As he turns 77, nothing is stopping cultural icon John Waters from doing what he does best — everything.
John Waters is a living legend. I don’t say that lightly either. The terms “legend” and “icon” are very overused nowadays but there really are no better terms to describe the man. Unapologetically himself and committed to his own unique vision, John Waters has been pushing the boundaries of bad taste and social commentary since he began writing and making movies in the 1960s. With films such as Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1974), Polyester (1981), Serial Mom (1994), and Cecil B. Demented (2000) he managed to simultaneously shock us, gross us out, and make us laugh; all while exposing our culture’s obsession with fame, beauty and influence.
Now hailed as “The Pope of Trash” and “The Duke of Dirt,” Waters did not enjoy the respect and admiration of critics throughout much of his early career. This began to change after the release of Hairspray (1988) which was released through the Hollywood studio system and received critical acclaim. Hairspray has since gone on to be developed into a smash Broadway musical and was remade as a musical film adaptation in 2007.
After his last film A Dirty Shame (2004), Waters took a step back from the filmmaking industry to focus on his writing career, building on the previous success he had found with his books Shock Value (1981) and Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters (1986). Since then, he has released several national bestsellers including Role Models (2010) and Mr. Know-It-All (2019). He is sure to return to the bestsellers’ list with the release of his first fiction novel Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance, on May 3.
In addition to writing Mr. Waters stays busy by touring with his one-man show False Negative (previously titled This Filthy World). The show focuses on his early negative artistic influences, his fascination with true crime, his film career, sexual deviancy and his love for reading. Essentially nothing is off-limits; and the show is constantly evolving and being rewritten, as I found out from the man himself.
John Waters is bringing False Negative to New York City’s Sony Hall on April 22 to celebrate his 76th birthday (postponed from 2021). He will follow that up with a show in Atlantic City, New Jersey at the Anchor Rock Club on April 23. I recently sat down to chat with John Waters about his show, the new book and just how one manages to stay filthy once they are over forty:
Queer Forty (Q40): Thank you for taking the time to chat with us! Everybody at Queer Forty is very excited to have you on the cover for April.
John Waters (JW): Good, good my birthday cover.
Q40: Yes, absolutely! You have a lot of fans here in New York City, well I’m in Queens actually.
JW: Queens, I’ve always liked Queens, it feels like I’m in Baltimore when I’m there.
Q40: My neighborhood definitely looks like Baltimore haha! But yeah, your NYC fans are ready to celebrate with you. I know that you had toured around for many years with This Filthy World and then, post-pandemic, you renamed it to False Negative. Why the name change and what about the show has changed?
JW: This Filthy World was always updated. I always rewrote it once a year. I rewrite my Christmas show every year too. But since I last did This Filthy World and the pandemic happened, everything was so radically different that it had to be rewritten more than ever because nothing was the same anymore. Sex, humor, everything was different; clothes, how people went out, travel; every single thing was different. So, I had to rewrite it but I’m continually rewriting it anyway.
I mean when I do my birthday show in New York it will have birthday material in it. Just like with my Christmas show, people come every year, so they don’t want to see the same show over and over. I never understood why people bought records of comedy. Who would wanna listen to it twice?? But I guess people do (laughs).
The show’s had many different titles. In the old days it was called Evenings with John Waters, it’s been called lots of different things. I thought False Negative was good because everybody talks about being false positive. Nobody talks about being false negative where you have it and they tell you you don’t. I think my audience can identify with that.
Q40: Absolutely!! So can I have a sneak preview of some of the material?
JW: I talk about how we should reinvent all the holidays, including your birthday. I’m gonna be 76. Just because you’re older does not mean that you have to get less nervy. I took LSD when I was 66 for the first time in 50 years!
And there is such a thing as gerontophilia — that’s a sexual attraction to old people — so you know I talk about that in the show too.
Q40: Everyone needs some loving, I’m here for that!
JW: Old chickens make good soup.
Q40: Yeah they sure do! So, during the pandemic, I I’m wondering what did you do to entertain yourself or what sorts of depravity did you uncover as a result of the solitude?
JW: Nothing! I’m a writer. I write in my house every day anyway Monday to Friday, so it didn’t change that. I finished my novel, which is coming out. I traveled less. It used to be I was on an airplane practically every day, and for a long time I wasn’t.
I went to the Rome Film Festival. I have an apartment in San Francisco and New York, so I did go to both those places. But mostly I was in Baltimore for the longest time straight, ever. My house in Baltimore is bigger than my apartment in New York (laughs) so I was glad to be here.
I missed being in touch with my fans, the people that come to see my spoken word shows or come to book signings. This year I’m going on a book tour, it’s not going to be virtual.
Q40: That’s amazing! I know a lot of us are excited to hear that! Speaking of which can you tell me a little bit about Liarmouth and our new heroine Marsha Sprinkle?
JW: It’s just about a woman that steals suitcases in airports. Her family hates her, everybody hates her! She hates dogs, they hate her — until she meets one insane person that makes her tell the truth. It’s a pretty crazy book. I’d say it’s the craziest thing I’ve written since Pink Flamingos.
Q40: That’s saying A LOT! I’m definitely excited to read it and I know your fans are gonna be happy to see you touring with it.
JW: I’ve been doing this over 50 years so we’ll see, you never know. Who’d ever thought that Pink Flamingos would get named by the national registry as one of the great American films, which it did this year, which even I find ludicrous.
Q40: And it’s getting added to the Criterion Collection too.
JW: Yes! I’m really I’m really excited about that. We shot some extras this week. I’m not gonna tell you what they are though, it’s a surprise. Criterion, oh my God, they’ve done Multiple Maniacs and Female Trouble, Polyester and now Pink Flamingos. They put the class back in show business. They are the greatest company to work for.
Q40: I love it.
JW: Pink Flamingos looks amazing! It looks amazing! Wait till you see how it looks!! And we’ve found footage that no one’s ever seen too. It wasn’t even on the 21st anniversary edition. NEW found footage!
Q40: Now see that’s just THRILLING! They said that you oversaw the 4K restoration and I’ve always wondered what’s involved with all that?
JW: Well, it’s all the magicians they have working there. I mean, did I ever want to keep the dirt that was on the lens when we made it? No, I didn’t. So, I figured when given the chance to restore it, you make it look as good as you can. I mean there is really only so much magic you can do with Pink Flamingos, but still, I’m excited to see how it how it looks today. It’s ruder than ever and looks better than ever. (laughs)
Q40: Well I already have it on pre-order! I cannot wait to see what you guys have done with it. I’m so excited to hear that you filmed some new features!
JW: We have a lot of new stuff, yeah.
Q40: And nothing you could tell me about?
JW: Let’s just say it has to do with the locations of where it was shot. We revisit with them in some rather surprising ways.
Q40: I’ll take that! I know at heart your storyteller, you’ve used the medium of film, you’re writer, quite prolific, you’re a visual artist, and you do these stage shows so I was wondering- which medium do you prefer best to tell your stories and why?
JW: To me they’re equally the same. Writing a book takes much longer—no they all take a long time. Writing the novel Liarmouth took three years. From the beginning of when you think of a movie to when you pitch it and shoot it and edit it and get it to be released- that could be a couple of years too- so to me they’re all the same.
I mean speaking is more current because you’re talking about something that could have happened yesterday. I can put in a joke on the airplane on the way to the show. But I’ve learned it’s all about the writing.
I never made a movie I didn’t write. I write my own stage shows, all my own books. So basically, to me it’s the same. It’s just a different way to tell a story. And you know I guess if they all failed, I’d go back to where I started. I’ll be a puppeteer and I can tell stories at rich insane children’s birthday parties. Maybe that’s how I’ll end my career.
Q40: I’m sure you’d make brisk business! So, you know here at Queer Forty our readers are LGBTQ+ people aged 40 and above. I was wondering what do you recommend for those of us looking to stay filthy as we get older?
JW: I think you should always have young friends. You need youth spies to tell you what’s new. Never say “oh it was better when we were young”. No, it wasn’t. You’re just old and you’re not investigating the newest things that are happening. You still have to go out, you have to meet people. You have to go to a restaurant. You have to get your hair fixed. You have to put on an outfit. The secret is to stay in touch and to continue to be curious and continue to ask questions.
Never feel like “Well that’s too much for me. I give up. I’m going to retire.” You know I’m afraid if I retired, I would drop dead! I’ve never been this busy in my whole life. Yeah, sometimes my back hurts. You know what they say about getting older, there are drawbacks; but at the same time if you like your job, I think that keeps you young in spirit. I like my job. I don’t want a facelift. I get jobs in magazines modeling because I look old. (laughs) Imagine if Vincent Price had gotten a facelift, how depressing that would have been.
Q40: NO WAY!! I know I speak for the multitudes when I say we never want you to retire and we’re grateful that you’re busy as ever. The world needs your voice. Thank you so very much for taking the time to talk with me. It was an honor. Happy birthday and best of luck with the show!
JW: Thank you so much!
Find out more about John Waters here.