“ROLE MODELS”: Waters Under the Pop Culture Bridge
The first thing you’ll notice about John Waters’ new book, “Role Models”, is the cover artwork: Erik Hanson‘s highly stylized pencil drawing of the highly self-styled filmmaker with the famous pencil-thin moustache. In black and white, the cover art is an interesting contrast to the loudly rainbow-hued universe that Waters sets his notorious cult movies in. Inside the book, however, Waters’ writing is as colorful as Divine’s wardrobe and makeup in “Pink Flamingoes”. In “Role Models“, Waters writes about many of the characters who have fascinated him through the years. Many were on the periphery of pop culture and part of local lore rather than in the mainstream, and their stories are aching to be told. True, Waters tells us about his meetings with superstars like Johnny Mathis and Little Richard, and shares his fondness for such cultural icons as Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West (“The jolie laide heroine of every bad little boy’s and girl’s dream of notoriety and style, whose twelve minutes of screen time in ’The Wizard of Oz’ can never be topped. And, her outfit!“). However, the culture vulture also spotlights some more obscure but just as interesting personalities, some dangerously on the verge of vanishing from pop culture history forever -- like Dagmar, a 5’11” “dumb blonde” type on late night TV. (“Predating Cher or Madonna, Dagmar was the first single-named bombshell.”). Another is Lady Zorro, a notorious lesbian exotic dancer from Waters’ hometown of Baltimore, who was clearly the inspiration behind that trash-talking sapphic stripper in the movie “Pecker”. While the book may be named “Role Models”, Waters doesn’t necessarily look up to all these quirky characters. He does indeed seem to idolize Mr. Mathis, for example (The first sentence of the book, in fact, is “I wish I were Johnny Mathis.”); but other subjects in Waters’ fifth book, however, are looked at with more of a voyeuristic fascination, including renegade gay pornographer Bobby Garcia. You may not know this guy by name, but skin-o-philes likely know of his work: He’s the guy who recruited real-life straight military guys to his enormously popular (mostly solo) amateur porn. Waters always held a dark fascination with The Manson Family, which may be obvious to anyone who has studied “Multiple Maniacs“, “Pink Flamingoes“, or “Female Trouble“ a little more closely. The filmmaker admits that he feels kind of ambiguously about that fascination today. An entire chapter of “Role Models” is devoted to the stranger-than-fiction story of Leslie Van Houten, now 60, one of the convicts of the Manson Family murder trials who is still in prison. Waters has befriended her and has advocated for her parole. (Of note, Van Houten appeared before the parole board for a 19th time on July 6, 2010. Once again, she was denied, with a next possible parole date of 2013.) Alternating his own revelations of their friendship with the true story about Van Houten’s seemingly endless quest for forgiveness and freedom, the chapter is both insightful and personal… and absolutely fascinating reading.
“Role Models” is indeed an unorthodox sort of biography, although it’s miles away from the average paint-by-numbers (put another way: boring) perfunctory celebrity bio. Waters doesn’t just stay in the background observing the world. In “Role Models“, he smartly and often hilariously waxes poetic about religion, sexuality, celebrity, fashion, and more… and in the process, we learn lots of delicious facts about Waters himself. He even reveals secrets about his inimitable moustache! A self-proclaimed book lover (8,425 books in his collection), Waters declares in the chapter “Bookworm”: “Being rich is not about how much money you have or how many homes you own; it’s the freedom to buy any book you want without looking at the price and wondering if you can afford it. Of course, you have to read the books, too. Nothing is more impotent than an unread library.“ He then goes on to reveal his own selection of must-read titles. The Oprah Book Club? Screw that! How about “John Waters Book Club“. Mr. Waters concludes with the last chapter ,“Cult Leader”, where he writes, “I’m so tired of writing ‘Cult Filmmaker’ on my income tax forms. If I could only write ‘Cult Leader’, I’d finally be happy.” He goes on to give all his fans some tips on being our most outrageous, uniquely offensive selves. The Cult of Waters? Sign me up! Oh, wait, I’m already a member… For anyone else who wants to join, start by reading “Role Models”.