The Man, the Myth, the Moustache: John Waters, 'Role Models,' at Atomic Books

May 11, 2011


Forget Clark Gable: Cinema’s greatest moustache lives on the face of John Waters. Baltimore’s Sultan of Sleaze fills it in every morning with a few strokes of Maybelline Expert Eyes eyebrow pencil in Velvet Black. “I always thought that if I ever retire, I’ll shave it off and eat it in front of a live audience,” Waters says of his iconic, villainous facial hair. “That would be my finale.”

That moustache is part of the creepster mojo behind an illustrious four-decade career that put Charm City on the extreme-cinema map. From his humble beginnings shoplifting thrift-store costumes with drag legend Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead), Waters has climbed steadily toward full-fledged cultural infamy. It looks good on him, like his trademark Comme des Garcons haute-couture soiled suits, and has given him the cred necessary to become a gonzo journalist of sorts, a chronicler of extreme personalities.

His sixth book, “Role Models,” out this month in paperback, is a collection of reported profiles of Waters’ own influences, from Little Richard to imprisoned former “Manson girl” (and good friend) Leslie Van Houten.


“Once you’re writing a book, you have a reason to call up and just butt into someone’s personal life. You get to be nosy, and no one seems to mind,” Waters says of his interviewing approach — which was sometimes met with suspicion by subjects wary of the man who unleashed “Pink Flamingos” and its human-chicken sex scene onto the world in 1972. “And if they do, at least you have an excuse,” he says. “‘Oh well, that’s my job.’ Rather than, ‘I am a lunatic.’”

In addition to his writing endeavors, Waters is focusing on his ongoing one-man live show, “This Filthy World,” as well as a few television and film projects — including “Fruitcake,” a children’s Christmas movie about meat thieves.

“We have them in Baltimore. They knock on your door and say, ‘Meat man!’ And you go downstairs and say, ‘I’ll take a pork butt and a ham and a pound of ground beef.’ And they shoplift it and bring it back to you and you pay half-price. It’s quite common here.”

Waters kicks off a multicity U.S. tour for “Role Models” Saturday with a reading at Atomic Books. Ahead of that appearance, he shared some hometown memories, nightlife tips and sage advice for young weirdoes trying to make it in the world.

1) Put on Your Cha-Cha Heels
“My ‘look’ for the last 20 years or so has been ‘disaster at the dry cleaners,’” writes Waters in “Role Models,” where he also dishes some style advice for the younger set: “No one over 30 years old should ever be seen in a convertible.” He offered us a few more tips on looking horribly stylish:
» Don’t wear skinny jeans past 35. Well, 30, really.
» Never wear leather pants unless you’re a Nazi. Or Jim Morrison.
» Never wear tube tops, ever.

2) Baltimore: The City That Bleeds
Baltimore bars “aren’t ‘faux’ anything,” writes Waters. “They’re real and alarming.” He details some of the city’s best-loved (and now sadly defunct) seedy spots in his book, describing places no hipster would dare set a moccasin-clad foot. But a few choice spots remain, if you’re feeling brave (or stupid) — the Bloody Bucket, for instance, on Union Avenue in Hampden. And if you’re in the market for caulk with your Colt 45, has Waters got the place for you.

“I went to another one recently, on Eastern Avenue,” Waters offers. “It’s in a woman’s house — half hardware store, half bar, so you can order a drink and buy nails. I don’t know that it has a name. You could see her bed in the back.”

3) Scentimental Journey
For the 1981 premiere of “Polyester,” Waters distributed Odorama cards, redolent with the scents of pizza, glue, gasoline and other unsavory smells featured in the film. What would go on an Odorama card for Baltimore?

“It would have the smell of a large industrial jug of mayonnaise at a flea market in August,” says Waters. “The smell of leftover poppers after a wild night at a dance club. The smell of 35-mm film stuck in a drive-in projector.”

Waters filmed scenes from his 2000 film “Cecil B. Demented” at Bengies Drive-In, a Baltimore landmark. Go for the cinema history, Waters says, but stay for the plumbing.
“In the ladies’ room, they have female urinals from the ’50s,” he says. “I never knew there was such a thing. But I promise you — you can go look.”

» Atomic Books, 3620 Falls Road, Baltimore; Sat., 7 p.m., free; 410-662-4444.

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Nevin Martell · May 11, 2011