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Profile | Would you set your hair on fire for director John Waters?

BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com

Filmmaker John Waters, whose 300-pound leading lady -- drag queen Divine -- ate a most unappetizing snack at the end of Pink Flamingos, believes he's misunderstood.

''I never tried to shock people,'' Waters says from San Francisco. ``I made them laugh. If I had just shocked them, I wouldn't be here today.''

Waters says that when he wrote and directed Pink Flamingos in 1972 -- the same year mainstream moviegoers first saw Linda Lovelace in Deep Throat -- ``we were making a joke; what could offend hippies?''

''Humor as revenge,'' he says.

Waters acknowledges, though, that not everyone is amused by watching Divine eat dog poop.

``Some people get it, and some people don't. You can never explain why something is funny. The fact that some people don't delights the people who get it.''

Those who get it -- ''mostly kids'' -- usually are the ones who show up when Waters performs his live one-man show, An Evening with John Waters: This Filthy World Dirtier & Filthier. He'll bring the show to South Beach on May 1 as part of the 11th annual Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, which opens Friday.

''It's a spoken-word act,'' says Waters, the underground writer-director of the late '60s and '70s who had his first mainstream hit in 1987 with the original film version of Hairspray. ``I'm probably the only director who has a stand-up act.''

The live performance is scripted by Waters who speaks about his favorite topics: ``Crime, fashion, movies -- my movies -- how to get your films made, and how to be a happy neurotic.''

Waters, who'll be 63 on Wednesday, works the same way today that he worked 40 years ago.

``I write everything longhand. Mostly I still work with Evidence legal pads and black pens. When I turn in my final draft, it's about four inches thick.''

He describes the Internet as ''The Wild, Wild West'' and regrets that even illicit sex now lives online.

''It's even ruined prostitution. You used to see prostitutes on the street. They looked good,'' Waters says. ``I don't even know how to act dirty online. How do you act butch? Bad spelling?''


He loves his BlackBerry, but forget about social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

``I want to be hard to reach, not easy. I don't have a page on any of those websites. I'm not lonely. I want less people to know where I am.''

Waters still lives in Baltimore, the city where he was born and the setting for almost all his movies.

''I still get seven newspapers each morning. It makes me look like the oldest person on the block,'' he says. ``That's how I start my day every day. I have 10 cups of coffee, and I start writing at 8 o'clock.''

He has remained loyal to his surviving friends from high school, the ''Dreamland Players,'' some of whom became cult stars.

''When you were around John, you knew something was going on,'' says Steve Yeager, 62, who grew up with Waters and worked with him on such early films as Female Trouble and Polyester. ``Nobody had the imagination and organizational abilities that John had.''

While Andy Warhol's underground films were usually improvised, Waters' were all carefully scripted, Yeager says.

''John had complete scripts, and you were expected to say the lines exactly as written,'' says Yeager, who filmed Waters making his movies and eventually made a documentary about the director. ``I had shots of John behind the camera actually mouthing the lines as the actors said them into the camera. He knew what he wanted, and he was in charge. Hey, he was making a movie!''

887160 A few weeks ago, Waters and Yeager attended the Baltimore funeral of Frances Milstead, whose son Glenn was known worldwide as Divine, star of almost all of Waters' films through the original Hairspray.

''He was my Elizabeth Taylor,'' Waters told The Miami Herald in 2001 after Milstead -- who lived in Broward -- wrote the memoir My Son Divine.

Glenn died suddenly at 42 in 1988, days after Hairspray opened. Waters remained in contact with Frances until she died on March 24 at 89 in a Fort Lauderdale hospice.

''She was out dancing in the clubs a few nights before her stroke,'' Waters says. ``She had a great third act. She had all these gay people who hung around her at the end. Divine would have been happy that people took care of her. She milked it in a good way.''


Waters, Divine and their friends began filmmaking in the mid-'60s, with such films as Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs.

They hit it big in 1972 with Pink Flamingos, about Babs Johnson (Divine), who aims to be the filthiest person alive. She succeeds by performing oral sex on her on-screen son and later eating dog feces. No trick photography. Pink Flamingos also has a subplot about Connie and Raymond Marble, who kidnap young women, impregnate them and sell their babies to lesbian couples.

Waters describes the film as ``a political action against taste.''

''Pink Flamingos is still as hideous as it ever was,'' he says. ``It never mellowed. But now all lesbians have children.''

5213816 Cult film star Mink Stole played Connie Marble, who vies with Babs to be filthiest person.

''Pink Flamingos is the film that made John Waters a household name. Of sorts. Of certain households,'' says Stole, who grew up in Baltimore as Nancy Stoll. Waters renamed her Mink.

Stole, 62, has made 14 films for Waters and says she'd do just about anything he asks. Only once did she tell him no.

''He was not happy. It was while we were making Pink Flamingos, and he wanted me to set my hair on fire. I had foolishly agreed to it. But as the time drew nearer, I panicked. I decided it was not safe. I'm one of the few people who ever said no. And it was the only thing I refused to do,'' Stole says.

``And I'm glad. By the time the movie was over, and Divine ate dog poop, no one would have remembered [I set my hair on fire]. I could have lost my hair for absolutely nothing.''


Divine_Mink_David_et_al_BM0 Stole's favorite film: Female Trouble, in which she co-stars as Taffy Davenport. Divine plays her mother and her father. The movie ends violently. ''I murder my father, and my mother murders me,'' she says.

The old Waters films are not easy for her to watch.

''For me it's like home movies. I can't possibly be objective. It's my friends up on the screen, and most of them are dead. It's sad,'' she says.

She describes Waters as ''the glue'' who held everything together for their films.

``He did everything but act in them. And if he could have played all the parts, he would have done that, too.''



What: 'An Evening with John Waters: This Filthy World Dirtier & Filthier' presented by the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival and Edison Farrow

When: 8 p.m. May 1

Where: Lincoln Theater, 541 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach

Cost: $125 VIP, includes private reception after show with Waters ($100 for Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival members); $45 lower-level; $35 balcony

Info: www.mglff.com


Photo credits:

John Waters portrait and scene from Female Trouble, courtesy of John Waters

Frances Milstead portrait by Joshua Prezant / For The Miami Herald / 2001

John Waters and Mink Stole at 2007 Hairspray premiere by Kevin Winter / Getty Images


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I just got an e-mail from Kareem Tabsch, program director for the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival:


Hey Steve,

What a great piece on John! I Loved the Mink Stole story.

Im very excited about seeing the printed piece on Sunday! I think it'll go a long way to drive ticket sales too.

Three points that I thought are noteworthy to mention that you may want to add-

1- We're presenting John with our Career Achievement Award.

2- There is an after-party for the show poolside at The Shore Club. He'll greet fans at a vip reception there.

3-The Miami Beach Cinematheque is doing a retrospective of his work on May 2nd and May 3rd.

Thanks so much for the piece and kudos on a job well-done.

Frances Milstead lovingly created her own new family out of members of the South Florida gay community. We were like her adopted sons. Frances got the second chance with us that she missed with Glenn (Divine) and we likewise with her, what was we had missed from our families. Frances was seldom ever alone. If she wasn't out at The Depot or Smarty Pants, in Ft Lauderdale, for Karaoke, she was at home doing crossword puzzles, always attended to by one of her adoring sons. Even at the end she was surrounded by so much love, it was a testament to her own love and charm. Those among us were honored in the end, to do her makeup and act as pallbearers in Baltimore. We miss her very much. 'Looking forward to seeing John's show.

William, thank you very much for your words about Frances.

Steve, I led the Pall Bearers for my "Other Mother's" funeral. It was an absolute privilege to be a part of it.I can actually say, (and hope it doesn't come back to haunt me!), I miss her more then my own mother. I do hope so very much that I can attend the show. Just as William stated, she did always have her "entourage" around her at all times as we took her to all the clubs in Baltimore just four years ago when I brought her up from Florida for my parent's memorial service. She was accompanied by Michael who, I believe did more for her in the past 10 or so years then anyone can ever imagine! She was a joy to be around.It's just a shame Glen, (Divine) had to leave us so early. It's hard to even imagine trying to keep up with Frances had Divine still been here! Hope to see everyone in Miami!

Frances was definitely like a mother to so many of us, gay and straight, but also one of my very best friends. I still haven't been able to grasp the fact that she's no longer here. She was a big part of my day, every day. She was planning on moving in with my partner, Don and I just before she passed away, so there is an empty room in our house, now, that we still consider "Frances' Room".
The fact that she was Divine's mother, really, was such a small part of who she was as a person. She showed all of us how to love unconditionally and live life to it's fullest no matter what obstacles are presented to us along the way.
And to add to what William said about her extended family, she created a family of men and women, from all parts of the world, through all of the gays and lesbians that she accepted into her life whether it was through her myspace, her activity in the community, her karaoke nights at the bars, or her weekly dinners with "Her Boys", which we still are going to have in honor of her.
She was such a special person and I am so lucky to have had her in my life.
We plan on having a "Celebration of Life" for her in June at The Depot in Ft. Lauderdale, and invite everyone to come and share their stories and memories of Frances.
Thank you for this story.

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