john waters on j-lo, rei kawakubo, bad taste and huge hair
Jo-Ann Furniss meets the enfant terrible of cinema, the punk before punk, and the ‘filth elder’ of film, John Waters.
'Just 'cause we're pretty everybody's jealous,' says Concetta (played by Cookie Mueller) in John Waters' film and fashion extravaganza Female Trouble. There she stands, distractedly primping her hair and checking her pimples, her white blouse with its ruffles gently cascading down the front and the dark, neat pencil skirt finishing off the bad girl look for this fashion parade in a Baltimore high school girl's toilet. Chiclet (Susan Walsh) sits next to her - on a window sill - poking at her beehive (or is it a bubble? Or a bouffant?) with the end of a comb. Naturally, they both liberally apply hairspray while Divine, AKA Dawn Davenport, positively Prada-esque in a lemon V-neck sweater and orange plaid skirt, threatens merry hell if she does not get cha-cha heels as a Christmas present from her parents. She doesn't of course, and a criminal career ensues all because of that dreadful fashion faux pas by her mother and father. This really should be a moral to teach everybody the importance of the correct footwear in life: bad things happen when you wear bad shoes. And the sensible shoes forced on Dawn by her parents - "nice girls don't wear cha-cha heels", whines her father - are particularly bad. She pushes her mother into a Christmas tree for that and it collapses upon her. The electric chair awaits Dawn Davenport at the end of Female Trouble, all for the want of a cha-cha heel. And fashion really is that important. Well, it certainly is for John Waters.
There is a reminder of it with that very same electric chair in the hallway of the director's Baltimore home - and each Christmas it is decorated instead of a tree. Imagining fashion scofflaws being placed in it and given the shock of their lives, today it holds a pile of art books and looks positively 'olde-worlde'. Does this mean that John Waters has gone soft? Not likely.
"I am a feminist and I always wonder why all the girls today show full tit at The Oscars," he begins to froth with gleeful rage - and bear in mind this conversation takes place before the full nudey horror of the Met Ball unfolded. "I think J-Lo should wear Comme des Garçons; she should wear a monster outfit! Why don't the stylists ever tell them that? They always play it safe. They all have to be nude! I mean 80-year-old women editors all have to be nude at The Oscars. You'd be mad if they made Miss America show full tit! So I always say that men should show their balls. And that was before Rick Owens did his collection where you could see them. Now there should be peek-a-boo anus pants!" And he ends with a final growl, "Men never have to be nude."
Today, a few days shy of Easter, John Waters is hosting the fashion shoot that accompanies this article in the garden of his Baltimore home. Close to Johns Hopkins University, his house resembles that of a renowned research professor, whose research entails an intricate knowledge of filth, perversity and bad taste alongside a penchant for fine art and literature - as the director once said: 'To understand bad taste one must have very good taste.' And the two sit together quite easily in the incredible interior - crammed with books on each floor, each room is a library of both trash and treasure, together with an art collection both finely judged and wittily, idiosyncratically personal. The extremes sit just as easily as they do in the personage of John Waters himself; elegant, witty, warm and unhinged, still with his trademark pencil thin and pencilled in moustache - "I always say you need something weird on your face and some good shoes and nobody looks in the middle. That's my fashion tip as you get older." - he is no longer the enfant terrible of cinema, a punk before punk, but a self-described 'filth elder' of film.
Mr Waters is attired today in a graphically patterned, tailored jacket by Walter Van Beirendonck and trousers by his favourite fashion label, Comme des Garçons. After all, in Role Models - Waters is also a deft and hilarious writer of a number of books - he describes Rei Kawakubo as a 'genius fashion dictator' and declares 'Ms Kawakubo is my god.' That's why he wants to see J-Lo in the autumn/winter 14 Comme des Garçons Monster collection: he is more than au fait with fashion, in fact he is something of an authority. As he also shouts (typographically) in Role Models when someone asks him if he has a hobby: 'A HOBBY? DO I LOOK LIKE A FUCKING DABBLER?!' This, he says, is the only insult he has received in his adult life.
Needless to say, John Waters' films don't just dabble in fashion. Working alongside the brilliant Van Smith on the look of his characters, fashion literally became a way of life in his films and a motivation for some of them, such as the early Eat Your Makeup, where a deranged nanny kidnaps girls who are forced to model themselves to death. For many of his audience who found themselves in the fashion industry, his films are still an abiding (gleefully bad) influence. Rather modestly, the director seems somewhat unaware of this.
"Van Smith deserves all the credit for that," he explains. "He did all the clothes for my movies. And if designers are paying tribute, it's to Van Smith. He did all the make-up and the costumes. I asked him to do something weird with the hairline for Divine and he shaved it back to make room for the eye make up…"
It was only a matter of time then, until the fashion industry paid homage to John Waters in a collection. And this arrived with Miuccia Prada's spring/summer 15 Miu Miu offering, with its distinct debt to Female Trouble. "I was thrilled and flattered about the Miu Miu collection," he says. "I met Miuccia Prada at The Hammer Museum when there was a big tribute to Mike Kelley, so I met her in person then. Most of the fashion designers I have met are great. They live in a world of their own," and he clearly recognises kindred spirits. It seemed only right and correct then to shoot the Miu Miu collection in the place that is in fact its spiritual home: Baltimore.
"I always say Baltimore is a town where on each street corner there is a bar and a beauty parlour," explains Waters. "I would say yes, people still spend way too much time on their hair here." In his book Shock Value, a whole chapter is entitled 'Baltimore, Maryland - hairdo capital of the world.'
"About 10 years ago the black hairstyles that were really outrageous took hold," he continues. "So it came full circle - it used to be white women that had huge hair, then it became black women with huge hair. They had Baltimore fashion week once - and this was so radical, Rick Owens should do this next - all the girls smiled and waved at people! It would be so radical; people would think that everyone was insane! Cookie said she always used to see people dancing waiting for the bus here. On the street corners waiting for the bus, she'd always see people dancing. That's quite good I think."
Baltimore is the setting for each and every one of John Waters' films. His hometown and an inherently peculiar place with an accent to match, Baltimore is still a city that Waters cannot get enough of.
"I think Baltimore is better than it has ever been," he says. "I used to worry about the best people leaving Baltimore and now people are coming here. It's the last place you can be a bohemian in - it's so cheap." In large part the outside world has been drawn to 'bohemian' Baltimore because of his view of it and that of his fellow 'Dreamlanders' - the regular cast and crew members of his Dreamland Productions. Pat Moran, the Emmy-award-winning casting director and Waters' best friend and major inspiration for Desperate Living's Peggy Gravel, was also responsible for the impeccable casting of The Wire. While Vincent Peranio, the art director and production designer responsible for the insane look of most of Waters' film sets, is also the man who made the look of The Wire.
But it is his star actors and actresses that have the greatest hold over the imagined world of Baltimore. Arguably much more influential than any of Warhol's superstars, Waters' Dreamlanders are both inspiring and hilarious. Waters is joined today by the inimitable Mink Stole, frequent villainess in Waters' films and the most talented of his actresses. While Cookie Mueller is the inspiration for the Miu Miu fashion shoot, and it is the model Anna Ewers who has been asked to channel her spirit today- when Waters first sees her, he declares to Mink Stole "She looks like Cookie!" Although admittedly, the model-ly, fashion version.
"Cookie looked like that naturally," he says. "At her funeral I said so many people here copied her and she did do it first. She had that bad girl look really down."
Many of the stars of Waters' early films - all of them close friends of the director - are now deceased. Divine, Cookie Mueller, David Lochary, Edith Massey… Van Smith also died in 2006. But the remaining Dreamlanders still display a lifetime bond and John Waters and Mink Stole are no exception. They have that easy backwards and forwards conversational style, only attained after knowing each other for many, many years… Such as when discussing the benefits of having a pit to throw people into a la Pink Flamingos:
John Waters: With Pink Flamingos, there's the story that babies are stolen and sold to lesbian couples. And now lesbians have more children than Catholics. Although they still do not go out and rape people - or have butlers on assignment to rape people.
Mink Stole: And there is not that much call for butlers. I wouldn't mind having a pit though.
JW: I sort of do. The basement here is kind of pit-ish. I could throw people in it. 'Oh, they are down in the pit.' Or when bickering about how 'screamy' the early films actually are. Desperate Living did the worst of any of my films. It was the only one I never got a TV sale for… And I can't believe I got a TV sale for any of 'em!
MS: I think it is because it is just too loud and screamy.
JW: They're all screamy! Female Trouble is screamy…
MS: I have a couple of lines I say without screaming in Female Trouble. I don't say one line without screaming in Desperate Living.
JW: Well, the sound equipment was not that good… I want to release them all in Sensurround. Do you know what that was? It was so loud that if there was an earthquake sound it would shake bits of the ceiling loose. So I want to release all Mink's lines in Sensurround.
JW: Just think, people would go deaf and sue the theatre! A lot of it was based on Pat Moran who really used to act like Peggy Gravel - and that was not exaggerated.
MS: I was a sort of a Taffy. That is the role I identify with most.
With Taffy Tourette's, I cannot help interjecting: I AM NOT RETARDED!!
"People say that line to me more than any of the others," says John Waters, clearly a bit tired of people saying that line to him. Although he laughs, saying, "Oh that line is so politically incorrect… I'll tell you something so obscure that happened this year. There is another line in Female Trouble where Divine says 'I framed Leslie Bacon.' Nobody remembers who Leslie Bacon is. She was accused of bombing the Capitol and being a Weatherman. But she didn't and they had to let her go. This guy in Baltimore came up to me earlier this year and said 'Leslie Bacon is my mother-in-law.' I said 'Get her on the phone!' So we talked on the phone, she lives in Berkeley and she's very bohemian and we are going to meet up. I framed Leslie Bacon. Now I have her address."
Eventually it comes time to leave the Baltimore home, but not before a final tour of some of John Waters' most treasured possessions, such as his favourite shirt…
"I am a big Comme des Garçons fan and they have been good to me too," he says with some delight, basking in a little of Rei Kawakubo's reflected glory. "I have modelled for them and she asked me to accept the fashion award for her at the CFDA. I am a big fan. She has great wit. I need to show you my favourite shirt and it makes me laugh every time I look at it." He quickly retreats out of the room before appearing once more with a (purposely) grubby looking shirt, with three peek-a-boo holes on the chest. "It has holes and dirt and blood all over it!" he gleefully declares. "I took it to the cleaner and he was speechless. The bloodstains are my favourite. Whose blood is it? I don't know… Hers I hope. It's Rei's! She splashed her blood. It is ridiculous! My father always used to say 'You bought that? They saw you coming.' And the thing is, they did see me coming!"
Then it is on up the winding stairs to the top floor of the house to see a special room…
"I want to show you this art instillation," Waters says of our quietly spectacular destination. It is a small box room, under the eaves, full of bits and bobs and detritus on wooden work desks, rather oddly including a Thornton's Special Toffee box that looks to be from Britain in the 80s… On first sight it could be the room of some sort of craft hobbyist until you look closer - as we know John Waters does not approve of hobbies. "It was done by Gregory Green. It is the room of a bomber, about to blow up a stadium, he's working on three bombs!"
Adjacent to 'the bomb room' is another part of the extensive library - Johns Hopkins has nothing on this. "Look at some of these covers," says the filth elder, living up to the name. A woman lies supine and bound on the front of Slut for the Crusaders; A Sucker for Arabs, really just says it all, as does the much more straightforward Big Dick. Really, this house and all of its belongings should be put in trust for the nation. As too should John Waters. For his services to Baltimore, film, fashion and filth, he should be given a MacArthur Fellowship. For now, we salute him.
Text Jo-Ann Furniss
Photography Alasdair McLellan
Styling Francesca Burns
Hair Duffy at Streeters London for Vidal Sassoon
Make-up Frank B at The Wall Group
Photography assistance Lex Kembery, James Robjant, Matthew Healy
Styling assistance Saranne Woodcroft
Make-up assistance Megumi Onishi
Hair assistance Ryan Mitchell
Executive producer (not on set) Lucy Johnson
Producer Leone Ioannou at Pony Projects
Production assistance Oscar Correcher, Louis Fernandez
Location manager Chris Geair
Retouching Output Ltd. Model Anna Ewers at Storm