The King of Camp. The People’s Pervert. The Godfather of Weird. John Waters has amassed more counterculture sobriquets than even the most thorough journalist can count. But did you ever imagine you could add
Unabashed Christmas Evangelist to the overstuffed résumé of this director, screenwriter, actor, TV host, author, comedian, artist, and pop culture icon? Well, if your ears have ever perked up to Waters’ unrelenting commentary on our uniquely American cultural, sexual, and psychic underbelly, you’d get it: The man famous for his pencil-thin moustache, art-house exploitation films and a gleeful embrace of depravity loves to subvert in that most sacred of holidays. “My Christmas show is a rude Christmas show,” he says, “but it’s lovingly rude, and I think that makes a difference.”
Folio Weekly: How has Christmas changed for you over the years?
John Waters: Well, I kind of feel like Elvira on Halloween, with Johnny Mathis and GG Allin mixed in. If it’s Christmas, that means I’m working. Which definitely means I can pay for my Christmas presents.
You also send out specially designed Christmas cards every year. How long has that been going on?
Oh, at least 40 years. I used to do them by hand on a Xerox machine, but they’ve gotten more complicated — last year I did an entire Advent card, where every window you opened up had something weird in it.
In “Why I Love Christmas,” an essay from your book Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters, you recommend sending a Christmas card “to every single person you ever met, no matter how briefly.” Do you still pull that off?
Well, I don’t really do that anymore; I send a little more than 2,000, but people always ask me, “Can you send one to my mother?” And I just have to say no. I have to know you, have done business with you, or have had some contact with you that was pleasurable.
We hear you deal harshly with recipients who resell your cards online.
Generally, I do — if you’re selling my Christmas card, not only will you get cut off, but I will send people to scream Christmas carols outside your house for 10 hours straight.
So are you a bah humbug guy when it comes to Christmas? Or a grudging fan?
I love the idea of Christmas! But I get why people hate it. Christmas can be stressful, although I’m lucky to have a loving, supportive family. Other people have abusive Christmases, though; I always say, “Bring a verbal abuse whistle, and if anybody says anything hurtful, blow it until they stop.” Or give them the Christmas curse, which is where if a relative you don’t like leaves the room, lick their chair so when they come back in and sit down, something bad will happen to them. Although if you get caught licking someone’s chair at a celebration, it could be embarrassing.
Is your Christmas show full of dark recommendations like that?
My Christmas show has advice for everybody, from the atheist to the Jesus freak. It’s a rude Christmas show, but it’s lovingly rude, and I think that makes a difference. Nobody seems to get mad at what I say anymore.
How did that happen? You were once considered the King of Camp, an auteur whose transgressive work shocked and titillated those brave enough to watch it.
That’s the ultimate irony of my life: I’m an insider now. But that took 50 years. I do like hearing the nice things that people say about you when you’re still alive. And I’m proud of what I accomplished! My dreams came true years ago. I’ve had a great career; I’m not a misunderstood artist. I don’t have any complaints these days.
Your last two books, including 2014’s Carsick, an excellent account of hitchhiking across America, have been best-sellers.
And I just signed another two-book deal! For the next five years, that’s the ultimate homework assignment. I have so many jobs, I already have a 2018 calendar.
How do you feel about the way your hometown of Baltimore has changed?
There’s a great scene in Baltimore these days, because all the artists have stayed. We have an edge — we’re the only city left where you can be a bohemian because it’s still cheap. Baltimore has a lot of issues and problems, but I like it better than ever.
Think former Baltimore mayor, Maryland governor, and Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley will be at your annual Christmas party this year?
I’ll certainly invite him. He’s always been supportive of me. When he was mayor, we turned on the Christmas lights together in Mount Vernon Place with Santa Claus as a black man from my  Christmas album. And four years ago, he had a dinner for me at the state house. So he wouldn’t be one bit nervous about attending the party.