Role Models

by John Waters

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 320 pp., $25

If, as a 10-year-old, you fantasize about your real parents being the Wicked Witch of the West and Captain Hook, you are probably not headed for a career in social work or nursing. If the year were 1956, and you lived in a tony Baltimore suburb, you might be John Waters. “For [Patty] McCormack, The Bad Seed was a role; for me, it was a lifestyle,” he writes.

Back when I kept up with Charm City culture as an editor at Baltimore magazine, I dutifully rented the notorious director’s Pink Flamingos. And Hairspray. I even saw Serial Mom in the theater. None, I must confess, left me wanting more—although, having been raised in the South, I kind of identified with Kathleen Turner’s white-shoes-after-Labor-Day-setting-off-homicidal-rage thing. (However, in my day, that transgression would have meant social suicide, not an actual corpse.) Waters and I went our separate ways when I got a job, then a husband and children, in Washington. But then, this past spring, I ran across a compelling interview he conducted with a serial child-killer who, I had recently learned, grew up just down the street from our current home. More recently, on the other side of the notepad, he was given a chance to name the greatest influences on his life and work—and his first choice was St. Catherine of Siena, who happens to be our firstborn’s patron saint. So I was game for giving this present volume a try, if only to see what strange company St. Catherine was keeping in there.

Strange, indeed, it turns out. Although the serial child-killer didn’t make it into the book, the serial-killer cohort is well-represented. (Maybe because Waters himself confesses to killing somebody in 1970? “Completely accidentally,” he writes of the vehicular homicide—which, indeed, was the court’s ruling.) Whatever the reason, both real and celluloid murderers get plenty of ink. But he can be surprisingly poignant, in a way you wouldn’t suspect after seeing, say, Mondo Trasho. Devoting an entire chapter to repentant Manson girl Leslie Van Houten, whom he befriended over decades of prison visits, Waters writes (convincingly) of her rehabilitation from drug-addled teenage cult follower to nonviolent, remorseful, respectable woman.

Much of the grisly detail surrounding other criminal acts seems extraneous. Do we really need to meet “the real Bad Seed, the child-killer Mary Bell”? Bell was an English tween who was convicted in 1968 of strangling two preschoolers. After serving 12 years, she was released from prison and went on to have a daughter, whom she shielded from her past until a 1998 book about the killings caused the British media to decamp to her doorstep. And just when you’re ready to throw the book over your shoulder with a pinch of salt, he throws in a line like this:

One can only imagine that frantic mother-daughter chat while journalists and news teams were banging on their front door. How exciting! My mother never told me any secrets about her past, much less involved me in any hysterical media event.

These one-liners abound, and they’re bright spots in the book. So, too, are his interviews with role models that lead to hilarious imagined scenarios: “I .  .  . thought, gee, both Johnny Mathis and I have Christmas programs; what would happen if we switched tours and did each other’s acts?” When he imagines actually becoming the role model, it gets funnier. Picture the preteen Waters swaggering around as Little Richard: “Strangers would jump back and shriek, ‘Good Lord, it’s the Bronze Liberace—Show Business Personified!’ while others genuflected to the inventor of rock and roll, and for once, just once, there’d be a real reason to live.” (He had to confine himself to stealing Little Richard’s mustache when he was old enough to grow one—or draw one on, as we learn here.)

His family didn’t share this admiration. Sneaking the (recently shoplifted) single “Lucille” into his grandmother’s home before a family dinner, 11-year-old John cues it up while the adults are otherwise occupied.

“Lu-CILLE! You won’t do your sister’s will!” came blaring through the house like a pack of rabid dogs. It was as if a Martian had landed. My grandmother stopped in her tracks, face ashen, beyond comprehension. The antiques rattled. My parents looked stunned. In one magical moment, every fear of my white family had been laid bare: an uninvited, screaming, flamboyant black man was in the living room. Even Dr. Spock hadn’t warned them about this.

The Waters family would have several such moments. His fashion choices routinely pain his father, particularly the ones from his favorite line, Comme des Garçons. CDG is headed by designer Rei Kawakubo, who could be considered certifiable from Waters’s exuberant descriptions of her work: a brown sports coat she “hastily spray-painted black right before putting it out on the rack,” a white shirt that has “a random mismatched piece of green material sewn awkwardly on the front for no apparent reason.” Confronted with a pink-spattered blue shirt during one of his son’s Saturday visits, Waters père bellows, “You bought that?!”—and really, who can blame him?

A graduate of a venerable Catholic boys’ school, Waters rarely misses a chance to slam the faithful. One notable exception comes in his chapter on hometown heroes, when he laments the death of lesbian stripper Lady Zorro. Interviewing her daughter, Eileen Murche, gives him an insight into a childhood that, he comes to realize to his horror, was like living in one of his movies. Murche, a straight-A student in Catholic school, recalls that “one of the founding things that saved my life is the Catholic Church,” Eileen admits, “and for once I don’t make a religious wisecrack. Here is what the Catholic Church should be doing instead of condemning movies and denying science”—which, as is widely known, is its raison d’être. He even lets it pass when she tells him that, yes, she’s still a Catholic today.

As for Saint Catherine, she’s admired for reasons that show Waters is a little unclear on the concept of sanctity. In a chapter where he outlines his plan for becoming a cult leader, rather than just a cult filmmaker, he mistakes her abstemiousness for masochism. At least, I think he does; often Role Models, like Waters’s work generally, feels like one long inside joke. But who’s getting punked when he pays four figures for a “Value Village look-alike garment,” a wrinkled brown polyester sports jacket, designed to defy ironing, that draws sympathetic comments from strangers? Or when he displays photographs in his living room that the Swiss artists themselves explain surfaced from “just scraping the bottom of the barrel of our archive”?

Indeed, wherever you go, you’re never far from being reminded that the author has earned his titles as “The Pope of Trash” and “The Duke of Dirt.” And he wears them as proudly as his pink leather pointy-toed CDG tennis shoes.

Susie Powell Currie is a writer and editor in Washington.

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