John Waters on Hitchhiking, Integrating Baltimore, and Justin Bieber

We chat with the filmmaker before his performance with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this month.

By: Sophie Gilbert

Through his 40-year career, John Waters has stayed loyal to Baltimore. The 66-year-old filmmaker, writer, and artist joins the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this month for a semi-staged concert production of the musical Hairspray, based on his 1988 movie. Incorporating new narration from Waters, the show features former Monkee Mickey Dolenz as Wilbur Turnblad. Waters is also currently at work on a book, Carsick, about nine days spent hitchhiking across America. We caught up with him via phone to discuss why Baltimore still isn’t as integrated as it should be, his favorite professional achievements, and why he’d most like to collaborate with Justin Bieber.

Where did the idea for Hairspray come from?

It came from an article I wrote for Baltimore Magazine called “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Nicest Kids in Town,” about the reunion of The Buddy Deane Show, a TV show that had a huge following in Baltimore. Of course, as a teenager I watched it and exaggerated all the committee and turned them into characters in my own mind.

Mickey Dolenz is performing with you. Were you a Monkees fan?

Kind of. By then I was on LSD, so I had a different feeling. I like them more now.

How do you think the world has changed since 1988 when the original Hairspray movie came out?

I still think Baltimore is not as integrated as it should be. If teenagers still slow-danced, which they don’t, would there be a television show in Washington or Baltimore that showed 14-year-old black and white kids dancing together? I think there wouldn’t.

What did you think of the 2007 film?

I thought it was good—it worked because they reinvented it. What doesn’t work on Broadway shows when they make them into movies is when they do the exact same thing. I wrote a sequel called White Lipstick that I was paid Hollywood money for that never happened, and I wrote a pilot for a TV show that never happened, so I’m waiting for Hairspray on Ice as the final thing.

What out of all your professional achievements would you like to be remembered for?

Well, what I am most of all is a writer. I’ve written all my movies and five books—I’m writing a book right now. I have my 16-city Christmas tour, and the show I do called This Filthy World. I write something weird every morning and then every afternoon I sell it.

You’re inherently faithful to Baltimore. What do you love most about the city?

I think people here have the best sense of humor and they’re never pretentious. Some of the restaurants are starting to get that way and I avoid them because it doesn’t work here to be that fancy. I also love the fact that a neighborhood one street away can be alarming or beautiful—it switches so quickly. You can never be sure in Baltimore. I think that should be our bumper sticker.

What is an average day like for you?

Monday to Friday I get up at exactly six o’clock. I read six papers every day: the Baltimore Sun, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the New York Post, the Washington Post, USA Today. Is that six? Then at exactly eight o’clock, not 7:59, not 8:01, I write. Then in the afternoon I run my business.

What were your hitchhiking adventures like?

I’m not going to tell you much because that’s the book. It was 21 rides in nine days. People thought I was homeless. But I would say that it’s generally a very optimistic book. Every person who picked me up was weirdly happy. So that’s why I think people should hitchhike again. It’s a new way to be green.

Is there any performer who you’d love to work with?

Oh, Justin Bieber. I love it especially when he’s black.

Hairspray in Concert featuring John Waters is at Strathmore January 24 and at Baltimore’s Meyerhoff Symphony Hall January 25 through 27. Tickets ($28 to $63) are available via the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s website.

This article appears in the January 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.