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‘I’ve always made fun of the rules.’ John Waters has only ever been himself

<i>Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP</i><br/>
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
"My specialty is loving things that other people hate

By Marie Lodi, CNN

(CNN) — “Los Angeles is everything a great American city should be: rich, hilarious, of questionable taste and throbbing with fake glamour,” John Waters once wrote, chronicling a six-hour tour of the city in his 1986 book of musings, “Crackpot.”

The filmmaker and author has, over the years, spent a lot of time in the tourist mecca that is Hollywood Boulevard. Now, he’s a bonafide tourist attraction of his own: 77-year-old Waters was recently bestowed with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, an honor which coincided with the opening of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures’ exhibition “John Waters: Pope of Trash,” a first-of-its-kind tribute and the biggest retrospective of Waters’ work to date. Running until August 2024, it features over 400 artifacts related to a sixty-year career spanning film, television, literature and art.

A storyteller and entertainer since his childhood in Lutherville, Maryland, orchestrating violent puppet shows for birthday parties and horror houses for neighborhood kids in his parents’ garage, Waters’ foray into filmmaking began when his grandmother gifted him an 8mm movie camera for his 16th birthday.

After briefly attending NYU, and getting kicked out for smoking pot, he returned to Baltimore, where he still resides, and assembled a ragtag crew of misfit pals and celluloid co-conspirators, including Glenn Milstead, who would later be known as the drag queen Divine, as well as Mink Stole, Edith Massey, Cookie Mueller, Mary Vivian Pearce, among others.

In the 1970s, Waters wrote, produced and directed “Female Trouble,” “Desperate Living” and “Pink Flamingos,” a cinematic “trash trilogy” that helped catapulted Waters to his near-mythical status. The honorifics speak for themselves: the Filth Elder, the Prince of Puke, the Sultan of Sleaze, and, of course, the Pope of Trash, the nickname given to him by William S. Burroughs.

Speaking with CNN after returning home from his trip to LA, and still overwhelmed with gratitude, Waters compared the Academy Museum exhibition to a scene from “This Is Your Life,” the long-running TV series that took celebrities through a retrospective of their lives. “Everybody that’s been in my personal and professional life for the last 50 years, I think, was there,” he said.“It was an amazing whirlwind. My head’s still spinning.”

At the exhibition, production notes and audition fliers are displayed alongside props like the lethal leg of lamb from 1994’s “Serial Mom,” which starred Kathleen Turner as a murderous matriarch, and relics like the scratch-n-sniff “Odorama” cards that were given out at screenings for Waters’ 1981 suburban satire “Polyester.”

Co-curators Jenny He and Dara Jaffe began working on the exhibition four years ago, sourcing many of the items from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut where Waters has been storing his movie memorabilia since the mid-80s.The process of whittling down the original wishlist of Waters’ paraphernalia from over 1,000 to about 400 was a challenge. “We had to kill some darlings; we did some hug and release,” Jaffe said at a press preview.

At the exhibition’s entrance stands a small theater resembling a church, complete with stained glass windows of Divine and Waters’ other stars. It’s a sweet and clever homage to how he held his early film premieres in churches — the venues proved to be more financially lucrative than traditional movie theaters. “I could keep all the money,” Waters once told culture website Flavorwire of the screenings.

The son of a devout Catholic mother, Waters isn’t religious himself. “I don’t know, I’m open. I’m just saying what people have told me so far, I don’t believe in (God), but who knows?” Nor does he believe in astrology — “My sign is Feces” — or karma. (“Divine would be alive and Marjorie Taylor Greene would get a flat tire every day,” he deadpanned.)

Nonetheless, he’s had some transcendental moments. “Every time I go swimming in the ocean on Cape Cod, that is a certain spiritual thing to me… I believe the ocean is good for you,” he said when asked about spiritual experiences.

If not superstitions, Waters does have his rituals. He wakes up every day at 6 a.m., Waters previously told the New York Times, checks his emails, and reads six or seven newspapers before beginning his writing at 8 a.m. on the dot. He also jots down his daily schedule on a file card, crosses off each of his tasks when completed and then stores the card away.

He calls himself “overly organized,” an admirable trait for someone who is both a collector and a maximalist. Fake food, books, pulp novels, contemporary art; Waters’ home is normally filled with these personal artifacts alongside cinematic mementos like the electric chair from “Female Trouble” — Divine’s character in the 1974 movie is, in its final scene, sentenced to death — though for the moment, this piece can also be seen in the exhibition.

During a press preview for the exhibition, Waters revealed that one item he wished they had procured was Divine’s “cheater” — drag terminology for a prosthetic vulva with fake pubic hair. (Divine used to put the piece on top of his suitcase whenever he traveled to prank airport security.) Over the years, it ended up with someone who has, thusfar unsuccessfully, tried getting Waters to pay a “ludicrous amount of money” for it.

Another iconic piece, he told CNN, is the iconic red fishtail gown that Divine wore in “Pink Flamingos,” a movie deemed so offensive it was banned in several countries after its 1972 release. “It was just that one, so it was probably fairly grody by the time that we were finished making the movie,” he said. “I don’t even know if Divine still (had it) at the end.”

As the Walk of Fame ceremony commenced on September 18, a car had caught fire just down the street, sending billowing black smoke into the air. It felt like a fitting for an event honoring an auteur known for blowing up Hollywood norms. Old friends were in attendance — Mink Stole, photographer Greg Gorman and Ricki Lake, whose breakout role came as plus-size teen turned dance sensation Traci Turnblad in Waters’ 1988 film “Hairspray.”

Lake wore black opera gloves embellished with bejeweled cockroaches, an homage to a scene in which her character wears a pink cockroach dress as a cheeky response to her archrival Amber Von Tussle’s claim “she had roaches in her hair.” The dress, created by costume designer Van Smith, is also featured in the exhibition.

Asked about the influence his movies have had on fashion, both on the industry and fans’ personal style, Waters pointed to an apparent tribute to the “Pink Flamingos” gown appearing in adverts for Balenciaga’s 2022 Spring-Summer collection; the gown was later worn by Isabelle Huppert — Waters’ favorite actor — to the Met Gala. Something of a style icon himself, Waters is known to wear Comme des Garçons, and still sports his signature skinny moustache, which he has always drawn on with Maybelline Velvet Black pencil.

When it comes to his beauty maintenance, he’s been a La Mer devotee for years (even though he complains about the brand’s prices). But even the luxury skincare brand gets the John Waters treatment: After finishing a 16-ounce, $2,675 tub of Crème de la Mer one summer, he stored bacon grease in it, then gifted it to a friend as an art project.

Whether it’s subverting a four-figure tub of moisturizer or Hollywood, Waters has always been true to himself. Even though he said his goal was to only ever make successful movies, he’s never wavered in order to fit the status quo. And it’s clearly paid off. “I haven’t changed, really, everybody just kind of seems to be more ready to laugh at themselves, which is what I did in the very beginning,” he explained. “I’ve always made fun of the rules of the world that I live in. That’s how you can have fun, by breaking some of them.”

One rule Waters isn’t breaking, however, is his daily writing schedule. After getting in from LA, he was already back at his desk at 8 a.m. the next morning, working on his annual Christmas show, a 17-date run starting in Seattle this November. There’s also the forthcoming movie adaptation of “Liarmouth,” his debut fiction novel, which was optioned last year and will mark Waters’ first film since 2006’s “A Dirty Shame,” a movie about a cult of sex addicts with unusual fetishes. He also wants to write another novel.

“It’s tempting to rest on your laurels this week,” he laughed. “But that makes me even more nervous! I said this when I was out (in LA) — I ain’t done!”

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