John Waters’ Role Models
Although John Waters only makes the occasional, fleeting reference to his movies in his new book, Role Models still offers an oblique insight into his filmmaking career. Allegedly, Waters is writing about the people who have influenced him the most in his life, but his chapters are structured more like an autobiography than portraits of the artists as who they really are.
Waters is one of those filmmakers whose careers you can divide very cleanly in half without any argument by anyone: The first half being his “dirty” movies from Hag in a Black Leather Jacket (1964) to Polyester (1981); followed by the second half of his more “respectable” work beginning with Hairspray (1988) to his last film, A Dirty Shame (2004).
However, the one thing that’s been truly consistent throughout Waters’ entire career has been his unbridled ambition toward mainstream acceptance. While that ambition is hidden beneath layers of filth in his pre-Hairspray films, it can be gleaned from hints such as convincing a 300-lbs. transvestite to eat dog shit on camera to attach an immediate gross-out caché to his name; to the ambitious set design and construction of Desperate Living; to finally convincing a real-life Hollywood (has been) star to appear in Polyester.
While Waters has always played up his “I’m just a dirty boy from Baltimore” image, in no way did he ever want to just remain a Charm City celebrity. Yes, he still maintains a house in his hometown, but as he reminds us time and again in Role Models, he now owns homes all over the U.S., from Provincetown to NYC to San Francisco.
And these aren’t dilapidated ghetto shanties like you’d find Divine and Edith Massey living in in Female Trouble. These homes are filled with high-end art pieces, books and fashion items, the creators of which he enjoys hanging out with personally.
Some die-hard fans of Waters’ early career may find the relentless name-dropping and stories about living the good life a betrayal of his shocking outsider aesthetics, but his life really should be something to admired.
As one of those fans myself, this was something I personally struggled with while reading Role Models, which waffles between heartfelt genius; like the chapter about his good friend, Leslie van Houten, a former Charles Manson acolyte; to delirious tedium, like the chapter on fashion designer Rei Kawakubo. No matter how much Waters wants to spin it, being able to afford Kawakubo’s outfits doesn’t sound like a celebration of filth.
But, who wouldn’t want to have the jet-setting life of careening from being a model in a Paris fashion show to hanging out with a Marine-obsessed gay pornographer? If one wonders why Waters’ films come out so infrequently, the answer is here. The man is too busy traveling all over the place meeting oddball celebrities and genuine loonies.
Waters has transformed his own personal life into a work of art that can only be truly enjoyed by an audience of one: Himself. He is not an artist who is a social gadfly. Being a social gadfly is his art. And reading Role Models is akin to reading the little placards hanging next to the art in a museum without being able to see the paintings and sculpture being written about. But, funnier.
What has always made Waters a success isn’t just his documentation of the outsider lifestyle, but his relentlessly cheerful good-naturedness about life in general. He never seems to write about his bad days or when he’s genuinely depressed. From his first autobiography, Shock Value, to Role Models, we’ve learned that this is a guy who loves to wake up in the morning with the giddy delight of not knowing what weirdo is going to cross his path that day. Whether he’s hanging out with freaks or squares, Waters is always having the time of his life.
Role Models is a bit of a mixed bag, although overall it’s generally entertaining. Much of it is thoroughly amusing, some absolutely hilarious, some genuinely emotional and luckily only a few passages tedious. Waters’ books come out even more infrequently than his films, but Role Models is a worthy addition to his library.
However, one last note: There’s one role model conspicuously absent in the book. This person is mentioned maybe once or twice, but that she doesn’t have a chapter herself seems out of place. That person is Divine. My guess is that Waters doesn’t linger on his relationship with Divine because her untimely death is a moment of great sadness for him and writing that chapter would break the good times vibe he projects. But, I hope someday, that’s the chapter he finally does get to, detailing the good times and the bad.