born April 22, 1946, Waters is an American film director, screenwriter, author, actor, stand-up
comedian, journalist, visual artist, and art collector, who rose to fame in the early 1970s for his
transgressive cult films.
Waters's 1970s and early 1980s films feature his regular troupe of actors known as the
Dreamlanders—among them Divine, Mink Stole, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, and Edith
Massey. Starting with Desperate Living (1977), Waters began casting real-life convicted criminals (Liz
Renay, Patty Hearst) and controversial people (Traci Lords, a former pornographic actress).
Waters dabbled in mainstream filmmaking with Hairspray (1988), which introduced Ricki Lake and
earned a modest gross of US$8 million in the United States market. In 2002, Hairspray was adapted
to a long-running Broadway musical, which itself was adapted to a hit musical film that earned more
than $200 million worldwide. After the crossover success of the original film version of Hairspray,
Waters' films began featuring familiar actors and celebrities such as Johnny Depp, Edward Furlong,
Melanie Griffith, Chris Isaak, Johnny Knoxville, Martha Plimpton, Christina Ricci, Lili Taylor, Alicia Witt,
Kathleen Turner, and Tracey Ullman.
Waters' first short film was Hag in a Black Leather Jacket. According to Waters, the film was shown
only once in a "beatnik coffee house" in Baltimore, although in later years he has included it in his
traveling photography exhibit.
Waters enrolled at New York University (NYU). The school, however, was not what Waters had in mind:
"NYU...I was there for about five minutes. I don't know what I was thinking about. I went to one class
and they kept talking about Potemkin and that isn't what I wanted to talk about. I had just gone to see
Olga's House of Shame. That was what I was more into."
"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."
Move toward the mainstream
Waters in New York City (2007, age 60)
Waters’ 1981 film Polyester starred Divine opposite former teen idol Tab Hunter. 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 was turned into a hit Broadway musical that swept the 2003 Tony Awards, and a film
adaptation of the Broadway musical was released in theaters on July 20, 2007, to positive reviews
and commercial success. Cry-Baby, itself a musical, was also converted into a Broadway musical.
In 2004, the NC-17-rated A Dirty Shame marked a return to his earlier, more controversial work of the
1970s. He had a cameo in Jackass Number Two, which starred Dirty Shame co-star Johnny Knoxville,
and another small role as paparazzo Pete Peters in 2004’s Seed of Chucky.
John Waters signing a fan’s jean jacket sleeve at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, 1990.
In 2007, Waters became the host ("The Groom Reaper") of 'Til Death Do Us Part, a program on
America’s Court TV network featuring dramatizations of marriages that soured and ended in murder.
In 2008, Waters was planning to make a children’s Christmas film called Fruitcake starring Johnny
Knoxville and Parker Posey. Filming was planned for November 2008, but it was shelved in January
2009. 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
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 published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in
In 2011, Waters visited Lake Forest College to give a speech, and was interviewed by the professor
Although he maintains apartments in New York City and San Francisco, and a summer home in
Provincetown, Waters still mainly resides in his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, where all his films
are set. He is recognizable by his trademark pencil moustache.
An openly gay man, Waters is an avid supporter of gay rights and gay pride.
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