Divine “Was a Criminal at Christmas”: John Waters on How to Have a Holier and Dirtier Holiday

Grab your cha-cha heels, because the People’s Pervert and Pope of Trash is coming to town. The legendary John Waters, director of Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Hairspray, and Serial Mom, has embarked on his annual one-man show, A John Waters Christmas: Holier and Dirtier.

“Being a traditionalist, I’m a rabid sucker for Christmas. In July I’m already worried that there are only 146 shopping days left,” Waters wrote in his essay “Why I Love Christmas,” published in his 1986 book of obsessions, Crackpot. There’s something that just makes sense about Waters performing in cities like Asbury Park, New Jersey (at the House of Independents on December 7 at 8PM), where a massive grinning figure is painted on the side of the Palace Amusements building, presiding over the boardwalk like a dubious saint.

Flavorwire spoke to Waters before his grand tour about the best films to watch during the holiday season, why books make the best presents, and what Divine thought about Christmas.

Photo credit: Greg Gorman
Photo credit: Greg Gorman

Flavorwire: Are you excited to visit Asbury Park, New Jersey for your Christmas special?

John Waters: I am! I played at a punk-rock bowling alley there once, that’s my only memory of it. I walked around and went to these nice little junk shops and antique shops. But I haven’t been there since the hurricane hit, and I know it took a big bang. I love the whole idea of the place. Maybe the boardwalk will be finished so I can see it.

The old boardwalk has a great, trashy history. What made you decide to take Christmas on the road after writing Crackpot and “Why I Love Christmas”?

I was offered by a promoter in San Francisco at the Castro Theater, and I did it there first. We did it several years, and then it just bloomed into something else. This is the biggest tour ever, it’s 19 cities.

And you’ve been doing it for over a decade now, right?

Yeah, yeah. I’m looking forward to it. I start this coming Sunday, so it’s coming at me like a tornado! But that’s good. I’m into it. I have a lot of planes to catch. Come on weather, don’t screw with me!

I love that you view Christmas as erotic. What makes it erotic?

Well, to some, and certainly these days, with Santa Claus and the bear movement, I’m surprised that they haven’t completely taken him over. He is a silver fox, isn’t he? The elves are twinks. Mrs. Claus is a hag. It’s pretty obvious. So I’m wondering, is Christmas going to eventually be a gay holiday? Are we just going to declare Christmas queer one year? I don’t know. It seems to be leading that way, but then everything is turning gay.

Yes, thank goodness for that. What are some of your craziest Christmas memories? I read that your grandmother got trapped under the Christmas tree when you were a kid?

No, it fell on her. She laughed about it, later. I put it in Female Trouble. Many fans have shared their stories about the same thing. Christmas trees fall on people a lot, really. Generally the dog is involved or liquor. I think you should just rig your tree to fall over. It’d be so much fun. At the height of your Kodak Christmas moment, nod to somebody, pull a wire, and the whole tree falls over! Everybody screams, you get pinned under it. And then you pry yourself out, open your last present, and have a turkey dinner.

When you were younger, is it true that you set Christmas trees on fire?

That was when I had a date once with this guy. It was after Christmas when everybody throws the Christmas trees in their alley, and they’re so flammable, as you know. He would put a video camera on the front of his car, hook it on, like a dolly. He would set them on fire, and we’d slide through them down the alley, crashing into these Christmas trees! It was really romantic.

What kind of Christmas present should you give to someone to piss them off? Are socks and fruitcake the worst Christmas present you can give or get?

No, I like socks — especially if they’re from Paul Smith, he makes the best socks. I like to get socks. I like plain, white handkerchiefs, too. I love them. I wish somebody would give me a really good handkerchief. You have to realize, it’s such an odd thing to get fine handkerchiefs when you know that they’re just to blow snot in. I like the two extremes. I like all sorts of presents, but books are usually, I think, what works best as a Christmas present for me. But the problem is, I have so many books. If you call my office, my assistant can tell you if I have it or not, even if it’s signed or not and what edition it is.

Wow. So what should you give people to piss them off, then?

Any kind of present can piss someone off. To me, a gift card means you think the person’s stupid. “I have no interest.” I always find it humiliating to pay with a gift card, because they think you stole it or something. I don’t know, I always feel like I’m pulling a scam, like when we used to double our money with travelers checks, which we used to always give at Christmas. I always have flashbacks that I’m going to get arrested every time I use a gift card.

Photo credit: Greg Gorman
Photo credit: Greg Gorman

What’s on your Christmas list this year?

I asked for books. My office knows I always ask for books. It’s hard for me, because then after Christmas I have a list of the ones I didn’t get that I immediately buy — and I hate it if it’s gone to a second edition. I want the first edition.

Are you allowed to reveal what this year’s Christmas card looks like? I love the Steve Buscemi and Liz Taylor cards.

No, I’m not telling you at all. Nope. They’re all ready to go. But last year’s card I can talk about, which was an Advent card. We always got them as a child, and you open these windows on December 1, and a picture of the birth of Christ was behind the window on the 24th. But mine was obviously a nontraditional one, where I have pictures of James Baldwin and the MOVE people in Philadelphia. I think when you finally opened Christmas Eve it was a portrait of myself that George Kuchar the filmmaker had drawn.

Did Divine love Christmas as much as you?

He was a criminal at Christmas. He almost went to jail for Christmas, because he was so obsessed by it! He never had enough money, but he never let that stop him. Even at the very end of his life he gave his mom a swimming pool for Christmas, and then didn’t pay for it. I think she had to fill it in! He lived well, but Christmas drove him crazy. He loved it. I have a beautiful cashmere blanket he gave me for Christmas. I hope he stole it. That’s a question: are stolen presents nicer? But they aren’t really, because I have friends that own shops now where they catch you and then make you pose naked. It’s a naked shoplifter website called Yes You Do Look Fat.

What Christmas movies should you watch with your family that will totally freak them out? I know you’ve always been a big fan of Christmas Evil.

There aren’t that many, other than the new Alvin and the Chipmunks movie, which opens the same day as Star Wars. That’s a suicide mission. But I’m excited. Maybe the people who can’t get into Star Wars will come to see the better movie, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip. I have a sequence with Alvin, and you can’t imagine how exciting it was. It was actually when Baltimore was rioting. I felt bad, because it was the night Baltimore was burning, and I was sitting with Alvin in a sound studio in Atlanta.

Image credit: Glen Hanson
Image credit: Glen Hanson

Do you like Silent Night, Deadly Night?

I do have that, yes. I want the porn version, Silent Fart, Deadly Night.

Wait, there’s a porn version?

No, I want there to be. I think there should be a porn version of every Christmas movie, like Homo Alone.

What are your thoughts on Black Christmas? It’s considered the fist slasher movie.

I remember. Christmas Evil is the best one, though. It’s the only one that I really, really like. And Pia Zadora’s first movie, which was Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. She was in that as a child.

There’s an interesting one called Lady in the Lake, have you seen it? It’s a noir.

No! But Bad Santa was a big hit. That was good.

I remember when the idea of a Christmas horror movie really made people crazy. Now, no one would be the slightest bit uptight about a Christmas horror movie. I think Black Christmas was the first one, right? When it came out people said, “Oh, how terrible [that] there would be such a thing.” I talk about a living nativity scene I designed called Scary Mary. That might be one that could get people talking.

That’s something you talk about in your show?

Yes. You have to pay to hear that. The show is called Holier & Dirtier.

I read a recent interview where you talk about the books you’re loving right now, and you mention a book about the trash film director Andy Milligan. Have you seen his 1968 movie Seeds of Sin? It’s a Christmas-themed movie.

No, I haven’t! I read that book, which has everything about him, but I haven’t seen all those movies. No one has seen all of his movies. What happens in that one?

It’s about a dysfunctional family gathered for Christmas. The mom is an alcoholic tyrant. She says stuff like, “You ruined my life, and now I just ruined your dinner!” The producers wound up cutting in random softcore sex scenes with people who aren’t even in the movie. I think you’d dig it.

But I thought you said it was Christmas?

It takes place during Christmas.

But it has nothing to really do with Christmas?

Nope, not really.

[laughs] Oh, I love a Christmas movie that takes place on Christmas, where nothing happens about Christmas. That’s a great idea, like a minimalist art video in a gallery.

Totally. I hope you watch it someday, if you can find it.

I’ll try to, it’s a definite must-see.

You almost made a Christmas movie called Fruitcake?

Yeah, it never got made, though. It was a terribly wonderful children’s Christmas adventure. Who knows, it still might happen. You never know. I never did a children’s movie.

Any survival tips for the holidays?

Certainly. If you have a relative that is giving you trouble at Christmas, when they leave the room, rush over and lick their chair, get a lot of saliva on it. When they come back in and sit down, something bad will happen to them later. It’s embarrassing if you get caught, because they’ll ask, “Were you just licking my chair?” “No, I wasn’t licking the chair!” “I saw you licking the chair!” It can be punchy, but I’m telling you it works.

If you could receive a present from anyone living or dead, who would you want to stuff your stocking?

I’d want Jean Genet to come back from the grave and ask me to go to prison with him for just one night.