Role Models is the most recent book by John Waters. Marketed as a memoir, it’s really more of a memoirish collection of essays paying homage to the numerous role models Waters has looked up to over the years. Of course, if you’re at all familiar with Waters — a.k.a. the Sultan of Smut/King of Bad Taste/Pope of Trash — you might already have the feeling that his role models aren’t exactly of the Oprah Winfrey, Mother Teresa variety. No. Instead, Waters’s role models run the range from Japanese fashion designer Rei Kawakubo and her Comme des Garçons clothing line to the “freaks” he grew up around in Baltimore. Being a prolific writer in addition to being a filmmaker, Waters has had the chance to meet many of his role models over the years, and it is from these encounters that he culls many of the stories in the book.
In the interest of keeping my word count down (I love Waters and this is still gonna be a long post, y’all) and the review PG-13ish (him being the Sultan of Smut all all), I’m only going to touch on a few of my favorite essays in the collection. Fascinating as I found “Outsider Porn,” that one did not make my cut.
I’ll start with “Little Richard,” which appears in the last half of the book but gives some funny, interesting insight on what Waters was like as a child. He was a handful early on, and Little Richard was an early role model (in fact, that’s who inspired Waters’s trademark pencil mustache). Of all the people Waters has interviewed in his life, Little Richard was one of the people he most wanted to meet since he idolized him growing up. He writes:
Little Richard scared by grandmother in 1957. I was eleven years old, on the way to her house for dinner with my parents, and had just shoplifted a record in the five-and-dime…I made a beeline to her out-of-date hi-fi and let it roll…It was as if a Martian had landed. My grandmother stopped in her tracks, face ashen, beyond comprehension. The antiques rattled. My parents looked stunned. In one magical moment, every fear of my white family had been laid bare: an uninvited, screaming, flamboyant black man was in the living room. Even Dr. Spock hadn’t warned them about this.
He writes about Little Richard’s influence on his childhood with glee, yet when he finally had the chance as an adult to interview Little Richard for Playboy, he was shocked to discover that Little Richard had become a born again Christian who was plagued by paranoia and mood swings. The interview was a disaster, with Little Richard being difficult and making unreasonable demands. Waters reflects on that experience by saying, “my own world did end [that day] in its own peculiar way…Not all role models turn out the way you want.”
Probably my favorite essay in the collection is “Leslie,” about his friendship with Leslie Van Houten, one of the “Manson girls.” Waters has always had an interest in strange true crime tales, and the Sharon Tate murders kickstarted his obsession with the Charles Family. Year ago, he convinced Rolling Stone to let him interview Van Houten, whom he referred to as the only one who had a shot at ever being released from prison. What followed was the beginning of a long friendship with an intriguing, guilt-ridden woman who is no longer that wild, drug-addled, brainwashed nineteen-year-old girl from decades ago. The essay raises poignant issues about prison rehabilitation (Van Housten has been denied parole nineteen times, even though she continues to meet the parole board’s requirements). Waters could’ve written his whole book on his friendship with Van Houten, and I would’ve still been more than happy with it.
Another favorite of mine is “Bookworm.” Waters is an avid reader; at the time he wrote that essay, he says he owned “8,425 books, all cataloged.” Veering away from Oprah-like recommendations, he dedicates that essay to recommending “Five Books You Should Read to Live a Happy Life If Something is Basically the Matter with You.” The most mainstream title on that list is Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, a nurture vs. nature story about a mother who goes into motherhood hesitantly and ends up giving birth to a sociopath (side note: I loved that book!). His other picks are a lot less commercial, though he does mention Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children (which Jonathan Franzen also recommended years ago in The New York Times and recommends again in his most recent essay collection).
But what I really loved about that essay was a confession he makes at the end while talking about his love for the long-deceased Ivy Compton-Burnett’s books:
I have all twenty of her novels and I’ve read nineteen. If I read the one that is left there will be no more Ivy Compton-Burnett for me and I will probably have to die myself.
Weird confession time: I secretly feel the same way about certain authors (okay, maybe not the dying part, but it’s a big deal). It’s one of the main reason’s why I dragged my feet on reading all of the stories in Drown, and one of the reasons why I own all seven of Franzen’s books but am taking my time going through them. And it especially applies to dead authors! It’s the only reason I didn’t fly through John Steinbeck’s entire catalog after I finished East of Eden. I need at least one unread work by a favorite author to look forward to. And here I thought I was the only one!
Early in the book, Waters sits down with Johnny Mathis and commends him on maintaining his privacy over the years. He reflects:
One thing I learned early was that if you’re in any way famous, guaranteeing yourself a private life is very important for your mental health. Fans can’t be friends; neither can the press…The ultimate level of celebrity accomplishment is convincing the press and public that they know everything about your personal life without really revealing anything.
Upon closer inspection, Role Models embodies this philosophy. Waters is a fantastic entertainer (watch his stand up, This Filthy World, on Netflix and see for yourself), and he has countless stories of wild times and freakish encounters to tell. He’s happy to write memoirs and crack jokes about horrifying his parents and make offhanded comments about his sexuality. Really, a lot of it is only about John Waters the Celebrity. But you know what? It’s okay. It’s enough.
These were some of my favorite bookish quotes from the book.
Role Models was released on hardcover in May 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It was released on paperback on April 26, 2011.