In Extreme Taste: John Waters, Filmmaker, Author, Mustache-Wearer

May 27, 2010


Filmmaker and actor John Waters has been called a lot of things over the years: Prince of Puke. Pope of Trash. Sultan of Sleaze. But the eccentric Baltimore native’s label as cult icon is most salient, from that signature ‘stache to his genre-busting flicks. He’ll gab about his own heroes — the topic of his new book, “Role Models” ($25, Farrar, Straus and Giroux) — at the S. Dillon Ripley Center this Wednesday at 6:45 p.m.

» EXPRESS: You’re considered a cult icon — was that why you decided to write “Role Models”?
» WATERS: I wrote the book because these are stories that have fascinated me for years — people who have really gotten me through my life by their incredible extreme lives, and their patience, and their grace and ability to survive either wonderful things or terrible things. I think everyone in the book has had a life more extreme than I have, so weirdly they’re braver.

» EXPRESS: So who are some of the people who have influenced your life and work?
» WATERS: Saint Catherine of Siena, who was such an extreme saint that saints like her inspired the reformation in the Catholic Church. She believed that pain was the way to heaven. She drank puss out of sick people’s hospital rooms. She whipped herself. That kind of religion is staggering to me. If I ever am going to pray it’s always to Saint Catherine of Siena, the most insane saint that there ever was.

Then, the opposite: Johnny Mathis, who is effortlessly famous. He’s probably the only celebrity who never has to do press to remain famous. He’s incredibly mainstream, popular, a lovely man and a great singer. I’m always fascinated by people I fear are the exact opposite of me. I always wondered if our two audiences got together — would there be a fistfight or a love match? I don’t know.

» EXPRESS: You famously said, “Bad taste is what entertainment is all about.” How do you define “bad taste” these days?
» WATERS: I don’t even think there is bad taste anymore. American humor is bad taste — that’s what we import, that’s what television is about, reality television is based on that. I think it kind of ruined bad taste, because you’re asked to feel superior to the subject matter, which I don’t think I ever do. I think I always look up to my subjects, which is maybe what good taste is. Extreme taste is more interesting to me now than good or bad.

» EXPRESS: You have said you’re not a fan of “fancy Baltimore.” Where do you like to hang out in Baltimore?
» WATERS: I went recently to Lithuanian Hall on Hollins Street. Once a month on Fridays is Soul Night — it’s all really young kids wildly dancing to music of my generation. It’s hilarious. And it’s the coolest mix: gay, straight, black, white, everybody together. Baltimore has really good bars. I write about a lot of them in my book [Club Charles, Holiday House]. Nobody cares about celebrity in these bars. But I wouldn’t recommend necessarily that you go to them.

» EXPRESS: Why not?
» WATERS: You might get beat up.

» EXPRESS: How do you keep your mustache so perfect?
» WATERS: I don’t know that it is perfect. To make it perfect, I’d have to take care of it about five times a day. You just shave from the top, use cuticle tweezers on the bottom, and if you miss — Maybelline Velvet Black. It’s called a pencil mustache, isn’t it?

» EXPRESS: There’s a graphic circulating the Internet called “The Trustworthiness Of Facial Hair.” Your mustache is wedged between Hitler and werewolves in terms of dangerousness. Care to comment?
» WATERS: I think it looks more like a pimp or child molester from a ’30s movie. Yes, I understand that when I go to see the “Alvin and the Chipmunks” movie alone, parents move their children away from me because of my mustache. I understand that. I’ve learned to live with it.

» Ripley Center, 1100 Jefferson Drive SW; Wed., June 2, 6:45 p.m., $25; 2202-633-3030. (Smithsonian)

Written by Express contributor Katie Knorovsky
Photo by David S. Holloway/Getty Images

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