsh in Female Trouble, 1974

Mr. Know-It-All: John Waters on beauty


TextCharlie Fox

What happened when This Young Monster author Charlie Fox sat down with the legendary John Waters fresh from the launch of the latter’s new book Mr. Know-It-All

John Waters is the greatest. His killer movies like Pink Flamingos, Hairspray, and Cecil B. Demented will teach you everything you need to know about art, American insanity, and the special joy that comes with revelling in your own freakishness. He shares yet more wisdom as a filth elder in his new book, Mr. Know-It-All, which is probably the finest of all his literary works (sorry, Art: A Sex Book), and not just because it includes his ode to the long-shuttered NYC sex club, Night Shift (a fake park overrun with zonked-out tramps), that photo of him with Justin Bieber, or the tale of how he tripped on LSD last summer, aged seventy-two, with his old pal Mink Stole. It’s a memoir that doubles as an education in how to live as a gleeful weirdo, in love with your own obsessions. It’s sly and hilarious and kind of heartwarming. Nobody else understands human perversity with more hi-def sharpness or delight than John Waters. 

He also knows tons about beauty. In the world of John Waters, that has nothing to do with everybody else’s zombie-brained rules about what’s cute this season. Think about his childhood crush on the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz, his deep knowledge of Rei Kawakubo, the self-styled ‘drag Godzilla’ swagger of his legendary leading lady Divine (R.I.P.) or the rancid punk fairytale costumes in my personal favourite of all his films, Desperate Living. For Waters, true beauty is something extreme and discombobulating and new. It mutates what should be outrageously tasteless and ugly into stuff so hot it makes your brain melt. The John Waters school of beauty has influenced, oh, everyone in Party Monster, Ursula’s look in The Little Mermaid, Leigh Bowery, Chloë Sevigny’s costume design for Gummo, and plenty of major fashion creatures— yo, Jeremy Scott! 

I had tea with Mr. Waters in London last autumn because we’d been corresponding over email ever since he devilishly endorsed my book of essays, This Young Monster, in The New York Times. He told me loads of wicked stories then. Yup, it was wild. Mr. Know-It-All is just like that: a private audience with the Pope of Trash. Fast-forward to our phone conversation for Dazed Beauty this summer. Naturally, I spent the whole thing grinning like a hyena.  

Congrats on the book, John! I think it’s the best one.

John Waters: Thank you. I tell a lot of stories in it.

Shall we start with your acid trip?

John Waters: Oh! I always wondered what [doing LSD again] would be like. I haven’t taken drugs in fifty years. I mean, I’ve tried them but I don’t smoke pot anymore and cocaine I never did that much. I always had a good experience with acid and I did it from about 1964 to about— probably Pink Flamingos, I don’t know, I did it a lot! So I thought I’d do it again in the book. But then as it got nearer, I thought, ‘I have to get really good acid!’ because I don’t know what it’s like these days so it took eight months to get it and I got it [from someone] close to Timothy Leary, even though he’s dead. It was much better than I ever had when I was young. I don’t think young people should do it but old people who did it fifty years ago and never had a bad trip maybe should try it again.

Yeah!

John Waters: But now all the young kids do this micro-dosing, all this pussy shit. And it was really strong. If I had known that I would’ve been really terrified, especially if I had seen Gaspar Noé’s Climax movie— talk about a bad trip! But I’m glad I did it. I was hallucinating: I was seeing little mice running around but they didn’t scare me, they were friendly, and the pictures were spinning and the flowers were growing…  I did play the same music that I used to play, Dionne Warwick, when she sings, ‘A house is not a home/A chair is still a chair…’ but I was the chair! And I didn’t go out because it was Bear Week. I don’t know that I could handle Bear Week in Provincetown on acid. I don’t think I could’ve handled anything, I can’t even imagine that people have sex on LSD— 

Nooo.

John Waters: Because it seems so bizarre.

Maybe that’s their thing! One of the things you write about, too, are ecosexuals…

John Waters: Oh, yeah! I’ve read about them but I personally do not know an ecosexual, I don’t think, because they lick plants and talk dirty to trees and bury themselves in mud and writhe around— [laughs] I guess I have to respect that. If I was walking through the woods and saw that… Mary Oliver was my friend, the poet, and she always wrote about nature and she used to crawl around in the woods and try to talk to animals and pretend she was a badger…And once [a badger] bit her! And I said, That’s what you get! 

It would be a great visual to see someone fucking a tree.

John Waters: Oh, I had fucking a tree in A Dirty Shame! Trees are nature’s porn: they all have vaginas and penises, all over the park. 

Like, remember Paul McCarthy did that [installation], The Garden, with the guy fucking a tree?

John Waters: And didn’t Sarah Lucas do [a picture of] a tree and turn it upside down so it’s like a crotch? I think that’s where it all came from but I’ve never seen anyone licking a tree. My favourite is talking dirty to a tree: ‘Shake those leaves off, bitch!’ 

‘Peel that bark off, lick that sap!’ 

John Waters: Yeah, lick that sap! 

Do you know about voring?

John Waters: No, what is it?

People who like to imagine they’re being eaten.

John Waters: A cannibal bottom. 

Exactly.

John Waters: That’s why Jeffrey Dahmer was the ultimate top because he was fine until you said, ‘Oh, I think I’ll be leaving now!’ but, you know, if you eat someone they’re really not leaving.     

They’re with you forever.

John Waters: I guess everybody has their reasoning, that’s what I find fascinating, people get so obscure in their sexual taste. It might take years to find one person that will put up with that.   

That’s the amazing thing about that movie, Zoo [2006 documentary about a Seattle man who died having sex with a horse]. 

John Waters: I love that movie!

A gorgeous movie, all those truckers having sex with horses, but they didn’t even know that their thing til somebody emailed them a video, like, ‘Get a load of this.’

John Waters: That’s the Internet: [people] get turned into ISIS, they lose their minds [politically], they just gotta get off that computer! It really sucks people in like that Cronenberg movie, Videodrome, it changes people’s entire personalities.

It’s the biggest drug of all. And Debbie Harry’s in that and she sings in Polyester— did anybody ever ask you do a music video?

John Waters: People have asked me forever. Green Day was the first one, right when they came out. But the only ones I wanted to do was that song [by Richard ‘Dimples’ Fields], ‘She’s Got Papers on Me’ or that Ike and Tina [Turner] song, ‘All I Can Do Is Cry’ where it’s their wedding and Ike is marrying another girl and Tina’s screaming and flipping out. 

I was wondering about the time you met Fassbinder with [legendary director of luscious1950s melodrama] Douglas Sirk too…

John Water: I met them at the Berlin Film Festival. Douglas Sirk had on a white suit, looking like such a gentlemen, and Fassbinder was slobby as ever. They’d made a short movie of a Tennessee Williams story that Fassbinder starred in and Sirk shot it.

Wow.

John Waters: And I saw it and it was in German so I had no idea what they were saying. 

Was Fassbinder speaking English?

John Waters: He pretended he couldn’t until you complimented him! He was great.    

[Fassbinder’s 1974 movie] Fear Eats the Soul, like, one of the great movies about geronotophilia. 

John Waters: Sex with old people. I’m for that, obviously.

You’re a big advocate for that.

John Waters: Well, I try not to be! [laughs] Actually, Mr. Know-It-All is the sequel to all my other books. Shock Value ends with Polyester so I talk about all the movies I’ve made since. Crackpot was essays on things and this book is essays on things like Gristle, my crazy [imaginary] restaurant, or my brutalist dream house, and then Role Models was about the people who gave me the freedom to wanna be who I am today and I’m trying now to pass on that advice to young people so they’ll do the same thing.

Yeah, it’s illicit wisdom.

John Waters: Tarnished wisdom!

Oh, did you like Twin Peaks: The Return? I remember writing to you, like, ‘You’ve gotta watch it!’

John Waters: I loved it! Are you kidding? It was like the Ozzie and Harriet show. Every week that used to end with Ricky Nelson singing alone in the bar and [Twin Peaks: The Return] always ended with the bar every night. How [David Lynch] ever got that through the Hollywood system— I give him great respect. Imagine the executives watching that episode where you’re inside an explosion for twenty minutes. 

Oh, sooo good. That was my favourite one. The girl with the bug in her mouth at the end. It was like his [Fassbinder’s fifteen hour epic] Berlin Alexanderplatz.

John Waters: Yes, it was [laughs]. I have that John Waters camp every year, and he has a version of it, too, out in LA, he has his own version of ‘Jonestown with a happy ending’. 

I think [Werner] Herzog’s teaching at a clown college, like, the Ringling Brothers college, too.

John Waters: Oh, God, I didn’t know that! He’s got a new movie coming out…

It’s him interviewing [former Soviet leader] Gorbachev. Have you seen Chernobyl yet?

John Waters: No, I’ve heard about it.

It’s got the best radiation sickness prosthetics ever.

John Waters: Oh! The best make-up to me was [2018 Swedish movie about trolls in love] Borders, did you see that?

I love that movie.

John Waters: I thought they were really deformed! It was better than any Hollywood movie make-up. It’s a great movie.

There’s a bit in Chernobyl I think you’d like where they have to kill all the dogs that have been infected with radiation, and you see this avalanche of dead dogs falling into a grave.

John Waters: Do you know that book about London called The Day All the Cats and Dogs Died where, in London right before [the Blitz], they told everyone to kill their pets and they did

That’s a movie.

John Waters: Imagine! A whole book about it! How many copies did that sell? I had it on my coffee table.

You know when you were gonna marry Johnny and Winona—

John Waters: Oh, the press blew that up! I told him, ‘You’re so young.’

You could’ve played that album of castrated opera singers…

John Waters: Oh, I own it! I still see Winona. But we didn’t discuss the music… [laughs]

 

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