John Waters has, defying most people's expectations, become one of those artists who are beloved by nearly everyone. Like RuPaul, Dolly Parton, and Run DMC, Waters has somehow morphed from his first iteration of cultural outsider and provocateur to beloved national treasure. For years, Pink Flamingos was the movie kids dared each other to watch — full of people fucking in the same room with chickens and the drag queen and Waters's muse, Divine, resplendent, eating shit.
But by the time I was in third grade, Hairspray had become a staple of grade-school-girl sleepovers. John Waters's fans are legion. My former boss and her 70-year-old black nationalist father; the kind of racist white girls I grew up with in the suburbs of Boston; Terry Gross and the film snobs I used to reluctantly run with in college — all of those people love and respect his work, even if they don't always agree with all of his tossed-off bon mots.
Two years ago, Waters was invited to give a commencement address at Rhode Island School of Design. The transcript of his speech, with its practical, irreverent advice to wannabe artists quickly went viral: I posted it everywhere and regularly returned to it even after it slipped down my feeds. Particularly helpful was this joke: "A career in the arts is like a hitchhiking trip. All you need is one person to say 'Get in,' and off you go. And then the confidence begins."
Luckily, the speech has been illustrated and made into a book, Make Trouble, out just in time for 2017 graduates who are about to enter probably the most challenging postcollegiate year in recent memory. I talked to John Waters the day of the big snowstorm that wasn't, in New York City, so nervous to finally speak to an idol that I couldn't really get my questions out.
Kaitlyn Greenidge: Thanks for doing this interview! Lenny is so happy to have you—
John Waters: Well, I'm a feminist. I love women who hate men and hate men who hate women.
KG: We try to showcase women mostly, but we made an exception for you because we love you so much.
JW: Oh, good. You know, there used to be the scariest lesbian bar in the entire world in Baltimore named Port in the Storm, and I was the only man they'd let in for a while. It was really good. I took Debbie Harry there one time — this is 30 years ago, when we made Hairspray, around then. I took Debbie Harry there; she said it was the scariest bar she had ever been in in her life.
KG: Well, this is almost like that, but through a very tame iPhone interface. So I am really excited to talk to you about the new book, Make Trouble. I loved the speech when I read it after you delivered it. I was a huge admirer of your advice to work to be a cultural insider, but I'm wondering if your advice has changed given kind of the hard right turn that we have experienced in our culture in the last three months or so.
JW: Well, now you should be like Valerie Solanas when she told women to get jobs and unwork until you get caught, and then get another job and unwork, which means you go and you act normal but you fuck up every single thing you can while you work there. This is a good time in the Trump White House to get somebody in there to unwork.