Discover more from Planet Nude
Happy, healthy idiots on pogo sticks with air-brushed crotches
John Waters on nudist camp films, the power of nudity, and embracing weirdness
John Waters is an American filmmaker, writer, and artist known for his provocative and subversive style. Born in 1946 in Baltimore, Maryland, Waters attended New York University’s film school but was expelled for smoking marijuana. His early films were low-budget productions often featuring shocking subject matter, leading author William S. Burroughs to anoint him as “the pope of trash” and critics to dub him “the prince of puke” and “the people’s pervert.” After getting his start in filmmaking with the 1964 seventeen minute short Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, Waters gained a cult following with his works, including Multiple Maniacs (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972), and Female Trouble (1974). He continued to make films throughout the 1980s and 1990s, including the more subtly transgressive Polyester (1981), Hairspray (1988), and Serial Mom (1994). His final film was the NC-17 rated A Dirty Shame (2004). In addition to filmmaking, Waters is also a writer and visual artist. He has published several books, including the 2014 road memoir Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America and the 2022 novel Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance. Waters continues to be a beloved figure in underground cinema and counterculture while progressively earning mainstream recognition, including a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and an exhibit at the Academy Museum titled “John Waters: Pope of Trash” in September 2023.
In his work and real life, Waters has always possessed an affinity for those who exist on the fringes of what he describes as “square” society. In interviews, he often refers to his fans as minorities who do not fit in with their own minorities. His films are populated with hippies and hillbillies, queers and punks, misfits and the misunderstood. His most famous film star was Divine, the stage persona of Glenn Milstead. Waters is careful to describe Divine not as a drag queen but as a 300-pound amalgamation of Elizabeth Taylor and Godzilla. In Waters’ cinematic universe, the outsiders and eccentrics are always the heroes, and there is no worse abomination than unthinking social conformity.
Nudity as an act of defiance
Waters recognized the power of both art and nudity at an early age. The young Waters was fascinated by the ability of art to explore and expand the limits of acceptable expression. In a 2014 discussion with artist Jeff Koons, Waters described his childhood “secret art life” that initially consisted of picking up postcards and prints featuring images of contemporary art from the Baltimore Museum. The fact that his family and friends considered contemporary and conceptual art crude and tasteless only solidified his interest in it. He even acted out a Marcel Duchamp painting when nobody was home. “As a kid, I used to pretend I was nude descending the staircase. I would come down the steps nude, and only I knew.”1
Though Waters identifies as a “never nude” who was often puzzled by the nudists he would encounter on the beaches of Provincetown in the 1980s, who seemed averse to putting on clothes but perfectly content with wearing uncomfortable-looking genital jewelry, he came to see nudity as a symbol of defiance and a rejection of the repressive value system of the “square” society that he found so confining. In his 2010 book Role Models, Waters identifies several of his heroes, including a number of strippers who worked in the seedy bars like the Gayety Burlesque he frequented in his youth. The strippers he idolized in his formative years were not seen as sexy but as powerful, awe-inspiring, intimidating, or even terrifying, particularly his favorite, a lesbian stripper named Lady Zorro who “stomped around” the stage in Baltimore’s notorious red light district, The Block. Zorro did not bother with undressing onstage, Water recalls. “She just came out nude and snarled at her fans, ‘What the fuck are you looking at?’”2 He describes another favorite stripper in his 1987 book Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters, a 300-pound woman whose stage name was Baby Buns who picked up barstools with her sizable breasts and carried them around onstage. He regrets not seeing Blaze Starr (of Blaze Starr Goes Nudist fame) perform at her 2 O’Clock Club in Baltimore, because the club was much more diligent about turning away underage customers. Waters attempted to secure the aging Starr for one of his films many years later. "Is there any nudity involved?" her sister/agent asked. When Waters said no, she replied, “Oh, well, she wouldn’t be interested then,” and hung up.3
Given his affinity for shameless expressions of individuality, it is little wonder that Waters is interested in those unafraid of exposing their bodies, including strippers, nudists, and the otherwise immodest. “I wish everyone in the world was a stripper!” Waters proclaims in Crackpot. “Except me, of course.”
A fascination with nudist exploitation films
Waters has long been intrigued by midcentury nudist films, which he first encountered at the Rex Theater in Baltimore as an adolescent. “I was profoundly influenced,” he recalled in Crackpot. “I wish they’d revive this much-ignored great genre. The Isle of Levant, The Garden of Eden, Naked Island, Nature Camp Diary – all classics of a sort.” He described the 1960s nudists as “happy, healthy idiots on pogo sticks with air-brushed crotches,” and he worried that not enough was being done to preserve and celebrate the cinema treasures that featured them. “I’ve noticed a few shops in New York that seriously collect the magazines of this period, but not once have I seen a retrospective of nudist camp films anywhere in the world. Come on, Museum of Modern Art Film Department, stop snoozing on the job! It’s your duty to preserve these embarrassing classics before the nitrate completely turns to ash.”
Presumably, Waters must be thrilled by the American Genre Film Archive/Something Weird Video restorations of several of these films, including The Monster of Camp Sunshine and a Doris Wishman collection that includes the classics Nude on the Moon, Diary of a Nudist and of course, Blaze Starr Goes Nudist.
In a February 2004 interview with Fresh Air host Terry Gross, Waters discusses his fascination with the nudist camp features. “Well, when I looked at those pictures, I always looked at it in a way to see how far it could go - the same way I went to heterosexual sexploitation movies all the time that had no male nudity, to see how far it could go. I was interested in how the taboos would fall. Nudist camp movies were the first things I saw. And you would see bare breasts on women and sometimes asses. But once in a while, a male ass. But they had to be playing volleyball.”4
His interest in nudist films eventually became part of an opening act that accompanied screenings of his own underground movies. In a 2009 interview with Flashback Files writer Barend de Voogd, Waters recalls, “We had an act at colleges, where I would show my movies. First, I would come on stage, dressed as a hippie pimp, and I would talk about nudist camp movies, you know, movies that nobody ever praises. Then I would say: I would like to introduce the world’s most beautiful woman in the world. And Divine would come out, dressed in drag, and rip a telephone book in half like a muscle man would do, then he would throw dead fish in the audience.”5
Although the nudist camp film genre did not last beyond the 1960s, a few exploitation films set on nude beaches were released in the late 1970s and early 1980s, mainly in Europe, though a few were filmed in the United States. Waters enjoyed these films as well. In a 1986 interview with Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post, Waters is described as someone who “blisses out on the films of Randall Kleiser,” including The Blue Lagoon and especially Summer Lovers, which Waters describes as “the ultimate Kleiser work,” set on a clothing optional beach with “characters who are all young, rich, nude and stupid.”6
Nudity and nudism in Waters’ films
Waters’ films are peppered with full-frontal nude scenes featuring all kinds of bodies and most of his original cast, the Dreamlanders. His inclusion of explicit nudity led to a well-publicized arrest for conspiracy to commit indecent exposure in 1969, when he attempted to film a nude hitchhiking scene for the movie Mondo Trasho on the grounds of Johns Hopkins University. The story made the cover of Variety magazine, and the crew was defended in court by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union. In a 2014 interview with the Baltimore Fishbowl, Waters describes the arrest:
“The cops raided the set, and they busted all of us but not Divine. He got away. And he was in a red 1959 Cadillac Eldorado convertible with the top down and a gold lamé toreador outfit with a nude man (Mark Isherwood) in the car—in November. And they couldn’t catch him.”7
Judge Solomon Liss ultimately dismissed the charges by reading from the bench a poem he had written for the occasion.
Old Baltimore is in a spin
Because of Isherwood’s display of skin.
He cannot bare the shame and cracks
Brought on by showing the bare facts.
And so, go then and sin no more.
Disrobe, if need be, but behind the door.
And if, again, you heed the call to art,
Rest assured, the judge will do his part.
Undeterred, Waters continued to include explicit nudity in his films, sometimes shot in public spaces. A pre-operative trans woman named Elizabeth Coffey made her acting debut in Waters’ 1972 film Pink Flamingos. When David Lochary’s sleazy character Raymond Marble flashes his penis to Coffey in a grimy park, she laughs, exposes her breasts, and then flashes her penis. Waters remained in touch with Coffey, and in 2021, he invited her to inaugurate the gender-neutral bathrooms named after him at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Waters occasionally expresses a desire to direct his own nudist camp film. Writer Tom Alesia describes Waters’ two dream projects in a 1991 article: “Direct a movie about a nudist camp with people you never want to see nude, like Ed McMahon or Liv Ullmann, and star in a biographical film about Don Knotts.”8 Waters has mostly retired from filmmaking, aside from a proposed adaptation of his 2022 novel Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance, so fans hoping for a nudist camp feature may have to settle for the few references to nudists in his films.
In 1970’s Multiple Maniacs, carnival sideshow director Mr. David (David Lochary) scolds Cookie (Cookie Mueller) and her friend Ricky (Rick Morrow) at his home, shouting at the nude couple, “Don’t you ever wear clothes anymore or are you some kind of nudists?” In Water’s 1994 black comedy Serial Mom, Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) confronts her son Chip (Matthew Lillard) and his friend Scotty (Justin Whalin), who are watching Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast while perusing a pile of vintage nudist magazines, including one called Sun and Sport.
Beverly: (Picking up Scotty’s nudist camp magazine and handing it back to him like it’s poison) You forgot something...
Scotty: (Looking around confused) Are we leaving?
Beverly: Yes, you are.
John Waters’ closest attempt at a nudist camp feature can be found in his 1977 film Desperate Living, a “lesbian melodrama about revolution” starring actress and burlesque queen Liz Renay, who gained notoriety in 1974 when, at the age of 47, she streaked nude down Hollywood Boulevard. In Desperate Living, Princess Coo-Coo (Mary Vivian Pearce) falls in love with Herbert (George Figgs), a trash collector at the rancid Mortville Nudist Camp, to the dismay of her mother, Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey).
Princess Coo-Coo: Oh, leave me alone, mummy. I’ve had a wonderful evening, and I don’t want it spoiled with your nosy nagging.
Queen Carlotta: A wonderful evening with a garbage man?
Princess Coo-Coo: He’s not a garbage man. He just helps pick up trash at the nudist colony.
Queen Carlotta: I hardly think that a nudist janitor is a proper escort for a royal princess.
Coo-Coo later sneaks into the camp to visit Herbert, where she is met by the cheerful camp director, Shina (Marina Melin), and several fully naked men, including one on a pogo stick. Herbert is busily collecting trash with a picker, wearing only a trapper hat.
Shina: Herbert’s out there searching for garbage as usual, Princess Coo-Coo, but I tell you, if you two are having an affair, be careful! That queen will cut off your ears!
Princess Coo-Coo: Let her do it, then. Herbert doesn’t care if I have ears. He only cares about my mind.
The camp is a decidedly filthy one created by Waters’ frequent collaborator and set designer, Vincent Peranio. It is cobbled together from rotting reed privacy fencing, scraps of wood, and trash collected from the streets of Baltimore. The scene was shot in the middle of winter, so the skies are gray, and the trees are as bare as the cast, whose breath can be seen in the chilly air. According to Waters, the actors rushed to dress between takes, except for one older extra, who seemed to enjoy the experience.
As in all of Waters’ work, the heroes in Desperate Living are the misfits and marginalized. In the film, an underground trans wrestler and a lesbian pinup model overthrow a fascist queen, while the beautiful young princess falls in love with a good-natured nudist camp sanitation worker—all refugees from exceedingly everyday suburban lives, according to the character's various flashbacks. The film reflects Waters' long-standing love for those who exist on the fringes of society. He embraces the strange, the unconventional, and the weird. He reveres those who are brave enough to be themselves, even when that involves rejecting societal norms.
John Waters’ work offers a lesson for outsiders, who are often preoccupied with fitting into the mainstream at any cost and being perceived as “normal” above all else. While he does not deny the importance of securing a voice in the larger dialogue, he decries the notion of surrendering one’s individuality to do so. How can respect (or at least tolerance) for diverse expressions be achieved when advocacy efforts are focused on reassuring the dominant culture that we are exactly like them? Shouldn’t alternative viewpoints be legitimized instead? In the case of nudists, there is a certain irony in its adherents pleading for society’s approval when the movement’s central proposition is the rejection of what is arguably society’s most strictly enforced norm.
In his commencement address to the Rhode Island School of Design’s graduating class of 2015, John Waters acknowledges his eventual mainstream acceptance as “the final irony.” He is “a creatively crazy person who finally gets power.” However, he quickly points out that he did not modify his values to appeal to the mainstream. Instead, the mainstream slowly came around to him. “Think about it,” Waters says. “I didn’t change. Society did.”9 A society that once dismissed his work as "filth" now honors him with awards and honorary degrees, gallery shows, and museum retrospectives. The musical version of his 1988 film Hairspray is now performed in high schools throughout America.
What is the value of an original or divergent idea or belief if modified to comply with the conventions of a larger society instead of being used to impact or alter that society in some way? This is a critical point that the artist, filmmaker, activist, marginalized individual, and even nudist should consider. John Waters’ work reminds us that there is value in individuality and that meaningful societal change can occur when we celebrate our differences, our eccentricities, and even our weirdness rather than try to conform to a narrow and oppressive definition of “normal.” 🪐
John Waters will soon be on tour with his holiday show, pondering topics such as “Has Santa ever been nude?”
His exhibition at the Academy Museum in Los Angeles continues through October 28. More info here.
Waters’ books and films can be purchased at his hometown bookstore, Atomic Books in Baltimore.
Planet Nude is a free newsletter that is only possible thanks to the support of a few generous subscribers. If you can afford to, please consider going paid.
Gupta, Shipra Harbola. “John Waters On the Work of Jeff Koons and Descending the Staircase Nude”. February 26, 2014. Indiewire
Waters, John. “Role Models”. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2010
Waters, John. “Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters.” Vintage Books. 1987.
Gross, Terry. “Filmaker John Waters.” February 25, 2004. Fresh Air.
de Voogd, Barend. “Things That Should Be Illegal: John Waters.” September 2009. The Flashback Files
Yardley, Jonathan. “John Waters' Outrageous Reflections.” September 24, 1986. Washington Post
Monroe, Rachel. “When John Waters Got Arrested at Johns Hopkins.” September 23, 2014. Baltimore Fishbowl
Alesia, Tom. April 11, 1991. Tom's Write Turns.
Waters, John. Make Trouble. Corsair. 2017