Of all the antiheroes who could inhabit the role of Father Christmas, John Waters may be the least likely. He’s skinny as a candy cane, with that dyed-black moustache and a winkingly nihilistic charm. The seventy-year-old filmmaker, dubbed the “Pope of Trash” by William Burroughs, makes Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad Santa look like an amateur.
Nevertheless, this year Waters once again unpacked his red suit for his thirteenth annual one-man Christmas show, a ninety-minute collage of peevish perversity that premiered in Boston around Thanksgiving and is scheduled to hit eighteen cities by the end of December.
“I trek across the country by myself for this show!” he said proudly. “I also hitchhiked across the country alone for my book Carsick—but trust me, coach is worse than hitchhiking!” (Of course, he now flies strictly first class). “I’m not above public transportation,” said Waters, who lives in Baltimore but has apartments in Manhattan’s West Village and in San Francisco. “But when I’m waiting for buses in SF, people driving by recognize me and try to pick me up!”
His 2004 album, A John Waters Christmas, was an immediate hit, a fabulously dark classic for the disenfranchised who despise the commercial, familial, and religious aspects of the season. The release drew from thousands of “alternative” Christmas carols that Waters has spent years collecting from unlikely sources—a merry-making playlist that includes “Santa Claus Is a Black Man” and “Here Comes Fatty Claus” by artists such as Tiny Tim, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and the Cocktails. White Christmas it ain’t.
But despite his unconventional take on the season, Waters goes all out for the holiday with an annual party at his Baltimore digs. “I invite over two hundred people, and I cook and decorate everything myself,” he said. “I spend days setting up! I have a Unabomber birdhouse that has black lights all over it and a wreath that will rip off your clothes if you get too close. It’s my own unique holiday celebration. Just like the show.”
How does Waters afford such extravagance? His gross-out movies of the ’80s, like Pink Flamingos and Polyester, are bona fide cult classics, but none of their proceeds could have bankrolled a fete like this. It was only when his 1988 film Hairspray went to Broadway—and onto mainstream success with a John Travolta remake—that the auteur really began to rake it in, to the tune of $38 million if you believe what you read in the press.
“Yes!” he admits in a tone that’s more sly than gloating, “I made a butt-load of money off all this. Though I didn’t see a profit check from Hairspray for over two years!” After a slow start, the show quickly became a beloved musical-theater staple, revived around the world hundreds of times a year.
A few years back, Waters wrote a sequel to the show—and even developed it as a TV series—but both projects eventually fizzled. “At least I got paid for that stuff,” he said philosophically. “Broadway has been very, very kind to me.” “And,” he adds, “even Hollywood has treated me fairly.” How many indie directors could say that?
His work has kept him busy too. A typical day: “Monday to Friday, I get up at 6:00 a.m., drink tea, read six newspapers. Then at 8:00 a.m., the phones get turned off, and I work. I think of fucked-up things, and then in the afternoon, I sell them!” (Currently, he’s got a two-book deal with Farrar, Straus and Giroux for a new essay collection—Mr. Know It All—and his very first novel, Liarmouth.) “And there’s a million other things I’m doing.”
Next April he’s releasing Make Trouble, a brilliantly subversive “advice book” he’s described as “the perfect way to game the system by making the system work for you.” It’s based on a commencement speech Waters delivered to the graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design. Larded with advice about the importance of chaos and curiosity for creative people, the speech became an immediate viral sensation.
As for the present, this is a typical Waters night: “I go out. I get laid. I do what everyone does. On weekends, I go to art galleries.”
But whom is he having sex with, pray tell?
“I’m not telling you!” he cackles. “The same person for a long time—not in showbiz. I keep my private life very private. I don’t name names. I’ve had three long-term boyfriends in my life. And I’m still friends with the other two.”
He may keep quiet about his love life, but you’d expect Waters to be quite vocal when it comes to the hot-button topic of trans rights and the public-bathroom controversy. You’d be wrong: “It’s all rather hilarious,” he said. “I just don’t believe anybody should shit in a public bathroom. Don’t you think anti-gun laws are more important? A stall is a stall—a fart is a fart. I say, ‘Stay home and control your bowels!’ I hate shitting in public! It’s humiliating—terrifying to me. I would never do it!”
As for the current political climate, he will say only this regarding our new president-elect: “He is not a Cheeto. He’s an Orange Anus. Not that I would have voted for him, but I actually feel sorry for Jeb Bush. But still,” he said, sagely, “we have it better than Syrian refugees.”
As for keeping up this pace at age seventy, he’ll be tackling that in Mr. Know It All. “I’m—gulp—mature in some ways. In some ways, I’m twelve years old. I don’t remember my twenties anymore. But I think I had the same sense of humor. Maybe. Anyway, I think everyone under forty should have serious psychiatry.”
There’s still one dream gig he hasn’t yet landed: becoming a Maybelline model. “They do need a more mature model,” he mused. And I’m a very loyal customer. I’ve been using their black eyebrow pencil on my moustache for decades.”
Maturity hasn’t slowed him down. When he’s not engaged in one of his marathon writing sessions. Waters reads voraciously. “I read everything: the tabloids, all the art magazines, Cooking Light–everything.”
He also makes time for more sophisticated fare, gobbling up two books a week, including fiction by Lydia Davis, Rachel Cusk, and Joy Williams. He also claims to have read five different versions of Mein Kampf.
But his appetite for entertainment stops just short of TV. “I know all these current shows are even better than indie movies,” he said. “But I have no idea how to turn my TV on. There are just too many clickers.”
That said, if you want to buy him a Christmas present, make it a book. But if it’s interesting, chances are he’s already it.