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My Idol

John Waters by Nan Goldin

For well over twenty years this man has been my hero. No lie. No exaggeration. It was John Waters and his affectionate fascination with with trash — and his own stylish, articulate, and eccentric way of blazing his own trail — that encouraged me to fully embrace whatever aspects of the high and low culture around me that caught my fancy. I was always a quirky kid. It was John who taught me that was a good thing.

Waters is most famous as a filmmaker, of course, but it was actually his books that first blew my mind. From the moment in high school when I first read Shock Value and Crackpot, I was hooked. When I finally caught a double feature of Polyester and Desperate Living some time in 1987 or so, they just confirmed what I had already come to treasure about his view of the world.

It's easy to peg Waters and his work as campy irony or immature shock tactics, but everything he's written, ever talk I’ve heard him give, and every interview I’ve ever read has made it clear that he really believes in the underdog and the honesty of being what you want to be, no matter how trashy. In Waters' world, you're only evil if you're a superior asshole who doesn't want others to be happy doing their own thing. For a man of refined tastes, his sense of irony is not something he uses to maintain a distance from anything, it's a way of celebrating the lovable in the generally unloved.

He's demeted and sweet and mischievous. When Hairspray first came out, I loved that the master of trash had made a subversive movie the whole family could love. Even the musical version throws a sucker punch or two in the midst of its squeaky clean reinterpretation of the movie:

Waters is entirely unconcerned about his oeuvre becoming softened as it goes broad. "In a way, the most subversive thing I ever did was think up Hairspray, because now families are sitting there watching two men sing a love song," Waters said, as a car finally pulled over. "Who would ever have thought that Jerry Mathers, who I grew up with" — the child star in the title role on Leave It to Beaver, who now plays the father in Hairspray — "would be singing to a man in a dress on Broadway in something I wrote!" (From his New York interview)

I want to keep trying to be like him as I keep trying to grow up.

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