John Waters kicks off his new book, Role Models (which pays homage to many of the captivating, outsized, and deranged personalities that have shaped his life), by musing about his lifelong fascination with swoony '50s crooner Johnny Mathis: "Was I in danger of becoming a Johnny Mathis stalker?" But it's hardly stalking when you're as charming as Waters, who deftly slips into the lives of his idols, whether it be for a bizarre interview session in Little Richard's hotel room or an enduring friendship with incarcerated "Manson girl" Leslie Van Houten. If anything, Role Models makes stalkers out of us — to read this book is to embark on an odyssey of mute voyeurism into Waters's favorite roughneck Baltimore bars, his Comme des Garçons–packed closet, and the most cherished aspects of his art and porn collections. Before his June 10 reading at the Boston Public Library, I phone him for a freewheeling chat that ricochets from Catholicism to "The Monster Mash."
Why writeRole Models now?
It just seemed like it was the right time to tell these stories — the same reason I wrote Crackpot and Shock Value. I've told the stories so many times that it was time to end them, and how you end them is by publishing them. My anecdote bank is bare.
How did you orignially get into art criticism? Through collecting?
It's definitely collecting. And I'm a fan of impenetrable art writing. I think it's a secret language that I delight in. It's a world I like very much, but I'm against art for the people. I like the elitism; I like how it's almost crooked. How can it be legal, this business, with these auctions and stuff?
When you interviewed Roni Horn at the ICA earlier this year, she said something about how the motivation of her art is political but the drive is pathological. Do you feel the same way about your work?
I think my book is totally political. Humor is political, because the only way you can get people to change their minds is to make them laugh first, and then they're completely disarmed and they'll listen to you. At the same time, pathological? I don't think that's pathological. . . . I'm happily, joyously neurotic and accept it.
It was particularly poignant when you were describing the work of your favorite "outsider porn" auteurs.
Well, I think, when you see their work, they're startling. These [their subjects] were tough-guy monsters, but they probably don't look as good anymore. Everybody looks good when they're young. No matter if you're ugly. There's really no ugly young person compared to what you look like older. It's just, young people never realize that until they're old, and then they look back, like, "My God, I looked pretty good, and I didn't have any self-esteem then."
You offer plenty of thoughts about Catholicism in Role Models. . .
The pope came out today against gay marriage again. Did he really have to do that? . . . You notice the pope isn't tossing around the word "infallible" these days. What happened to that word! When I was brought up, we were told that he was infallible, and you don't hear that anymore. That word is staying with Saint Christopher somewhere in Limbo — the other thing that they suddenly, and alarmingly, canceled.