Arts feature

John Waters interview: ‘We can’t make fun of Bruce Jenner?’

Jasper Rees talks to the cult filmmaker, artist and Pope of trash about political correctness, post-ops and pubes

11 July 2015

9:00 AM

11 July 2015

9:00 AM

Brace yourself, reader. This is an account of a conversation with the director of the yucky trailer-trash comedy Pink Flamingos. Perhaps you won’t recall the final scene in which the overweight transvestite Divine munches on an actual dog turd. No, it wasn’t faked — this was in 1972 and there was no budget for trickery.

‘Because we were on pot all the time it didn’t seem that strange,’ John Waters recalls. ‘It’s lost today, but it was a political commentary. At the time Deep Throat had just come out; pornography had become legal. What’s left? What can’t you do?’

Waters is celebrated for his pencil moustache and transgressive movies, which shake a (knowingly limp-wristed) fist at the tyranny of good taste. When the Sixties celebrated the heterosexual revolution, his early work went several extra miles further to explore the boundaries of what could be put on film. His exuberant comedies tell of fat girls who wanna dance (Hairspray), suburban murderesses (Serial Mom) and sex addicts (Polyester, A Dirty Shame). And those are just the polite ones you can take home and introduce to Mum and Dad that were made after the film industry suffered him to enter the mainstream.

As a body of work, his filmography represents a phantasmagoric challenge to American moral orthodoxy, and as the culture of free speech gets wrapped up in a new set of rules and regs, Waters’s films still have enough pep to nip at your ankles. He predates Jeff Koons’s porno selfies and Hollywood’s bratty tittering over jism gel. And for that reason alone Waters’s crusade against calcified values merits celebration: he is an all-American pioneer, whose frontier was the very wild west. The whole canon will come out to play again in a splashy retrospective at the BFI Southbank in September, which includes Pink Flamingos, only recently unbanned in the UK. ‘A great moment with no irony,’ he says.

Waters hasn’t actually made a movie in a decade, US independent cinema having collapsed on him. There have been two stage musicals of his films — his comedy about juvenile delinquents, Cry-Baby, flopped, while the stage Hairspray continues to outstrip his films commercially. Meanwhile he’s written the odd book — one about hitching across America (‘I needed to scare myself a little’). And he has continued to dabble in visual art, the latest products of which are taking a bow in snooty old Mayfair.


We meet in the gallery, where Waters himself looks like an exhibit, immaculate and whippet-thin in an aquamarine blazer and in need of none of the lurid nips and tucks he imagines for himself on one of the canvases. Waters is 69, a good age for someone who likes to have it both ways: to shock while wearing an imperishable air of schoolboy innocence. Take his position on pubic politics, which reeks of both ornery good sense and flamboyance.

‘Young people don’t have crabs,’ he advises, ‘because they don’t have body hair, which I find alarming. I went to court so you could see bush and now there isn’t any!’

Then there’s transgender. While the rest of the world ties itself in knots in order not to fall foul of PC/LGBT lexical updates, Waters happily alludes to Vanity Fair’s post-op cover star as Bruce instead of Caitlyn. ‘The Bruce Jenner/Caitlyn thing is kind of old hat to me. I had a transgender woman in Pink Flamingos. She had breasts and a penis. She got the operation that week. That was radical to me then. Caitlyn’s a Republican, she’s on a reality show, and she’s a Kardashian. We can’t make fun of him or her?’ He’s much more intrigued by girls who are now boys, he says. ‘It seems newer to me. They look like guys I like, so it’s even more confusing. They ask me to sign their vasectomy scars a lot, which I do.’

The art is all in this territory, a series of two-fingered salutes to the repressed Fifties in which he grew up. Classic paperback jackets are mounted alongside their porno knock-offs: ‘Rapes of Wrath’. ‘Some Like It Hard’, ‘Clitty Clitty Bang Bang’. On that fateful day in Dallas the Kennedys are followed out of the airplane by Bergman’s grinning grim reaper. The Three Stooges submit to anal surgery. Justin Bieber features as a commercially available blow-up sex doll (‘now with two love holes!’ yodels the packaging).

Waters was against censorship before he even knew what it was. As a child he refused to stand up in church and take the Catholic pledge of the National Legion of Decency. ‘It just galled me. I knew something was wrong. And the nuns in Sunday school were so evil and so fascistic.’ In Baltimore he was thrown out of every school he went to, then lasted no time at all at NYU. Does he love to shock? ‘No. I take pleasure in surprising. Shocking is too easy.’

Of course deep inside the high priest of American deviancy is a conventional East Coast liberal. He has nothing outrageous to say on Obamacare, gun laws or racism (‘Sentence them to travel!’). As for gay marriage, he’s all in favour, though isn’t tempted himself. ‘When I was young there were bars called the Hungry Hole and in those same neighbourhoods are now gay people pushing baby carriages.’ Does he fancy fatherhood? ‘I’m a good uncle — I’ll get you an abortion, I’ll get you out of jail, I’ll take you to rehab. I’d be a bad father. I’m too self-involved.’

At the same time he’s a scourge of political correctness that oversteps the mark. ‘You know you can’t say “snigger” any more in America?’

From the exhibition, you’d barely know that Waters is/was a film director. The most overt allusion to the day job is an eight-and-a-half-foot ruler, a jumbo homage to Fellini’s masterpiece (‘I used to see it on LSD, which made it even better’). There’s also a filmed retake of Pink Flamingos, but the twist is that kids are reading the script and all the transgression has been expunged.

‘I became my censor. I reshot the whole thing and there’s not one dirty word in it. It was the only radical thing I could think of doing.’

John Waters’s exhibition ‘Beverly Hills John’ is at Sprüth Magers London until 15 August. A retrospective of his films will be showing at the BFI in September.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
  • Annie

    Pink Flamingos, the perfect anthem for contemporary masculinity.

    • TheTruthAsIKnowIt

      Your comment makes no sense. The movie is about vying for the position as the Filthiest Person Alive

  • Precambrian

    So the only people allowed to speak up are the degenerate? That pretty much sums up society today, I’d guess.

    Meanwhile, the rest of us that point out Bruce Jenner is mentally ill (believing something that categorically is not true to the point of denying reality itself) get censored. Perhaps we should swear more and include links to explicit sex, and then we’d be contemporary enough not to get the black pen?

    • TheTruthAsIKnowIt

      Water’s early movies are surreal. So you see this fat tranny and he’s an actor. In fact he never dressed like a woman in public. But Brucie is real and it’s frightening. If you see the recent trailer for the new show, there is no photo shopping and man is he scary. He honestly looks like a Frankenstein project gone wrong. And we’re supposed to embrace that?

      • post_x_it

        You mustn’t confuse a drag queen with a transsexual.
        Drag is an act. It’s entertainment. Drag queens don’t think that they’re women. They don’t even dress like women, or at least I’ve never met a woman who would wear the stuff that drag queens wear.
        Jenner is not a drag queen. He actually thinks he is, and has always been, a woman called Caitlyn.

        • TheTruthAsIKnowIt

          OK so you cant comprehend English all that well. I SAID Divine was an act and Bruce was real. He can think anything he wants, but he still looks like a Frankenstein project.

          • Jeff Pacheco

            looking bad (and i don’t think she does) has nothing to do with being a trans person
            there’s a lot of cis people who look like a frankenstein project and even though none of them deserve to be disrespected

          • liberalguilt

            You’re playbook is all gay agenda. It’s old and worn out We’re on to you. Divine was kinda kool. Bruce isn’t. AND he looks like a Frankenstein project. And who cares what other people look like? We were talking about Bruce. That’s deflection. But then you know that because that was your idea.

          • Jeff Pacheco

            first of all, what does it have to do with “gay agenda” considering the question here is about trans people rights? sexual orientation and gender identity are two very distinct subjects.
            and despite the fact caitlyn is a republican, white, rich, kardashian or whatever you want to tag her, she’s doing a lot for trans visibility and that itself contribute to a lower suicide rate and other kind of problems this group has to overcome because it’s marginalized for people like you. so i think she is kinda cool.

          • liberalguilt

            LOL! Your dumb response came right out of the gey playbook! You couldn’t be more of a stereotype.
            I got a good laff out of you. At your expense.

          • Jeff Pacheco

            haha right

          • liberalguilt

            Get a new playbook…oh wait…you can’t…it’s all gey agenda
            LOL
            What a doper

          • Jeff Pacheco

            sure

          • liberalguilt

            And just like a gey activist militant, you cant let go

          • nickzedd

            You misspelled gay again.

          • TheTruthAsIKnowIt

            Gey.
            Better now, feg?

          • nickzedd

            Not by a long shot, homophobe. Stay dumb. As if you have a choice.

          • nickzedd

            You misspelld gay again.

          • TheTruthAsIKnowIt

            Gey.
            Better now feg?
            BTW it’s “misspelled,” you arrogant J.O.

          • nickzedd

            Get a life bozo. You’ll never learn. Retarded M.F.

          • TheTruthAsIKnowIt

            Did you know that a world renowned gey scientist has proven getting the feg is environmental? In other words, you’re not born liking girlie underwear. There could be hope for you if you start therapy now.

          • nickzedd

            Don’t you wish, pink boy? There could be hope if you go back to elementary school and learn how to spell. Your closet case homophobia is another issue that will require more serious psychotherapy.

          • TheTruthAsIKnowIt

            Are you listening to show tunes as you type, geyboi?

          • nickzedd

            No, mister fruit, but I imaging that you’re listening to your Judy Garland records as we speak.

          • TheTruthAsIKnowIt

            No, Cher, you profiling, bigoted, self hating, homoprobe.

          • nickzedd

            Keep trying, closet-case. If all else fails, project.

          • TheTruthAsIKnowIt

            Don’t forget to scrub your browser. All those Twink sites, you’ve been yanking to have placed their cookies. Bet you wish you could eat the cookies, gey boi.

          • nickzedd

            Don’t forget to scrub your toilet, bottom feeder. They don’t call you Dirty Sanchez for nothing!

          • TheTruthAsIKnowIt

            Shouldn’t you be feeding your gerbil?

          • nickzedd

            That’s you.
            Digest the wisdom.

          • TheTruthAsIKnowIt

            I breed them to sell to donut punchers likeyou

          • nickzedd

            You wish. Keep sucking on that glory hole.

          • TheTruthAsIKnowIt

            Sucking on a “glory hole” would be sucking on air, you poof dah. What’s it like, tho being a pickle sniffer, Nancy?

          • nickzedd

            You should know with the vast lip action you’ve employed getting things hard thru those glory holes, Fairy Dust.

          • TheTruthAsIKnowIt

            When did you start pretending to be the tranny version of Boris Karloff, gimpy?

          • nickzedd

            When did you start pretending to be the mongoloid version of the Michelin Man, wimpy?

          • nickzedd

            You misspelled gay as well as the word laugh.

          • TheTruthAsIKnowIt

            Gey.
            Laff.
            Better now feg?

          • nickzedd

            Not by a long shot, homophobe. Stay dumb. As if you have a choice.

          • TheTruthAsIKnowIt

            Aww the gey feg is all bent out of shape. Man up. Oh wait! You can’t. You’re gey.

          • nickzedd

            Aww the right wing closet case is getting his panties in a bunch. Wise up. We’re onto your sexual problem. Like most homophobes, you’re actually gay.

          • TheTruthAsIKnowIt

            If I were gey…I’d be the pitcher. Unlike you, who’s the catcher.

          • nickzedd

            You wish, pink boy. In your closted bizarro world, down is up. We all know you’re the rear end.

          • TheTruthAsIKnowIt

            And you’re the pig on a spit. Front and back gets filled to the brim with BBC.

          • nickzedd

            Time to get a life, boy-amoeba.

          • TheTruthAsIKnowIt

            Time to get yet another randon dilk up your back side, gey boi

          • nickzedd

            Still flinging feces in your zoo cage, bitch?
            Go suck a banana.

          • TheTruthAsIKnowIt

            How’s your gimp costume fitting these days? You put on a few pounds from all the jizz you guzzle

          • nickzedd

            How’s your t-cell count, closet case?

          • TheTruthAsIKnowIt

            How’s your job as a fluffer coming along?

          • nickzedd

            Are you still specializing in rim jobs from your prison cell?

          • TheTruthAsIKnowIt

            We all know that you’re the brownie queen.

          • nickzedd

            Don’t you wish, Dirty Sanchez?

          • TheTruthAsIKnowIt

            My wish is your command, Gimp

          • nickzedd

            My command is your swish, Wimp.

        • ajcb

          I find the Caitlyn thing strange not because Bruce feels himself to be a woman in a man’s body (that sort of disconnect must be agony — go ahead and change things if you want), but because s/he thinks a “Real Housewife of Hollywood” is a woman, and that if you take a wrap dress, red fingernails, lipstick, high heels, breast impacts, and Farrah Fawcett hair extensions, put them in a bin-liner and shake it up, a “woman” comes out. In other words, Bruce/Caitlyn has a dysmorphically two-dimensional notion of what a woman is.

          • Gchan

            I wish Caitlyn didn’t look like the lost older sister of the Kardashians.

          • Pasty Jerk

            Wait. You find that women who think a woman is the sum of a visual identity is strange? Have you been out in public much lately? Women have been defined by an image for the past… Jesus, I don’t know, forever?

            The Feminist movement is the only thing I can think of that has attempted to shake up the idea that a woman is just a dress and nails and lipstick and heels. It’s no wonder that Cis Women, to say nothing of trans women, have a ‘dysmorphically two-dimensional notion’ of womanhood.

            But that’s not even correct in this case. Caitlyn already feels like a woman; she doesn’t need to be told what one is. All she’s doing is trying to unravel the decades of being told what a woman isn’t. That she can’t be one because she doesn’t look the part, or have the right equipment.

            You know what’s two-dimensional? Your idea that putting on a dress and makeup is somehow a hollow visual representation of someone’s identity. I think Caitlyn understands better than most people that putting on a dress and makeup can be a transgressive act.

            If Caitlyn had been born a woman, sure, following in this idealistic mold would be trite and played-out. But that’s the opposite of what’s happening. Caitlyn is re-defining the notion of womanhood.

          • ajcb

            Sorry, mate, you won’t win an argument with a woman by saying you know best what a woman is, and arguing that a woman is indeed a collection of fake tits, hair extensions, and lipstick. It isn’t. There are flat-chested, lipstick-avoiding, short-haired, pants-wearing women out there, so get used to it. That said, let Caitlyn do whatever she wants, it is totally her business.

    • La Cieca

      You’re right. I notice that your comment about Jenner’s “mental illness” in fact has been censored, which is a little puzzling, because I just read it on the Spectator’s website.

      I guess I just don’t understand this “denying reality” business as well as you do.

  • Marshal Phillips

    One can make fun of anything; but it’s is a matter of context and taste, in my view.

    • TheTruthAsIKnowIt

      Why should YOUR view be the one that counts?
      FAIL

      • Marshal Phillips

        In my view. Others will have their own views. Who’s counting?

        • TheTruthAsIKnowIt

          You clearly were. One should be able to make fun of ANYTHING without recourse. Who cares about context or taste? Bad taste is not objective. Comedy will find it’s own audience and if it doesn’t, the creator of the comedy will wind up working at a fast food joint. We don’t need other people to censor us or tell us where the boundaries are..

          Sam Kinison could never exist today. We live is a dumb boring politically correct world,

          • Marshal Phillips

            I clearly gave my view; counted nothing.
            Now you gave yours.

  • TheTruthAsIKnowIt

    Water has jumped the shark, despite trying to cling to relevancy. First of all the hitchhiking thing is a farce. He “hitched” on three rides and two of them was with the same people and he knew ALL the drivers.

    His last gazillion movies were antiseptic garbage. After Divine exploded, he hasnt made a good one.

    He’s become an old queen.

    • blackops23

      and you’ve done what for our culture in the past 40 years?

      also, if you’ll notice, our culture has now caught up with waters’ subversive worldview. he helped pave the way. again, I suspect that is more than you’ve done. why are you so into degrading him? what are you afraid of? clearly something within yourself.

      besides, I suspect john would be fine with “old queen”. so what?

      • liberalguilt

        you have no intellect.
        Waters is yesterday.
        Nothing he does is current.
        Just liek you
        FAIL

        • Gchan

          U mad son? Didn’t get laid enough?

          • liberalguilt

            Ba Low me you dumb cahhunt
            You “Love” him and then quote 2 films from 30 years ago.
            Hence I am RIGHT. He;s been done for decades

          • Gchan

            Still more talented than all of the directors today.

            Love you too, bae. XD

          • liberalguilt

            Yeah sure. He’s up there with Welles. Not. FAIL

            Getting lucky with a couple of 40 year old movies and then turning out garbage the rest of your life does not equate with talent

  • Innit Bruv

    The man is a genius !!!!

  • jim

    Disgusting creature….and a one man argument for homophobia. The price of tolerance.

  • Chamber Pot

    I had the great and morally uplifting pleasure of watching his masterpiece Polyester in Smell-O-Vision or Odorama complete with scratch and sniff cards. The guy is definitely off his trolley and to be applauded for all that.

  • Face This

    The one thing bothering me the most from this interview is that Divine ate an actual dog turd. You learn something new every day.

  • DrPeppie

    Maybe he meant/said “mastectomy scars”?

    • Ken Stailey

      Exactly. I read “vasectomy” and did a double-take. Maybe two minutes went by before I figured it was “mastectomy” but I always see it referred to as “top surgery” by FTM on video. It minimizes the fem.

  • John’s film ‘Mondo Trasho’ was such an inspiration to me when making my own film, Dada Venduza. From chickens and drag queens to religion, the only thing missing is a bit a of ‘shrimping’, With much love and ‘dada’ to John Waters!

  • La Cieca

    The headline is completely misleading. Waters does not refer to “Bruce” Jenner but, properly, to Caitlyn Jenner. He explicitly lists the things he finds ridiculous about Ms. Jenner: she is a Republican, she appears on a reality television show, she is (or was) a member of the Kardashian tribe. It seems obvious enough that these are the subjects he would choose to lampoon about her, not the fact of her transgender status. Again, Waters calls transgender “kind of old hat,” i.e., he’s so accustomed to the idea that he’s ready to treat Ms. Jenner in a truly egalitarian manner, as a target for satirical jokes like everybody else.

    • Gchan

      Well, he’s seen it all really, so I don’t really blame him for being bored with Caitlyn

  • Gchan

    I LOVE HIM!

    Polyester and Hairspray are two of my all time favorite movies for real. RIP Divine.

  • Jeff Pacheco

    he sure can make fun of she being a republican or a Kardashian, but calling her Bruce is a disrespectful shitty attitude

    • liberalguilt

      That’s his name.Bruce. Say it loud and clear three times lil jeffie. BRRRUUUCCCEEEE

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