John Waters hates fruit baskets.
“I can afford a pear for Christ’s sake,” the Baltimore-based cult icon tells me on a recent call. “Why would anybody send a pear? Send me cigarettes or porn.”
And don’t get him started on gift cards.
“That just means you think the person is stupid. You don’t have any interests and I can’t think of anything to give you, so here’s a gift card.”
These are just a few of Waters’ Christmas pet peeves, and potential material for his upcoming “A John Waters Christmas” show at the Birchmere on December 21. The filmmaker (best known for cult classic Hairspray, and a slew of other deliciously campy movies like Cry-Baby, Serial Mom, Pecker and the epically controversial Pink Flamingos) has been venturing out on his annual Christmas tour for more than a decade, entertaining audiences with his thoughts on the holiday.
And make no mistake: though Waters has an ongoing list of things that bug him about Christmas, the national tour was originally inspired by his essay “Why I Love Christmas.”
“I’m not against Christmas,” he says. “Are you kidding? I’m like Johnny Mathis. I’m like a drag queen on Halloween. I work if it’s Christmas.”
The famously nicknamed Pope of Trash, Prince of Puke, Duke of Dirt and Sultan of Sleaze (take your pick) describes himself as a vaudevillian, and says the Christmas shows help him stay in touch with his fans, “who always get their roots done before they come to see me.”
When I ask him how he keeps his Christmas content fresh year after year, he tells me he’s a naturally curious news junkie who reads 100-plus magazines regularly.
“I like human behavior, the quirks of it,” he says. “I’m interested. I eavesdrop on people. I’m always on an airplane, so I’m spying on people all the time.”
Waters says he’s used to public speaking, as he also performs in his spoken word show This Filthy World year-round, which highlights the successes of his self-made film career, his fascination with counterculture and the boundary-breaking, sometimes debaucherous, art he’s created over the years.
“It’s just the way I have to tell stories,” he says of his shows.
When he’s not performing, the prolific provocateur turns to his visual art (photography, sculpture, installations) and writing. Waters has authored a number of nonfiction stories, and earlier this year, a transcription of his 2015 commencement speech at the Rhode Island School of Design was published followed by the release of a 7-inch vinyl edition, released on Jack White’s label Third Man Records.
“I’m willing to work in all mediums,” Waters says about reading Make Trouble on vinyl. “If I could sing that speech, I’d be doing it.”
In his rousing graduation speech, he encouraged the budding artists not to take “No” for an answer.
“Aim for what you want. A hundred people can tell you, ‘No,’ but then one person will tell you, ‘Yes.’ And don’t think anybody is going to come knocking on your door to tell you, ‘Oh, you want to be a film director? We’ll help you.’ No, you’ve got to go find it.”
Waters gave a particularly unique perspective as an artist who was expelled from college and “thrown out of every school.” He says schools are more accepting now than when the 71-year-old artist was coming of age.
“They let you stay longer if you have weird ideas. They encourage them instead of punish them.”
We weave our conversation back to his 2017 Christmas tour, and how the Birchmere has become a mainstay venue for him. He says it’s a tradition to play there annually at this point, and teases that he might just come back one year and shock everyone by playing an entire set of Joan Baez songs.
“I feel really at home there,” he says about the venue. “I see my friends and my sister, and people I know that live in Washington come every year, so it’s just become part of the tour – a part that I really, really like.”
Waters’ affinity for the Birchmere extends to the DC area as a whole. He memorably had his first legal drink in the District at 18 years old, and also visited his first gay bar.
“I thought, ‘God, I might be gay, but I don’t think I’m this,’” he laughs as he reminisces about the experience. “It was a very old school gay bar.”
He now heads from Charm City to DC mostly to visit his sister and check out museums, but a little nostalgia bubbles to the surface as we speak about the nation’s capital.
“I have good memories of book shops, punk rock clubs and old school sex bars when they had them.”
Don’t miss Baltimore’s iconic bad boy at the Birchmere on December 21 for “A John Waters Christmas,” followed by a meet and greet and book signing.
“That’s how I meet all my fans, so it’s great,” Water says. “It’s like being a politician in a way. I’ve even held babies.”
Tickets are $55. Learn more about Waters at www.dreamlandnews.com and his upcoming show at www.birchmere.com.
The Birchmere: 3701 Mount Vernon Ave. Alexandria, VA; 703-549-7500; www.birchmere.com