“Role Models” by John Waters, book review

Who are your role models? I mean the people who have inspired you to be the person you really wanted to be? Diane Arbus is one of mine. The first time I saw those amazing photographs I was shocked. I didn’t know what kind of pictures I wanted to make way back in 1977. I was 20 years old and bounced from major to major in college, and then I took a photo class and the teacher had us buy the Arbus book (thanks Arnie!). I was amazed by the portraits and deeply attracted to the vision of the artist, her style and who she chose to photograph. I immediately recognized that if she could do it, I could do it, if only I had the courage to follow my vision to where it led.

John Waters in another one of my role models and his insightful little book about his own role models confirms why I was so impressed with his vision. Waters is an authentic iconoclast, a rebel with a definite cause, who is out to challenge everything a nice, middle class Catholic kid was ever taught. By the time I saw Pink Flamingos at a midnight show in college in 1976, I was ready, full of pent up frustrations, ambitions and arrogance that was desperately seeking a way to express itself.

Waters is a master story teller and a clear writer. His style is so lucid, you feel like he’s sitting next to you, talking about all the crazy weirdos in Baltimore- the strippers, cross dressers, pornographers and drug addicts. He recounts their lives with such affection and describes each in such glorious detail that we know his admiration is sincere. John Waters isn’t just a voyeur either- he walks the walk- but has come to terms with his perversions and awkward desires. There are a few non-weirdos in the book too, legitimate artist (I’m sure hates that word!) who have forged a path that no one else can follow, like Johnny Mathis, or whose work is a direct affront to conventional norms, like Cy Twombly and Mike Kelly.

Growing up in a middle class Baltimore neighborhood and attending Catholic school, John knew from an early age that he was not like everyone else, or at least not like what everyone told him he should be. He was, and still is, the personification of queer, the ultimate outsider, without shame or embarrassment, and his role models showed the way. Courageous, outspoken, outrageous and veering on the edge of control, they were trailblazers who showed him the way out of the conventional confines and gave him the courage to follow his own way. But many of them really were nuts and terribly self destructive and even murderous. Waters found a way be to a crazy pervert and make a good living. Now that’s a role model!

Waters is famously the Pope of Trash, the Duke of Debauchery, the Prince of Perversion and the King of Bad Taste, and yet he is so well adjusted! Funny, generous and kind, even in the heights of perversity, Waters exudes a gentleness that is exemplified by his movies’ characters, too. He is a true moralist and well as a subversive, a live and let live libertarian in a world of greed, conformity and superficial posturing. Waters is authentic and I love him for it. But remember that we need conventional people and cultural conformity to appreciate his radical vision. A world full of his characters would be a bore, and probably deadly, but maybe a small John Waters theme park in Baltimore would be just the thing.

I will acknowledge a flaw in this fabulously fetid fellow. His artwork is unfortunately conventional and fits right into the blue chip galleries that show it. That’s okay, I bet he bathes daily, washes his clothes and loves his mommy. Me too.

Buy this book. See his movies. Find your vision and have the courage to follow it. And please tell me who your role models are.

Thomas McGovern