John Waters

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John Waters
John Waters 2014 (cropped).jpg
Waters at Pen America/Free Expression Literature, May 2014
John Samuel Waters Jr.

(1946-04-22) April 22, 1946 (age 75)
  • Filmmaker
  • writer
  • actor
  • artist
Years active1964–present
John Waters signature.png

John Samuel Waters Jr. (born April 22, 1946) is an American filmmaker, actor, writer, and artist. Born and raised in Baltimore, Waters rose to fame in the early 1970s for his transgressive cult films, including Multiple Maniacs (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972), and Female Trouble (1974). He wrote and directed the 1988 film Hairspray which became an international success and was later adapted into a hit Broadway musical. Waters has written and directed other films, including Polyester (1981), Cry-Baby (1990), Serial Mom (1994), Pecker (1998), and Cecil B. Demented (2000). His films contain elements of post-modern comedy and surrealism.

As an actor, Waters has appeared in the television series 'Til Death Do Us Part (2007), and in the films Sweet and Lowdown (1999), Seed of Chucky (2004), Excision (2012), and Suburban Gothic (2014). More recently, he performs in his touring one-man show, This Filthy World. He often worked with actor and drag queen Divine, and the Dreamlanders, Waters' ensemble of regular cast and crew members.[1]

Waters also works as a visual artist and across different mediums, such as installations, photography, and sculpture. In 2016, he received an honorary degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art. His books Carsick (2015) and Mr. Know-It-All (2020) were both nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album. In 2018, Waters was named an officer of the Order of Arts and Letters in France.[2]

Early life[edit]

Waters was born April 22, 1946, in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of Patricia Ann (née Whitaker; 1924–2014) and John Samuel Waters (1916–2008), who was a manufacturer of fire-protection equipment.[3] He was raised Roman Catholic by his mother, who was an adherent to the faith, though his father was not.[4] Through his mother, he is the great-great-great-grandson of George Price Whitaker, of the Whitaker iron family.[5] Waters grew up in Lutherville, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore. His boyhood friend and muse Glenn Milstead, later known as Divine, also lived in Lutherville.[6]

The film Lili inspired an interest in puppets in the seven-year-old Waters, who proceeded to stage violent versions of Punch and Judy for children's birthday parties. Biographer Robrt L. Pela says that Waters's mother believes the puppets in Lili had the greatest influence on Waters's subsequent career (though Pela believes tacky films at a local drive-in, which the young Waters watched from a distance through binoculars, had a greater effect).[7]

Cry-Baby was also a product of Waters's boyhood, because of his fascination as a seven-year-old with the "drapes" then receiving intense news coverage because of the murder of Carolyn Wasilewski, a young "drapette", coupled with his awed admiration for a young man living across the street who possessed a hot rod.[8][9]

Waters was privately educated at the Calvert School in Baltimore. After attending Towson Jr. High School in Towson, Maryland,[10] and Calvert Hall College High School in nearby Towson, he ultimately graduated from Boys' Latin School of Maryland.[11] While still a teenager, Waters made frequent trips into the city to visit Martick's, a beatnik bar in downtown Baltimore. He and Milstead met many of their later film collaborators there.[12] Although underage and therefore not admitted into the bar proper, Waters loitered in the adjacent alley, where he relied on the kindness of patrons to slip him drinks.[13]


Early career[edit]

Waters's first short film was Hag in a Black Leather Jacket.[14]

Extremely influential to his creative mind, Waters said the following about seeing the film,The Wizard of Oz (1939):

I was always drawn to forbidden subject matter in the very, very beginning. The Wizard of Oz opened me up because it was one of the first movies I ever saw. It opened me up to villainy, to screenwriting, to costumes. And great dialogue. I think the witch has great, great dialogue.[15]

Waters has stated that he takes an equal amount of joy and influence from high-brow "art" films and sleazy exploitation films.[16]

In January 1966, Waters and some friends were caught smoking marijuana on the grounds of NYU; he was soon kicked out of his NYU dormitory. Waters returned to Baltimore, where he completed his next two short films Roman Candles and Eat Your Makeup.[3] These were followed by the feature-length films Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs.[17]

Waters's films became Divine's primary star vehicles. All of Waters's early films were shot in the Baltimore area with his company of local actors, the Dreamlanders. In addition to Divine, the group included Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller, Edith Massey, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Susan Walsh, and others.

Waters's early campy movies present exaggerated characters in outrageous situations with hyperbolic dialogue. Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living, which he labeled the Trash Trilogy, pushed hard at the boundaries of conventional propriety and movie censorship.

Move toward the mainstream[edit]

John Waters signing a fan's jean jacket sleeve at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, 1990.

Waters's 1981 film Polyester starred Divine opposite former teen idol Tab Hunter.[18] This was the first time that Waters wasn’t the primary camera operator for his own movies, as he had started collaborating with local film student, David Insley. [19][20]Since then, his films have become less controversial and more mainstream, although works such as Hairspray, Cry-Baby, Serial Mom, Pecker, and Cecil B. Demented still retain his trademark inventiveness. The film Hairspray, the last movie he produced, was turned into a hit Broadway musical that swept the 2003 Tony Awards,[21] and a film adaptation of the Broadway musical was released in theaters on July 20, 2007, to positive reviews and commercial success.[22] Cry-Baby, itself a musical, was also converted into a Broadway musical.[23]

In 2004, the NC-17-rated A Dirty Shame marked a return to his earlier, more controversial work of the 1970s. As of 2021, it is the most recent film Waters directed.

In 2007, Waters became the host ("The Groom Reaper") of 'Til Death Do Us Part, a program on America's Court TV network.

In 2008, Waters was planning to make a children's Christmas film called Fruitcake[24] starring Johnny Knoxville and Parker Posey.[25] Filming was planned for November 2008,[26] but it was shelved in January 2009.[27] In 2010, Waters told the Chicago Tribune that "Independent films that cost $5 million are very hard to get made. I sold the idea, got a development deal, got paid a great salary to write it—and now the company is no longer around, which is the case with many independent film companies these days."[28]

Waters has often created characters with alliterated names for his films including Corny Collins, Cuddles Kovinsky, Donald and Donna Dasher, Dawn Davenport, Fat Fuck Frank, Francine Fishpaw, Link Larkin, Motormouth Maybelle, Mole McHenry, Penny and Prudy Pingleton, Ramona Ricketts, Sandy Sandstone, Sylvia Stickles, Todd Tomorrow, Tracy Turnblad, Ursula Udders, Wade Walker, and Wanda Woodward.[29]

Other ventures[edit]

Waters with historian Jon Wiener in 2010

Waters is a bibliophile, with a collection of over 8,000 books. In 2011, during a visit to the Waters house in Baltimore, Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson observed:

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.[30]

Waters has had his fan mail delivered to Atomic Books, an independent bookstore in Baltimore, for over 20 years.[31]

Puffing constantly on a cigarette, Waters appeared in a short film shown in film art houses announcing that "no smoking" is permitted in the theaters. The 'No Smoking' spot, starring Waters, was directed by Douglas Brian Martin and produced by Douglas Brian Martin and Steven M. Martin along with two other short films, for the Nuart Theatre (a Landmark Theater) in West Los Angeles, California, in appreciation to the theater for showing Pink Flamingos for many years. It is shown immediately before any of his films, and before the midnight movie showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Waters played a minister in Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat, which was directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis.[32]

Waters serves as a board member of Maryland Film Festival, and has selected and hosted one favorite feature film within each Maryland Film Festival since its launch in 1999.[33] He also serves on the advisory board of the Provincetown International Film Festival and has hosted events or presented awards at PIFF every year since it was founded in 1999.[34][35]

He is a contributor to Artforum magazine and author of its annual year-end list of top-ten films.[36]

Waters hosts an annual performance titled "A John Waters Christmas", which was launched in 1996 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, and in 2018 toured 17 cities over 23 days.[37]

In 2019, the Film Society of Lincoln Center celebrated its 50th anniversary at a gala where John Waters spoke in tribute to the Center along with Martin Scorsese, Dee Rees, Pedro Almodovar, Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Moore, Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan.[38]

Fine art[edit]

Since the early 1990s, Waters has been making photo-based artwork and installations that have been internationally exhibited in galleries and museums. In 2004, the New Museum in New York City presented a retrospective of his artwork curated by Marvin Heiferman and Lisa Phillips. His most recent exhibition John Waters: Indecent Exposure was exhibited at the Baltimore Museum of Art from October 2018 to January 2019 and later traveled to the Wexner Center for the Arts.[39][40] Prior to that, Waters exhibited Rear Projection in April 2009, at the Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York and the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles.[41] Waters has been represented by C. Grimaldis Gallery in Baltimore, Maryland, since 2002 and by Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York since 2006.[42][43]

Waters in 2007

Waters's pieces are often comical, such as Rush (2009), a super-sized, tipped-over bottle of poppers (nitrite inhalants), and Hardy Har (2006), a photograph of flowers that squirts water at anyone who traverses a taped line on the floor. Waters has characterized his art as conceptual: "The craft is not the issue here. The idea is. And the presentation."[44]

In November 2020 Waters promised to donate 372 artworks from his personal collection, including some of his own work as well as pieces by 125 artists, including Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Cy Twombly, Cindy Sherman and more, to the Baltimore Museum of Art. In recognition of the donation the museum will name its rotunda and (at Waters's request) bathrooms after him.[45]


With the motif "My life is so over-scheduled, what will happen if I give up control?", Waters completed a hitchhiking journey across the United States from Baltimore to San Francisco, turning his adventures into a book titled Carsick.[46] On May 15, 2012, while on the hitchhiking trip, Waters was picked up by 20-year-old Myersville, Maryland, councilman Brett Bidle, who thought Waters was a homeless hitchhiker standing in the pouring rain. Feeling bad for Waters, he agreed to drive him four hours to Ohio.[47]

The next day, indie rock band Here We Go Magic tweeted that they had picked John Waters up hitchhiking in Ohio. He was wearing a hat with the text "Scum of the Earth".[48] In Denver, Colorado, Waters reconnected with Bidle (who had made an effort to catch up with him); Bidle then drove him another 1,000 miles (1,600 km) to Reno, Nevada. Before parting ways, Waters arranged for Bidle to stay at his San Francisco apartment: "I thought, you know what, he wanted an adventure, too ... He's the first Republican I'd ever vote for."[46]

Bidle later said: "We are polar opposites when it comes to our politics, religious beliefs. But that's what I loved about the whole trip. It was two people able to agree to disagree and still move on and have a great time. I think that's what America's all about."[46]

Personal life[edit]

Waters in New York City, 2007

Although he maintains apartments in New York City and (since 2008) in San Francisco's Nob Hill, and a summer home in Provincetown,[37] he has mainly resided in his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, for his entire life.[49] All his films are set (and shot) in Baltimore, often in the working-class neighborhood of Hampden.[50] He is recognizable by his trademark pencil moustache.

An openly gay man, Waters is an avid supporter of gay rights and gay pride.[51] In a 2018 interview Waters answered that while he is in a relationship, they both prefer to keep their relationship private: "If you don't keep some things private, you don't have a personal life." Waters stated that he always liked his partners having "their own life" and not being "groupies".[52]

Waters was a great fan of the music of Little Richard when growing up. Ever since he shoplifted a copy of the Little Richard song "Lucille" in 1957, at the age of 11, Waters asserted, "I've wished I could somehow climb into Little Richard's body, hook up his heart and vocal cords to my own, and switch identities." In 1987, Playboy magazine employed Waters, then aged 41, to interview his idol, but the interview did not go well, with Waters later remarking: "It turned into kind of a disaster."[53]

In 2009, Waters advocated the parole of former Manson family member Leslie Van Houten. He devotes a chapter to Van Houten in his book Role Models (2010).[54][55][56]


Year Title Credited as Notes Ref(s)
Director Writer Producer Cinematography Editor
1964 Hag in a Black Leather Jacket Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Short film [57]
1966 Roman Candles Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Short film [58]
1968 Eat Your Makeup Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Short film [58]
1969 Mondo Trasho Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes [59]
1970 The Diane Linkletter Story Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Short film [60]
Multiple Maniacs Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes [60]
1972 Pink Flamingos Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes [61]
1974 Female Trouble Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes [62]
1977 Desperate Living Yes Yes Yes Yes No [63]
1981 Polyester Yes Yes Yes No No [64]
1988 Hairspray Yes Yes Yes No No [65]
1990 Cry-Baby Yes Yes No No No [66]
1994 Serial Mom Yes Yes No No No [67]
1998 Pecker Yes Yes No No No [68]
2000 Cecil B. Demented Yes Yes No No No [69]
2004 A Dirty Shame Yes Yes No No No [70]
2007 Hairspray No No Yes No No Co-producer and consultant [71]

As actor[edit]

Year Title Role Notes Ref.
1969 Mondo Trasho Reporter Uncredited voice cameo
1972 Pink Flamingos Mr. J Uncredited voice
1986 Something Wild Used car salesman Cameo [72]
1988 Hairspray Dr. Fredrickson
1989 Homer and Eddie Robber #1 Cameo [73]
1994 Serial Mom Ted Bundy Uncredited voice cameo
1998 Pecker Pervert on Phone Uncredited voice cameo
1999 Sweet and Lowdown Mr. Haynes [74]
2000 Cecil B. Demented Reporter Uncredited cameo [75]
2002 Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat The Reverend Cameo [76]
2004 Seed of Chucky Pete Peters [77]
2006 Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea Narrator Voice; Documentary [78]
2006 This Film Is Not Yet Rated Himself Documentary [79]
2006 Jackass Number Two Himself [80]
2007 Hairspray Flasher Cameo [81]
2007 The Junior Defenders Narrator Voice; Direct-to-DVD [82]
2007 In the Land of Merry Misfits Narrator Voice [83]
2011 Mangus! Jesus Christ [84]
2011 Of Dolls and Murder Narrator Voice; Documentary [85]
2012 Excision William [86]
2014 Suburban Gothic Cornelius [87]
2015 Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip Airplane passenger Cameo [88]
TBA Mugworth Sir Butler Voice [89]


Year Title Role Notes Ref.
1990 21 Jump Street Mr. Bean Episode: "Awomp-Bomp-Aloobomb, Aloop Bamboom" [90]
1993, 1995 Homicide: Life on the Street Bartender
R. Vincent Smith
2 episodes [91]
1997 The Simpsons John Voice; Episode: "Homer's Phobia" [92]
1998 Frasier Roger Voice; Episode: "The Maris Counselor"
2006–2007 'Til Death Do Us Part Groom Reaper 14 episodes [93]
2006 John Waters Presents Movies That Will Corrupt You Himself (host) 13 episodes [94]
2007 My Name Is Earl Funeral Director Episode "Kept a Guy Locked in a Truck" [95]
2011 Superjail! Quetzalpocetlan Voice; Episode "Ghosts"
2012 Fish Hooks The Yeti Lobster Voice; Episode: "Rock Yeti Lobster"
2013, 2018 Mickey Mouse Wadworth Thorndyke the Third Voices; 2 episodes
2014 Mr. Pickles Dr. Kelton Voice; Episode: "Coma"
2015 RuPaul's Drag Race Himself Guest Judge; Episode: "Divine Inspiration" [96]
2016 Clarence Captain Tom Voice; Episode: "Plane Excited"
2016 Hairspray Live! N/A Associate producer
2017 Feud: Bette and Joan William Castle Episode: "Hagsploitation" [97]
2018 The Blacklist Himself Episode: "Sutton Ross (No. 17)" [98]
2018 Liverspots and Astronots O-Dor Voice; Episode: "The Exorcism of O-Dor"
2019 Tigtone Fertile Centaur Voice; Episode: "...and the Freaks of Love"
2020–2021 Law & Order: Special Victims Unit Pornmonger Man 2 episodes [99]
2021 Finding Your Roots Himself (guest) Episode: "To the Manor Born" [100]

Documentary appearances

Other credits[edit]

Published works[edit]

  • Waters, John (1981). Shock Value. New York: Dell Pub. Co. ISBN 044057871X.
  • Waters, John (1986). Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters. New York: Scribner. ISBN 0026244403.
  • Waters, John; Hainley, Bruce (2003). Art: A Sex Book. New York: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0500284350.
  • Waters, John (2010). Role Models. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 9780374251475.
  • Waters, John (2014). Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 978-0374298630.
  • Waters, John (2017). Make Trouble. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books. ISBN 978-1616206352.
  • Waters, John (2019). Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 9780374214968.
Photo collections

Awards and nominations[edit]

In 1999, Waters was honored with the Filmmaker on the Edge Award at the Provincetown International Film Festival. In September 2015, the British Film Institute ran a programme to celebrate 50 years of Waters films which included all of his early films, some previously unscreened in the UK.

In 2014, Waters was nominated for a Grammy for the spoken word version of his book, Carsick. His follow-up record, Make Trouble, was produced by Grammy-winning producer, Ian Brennan, and released on Jack White's Third Man Records in the fall of 2017.[113]

In 2016, Waters received an honorary degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore during the college's undergraduate commencement ceremony. In 2018, Waters was named an Officier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, a cultural award from the French government.[114]

Year Award Category Nominated work Result Ref.
1988 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize Hairspray Nominated [115]
1989 Independent Spirit Awards Best Feature Nominated
Best Director Nominated
2015 Grammy Awards Best Spoken Word Album Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America Nominated [116]
2020 Mr. Know-It-All Nominated

See also[edit]



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  4. ^ Egan 2011, p. 214.
  5. ^ Stated on Finding Your Roots, January 19, 2021
  6. ^ Kaltenbach, Chris. "Divine fans want to build a monument to late actor". Baltimore Sun. Retrieved July 1, 2017.
  7. ^ Pela 2002
  8. ^ Kay, Kimberley (April 3, 2008). "Cry-Baby and John Waters' Journey to Broadway". Retrieved November 4, 2014.
  9. ^ Waters, John (2010). Role Model. MacMillan. p. 105. ISBN 978-1429944571.
  10. ^ Towsontown Jr. High Yearbook, "The Key". Towson, Maryland 1959–1960, p. 33
  11. ^ "Noteworthy Alumni". Boys' Latin School of Maryland. Archived from the original on June 29, 2018. Retrieved June 28, 2018.
  12. ^ Waters, John (1981). Shock Value. New York: Dell Pub. Co. p. 42. ISBN 044057871X.
  13. ^ Lewis, John (August 8, 2013). "Seeing Red" (text/html). Baltimore magazine. Retrieved March 11, 2019.
  14. ^ Ryzik, Melena (September 4, 2014). "John Waters Riffs on His 50-Year Retrospective". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved April 9, 2019.
  15. ^ Waters, John. Interview by Robert K. Elder. The Film That Changed My Life by Robert K. Elder. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2011. N. p. 281. Print.
  16. ^ Cills, Hazel (February 18, 2012). "Teenage Girls Assaulted by Wild Animals! An Interview With John Waters". Rookie. Retrieved February 13, 2017.
  17. ^ Carrier, Shannon (October 14, 2018). "John Waters Takes Us on a Funny, Filthy Tour of His Fine Art". Retrieved April 9, 2019.
  18. ^ Polyester (1981), retrieved August 29, 2019
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  28. ^ Metz, Nina (December 3, 2010). "John Waters loves Christmas. Really". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved March 31, 2011.
  29. ^ "The John Waters Interview". Stuff. September 21, 2011. Retrieved July 18, 2019. You can feel the influence of rock'n'roll in so many of Waters's films. Hairspray and Cry Baby might seem the obvious candidates, but his filmography is littered with litanies, strewn with sharp-talking teens with alliterative names.
  30. ^ Edgecliffe-Johnson, Andrew (November 18, 2011). "John Waters on the couch". FT (Financial Times) Magazine.
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  35. ^, Natalie. "Connie White to step down as fest's artistic director". Retrieved December 29, 2020.
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  37. ^ a b "John Waters' gift to San Francisco: Demented holiday cheer". November 21, 2018. Retrieved November 24, 2018.
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General bibliography[edit]

External links[edit]