John Waters

John Samuel Waters Jr. (born April 22, 1946) is an American filmmaker, director, writer, actor and artist. Born and raised in Baltimore, Waters rose to prominence in the early 1970s for his transgressive cult films, especially Multiple Maniacs (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974). He wrote and directed the 1988 film Hairspray, which became an international success and turned into a hit Broadway musical which has remained in almost continuous production, and a film adaptation of the Broadway musical was released in July 2007. Waters has written and directed other successful films including Polyester (1981), Cry-Baby (1990), Serial Mom (1994), Pecker (1998) and Cecil B. Demented (2000).

John Waters
Waters at Pen America/Free Expression Literature, May 2014
John Samuel Waters Jr.

(1946-04-22) April 22, 1946
ResidenceNew York City, New York, U.S.
San Francisco, California, U.S.[1]
Provincetown, Massachusetts, U.S.[2]
Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
  • Filmmaker
  • director
  • producer
  • actor
  • writer
  • visual artist
  • comedian
  • photographer
  • journalist
  • cinematographer
Years active1964–present
Notable work

In 2015, the British Film Institute celebrated Waters’ films with a retrospective in honour of his 50 year-filmmaking career. Later that year, he was nominated for a Grammy Award for the spoken word version of his book Carsick. As an actor, Waters has appeared in films such as Sweet and Lowdown (1999), Seed of Chucky (2004), Mangus! (2011), Excision (2012) and Suburban Gothic (2014). More recently, he performs in his ever-changing one-man show, This Filthy World. Waters also has his own film production company, Dreamland Productions.

In addition to filmmaking and acting, Waters also works as a visual artist and across different mediums such as installations, photography, and sculpture. He has published multiple collections of his journalistic exploits, screenplays, ruminations and artwork. Waters’ artwork exhibits regularly in galleries and museums around the world.

Early life

Waters was born in Baltimore, the son of Patricia Ann (née Whitaker; 1924–2014) and John Samuel Waters (1916–2008), who was a manufacturer of fire-protection equipment.[3] His family were upper-middle class Roman Catholics.[4] 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.[5]

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' mother believes the puppets in Lili had the greatest influence on Waters' 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).[6]

Cry-Baby was also a product of Waters' boyhood, because of his fascination as a 7-year-old with the "drapes" then receiving intense news coverage because of the murder of a young "drapette", coupled with his awed admiration for a young man who lived across the street and who possessed a hot rod.[7][8]

Waters was privately educated at the Calvert School in Baltimore. After attending Towson Jr. High School in Towson, Maryland,[9] and Calvert Hall College High School in nearby Towson, he ultimately graduated from Boys' Latin School of Maryland.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12]


Early career

Waters' first short film was Hag in a Black Leather Jacket.[13]

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."[14]

Waters has stated that he takes an equal amount of joy and influence from high-brow "art" films and sleazy exploitation films.[15]

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.[16]

Waters' films became Divine's primary star vehicles. All of Waters' 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' 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

Waters' 1981 film Polyester starred Divine opposite former teen idol Tab Hunter.[17] 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,[18] and a film adaptation of the Broadway musical was released in theaters on July 20, 2007, to positive reviews and commercial success.[19] Cry-Baby, itself a musical, was also converted into a Broadway musical.[20]

In 2004, the NC-17-rated A Dirty Shame marked a return to his earlier, more controversial work of the 1970s. As of 2019, 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[21] starring Johnny Knoxville and Parker Posey.[22] Filming was planned for November 2008,[23] but it was shelved in January 2009.[24] 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."[25]

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.[26]

Fine art

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.[27][28] 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.[29] Waters has been represented by C. Grimaldis Gallery in Baltimore, Maryland, since 2002 and by Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York since 2006.[30][31]

Waters' 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."[32]

Other interests

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.[33]

Waters has had his fan mail delivered to Atomic Books, an independent bookstore in Baltimore, for over 20 years.[34]

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.[35]

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.[36]

He is a contributor to Artforum magazine and author of its annual year-end list of top-ten films.[37]

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.[38]

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


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 entitled Carsick.[1] He deliberately started off with no cash. 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.[39]

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".[40] 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."[1]

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."[1]

Personal life

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).[41][42][43]

In 2011, Waters visited Lake Forest College to give a speech, and was interviewed by the professor Davis Schneiderman.[44]

Although he maintains apartments in New York City and (since 2008) in San Francisco's Nob Hill, and a summer home in Provincetown,[38] his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland has been his main residence for all his life.[45] All his films are set in Baltimore, often in the working-class neighborhood of Hampden.[46] He is recognizable by his trademark pencil moustache.

An openly gay man, Waters is an avid supporter of gay rights and gay pride.[47]

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."[48]

Recurring cast members

Waters often casts certain actors/actresses more than once in his films.

ActorMondo Trasho (1969)Multiple Maniacs (1970)Pink Flamingos (1972)Female Trouble (1974)Desperate Living (1977)Polyester (1981)Hairspray (1988)Cry-Baby (1990)Serial Mom (1994)Pecker (1998)Cecil B. Demented (2000)A Dirty Shame (2004)
Regi Davis
Patricia Hearst
Jean Hill
Ricki Lake
David Lochary
Traci Lords
Susan Lowe
Edith Massey
Cookie Mueller
Mary Vivian Pearce
Mink Stole
Paul Swift
Susan Walsh
Alan J. Wendl
Channing Wilroy


YearTitleCredited asNotesRef(s)
1964 Hag in a Black Leather Jacket Yes Yes Yes Yes Short film [49]
1966 Roman Candles Yes Yes Yes Yes Short film [50]
1968 Eat Your Makeup Yes Yes Yes Yes Short film [50]
1969 Mondo Trasho Yes Yes Yes No [51]
1970 The Diane Linkletter Story Yes Yes Yes No Short film [52]
Multiple Maniacs Yes Yes Yes No [52]
1972 Pink Flamingos Yes Yes Yes Yes Role: Mr. Jay (voice) [53]
1974 Female Trouble Yes Yes Yes No [54]
1977 Desperate Living Yes Yes Yes No [55]
1981 Polyester Yes Yes Yes No [56]
1986 Something Wild No No No Yes Role: Used car salesman [57]
1988 Hairspray Yes Yes Yes Yes Role: Dr. Frederickson [58]
1989 Homer and Eddie No No No Yes Role: Robber #1 [59]
1990 Cry-Baby Yes Yes No No [60]
1994 Serial Mom Yes Yes No No Role: Ted Bundy (voice, uncredited) [61]
1998 Pecker Yes Yes No No [62]
1999 Sweet and Lowdown No No No Yes Role: Mr. Haynes [63]
2000 Cecil B. Demented Yes Yes No No [64]
2002 Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat No No No Yes Role: The Reverend [65]
2004 Seed of Chucky No No No Yes Role: Pete Peters [66]
A Dirty Shame Yes Yes No No [67]
2007 Hairspray No Yes No Yes Original screenplay
Role: Flasher
The Junior Defenders No No No Yes Role: Narrator [69]
In the Land of Merry Misfits No No No Yes Role: Narrator [70]
2011 Mangus! No No No Yes Role: Jesus [71]
Of Dolls and Murder No No No Yes Role: Narrator [72]
2012 Excision No No No Yes Role: William [73]
2014 Suburban Gothic No No No Yes Role: Cornelius [74]
Mugworth No No No Yes Role: Sir Butler (voice) [75]
2015 Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip No No No Yes Role: Airplane passenger [76]



Voice actor

Documentary appearances

Other works


  • Waters, John (1981). Shock Value. New York: Dell Pub. Co. ISBN 044057871X.
  • Waters, John (2003) [1987]. 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 0374298637.
  • Waters, John (2017). Make Trouble. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books. ISBN 1616206357.
  • Waters, John (2019). Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 9780374214968.
Photo collections
  • Waters, John (1997). Director's Cut. New York: Scalo. ISBN 393114156X.
  • Waters, John (2006). Unwatchable. New York: Marianne Boesky Gallery. ISBN 0977950301.

Awards and nominations

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 Grammyfor 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.[93]

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.[94]

See also



  1. Itzkoff, Dave (May 25, 2012). "John Waters Tries Some Desperate Living on a Cross-Country Hitchhiking Odyssey". The New York Times. Retrieved May 28, 2012.
  2. "I'm Not Psycho: John Waters's 50th summer in Provincetown". July 31, 2014. Retrieved July 18, 2019.
  3. "John Waters Biography (1946–)". Retrieved January 3, 2013.
  4. "John Waters – Biography". Retrieved January 3, 2013.
  5. Kaltenbach, Chris. "Divine fans want to build a monument to late actor". Baltimore Sun. Retrieved July 1, 2017.
  6. Pela 2002
  7. Kay, Kimberley (April 3, 2008). "Cry-Baby and John Waters' Journey to Broadway". Retrieved November 4, 2014.
  8. Waters, John (2010). Role Model. MacMillan. ISBN 1429944579.
  9. Towsontown Jr. High Yearbook, "The Key". Towson, Maryland 1959–1960, p. 33
  10. "Noteworthy Alumni". Boys' Latin School of Maryland. Retrieved June 28, 2018.
  11. Waters, John (1981). Shock Value. New York: Dell Pub. Co. p. 42. ISBN 044057871X.
  12. Lewis, John (August 8, 2013). "Seeing Red" (text/html). Baltimore magazine. Retrieved March 11, 2019.
  13. Ryzik, Melena (September 4, 2014). "John Waters Riffs on His 50-Year Retrospective". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved April 9, 2019.
  14. Waters, John. Interview by Robert K. Elder. The Film That Changed My Life by Robert K. Elder. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2011. N. p281. Print.
  15. Cills, Hazel. "Teenage Girls Assaulted by Wild Animals! An Interview With John Waters". Rookie. Retrieved February 13, 2017.
  16. Carrier, Shannon (October 14, 2018). "John Waters Takes Us on a Funny, Filthy Tour of His Fine Art". Retrieved April 9, 2019.
  17. Polyester (1981), retrieved August 29, 2019
  18. Jones, Kenneth (June 9, 2003). "Take Me Out, Hairspray Are Top Winners in 2003 Tony Awards; Long Day's Journey, Nine Also Hot". Playbill. Retrieved August 29, 2019.
  19. Hairspray (2007), retrieved August 29, 2019
  20. Cry-Baby (1990), retrieved August 29, 2019
  21. Smith, Zack. "Interview". Retrieved January 3, 2013.
  22. Guarino, David R. (May 22, 2008). "Yuletide Indigestion: John Waters Makes Fruitcake". Gay Chicago. pp. 56–61.
  23. Stewart, Sara (June 15, 2008). "John Waters. The director comes to New York for his one-man show, and savors another big night at the Tonys". New York Post. Retrieved March 31, 2011.
  24. "Waters' Kids Movie Scrapped". Contactmusic. January 16, 2009. Retrieved March 31, 2011.
  25. Metz, Nina (December 3, 2010). "John Waters loves Christmas. Really". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved March 31, 2011.
  26. "The John Waters Interview". Stuff. Retrieved July 18, 2019. You can feel the influence of rock'n'roll in so many of Waters' 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.
  27. "John Waters: Indecent Exposure". Baltimore Museum of Art. Retrieved March 28, 2019.
  28. "John Waters: Indecent Exposure". Wexner Center for the Arts. Retrieved March 28, 2019.
  29. Waters 2006
  30. "John Waters". C. Grimaldis Gallery. Archived from the original on September 6, 2014. Retrieved January 3, 2013.
  31. "John Waters". Marianne Boesky Gallery. Retrieved March 28, 2019.
  32. Levi, Lawrence (2009-09). "Inside Man". Modern Painters, September 2009. Retrieved from
  33. Edgecliffe-Johnson, Andrew (November 18, 2011). "John Waters on the couch". FT (Financial Times) Magazine.
  34. "John Waters Fan Mail". Atomic Books. Retrieved February 21, 2018.
  35. Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat (2003), retrieved August 29, 2019
  36. "Board Members". MdFF. Retrieved August 29, 2019.
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  38. "John Waters' gift to San Francisco: Demented holiday cheer". November 21, 2018. Retrieved November 24, 2018.
  39. Wilson, Ike (May 24, 2012). "A hitchhiker's guide ...: Myersville man gives filmmaker John Waters a ride". Archived from the original on May 26, 2012. Retrieved May 28, 2012.
  40. Rosen, Jill (May 18, 2012). "Baltimore Insider". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved May 28, 2012.
  41. "Leslie Van Houten: A Friendship". August 3, 2009. Retrieved January 3, 2013.
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  44. Schneiderman, Davis. "My Type Doesn't Know Who I Am: An Interview with John Waters". The Nervous Breakdown. Retrieved July 8, 2012.
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  76. "John Waters has a cameo in latest 'Alvin and the Chipmunks' movie". Chris Kaltenbach. The Baltimore Sun. December 17, 2015. Retrieved December 18, 2015.
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  78. "Guest of Cindy Sherman (2008)". Retrieved September 8, 2009.
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  83. "`Mommie Dearest' meets John Waters". Retrieved November 28, 2019.
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  86. "John Waters Narrates Offbeat Documentary on an Environmental Catastrophe, the Salton Sea". Open Culture. Retrieved November 28, 2019.
  87. French, Philip (September 3, 2006). "This Film is No Yet Rated". The Guardian. Retrieved November 28, 2019.
  88. Raihala, Ross (December 13, 2004). "Director John Waters does a Christmas CD". The Seattle Times. Retrieved November 28, 2019.
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  90. Bellafante, Ginia (March 19, 2007). "'Til Death Do Us Part - John Waters - TV - Review". The New York Times. Retrieved November 28, 2019.
  91. Sragow, Michael. "John Waters talks about appearing in SNL's 'The Creep'". Retrieved November 28, 2019.
  92. Sconce, Jeffrey (2007). Sleaze Artists: Cinema at the Margins of Taste, Style, and Politics. Duke University Press. p. 3. |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  93. "In Conversation: Ian Brennan & John Waters". DrownedInSound. Retrieved December 8, 2019.
  94. Robinson, Shannon (October 14, 2018). "John Waters Takes Us on a Funny, Filthy Tour of His Fine Art". Retrieved December 8, 2019.


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