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Dossier: From ‘Demented’ to YSL’s New Darling

By Julissa James

John Waters is the new face of Saint Laurent. (Donna Grethen)

John Waters wears a double-breasted tuxedo jacket, silk polka-dot cravat and black sunglasses. His famous Maybelline mustache is penciled on to perfection. “Transgression is when you break the rules, and you make people laugh,” he says in a fleeting black-and-white video, his Baltimore accent making the word “laugh” sound more like layuff. “It’s really mind control.”

Mind control. It’s one way to describe what the part-time Nob Hill resident has done for the last 60 years as a filmmaker, artist, author and arbiter of good bad taste. He’s turned critics’ insults into proudly-worn titles such as the Prince of Puke, the People’s Pervert, the Pope of Trash and the Vizier of Vulgarity. His latest designation, as announced in a 15-second ad campaign shot by David Sims, is the new face of Saint Laurent.

That’s right: the high fashion world is embracing the beloved Filth Elder, and the internet has responded with a strong nod of approval. Instagram user @istante2013 commented on one of the promotional images of Waters snarling directly into the camera: “This man is a living, breathing national treasure. Thank you, Anthony Vaccarello [Saint Laurent’s creative director] for deciding to do this!”

Nearly six decades, varying social climates and a slew of films, books and performances later, the Waters cult still runs deep.

An Odd Duck

It’s how Patricia Waters and John Waters Sr. described their son, who at a young age was already putting on puppet shows for his neighborhood and had a fascination with strange things. Waters has described himself as just a “weird gay version” of his father, and credits his infamous work ethic to him (he begins writing at 6 a.m. sharp every weekday). Growing up in the 50s and 60s, it would have been easy for Waters’ parents to shun a teenager who made horrifying movies that went against every social norm at the time, but Patricia and John Sr. did their best to support him. “All a parent has to do is make their kid feel safe,” Waters has said, “and mine did.”

A Cult Is Born

Waters has carved out a special place for himself at the nexus of low and high art with his campy, delirious and often disgusting films. With his “Trash Trilogy”: Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Desperate Living (the first of which culminates in his muse, Divine, eating fresh dog feces off the street), to his more commercially successful, but still stealthily disrupting, flicks like Cry-Baby and Hairspray, Waters has become a respected figure in both the counterculture as well as the establishment. It’s a rare position for any artist to achieve, and as Waters explains it: “I didn’t change, society did.”

Things to Love About SF

In 2008, Waters moved into the Nob Hill co-op building that is also the longtime home of former Gazette publisher Lois Lehrman, splitting his time between his other residences in Baltimore, New York City and Provincetown. With so many things to love about San Francisco — The arts! The culture! The food! — Waters’ favorite thing about the City is unexpected for a celebrity, but on-brand for him. “People always ask what my favorite thing to do in San Francisco is,” he told the Gazette’s Catherine Bigelow in a 2010 story she wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle. “They’re usually surprised when I tell them I love riding around on public transportation.”

Gone Camping

Waters loves fashion, and his style is often described as camp. Camp, as in something so bad it becomes good. Camp, as in the theme of the 2019 Met Gala that Waters was infamously not invited to — a misstep on Ms. Wintour’s part, no doubt. When it comes to clothing, he’s partial to a loud suit and leans towards pieces that break the rules, which explains his obsession with the fashion label Comme des Garçons and its founder/designer Rei Kawakubo. “Ms. Kawakubo is my god,” he wrote in his 2010 book, Role Models, which features an entire chapter on the designer.

A Quotable Life

Three of the best J.W. quotes from his viral commencement speech at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2015, which was adapted into the book Make Trouble, include: “Go out in the world and f— it up beautifully.” “Refuse to isolate yourself, separatism is for losers.” “I’m rich. I don’t mean money-wise. I mean that I have figured out how to never be around a—holes at any time in my personal and professional life. That’s rich.” Plus a bonus quote, one of his most famous, and a truly practical piece of dating advice: “If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t f— them!”

Word on the Street

Last year, the iconic San Francisco drag queen and fellow Maryland native Peaches Christ said this about Waters to them magazine: “I always wanted to be in show business, but Hollywood felt like it was a million miles away from Maryland. Discovering there was a filmmaker in Baltimore making transgressive, wild movies that starred a drag queen was just about the coolest thing I could have become obsessed with. His films and their stars really opened my mind to what could be possible for my life creatively. They broke down walls for people like me and put us on a path.”

Waters-Approved

In the Gazette’s 2017 profile on the director, writer Heather Wood Rudulph got the lowdown on his music collection. It included everything from A Tribe Called Quest and Rufus Wainwright to Doris Day, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Marvin Gaye. Waters also releases an annual list of his top 10 films through Artforum. In 2019, it included Gaspar Noé’s Climax, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood and Penny Lane’s documentary Hail Satan?

As Waters told the Gazette, “Any art that matters causes trouble.”

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