Role Models is John Waters's tribute to those who have influenced him throughout his life. I had already read two of his earlier books, Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters and Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste, so I knew what I was in for: I was ready to laugh myself silly.
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.". One can see how the people who have influenced him the most fit in with this self-assessment.
The first major influence on John as a little boy was "Clarabell, the psychotic clown on The Howdy Doody Show, whose makeup later inspired Divine's, had been my role model.". One can't miss the similarities when comparing the two:
The chapter entitled Leslie is perhaps the most serious piece of work Waters has ever written. In it, he talks about his twenty-five-year friendship with Leslie Van Houten, the member of the Manson family who was sentenced to death for her role in the LaBianca murders in 1969. Waters makes a very convincing case for the parole of Van Houten, who has been incarcerated for over forty years. He also apologizes for exploiting the Manson family murders in his early film career:
"I am guilty, too. Guilty of using the Manson murders in a jokey, smart-ass way in my earlier films without the slightest feeling for the victims' families or the lives of the brainwashed Manson killer kids who were also victims in this sad and terrible case."
This was quite a revelation from Waters: that of guilt. Waters has visited Van Houten on a regular basis at the California Institute for Women and is convinced that Van Houten has been mentally rehabilitated for decades and is in no danger of reoffending. The most surprising thing of all is Van Houten's sense of inner peace in all this. She seems resigned to live her life to the fullest, even though she may never be granted parole. I never thought I'd ever say this, but Van Houten's lawyers should have John Waters testify in her behalf at her next parole hearing. Waters never sweeps the LaBianca murders under the rug, and often identifies with their orphaned children, and how they must feel if they were to see their parents' murderer released. Nevertheless, it is a very convincing case to parole Van Houten, and made me review my own opinions on the matter.
Waters also talks about personalities from his hometown of Baltimore. One of them was the stripper known as Lady Zorro, whom he describes as "[having] a real rage she brought to the stage, which added a demented hostile sex appeal. An angry stripper with a history of physical and sexual abuse with a great body and the face of a man. Now there's a lethal combination...Zorro was so butch, so scary, so Johnny Cash. No actual stripping for her at that point [at the end of her burlesque career]; she just came out nude and snarled at her fans, 'What the f*** are you looking at?'".
Waters fondly remembers a Baltimore bar owner named Esther Martin: "the real reason I loved Esther right from the beginning was her mouth. No one in the world cussed more! She gave the phrase 'cursing a blue streak' a refinement that seemed almost noble. 'That motherf***ing c***s***ing son of a b***h' was used as a prefix to almost every name she uttered...Just a mention of Esther's foul language makes each sibling go into hilarious imitations of their mother's tirades. 'As my dear sainted mother would say'--Dick laughs and then mimics Esther's voice--'You're as worthless as a c**t full of cold p**s.' 'Sh** and fall back in it!'". I tell you, reading Waters's reminiscences about Lady Zorro and Esther had me laughing so hard during my work lunch breaks I could barely eat anything at all.
In the chapter entitled Bookworm, Waters writes about five of his favourite fiction authors. After I read this chapter I researched these authors and looked for their books and criticisms. Waters writes about one of his favourites:
"Try reading any novel by [Ivy] Compton-Burnett. She was English, looked exactly like the illustration on the Old Maid card, never had sex even once, and wrote twenty dark, hilarious, evil little novels between the years 1911 and 1969."
The chapter on art, entitled Roommates, was surprisingly boring. It would not have been so tedious to plow through if only Waters had included some photos of the works he was describing. There is nothing more boring to read than pages and pages of descriptions of paintings. Waters did make me laugh at this remark:
"I knew about Richard Tuttle's minimalist troublemaking and respected his early hostile establishment reviews, such as 'Less has never been less than this.' His bare plywood slat pieces nailed flat to the wall with just one thin side of the depth of the wood painted white were so beautiful, so simple, so plain, that I felt exhausted just imagining how complete the artist must have felt when he decided the work was finished."
In the final chapter, Waters tells of his childhood education at Catholic schools. I again felt like laughing so hard I could barely chew:
"I hated my Catholic high school, so I certainly never went back to a reunion, although I did get to comment to The Baltimore Sun, on the school's fifty-year anniversary, that the Christian Brothers and lay faculty there had 'discouraged every interest I ever had.' A friend who attended the reunion that year said he heard me called 'f**got' and 'pornographer' by some of my p***ed-off fellow classmates who had read my criticism, but I didn't mind. The only reason to attend any school reunion is to see how the people whom you had wanted to have sex with then look today. And I had already looked up those people's addresses and driven by their homes to stalk them years before."
And when talking about those wacky saints he learned about at school:
"Of course, there are some saints we do take very seriously. Saint Catherine of Siena is without a doubt the most insane of these and we have no choice but to honor her daily. Reading Holy Anorexia by Rudolph M. Bell, the best encyclopedia of deranged saints ever written, we learn that in Catherine's time (the 1300s) she was known as 'a person of considerable reputation for outstanding holiness'--in other words, nuts! At the peak of her career she 'urged the holy hatred of oneself' and advised others to 'build a cell in your mind that you can never escape.' She was a 'bottom' for God."
and I am still laughing over the poor girl who could never succeed here:
"Catherine organized a group of fellow child masochists who flagellated themselves daily. Well, I can understand that, too. I had a Horror House in our garage and I'd charge the neighborhood kids twenty-five cents to enter. After they gave me the money, I'd tell them to wait, and I'd go inside and then yell, "Okay, come in!" The little ticket buyers would group their way into the darkness and I would squirt them with a fire extinguisher (my dad's company sold them) and then kick them in the leg. They loved it. They even came back for more. I also used to play 'school' as a kid with the little girl who lived next door, and I was always the teacher and she was always the student. Every time we played I failed her, yet she still eagerly agreed to play every time I asked, fully knowing the results."
Role Models is John Waters's most serious written work. Without his name on the cover, one would never believe that the chapters on Leslie Van Houten, art, Johnny Mathis or Little Richard was written by him. If you love Waters's humour, and need a laugh like the original "Hairspray" on the printed page, this book does not disappoint.