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9 reasons John Waters is an icon of queer culture

9 reasons John Waters is an icon of queer culture

His status as one of Hollywood’s most celebrated gay directors is indisputable.

But what sets John Waters apart from his contemporaries is his unapologetic celebration of all things queer.

While others aggressively seek mainstream (read: heterosexual) audiences, John has always embraced LGBTI sensibilities.

His movies are sickening love letters to all gays great and small. Straight people, if they’re man enough, are just along for the ride…

This week sees the re-release of Multiple Maniacs, Waters’ seminal and underrated black comedy.

To celebrate, here, we look at 13 examples of how Waters is basically amazing in every way…

1 He launched the career of Divine, the most amazing drag queen of all time

Or at least, he helped elevate it. The world’s most acclaimed drag queen starred in many of John’s early films in the 60s and 70s. The bulldozing intensity of her outrageous behaviour puts many modern queens to shame. Also, she inspired Ursula from Disney’s The Little Mermaid.

At the time of her death, aged 42 in 1988 from an enlarged heart, the drag icon had essentially made the transition from stand up to cult movie fave to bonafide cultural icon, complete with record deal. It is a tragedy her legend was cut so short.

2 Multiple Maniacs is a gem of queer cinema

For an introduction to Divine’s antics, look no further than this hidden black diamond of John’s nastily brilliant filmography. Made in 1970, at first glance, the grainy, black and white footage looks as if from a bygone era. Then, you start to absorb the riotous dialogue and subversively brilliant ideas, and it feels as if it was made yesterday.

The zany story follows a criminal group posing as a troupe of traveling freaks; Divine is their vivacious leader, who goes on a murderous rampage when she finds out her coward of a husband is cheating on her. A scene involving a giant lobster is without doubt the biggest surprise we’ve ever experienced in cinema.

3 He invented Hairspray

For a more accessible entry point into Waters’ work, try Hairspray. No, not literally. Long before it became a Broadway and West End standard, and long before the 2007 remake starring Zac Efron, Waters steered the greatest commercial hit of his career: the original Hairspray movie.

The bombastic musical, about the ‘pleasantly plump’ teen Tracy, who seeks local TV fame as doggedly as she seeks to ease racial tensions in her home of Baltimore (also where John’s from), featured Divine and Blondie singer Debbie Harry.

Waters at Pen America/Free Expression Literature, May 2014. © Ed Lederman/PEN American Center

4 He doesn’t age

The pencil moustache, the killer wardrobe, the slightly weird handsomeness…what is it about John that’s so compelling to look at?

It’s far from the most interesting thing about him, but the fact is, at 70, John looks more or less the same as he did almost half a century ago.

5 He’s not on social media

He recently told Jezabel: ‘I’m on the computer all day, but I’m not on social media because I want to be harder to reach! I work ten hours a day. I save my material for when you come see my shows or buy my book. I don’t care what they’re tweeting! The people who do it all day, they must have a lot of time on their hands or something. I don’t know when they find the time to do it.’

5 He directed Pink Flamingos, one of the most important films of all time

Multiple Maniacs and Hairspray are unforgettable, but Waters’ magnum opus was Pink Flamingos. It features Divine and other similarly ostentatious characters competing to out-shock each other – for example, selling heroin to children, and babies to lesbians.

Sexuality comes part and parcel, as does an infamously gross scene now synonymous with John Waters – one so disgusting, I can’t even bring myself to write about it. Mission accomplished, John.

6 This quote

‘If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ‘em!’

Also this one: ‘I thank God I was raised Catholic, so sex will always be dirty…’

7 He also discovered Ricki Lake

Recognize the pretty face of the girl in the Hairspray photo? No, we don’t mean Divine.

Showbiz veteran Ricki Lake’s first screen role was as Tracy in Hairspray. This is important because, in the 90s, she became a chat show queen, and basically our surrogate mother. If you weren’t around in the 90s – and if so, we hate you – you might recognize her from Dancing With the Stars.

8 He was a judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race

Back in April 2015, queens such as Katya and Trixie Mattel competed to impress Waters on the dragathon’s seventh season.

We can’t access the vids from here in the UK, but depending where you are in the world, check out the gloriously trashy messiness that ensued, including a Divine-inspired skit, here.

9 And finally, this video of him in car and conversation with an off-duty RuPaul


Multiple Maniacs is in cinemas now