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John Waters: A Bad Influence Picks His 'Role Models'

John Waters describes himself as a "cult filmmaker whose core audience consists of minorities who can't even fit in with their own minorities." In a new memoir, Role Models, the director and writer of such films as Hairspray, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Cry-Baby profiles the many people — from singer Johnny Mathis to a stripper named Zorro — who have inspired him over the years, both in his personal life and in his transgressive cinematic career.

Waters says he has only written about people he has looked up to — even if they've had terrible things happen in their lives.

"That's why people tell me everything," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "On airplanes, strangers confide in me the most deepest, darkest secrets. And I think they think I'll understand. And I generally do understand. I've taught in prison; I've counseled people. ... I've been arrested; I've been to the psychiatrist. So I think you have to participate in whatever business you're trying to be involved in."

Waters says he purposefully surrounds himself with others whose personalities fit with his unique brand of perverse humor.

"I don't like rules of any kind," he says. "And I seek people who break rules with happiness — and not bringing pain to themselves."

Interview Highlights

On why he admires Johnny Mathis — 'the polar opposite of me'

"Johnny Mathis is the opposite of me. He doesn't do any promotion, ever. Have you ever seen a picture of Johnny Mathis at a world premiere? At a party? He does no promotion whenever he has a big tour — which he does constantly still. I went to them. They're sold out. He doesn't try too hard at all. He tries not at all. ... I always have to think up new projects, go out on the road: I'm like a carnie, basically. Go sell the work. ... [He] is to me the type of mainstream that I'll never, ever be able to achieve. And everyone wants to have hits like that. And Johnny Mathis said to me, 'I always wanted to be a jazz singer.' So in a way, your opposite isn't what you believed him to be, too."

On not fitting in

"I had such strong interests so young that I didn't really care if anyone else was interested. I'm not saying I never had a moment of hassle in school or anything. But mostly, as long as I could read and have playtime and be by myself and have some friends, I was satisfied. ... When I was 12, I had a career in show business. I knew what I wanted to do. I was unhealthily interested in everything — the condemned movies, rock 'n' roll — everything that you weren't supposed to like. Somehow that didn't seem to bother me. And then I read Tennessee Williams. ... I learned that there was another world — bohemia, basically."

On gay marriage

"I understand wanting gay marriage. I would never vote for somebody who was against gay marriage. [But] I purposefully have no desire to imitate a rather corny tradition of heterosexuals to me. I would owe three alimonies. I basically think that it's more fun to go against the rules ... to make up your own rules. Sexual confusion is fun. 'Heteroflexibility' is something that really makes me laugh, that term. And kids today are like that; you don't have to be gay or straight. They don't care, really. And I like that. I think it's funny and more liberating in a way. It's sexual anarchy, which is exciting."

On his strong desire to be buried in the ground

"I love the idea of graveyards. I like people visiting. I used to go in graveyards when I was young and [drag performer] Divine would steal flowers for parties and I'd bring a couple beers. I love the atmosphere. I like 'the worms go in, the worms go out.' Maybe I believe in the Resurrection, the only thing I've been ever taught that sounds like a good idea. But then I panic about real estate prices and what are we supposed to wear, and are we nude?"

On the essential absurdity of sex

"Everyone's sex life is funny except your own. Every person's is, and yours never is. The lengths people go to — and the extremes and the conditions and the mental exercises and guilt and shame and happiness that everybody goes through — and what they'll do for sex is never-ending and mind-boggling and very interesting to me. And I don't think a lot of times people choose any of it."

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.