John Waters on New Orleans

06/25/2015 04:43 pm ET | Updated Jun 25, 2016
Kevin Winter via Getty Images

This interview first appeared in the March 2015 issue of OffBeat Magazine

John Waters has achieved the rare sort of sustained celebrity that imbues his name with an aura of recognition, no matter who you are.

After five decades in the public eye, the filmmaker-turned counterculture icon has earned every bit of fame that has come his way.

Waters has lived a life full of so many twists, turns and twisted mashups that it seems at times that his creations are circling back to devour themselves.


Take his mainstream breakthrough Hairspray, for example. Released as a major motion picture in 1988, the film's bountiful and beautiful eccentricities earned it a cult following throughout the 1990s.

In 2002, it was adapted into a Broadway play, earning a Best Musical Tony Award, along with a slew of other honors, which lead directly to a 2007 big screen adaption of the play.

What other filmmaker can claim that sort of sustained and varied success?

The movie-to-musical-to-musical movie adaptation cycle is all the more remarkable given that Waters has spent his career celebrating odd, marginalized, outcast and gloriously misfit characters and actors.

Waters has never shied away from those that society has traditionally rejected -- from drag queens to convicted criminals and adult movie stars.

It may come as no surprise that Waters has deep connections to New Orleans, a city that has been known for its bohemian culture for almost 300 years.

Find out what Waters thinks about New Orleans, what impact the city and its culture has had on his career,and what happens when the outcasts become mainstream.

When did you live in New Orleans?

I lived here right before Pink Flamingos came out.

The movie hadn't opened, and I lived in a shotgun house right across from Schwegmann's market on Rampart. I think I found out later that the guy who wrote Confederacy of Dunces [John Kennedy Toole] lived very nearby with his mother.

It was the poorest I had ever been in my entire life, and then I got the call from the distributor that the movie was going to open in New York, and I drove away from New Orleans. My life kind of changed, but I always have fond memories.

I used to eat at Buster Holmes' every night. It was $.35 for beans and rice. I lived with Mary Vivian Pearce and Danny Mills, who played Crackers in the movie. They were a couple on and off screen in Pink Flamingos.

To me, New Orleans has always been a town that lived outside of the laws of regular society, and I believe New Orleans has always been that way. It doesn't really participate in America. It has its own rules, its own cultures, its own conditions, and it really doesn't care what you think.

It seems to me -- in the best case and the worst case -- in New Orleans there are no real laws. You can say that's good or bad.

It isn't like anywhere else. It is about music and it is about drinking. That's the cliché of what it's about, but cliché are based on a truth! I've never not had a good time there. If I was an alcoholic in recovery, I don't know if I'd make it my next stop. It's the only city I've ever been where when they pick you up in the airport, they ask you if you would like to have a drink.

There's one thing I hate about it: the weather. I hate hot weather, so I could never live there. I'd be put away. I'd be put in a mental institution.

What's your favorite part of town?

My most fascinating place, and I'm not sure if it even came back after the hurricane, is Chalmette.

That, to me, is where I'd want to live in a trailer on stilts. I'd open a nightclub. I always like to get somebody to drive me out there when I am in town. I always was just fascinated by it.

How much has the city shaped your art?

Well, I think if anything has had a big influence on me, it was Tennessee Williams. I grew up with him, I wrote the introduction to his memoirs, and I certainly love Baby Doll and A Streetcar Named Desire and things like that.

One time I got on a bus named "Desire," which is what it is now, which I loved. I loved riding the bus named Desire. There are certain things like that that have influenced me heavily. The work is so great. It was so original, and it always had a sense of humor, even if it was tragic.

It seems like the city has such a healthy attitude toward houses of ill repute, but yet it didn't care that a movie was a hit in New York. That doesn't matter in New Orleans. They could care less.

What about the music?

One time when I was there I just called Clarence "Frogman" Henry on the phone. He was listed, and he was very nice. And then another time I got in touch with Ernie K-Doe. They sang the same song every night in bars. I always found that to be fascinating and beautiful.

How was your conversation with Frogman Henry?

He didn't answer the phone like a frog and then go into a girl, which I was hoping for. I wanted him to be schizophrenic and talk as three different characters.

That song, to me, weirdly, was the first transgendered thing that I had ever heard of. "I can sing like a man, I can sing like a girl, and I can sing like a frog!" That's even more bizarre!

To me as a child, this opened up my life. Maybe in a way that he certainly never thought of.

I'm sure he didn't mean it that way. I doubt it. I didn't ask him about that when I called up.

Well, art is art, and you never know how someone is going to react to it.


When you think about how that influenced you and the amount of people that you have influenced, it's pretty amazing.

Oh yeah. It was a huge influence on me, that song.

One of the things you have been discussing a lot recently is gay culture's transition into a more middle class, mainstream culture.

Now, in the Castro, you see all the gay people and they've got strollers! They have kids! So I'm trying to remember what it was like at first and what it is like now, and put them together. I created a stroller covered with all the logos of the sex bars, which are mostly no longer, and a leather restraint for the child.

How do you see this transition progressing?

I talk about it. That's a lot of what the show is about -- making fun of political correctness, even though I think I am politically correct, technically. I am certainly always interested in people's limits, how far you can go, what's on and off, and what can you make fun of. I can give it to gay culture just as much as I can give it to straight culture. But I only make fun of things I like. I'm never mean. That's why I've been able to do it for 50 years.

Do you ever look back and have a hard time believing it's been 50 years?

Kind of. I had a 50-year tribute at Lincoln Center this year. It was shocking to me. All my dreams came true a long time ago. It turned out better than I ever hoped when I was a kid, so I'm thankful for all that. The only real job I ever had was in a bookshop, and that wasn't bad, either.

I think when Pink Flamingos hit in New York, my life changed. When Hairspray won Tony Awards, my life changed. When both of my last two books landed on the New York Times bestseller list, my life changed a lot.

It's like that stock market. It goes up and down, and you hope you end up ahead.