John WatersOn a recently sunny afternoon, I met up with the delightfully subversive John Waters at his cozy hilltop apartment, filled with beloved artwork and a loaded library. Best known for his positively perverse films—Hairspray, Pink Flamingos, Serial Mom, Pecker—Waters sat down to talk with me about everything but, including his take on his sometimes home, San Francisco.
In addition to discussing his favorite aspects of the city, Waters also filled me in on his fine art career and solo exhibition currently on show at SF’s Rena Bransten Gallery (through July 9), and his new book, Role Models, which features a series of essays about people, both famous and infamous, who have had a profound impact on Waters’s life.
Reflecting his mischievously humorous personality, the ever fashionable Waters was dressed in his signature style: anything by Comme des Garçon (the label’s founder and designer, Rei KawaKubo, is one of the role models featured in Waters’s book). He dove right into the interview gregariously introducing the conversation into the recorder, setting his fabulously filthy (as only the genre’s “king” can) tone from the start.

John Waters: We’re on with the Nob Hill Gazette. You know I’ve always wanted to do a porno movie with Nob Hill in the title but spelled K-N-O-B (burst of laughter). It’d play right down there at the Nob Hill Cinema. 
I lived here when I was young. It’s the first place my movies ever caught on outside of Baltimore and Provincetown. I lived in several places in the city including a commune on 18th and Church. The best thing about living here now is I lived, in 1970, in my car not far from here; it’s about the same now, but a little different. I just pay more now for clothes that look like they came from a thrift shop.

Chérie Turner: With a start like that, I think I might just throw out my questions! I do want to talk to you about San Francisco, but I also know you have some new projects that aren’t movies, which is what most people associate you with.

I have an art career, and I wrote this book, which took two-and-a-half years. I have this live show I do called Filthy World, which I tour all over. I just did Australia and sold out the Sydney Opera House, I’m proud to say. So I’m always on tour doing that.

Let’s talk about your artwork. What got you into the art world?

I collect contemporary art, and I went forever to art galleries. I’ve collected since the sixties. I had this one dealer I really liked in New York named Colin de Land, and he had a place called American Fine Art. I always went in there, and he finally said to me, Do you ever do art? And I said, I have these little pictures, but I hadn’t told anybody. He came and saw them, and I had my first show. Colin de Land was known as such a, to use the most overused word in the art criticism, rigorous art dealer—he was really a respected, insane art dealer, who was anything but commercial. I don’t think I could have done it without him. He hooked me up with Rena Bransten—and this is my, what, fourth show with her. I love Rena.

I’ve been doing this since 1992, so it’s not especially new; there are three or four books out about my work. One thing I like—in the art world, you don’t have to reach everybody. In fact if you do, it’s bad. So it’s the opposite of movies. It’s so exciting to not have to pretend you’re commercial.

John Waters's "A Passion for Audrey"

Tell me about your exhibition there.

I’m showing new work. Some is from a lot of different shows but also new work that hasn’t even been seen in New York or L.A. And none of the work has been seen here. There’s a piece called A Passion for Audrey, which is Audrey Hepburn in every movie but with hickies on that beautiful neck. I alter film knowledge—that’s basically what my work is about, the film business and film knowledge.

How’d that start?

I started doing it because I needed a still from one of my own movies that I didn’t have. So I thought, How can I get this? Can I take it off the video, on the TV screen? And it worked, but in an arty, weird way. Then I became like a bad publicist looking for movie stills that would never be released as movie stills. I went so far into that that I did a series called “The Marks,” which is just the marks on the floor that actors have to hit. I focus on stills of details you’re not allowed to see in a movie—the opposite.

And then my writing career, I’ve always—you know, everything I do is about writing. My artwork—I think it up before I do it. I write it, basically. My books I write. My movies I write. My journalism I write. My standup I write. So basically, I’m a writer. And every morning I’ve gotta think of something, and every afternoon I sell it. That’s my life. I start at 8 a.m. every day; I get up at 6. I walk out to get my papers, and every morning the cable car goes by at the exact moment I step out the door; it’s really to the second.

That says a lot about our cable car system and your schedule.

I love the cable car system. They are my mode of transportation. I live in a Rice-A-Roni commercial. It’s like a joke. It’s like getting on the Tilt-A-Whirl to go to the store. They’re great! I love the—I take the bus here everywhere. I think the transportation system here is really good. I said that and it was on a blog: Has John Waters lost his mind? I can say I want one of the Manson family paroled [Leslie Van Houten, who was convicted for murdering Leno and Rosemary LaBianca; she’s another of the role models in Waters’s book], and it didn’t cause controversy. But saying that the public transportation was good—there was outrage!

Let’s switch gears. I know you have a very fashionable reputation.

I understand the ludicrousness of fashion. I follow fashion as I follow art, and I follow it as an art form. I think everybody can have a fashion if you even find it in the gutter. I don’t think it has to be about money. Matter of fact, if you’re young and buy designer clothes, you’re an idiot. It’s for over forty; you need help then. But at twenty, if you’re spending money on designer clothes, it’s ridiculous. You should be wearing the things they copy.

What are some of your favorite places to go here, your favorite bar and restaurants.

My favorite bar is Delirium. And I love lots of restaurants. I like Zuni, which my friend Billy West started; he’s long dead. I like Foreign Cinema, Range—I go out to eat all the time here. It’s a great food town.

Tell me what you think about the art scene here. Any favored artists?

Brett Reichman and Vincent Fecteau are my two favorite local artists, and they’re also very good friends of mine. Of course, I love Rena, and I’m a big fan of Jeffrey Fraenkel—talk about a beautiful gallery, beautiful catalogues, great stuff there. I think you have great film festivals here. I’ve also been active with Frameline, the gay film festival.

Culturally it’s a great town, but at the same time there are crazy people here, too. You can go down and walk through the Tenderloin and think, Wow, this is like what the Bowery was in the forties. It’s amazing to me. But it doesn’t seem scary to me at all. But I don’t scare easily. The Mission I like, but the mission is very different—and it’s completely mixed. I’m for gay and straights mixed together; I’m not so much for separation of anything. This used to be a gayer town in a weird way. When I was here when I was young, South of Market was 100 percent gay. When you don’t know who’s what, that seems much more exciting to me.

Let’s talk about your book, Role Models. What inspired you to write it?

I wrote the Tennessee Williams essay when his memoirs were released. New Directions [Publishing] asked me if I’d write the introduction, and that gave me the idea. It’s telling my story through others.

Why are role models important?

Everybody has role models. Basically I’m always really interested in people’s lives that have survived with grace and dignity and have had a life more extreme than mine has ever been. That’s what the book’s about. And every person in my book I do look up to for different reasons, for many complicated reasons, and there’s not an easy answer to any of the people I bring up. I mean like Madalyn Murray O’Hair who couldn’t be more unlikable in a way even though I believe in what she fought for—taking prayer out of the school. But people forget what she was like. Certainly Leslie Van Houten, which is the only chapter in the book that is completely serious. There’s no fair answer to her situation. I’m fascinated by someone who did something so terrible when she was young and is now so obviously better and rehabilitated and beyond it. But what is the fair answer? To me, if you’re raised in a system of jail where for forty years they tell you there is a system you can participate in to get parole, and you have done every possible thing for forty years and they admit it—she didn’t get life without parole. But I understand the victims, what they say. But they’re talking from a personal viewpoint and I’m talking from society’s viewpoint. And those are two completely different things.

Is there anyone you haven’t met whom you’d like to meet?

Mostly they’re dead. I have met many of my role models. David Plante, the writer—not people who are instantly famous. I’ve never met Ned Rorem, the classical musician and diarist—people like that. I’m not dieing to meet someone who’s a big famous rock star. Around here, I want to meet the guy who wrote that book [points to Oh, The Glory of it All]—Sean Wilsey.

A LARGE AND DISTINCTIVELY whole-body Waters laugh followed, and then soon it was time to quit this questful Q&A. But even after the door closed and the goodbyes were waved, I indulged thedelight of the wickedly wonderful Waters worldview just a moment more. And instead of taking a taxi to my next destination, I caught the coming cable car.

This interview originally appeared in the Nob Hill Gazette.