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John Waters explains why 'Hairspray' is his 'most devious' movie: 'Even racists like it!'

The outspoken director says that his 1988 favorite will never be banned by conservative politicians.

John Waters behind the scenes of Hairspray. (Photo: Getty Images)
John Waters behind the scenes of his 1988 favorite, Hairspray. (Photo: Getty Images)

Like the song goes, you can't stop the beat. Thirty-five years after it first danced into theaters, John Waters's contemporary classic Hairspray is back on the big screen for a pair of Pride Month screenings organized by Fathom Events. Released in 1988, this ribald satire of '50s-era racial and societal prejudices was the famously out-gay director's final collaboration with drag icon — and his personal muse — Divine, who plays the mother of the movie's toe-tapping heroine, Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake), and died weeks after its release.

Even though there are now Republican-led parts of the country that are actively seeking to ban stories that feature drag queens — or wrestle with America's history of racism — Waters says that Hairspray will always dance around those restrictions for one very simple reason. "I think it's because the plot is not that Divine is a man," Waters tells Yahoo Entertainment. "That's a secret between the audience and the actors; Tracy Turnblad doesn't think that her mother's trans."

Watch our full interview with John Waters on YouTube

"Hairspray is such a good sneak attack that even racists like it!" Waters continues with a laugh. "They're too dumb to realize it's against them! So Hairspray has had no trouble [with politicians], and I don't think it ever will. It would be a really stupid thing for them to attempt, because they'd lose. Even some of the more radical Republicans would back down on that one."

Waters and Divine were both born and raised in Baltimore during the period that Hairspray depicts, and eventually found each other in the city's underground countercultural scene of the pre-Stonewall '60s. Asked if he's disheartened to see history repeat itself in terms of politicians trying to push LGBTQ communities to the margins again, Waters strikes a defiant note, calling the anti-drag laws being pushed in states like Florida and Oklahoma "ridiculous."

"First of all, children loved Divine," he notes. "The were never scared of him — they thought he was like a clown. What do [these politicians] think? Is an eight-foot drag queen going to come in the kiddie bathroom, whip out a 10-inch cock and take a piss in front of them? I don't get why they're so nervous about it."

Divine and John Waters behind the scenes of Hairspray. (Photo: Getty Images)
Divine and Waters behind the scenes of Hairspray. (Photo: Getty Images)

"When I was young, I got corrupted by the library because I looked up everything I wasn't supposed to know about," Waters continues. "The library is supposed to corrupt you. Books are supposed to take you into a world that maybe you want to go to and your parents don't. It's the same way that the first record that you love — and that your parents hate — becomes the soundtrack of your life. It's very important to find out things on your own. If a child goes into a library at five years old and asks for the Marquis de Sade, my feeling is that if he's heard of it, give it to him!"

At the time of its release, Hairspray's sneak attack on bigotry was a change of pace for Waters, who spent the first part of his career making midnight movies like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, which gleefully shoved transgressive imagery and gay themes in audiences' faces. Still, the director insists that he didn't set out to make a mainstream movie, confessing he was as surprised as anyone when the film received a PG rating from the MPAA.

"I thought I was gonna kill myself," he says, laughing. "It seemed like the worst possible thing, but it turned out to be the best possible thing because it would have been more of a shock if I had made another R-rated movie. I've always said it's my most devious movie: We have drag queens, interracial dating and even Florida hasn't bitched yet!"

To celebrate Hairspray's 35th anniversary, we spoke with Waters about how Divine originally wanted to play Tracy, the deleted scene that Lake still hasn't forgiven him for and why he loves ridiculing both sides of the political aisle.

Your early movies capture very specific moments in time as they're happening. Why did you feel ready to recreate this particular era in time with Hairspray?

It happened to be an obsession I'd always had. Baltimore magazine covered the reunion of The Buddy Dean Show, which was only on in Baltimore. We never had American Bandstand — we were one of the only places that didn't. I went to the reunion and was amazed to see all the local stars again, and that gave me the idea of having a big girl on the show, which there never ever was. It's fiction, but it's based a little on Mary Lou, who was the most popular girl on Buddy Dean. She was Amber [the snobby dancer played by Colleen Fitzpatrick] in real life and her mother was the real Edna [played by Divine]. I guess Tracy is me: I went to all the integration rallies, because we had George Wallace — one of the most notorious racists — running for president in the primaries here. Just once I had an obsession that didn't scare people!

Ricki Lake has said that Divine wasn't happy when she was cast as Tracy, because that's the part she wanted to play.

When I wrote it, we were going to do a joke on The Parent Trap where Divine was going to play the daughter and the mother. New Line [which produced Hairspray] said no to that — wisely, because Divine was 40-something years old! It would have been funny, but it would have been a whole different movie. Who knows if it would have gone as far. But Divine loved Ricky right from the beginning. At first, he was a little [miffed] that he wasn't the star of the movie. Ricky was the star and it was about her. But he got along with her very well; they became like mother and daughter in real life. He taught her how to walk in heels, they made pies together, they were definitely very friendly.

So no disappointment on Divine's part then?

I mean, he was so happy that we were getting the movie made with a real budget! We had about $2 million, so it was gonna be a real movie with lights, food, trailers — all the things we had never, ever had before. And he also has two parts in the movie: He plays Edna and the racist radio station owner. You know, he had this image that we had created of this really frightening person that was in Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, which Divine in real life was not like. Then he turned around and played a frumpy housewife, and that's when he got great reviews! I still stay that if Dolly Parton would get out of drag and play a junkie, she'd win an Oscar in five seconds. [Laughs]

Divine and Ricki Lake as Edna and Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray. (Photo: New Line Cinema/courtesy Everett Collection)
Divine and Ricki Lake as Edna and Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray. (Photo: New Line Cinema/courtesy Everett Collection)

Hairspray came out towards the end of the '80s physical fitness craze. Were you consciously reacting to that by featuring a full-figured heroine?

I had always had good luck when using ... well, you can't say "fat" now, but an ample girl — that's what we called her. Wherever I go, ample women still like to hug me because of the movies. [Laughs] Mary Lou always told me that a Black girl could have gotten onto The Buddy Dean Show more easily than a fat girl, because not one had ever auditioned. When we put out the casting ad, only about 10 actresses showed up, and Ricki immediately got the part. Later on, when they did a version of the Broadway musical for NBC, a thousand girls showed up. It made them feel like they could be the star of a movie. Tracy was not a supporting character, and she was not the good friend that was funny and made wisecracks. She was the star, she got the handsome guy and she won.

It seems like you can trace a clear arc from Tracy to a performer like Lizzo, who also celebrates body positivity.

Oh, I think Divine really has more to do with Lizzo, because Lizzo used the weight to shop in terms of fashions and everything. Divine did that, too. In the very beginning, drag queens hated Divine, because they were so square and Divine would show up in fake scarves carrying a chainsaw and stuff. They knew he was making fun of drag, which he was. He was satirizing how straight it was! Now, Lizzo has influenced an America where everyone's nude in the airport. I can't believe people's outfits when they get on planes — just completely nude! I'm waiting for an all-nude airline next: all you have to wear is your seatbelt. [Laughs]

Ricki has also talked about a deleted scene where roaches were put in Tracy's hair.

That was based on a real girl named Pixie who was on The Buddy Dean Show. She was about 4-[foot]-8 and her hair was so high that it blocked the moon! If you were outside, you thought it was an eclipse. One day, she just stopped being on the show for no reason, and everybody wondered, "Where's Pixie?" The rumor spread that roaches lived in her hair, eaten all her hairspray and killed her. It went so wide that Buddy Dean actually had to go on the air and say it wasn't true.

So I was paying homage to that with that particular scene; we put real roaches in Ricki's hair, and she freaked out. Later [New Line head] Bob Shaye said to cut the scene. He was like, "What is this — a Luis Buñuel film or something?" And it was really jarring, that particular plot point. But, you know, I put roaches on a naked Liz Renay in Desperate Living and she didn't complain! Her hair didn't fall out either.

Lake rocks a killer 'do as Tracy in Hairspray. (Photo: New Line Cinema/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Lake rocks a killer 'do as Tracy in Hairspray. (Photo: New Line Cinema/Courtesy Everett Collection)

I've always loved your choice to cast counterculture icons like Sonny Bono and Debbie Harry as Amber's ultra-conservative parents.

Remember, at the time Sonny was the mayor of Palm Springs! He was running again, and still played a racist — who would do that today? Debbie was great; I had seen her in other movies and she really wanted to work with Sonny, and she's one of the reasons he said yes. Also because of Ruth Brown [who played Motormouth Maybelle Stubbs]. Sonny started as a talent scout at Speciality Records, which worked with Little Richard and other R&B artists, so he was very much from that world.

People think of Sonny Bono as the square white guy with the hairdo, but his roots are definitely in rhythm-and-blues music. He was thrilled that Ruth was going to be in it, and he knew that period of music very well. Sonny did tell me later that he was afraid that somebody was going to run out and eat s*** in the middle of a scene! [Divine famously eats dog poop at the end of Pink Flamingos.] But I told him, "No, what's in the script is what's in the movie." [Laughs]

I never met Cher during Hairspray, but after Sonny died [in 1998], she came over to me at a Vanity Fair party. Whenever I see Cher, I always think it's a drag queen, but it was really her and she was very dressed down. She said, "Thank you for saying such great things about Sonny." And, you know, I think of Traci Lords coming to me after escaping the porn world or Patty Hearst who was a famous kidnapping victim and wanted to make fun of it by being in a movie. Everybody came to me for a career change, because it was like rehab for reputations in a way. If you embrace and make fun of what they use against you, it doesn't work anymore.

Were you surprised that he went to Congress as a Republican?

Oh, we never talked politics. And Sonny was certainly not the kind of Republican that we have today. I don't think he would have been a Trumpite. But people's politics can really surprise you. I knew Roseanne Barr really well and look at her now, you know? People can get radicalized either way.

Besides anti-trans bans, certain states are also seeking to legislate how history is taught, specifically in regards to race. Hairspray feels very much ahead of the curve in terms of addressing how young people learn about racism.

The reason it worked is because I wasn't preaching. I wasn't making the other side feel stupid, I was using humor to get your attention. And I was making fun of liberals, too! I always have — I make fun of the rules that liberals live by. All rules to me are interesting to break ... that's the basis of humor. So Hairspray is a message movie that never once got on a soapbox, so people never even realized it was a message movie. I just made a movie about a subject that I knew and an experience I had and tried to tell it in a humorous way that stayed off a soapbox. That eventually just makes people go the other way, I think.

Sonny Bono and Debbie Harry play ultra-conservative parents in Hairspray. (Photo: New Line/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Sonny Bono and Debbie Harry play ultra-conservative parents in Hairspray. (Photo: New Line/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Divine passed away soon after the movie's release. Was it harder to lose him knowing how good he was in the movie and how it could have opened up a new phase in his career?

He died about a week afterwards, so he had real all of his good reviews and he knew that the movie was a hit. That's better than dying a week before and not knowing, but either way, it's pretty lousy. He was ready to play a gay male uncle character on Married... With Children, and Hairspray .really helped with that. He would have been a hit on that show, and then his career just stopped. But Divine has influenced all drag queens today — none of them are square anymore

You've said in the past that he wasn't necessarily precious about his identity. What do you think he would make over some of the debates we're having about gender now?

In terms of the trans movement, Divine was not one bit trans. He always said he was a drag queen, but he would [identify] as a man. If we were making a movie and he was playing a female character in full drag, I always called him Divine. I always say that he didn't want to be a woman — he wanted to be Godzilla! He was thought up to scare hippies. That was our real mission in the beginning, even though we were in the hippie world. But we were making fun of those rules at the same time, too.

Like you said, you're an equal-opportunity offender.

Well, people on the right don't come to see me — they gave up on me long ago. Although I have had people who are very conservative in the audience laughing, because I make fun of the ones on our side just as much. But the main reason is that I make fun of myself first and that sets the tone. Self-righteousness and pretentiousness are the only sins I think you can go to hell for.

Director John Waters attends the 30th Anniversary Screening of Hairspray presented by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, on July 23, 2018, in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by VALERIE MACON / AFP)        (Photo credit should read VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images)
Waters attends a 30th anniversary screening of Hairspray in 2018. (Photo: Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

When you watch Hairspray now, what makes you happiest about the film?

The best thing about it is that it's inspired so many different things. There are four different versions of it, and you can't do a bad version. I've seen the musical done in schools where a skinny Black girl is playing Tracy. Kids don't care! When they finally do the remake, they should cast Lizzo as Edna — just switch everything around completely: sex, weight, age everything.

I take pride in that — that the characters can get beyond your threshold of belief, even if you cast it in a completely different way. Tracy Turnblad speaks to anybody that's ever been an outsider, and today almost everybody thinks they are. I would say that both Trump and Obama would call themselves outsiders. So today, I don't want to be an outsider. I became an insider with Hairspray — I snuck in! [Laughs]

Hairspray returns to theaters on Sunday, June 11 and Wednesday, June 14; visit Fathom Events for showtimes and ticket information.