In the 1960s, John Waters was an admirer of a lesbian stripper in Baltimore named Lady Zorro. "She just came out nude and snarled at her fans, 'What the fuck are you looking at?' To this day," Waters writes in his splendid new book, "Zorro is my inspiration."
This kind of dual portraiture surfaces throughout Role Models, with Waters's appreciations of Ivy Compton-Burnett, Little Richard, Leslie Van Houten, Tennessee Williams, Cy Twombly, and Bobby Garcia revealing as much about his idols as they do about him. The thread that links these varied but extreme personalities is of course the raunchy provocateur himself.
Today, Lady Zorro might end up on a makeover show or some other reality-TV concoction, but she died of cancer in 2001. There's an elegiac quality to Waters's portrait of the stripper, who gave her preteen daughter a joint-rolling machine, and it must have been tempting to lapse into sentimentality. But Waters's admiration is complicated when he seeks out Zorro's daughter, Eileen, and gets her take: cockroaches, years without heat, abusive drunks. "Can living in a real John Waters movie ever bring any kind of joy?" he asks. The answer doesn't turn out to be no, but coming from him, the question has a startling edge.
Waters's essay about Garcia, a reclusive pornographer who has been filming and having sex with male marines for about thirty years, presents the most lurid, most squalid, and most Watersesque portrait of all. There's a particular charge in learning that Waters, who filmed the drag phenomenon Divine eating dog shit in 1972's Pink Flamingos, is incredulous to discover that Garcia, "The Buñuel of Blow Jobs," lives in a run-down apartment with "eleven dogs, two pigs, two roosters, and more than five hundred rats."
The profile of Garcia piques and indulges prurient fascination, but it doesn't end there. Waters describes himself as "a cult filmmaker whose core audience, no matter how much I've crossed over, consists of minorities who can't even fit in with their own minorities," and Garcia lives on the fringe of the fringe. He doesn't own the rights to his videos. His day-to-day existence is precarious, and Waters's concern is palpable. The section ends on an empathic note, with Waters trying to give his fellow director distribution advice.
Throughout the book, Waters seems amazed that he makes a living as an auteur of filth and degradation and that he can use his notoriety to meet such idols as Johnny Mathis, Dorothy Malone, and Patty McCormack. He so thoroughly enjoys being a successful deviant—having an extensive art collection and keeping homes in New York, San Francisco, Provincetown, and Baltimore. Stunningly, though, he's never smug about it. Of his turn on the Paris runways in Comme des Garçons, he observes: "Don Knotts meets Mahogany."
Waters may not be a gloater, but there is a delightful lunatic glee that pulses through the book. It combusts in the final chapter, titled "Cult Leader," which exhorts readers to rise up against the "tyranny of good taste," wear their belts off center, and infiltrate living crèches. Happily, for all the reflective and tender moments, Waters never suppresses his radiant pervert self.
Liz Brown has written for the London Review of Books, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times Book Review.