“You should have a passion for whatever interests you and try to make it your life's work — not dabble!” –John Waters on his new book, “Role Models.”
Last Saturday, I met film director, John Waters, for about the tenth time since I’ve lived in Baltimore. He was signing his new book, “Role Models” at the local independent bookstore, Atomic Books (disclaimer, I am friends with owners Rachel Whang and Benn Ray both of whom have my profuse adoration and respect). He was a little more wrinkled than the last time I’d seen him so close up, but the twinkle in his eye was still there.
“Hi, how have you been?” He said with the sweetly sinister grin.
I tried to make a joke or two as he signed the two books I’d purchased—one for me and one for a friend who couldn’t make the signing. He misspelled my name, but then again, I didn’t tell him that I spell it with a “K” and not a “C.” And I didn’t have the heart to correct him. I was just happy to see him. For as long as I’ve known of his work, John Waters has been one of my role models.
We may seem like very different people, but I suspect that in our hearts, we kind of match.
Maybe it’s because the first film I’d ever seen of his was “Hairspray.” Set in 1950s Baltimore, the lead actress was not just a bubbly fat girl (the way I’ve often been described), but she was smart, funny and got the very cute guy in the end. All my life, I’d never seen a movie that made girls like me such winners. Even with its few gross-out moments, the core of the film was so cheerful and heartfelt; it made me feel like I was finally somebody. As a fat girl, you’re often the biggest person in the room, but also the most invisible. Tracy Turnblad (as portrayed by Ricki Lake) was the kind of girl who threw her weight around for change instead of allowing it to insulate her from the cruelty of life.
Growing up in Utah, I wasn’t the fattest girl in my class. That distinction belonged to another girl I’ll call “Tess.” Tess was built a little bit like a bowling ball with legs. She was so round and large with pale skin and freckles, she was hard to dismiss. Yet everyone did. Except for me. I felt like I was right behind her. Each year as I passed through puberty, I grew larger. Even though I tried many diets and exercise plans, nothing seemed to want to work. I learned of a thyroid problem in my 20s that has come and gone since then. Today, I’m bigger than poor Tess ever was.
I moved to the east coast shortly after graduating from high school. I moved for many reasons. One was to escape the crazy Jehovah’s Witness religion my parents had joined when I was 10. As they got deeper and deeper into their faith, I started to learn just how limited my options would be after becoming an adult. Had I stayed in their faith, I would have been expected to become a full-time evangelist, also known as a “Pioneer.” A pioneer commits most of her time (men can be pioneers, but most happen to be women thanks to the fact that only men can be ministers) to going door-to-door marketing herself for the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. I could also get married and have babies with another Jehovah’s Witness, but given that most JW men were pretty picky about whom they married, being a fat girl sort of lowered my chances of finding “Brother Right.”
The second reason I left Utah was simply to enjoy doing what I loved best: writing. Where I’d had dreams of moving to New York City and living in a shoebox-sized apartment with one cat and a typewriter, I settled for a live-in nanny gig in New Jersey. It gave me a larger place to live, a regular paycheck and lots of writing time when my charges were in school.
The last reason I escaped Utah was for the chance to finally be myself. Aside from being raised as a JW in a state run by Mormons, I didn’t feel like I ever fit in anywhere there. At least a few times a month, I remember being called “weird.” When you’re a kid, words like that sting. As I got older, however, it made me realize that being different had its advantages. I had the coolest friends who were probably the most creative bunch in the school. Being weird was our normal.
Sometime after moving to New Jersey, I made a new set of friends. I also got involved in community theater and that is where I met Reynolds, a dreamy older boy who played “Prince Charming” in the musical production of “Cinderella.” I landed a bit part in but also served as ballroom dance choreographer (thank you fifth and sixth grade ballroom dance classes!). He was tall, dark and requisitely handsome. I suspect he was also gay, but that didn’t matter. He made me feel pretty and funny. He also introduced me to John Waters.
It was at the all-night cinemas of Perth Amboy where we decided to see a movie at 2 a.m. I’d never seen a movie so late in all my life. The last time I’d seen a movie after midnight was when I was eight. My father’s friend, who owned a movie theater in Salt Lake City, invited us to the very first showing of “Star Wars” with his family. He was legally allowed to show the film only after midnight on the day of its release, so he invited our family to see it with his and be the first in the city to see it. When Reynolds suggested “Hairspray” and said I’d probably like it, I agreed to go. I emerged from that theater at 4 a.m. feeling like a brand-new person. A few months later, I moved to Baltimore. It seemed the perfect place for a weirdo like me.
A year after coming to Charm City (one of our quirky nicknames for this town), I heard that John Waters was auditioning actors for his next film, “Cry Baby.” I figured I had nothing to lose by auditioning. So I dressed up in my best retro garb and found myself in the Station North Arts District along with about 1,500 other hopefuls waiting to audition for this film. I didn’t get the part, but I met two boys who would go onto major fame in Hollywood. One got a part in “Cry Baby;” the other I dated briefly before he moved to Los Angeles to begin a career in television and film.
Sometime after my audition, I started learning more about the man behind the movie that had changed my life.
John Waters, Baltimore born and raised, was an original “guerilla” filmmaker. He didn’t get permission from the city or anyone to make his films. He and his friends would invade a street in Baltimore, shoot their scene and run. He turned one of his best friends, the incomparable Glenn Milstead, into “Divine,” a drag queen who ate dog feces on screen and managed to look glamorous doing it. Every shock-comedy film since his first film, “Mondo Trasho” (released in 1969—the year I was born) owes Waters a debt of gratitude. So do I.
The first lengthy conversation I had with Waters was back in the mid-nineties when he was promoting his book, “Shock Value.” My ex-husband and I attended a reception for him at the University of Baltimore where I was so thrilled to meet him, I blurted out “I’m from Utah!” His eyes lit up and he clasped his hands together.
“Tell me about the Mormons,” he grinned. I obliged and spent almost half an hour chatting with him about my former hometown until he was dragged away by some handler.
The weird fat girl from Utah who once traded fake newspapers with gossipy stories about people from my church with my best friend, Ruthie, learned just how acceptable it is to be exactly who I am and embrace it, not try to change it. I am grateful for movies like “Hairspray” and even “Mondo Trasho.” I learned that to be weird (and even fat) can be beautiful.