I arrive in Baltimore with three sources for my preconceptions: Nina Simone (“Oh, Baltimore/Man, it’s hard just to live”); The Wire (count the expletives before the opening credits); and the cult films of John Waters (which boil down to “lock up your children – this place is full of freaks!”).
Nothing on the drive from the city’s Penn Station to Waters’ house fits any of these images. The cab takes a neat, wide avenue past handsome old mansions and a better class of apartment block to a compact, low-slung house on a side street. “We have edge here, but it’s about neighbourhoods. Each neighbourhood is like its own country,” Waters observes as I walk in with the photographers: “It’s almost like you need customs at each boundary.”
He began life 65 years ago in a nearby suburb, Lutherville, and has spent 21 years in this house, perplexing a film industry that does not know how to classify someone not from Los Angeles or New York. The city is getting over its inferiority complex, Waters says, attracting “kids from New York” with its music scene and affordability. “It’s amazing here what you can get for your buck. As they say, we make a dollar holler. That’s a Baltimore expression,” he adds with a dash of civic pride.
Few people embrace preconceptions like Waters, who revels in the clichéd tags attached to him, from “Pope of Trash” to “Prince of Puke”. In 17 low-budget films since 1964, including Pink Flamingos, A Dirty Shame and Female Trouble (“A high point in low taste”), he has courted notoriety by featuring an excrement-eating drag queen, a suddenly sex-crazed suburban mother and a chicken crushed by a copulating couple. Yet the taboos are always broken with a wink, as well as terrible overacting and a lot of dancing. So Hairspray could be turned into a Broadway musical that grossed more than $250m, then be remade as a PG film. Cry-Baby was similarly repackaged, though less successfully, as “a sexy musical for the whole family”.
Waters is an accommodating provocateur, and ushers us into a living room that feels overheated. Bookshelves line the walls but they are not enough. The coffee table, desk and side tables are heaped with books, as is the replica electric chair in the hall. They range from Taschen art tomes such as The Big Butt Book to Jean Genet paperbacks and a Hungarian translation of Tennessee Williams with a pulp fiction cover. In one corner sits a doll from the horror spoof Seed of Chucky, in which Waters appeared. It feels like an eccentric professor’s study, or a carefully curated exhibition based on the life of a fictional character.
Waters sports a pale striped shirt buttoned to the neck, a linen jacket and a pencil moustache that is much darker than his greying hair. He pulls out an instant camera and motions us into a pose. “I take a Polaroid of every person that’s ever been in my house … from the phone man to the worst night I ever had,” he explains. He takes just one shot. “Nobody can see [it] until I’m dead and they’re [all] dead,” he says cheerfully as he files us away.
I have come to talk about Waters’ one-man Christmas show, which he is bringing to London’s Royal Festival Hall on December 5. Sitting cross-legged on a red couch, one pale blue canvas shoe resting on a coffee table, Waters says “people choke” when they hear he is doing a Christmas show, but insists there is nothing ironic about it. “I’m trying to open up new questions such as, is Santa erotic?” he says, a half-smile on his face, eyebrows arched. I can see the direction his show might head.
I ask what Christmas was like when he was growing up. He recalls his Catholic mother, now 86, taking him to midnight mass, then sidesteps into an anecdote about Glenn Milstead – the boyhood friend and cross-dressing muse he named Divine – coming to the service in drag. Waters’ stage shows are carefully scripted, delivered from memory, and these rapid digressions come across like a compressed rehearsal of one of his soliloquies.
“I liked Santa but I would get confused as a child whether I was supposed to pray to him or William Castle [the B-movie director], or Jesus,” he says, before skipping to another thought about “living crèches” – Christmas cribs re-created with real people. “They’re begging for Diane Arbus to come back from the grave to take a picture of them. What parent would give their child to be baby Jesus, with straw and candles and mules that kick … ? I’m telling you, I think living crèches are some of the most horrifying things.”
Waters has been doing stage shows since the 1960s, when he appeared at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco and toured campuses to promote his films. “We were starting out in colleges, which was the only market, really, for midnight movies. I came on stage dressed like a hippie pimp. Divine would come out, rip a phone book in half, and throw dead mackerel at the audience.” If they had the money, the pair would hire an extra to wear a police uniform and pretend to arrest them: “Divine would strangle him to death – and the movie would start.”
Thinking of Christmas in London, I ask whether Waters has seen any pantomimes. He looks puzzled. I try to explain the genre that combines fairy tales, audience participation and washed-up TV stars in women’s clothing. “Is there scat in it?” he asks.
Mores have moved on and audiences are harder to shock, and I ask what counts as transgressive today. “Transgressive is not trying too hard,” he replies. “There are always new things that startle me.” In Spain, he says, he heard about “balloonies”, or people with a sexual interest in balloons. “I really don’t get it. But maybe I’m being stuffy. It’s safe. We should encourage that kind of behaviour. No one gets pregnant at a balloony party.”
He has swiveled again from the salacious to the jokey, and it occurs to me that this is what Waters does: confront the audience with something transgressive and render it unthreatening and comical. He relishes words like “creepy”, “hideous” and “filthy”, but makes them sound like good, clean fun. “I think when people come to see my movies or read my books or come to my Christmas show, they want me to take them somewhere they wouldn’t go. And with me as their guide, they never get mad, because I’m not saying you should do this. I’m saying, isn’t it amazing, human behaviour?”
With his books never out of print, his films on Netflix, children going to the Broadway versions and Waters narrating the part of Jessica the Hippo for Animal Planet, I ask how he likes life in the mainstream. “It’s great. It’s the final irony in my life,” he answers. “I think we need a new vocabulary, because [now] everybody wants to be an outsider. When I was one, no one wanted to be one.”