Waters's 1970s and early 1980s films feature his regular troupe of actors known as the Dreamlanders—among them Divine, Mink Stole, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, and Edith Massey. Starting with Desperate Living (1977), Waters began casting real-life convicted criminals (Liz Renay, Patty Hearst) and controversial people (Traci Lords, a former pornographic actress).
Waters dabbled in mainstream filmmaking with Hairspray (1988), which introduced Ricki Lake and earned a modest gross of US$8 million in the United States market. In 2002, Hairspray was adapted to a long-running Broadway musical, which itself was adapted to a hit musical film that earned more than $200 million worldwide. After the crossover success of the original film version of Hairspray, Waters' films began featuring familiar actors and celebrities such as Johnny Depp, Edward Furlong, Melanie Griffith, Chris Isaak, Johnny Knoxville, Martha Plimpton, Christina Ricci, Lili Taylor, Alicia Witt, Kathleen Turner, and Tracey Ullman.
Waters was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of Patricia Ann (née Whitaker) (1924–2014) and John Samuel Waters (1916–2008), who was a manufacturer of fire-protection equipment. His family were upper-middle class Roman Catholics. Waters grew up in Lutherville, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore. His boyhood friend and muse Glenn Milstead, later known as Divine, also lived in Lutherville.
The film Lili inspired an interest in puppets in the seven-year-old Waters, who proceeded to stage violent versions of Punch and Judy for children's birthday parties. Biographer Robrt L. Pela says that Waters' mother believes the puppets in Lili had the greatest influence on Waters' subsequent career (though Pela believes tacky films at a local drive-in, which the young Waters watched from a distance through binoculars, had a greater effect).
Cry-Baby was also a product of Waters' boyhood, because of his fascination as a 7-year-old with the "Drapes" then receiving intense news coverage because of the murder of a young "drapette", coupled with his awed admiration for a young man who lived across the street and who possessed a hot rod.
Waters was privately educated at the Calvert School in Baltimore. After attending Towson Jr. High School in Towson, Maryland, and Calvert Hall College High School in nearby Towson, he ultimately graduated from Boys' Latin School of Maryland.
In 1962, for his 16th birthday, Waters received an 8mm movie camera from his maternal grandmother, Stella Whitaker.
Waters' first short film was Hag in a Black Leather Jacket. According to Waters, the film was shown only once in a "beatnik coffee house" in Baltimore, although in later years he has included it in his traveling photography exhibit.
Waters enrolled at New York University (NYU). The school, however, was not what Waters had in mind:
"NYU...I was there for about five minutes. I don't know what I was thinking about. I went to one class and they kept talking about Potemkin and that isn't what I wanted to talk about. I had just gone to see Olga's House of Shame. That was what I was more into."
Extremely influential to his creative mind, Waters tells Robert K. Elder in an interview for The Film That Changed My Life, was The Wizard of Oz (1939).
"I was always drawn to forbidden subject matter in the very, very beginning. The Wizard of Oz opened me up because it was one of the first movies I ever saw. It opened me up to villainy, to screenwriting, to costumes. And great dialogue. I think the witch has great, great dialogue."
Waters has further credited his influences as, among others, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Federico Fellini, William Castle and Ingmar Bergman. He has stated that he takes an equal amount of joy and influence from high-brow "art" films and sleazy exploitation films.
In January 1966, Waters and some friends were caught smoking marijuana on the grounds of NYU; he was soon kicked out of his NYU dormitory. Waters returned to Baltimore, where he completed his next two short films Roman Candles and Eat Your Makeup. These were followed by the feature-length films Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs.
Waters' films would become Divine's primary star vehicles. All of Waters' early films were shot in the Baltimore area with his company of local actors, the Dreamlanders. In addition to Divine, the group included Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller, Edith Massey, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Susan Walsh, and others. These early films were among the first picked up for distribution by the fledgling New Line Cinema. Waters' later films premiered at Baltimore's Senator Theatre and sometimes at the Charles Theatre.
Waters' early campy movies present exaggerated characters in outrageous situations with hyperbolic dialogue. Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living, which he labeled the Trash Trilogy, pushed hard at the boundaries of conventional propriety and movie censorship. A particularly notorious scene from Pink Flamingos, added as a non sequitur to the film's end, featured—in one continuous take without special effects—a small dog defecating and Divine eating its feces.
Waters' 1981 film Polyester starred Divine opposite former teen idol Tab Hunter. Since then, his films have become less controversial and more mainstream, although works such as Hairspray, Cry-Baby, Serial Mom, Pecker, and Cecil B. Demented still retain his trademark inventiveness. The film Hairspray was turned into a hit Broadway musical that swept the 2003 Tony Awards, and a film adaptation of the Broadway musical was released in theaters on July 20, 2007, to positive reviews and commercial success. Cry-Baby, itself a musical, was also converted into a Broadway musical.
In 2004, the NC-17-rated A Dirty Shame marked a return to his earlier, more controversial work of the 1970s. He had a cameo in Jackass Number Two, which starred Dirty Shame co-star Johnny Knoxville, and another small role as paparazzo Pete Peters in 2004's Seed of Chucky.
In 2007, Waters became the host ("The Groom Reaper") of 'Til Death Do Us Part, a program on America's Court TV network featuring dramatizations of marriages that soured and ended in murder.
In 2008, Waters was planning to make a children's Christmas film called Fruitcake starring Johnny Knoxville and Parker Posey. Filming was planned for November 2008, but it was shelved in January 2009. In 2010, Waters told the Chicago Tribune that "Independent films that cost $5 million are very hard to get made. I sold the idea, got a development deal, got paid a great salary to write it—and now the company is no longer around, which is the case with many independent film companies these days."
Waters has often created characters with alliterated names for his films including Corny Collins, Cuddles Kovinsky, Donald and Donna Dasher, Dawn Davenport, Fat Fuck Frank, Francine Fishpaw, Link Larkin, Motormouth Maybelle, Mole McHenry, Penny and Prudy Pingleton, Ramona Ricketts, Sandy Sandstone, Sylvia Stickles, Todd Tomorrow, Tracy Turnblad, Ursula Udders, Wade Walker, and Wanda Woodward.
Since the early 1990s, Waters has been making photo-based artwork and installations that have been internationally exhibited in galleries and museums. In 2004, the New Museum in New York City presented a retrospective of his artwork curated by Marvin Heiferman and Lisa Phillips. His most recent exhibition was Rear Projection in April 2009, at the Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York and the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles. Waters has been represented by C. Grimaldis Gallery in Baltimore, Maryland, since 2002.
Waters' pieces are often comical, such as Rush (2009), a super-sized, tipped-over bottle of poppers (nitrite inhalants) and Hardy Har (2006), a photograph of flowers that squirts water at anyone who traverses a taped line on the floor. Waters has characterized his art as conceptual: "The craft is not the issue here. The idea is. And the presentation."
Waters is a bibliophile, with a collection of over 8,000 books. In 2011, during a visit to the Waters house in Baltimore, Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson observed:
Bookshelves line the walls but they are not enough. The coffee table, desk and side tables are heaped with books, as is the replica electric chair in the hall. They range from Taschen art tomes such as The Big Butt Book to Jean Genet paperbacks and a Hungarian translation of Tennessee Williams with a pulp fiction cover. In one corner sits a doll from the horror spoof Seed of Chucky, in which Waters appeared. It feels like an eccentric professor's study, or a carefully curated exhibition based on the life of a fictional character.
Waters has had his fan mail delivered to Atomic Books, an independent bookstore in Baltimore, for over 20 years.
Puffing constantly on a cigarette, Waters appeared in a short film shown in film art houses announcing that "no smoking" is permitted in the theaters. The 'No Smoking' spot, starring Waters, was directed by Douglas Brian Martin and produced by Douglas Brian Martin and Steven M. Martin along with two other short films, for the Nuart Theatre (a Landmark Theater) in West Los Angeles, California, in appreciation to the theater for showing Pink Flamingos for many years. It is shown immediately before any of his films, and before the midnight movie showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Waters has since quit smoking himself.
Waters played a minister in Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat, which was directed by one of his idols, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and is a sequel to one of his favorite exploitation films.
Waters serves as a board member of Maryland Film Festival, and has selected and hosted one favorite feature film within each Maryland Film Festival since its launch in 1999. Waters' picks have ranged from Joseph Losey's Boom! to Gaspar Noé's I Stand Alone.
He is a contributor to Artforum magazine and author of its annual year-end list of top-ten films.
With the motif "My life is so over-scheduled, what will happen if I give up control?", Waters completed a hitchhiking journey across the United States from Baltimore to San Francisco, turning his adventures into a book entitled Carsick. On May 15, 2012, while on the hitchhiking trip, Waters was picked up by 20-year-old Myersville, Maryland, councilman Brett Bidle, who thought Waters was a homeless hitchhiker standing in the pouring rain. Feeling bad for Waters, he agreed to drive him four hours to Ohio.
The next day, indie rock band Here We Go Magic tweeted that they had picked John Waters up hitchhiking in Ohio. He was wearing a hat with the text "Scum of the Earth". In Denver, Colorado, Waters reconnected with Bidle (who had made an effort to catch up with him); Bidle then drove him another 1,000 miles (1,600 km) to Reno, Nevada. Before parting ways, Waters arranged for Bidle to stay at his San Francisco apartment: "I thought, you know what, he wanted an adventure, too ... He's the first Republican I'd ever vote for."
Bidle later said: "We are polar opposites when it comes to our politics, religious beliefs. But that's what I loved about the whole trip. It was two people able to agree to disagree and still move on and have a great time. I think that's what America's all about."
In 1999, Waters was honored with the Filmmaker on the Edge Award at the Provincetown International Film Festival. In September 2015, the British Film Institute ran a programme to celebrate 50 years of Waters films which included all of his early films, some previously unscreened in the UK. Waters also programmed a side-bar including six of his favourite British films and took part in an on-stage interview with BFI season curator Justin Johnson.
In 2009, Waters advocated the parole of former Manson family member Leslie Van Houten. He devotes a chapter to Van Houten in his book Role Models published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in May 2010.
In 2011, Waters visited Lake Forest College to give a speech, and was interviewed by the professor Davis Schneiderman.
Although he maintains apartments in New York City and San Francisco, and a summer home in Provincetown, Waters still mainly resides in his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, where all his films are set. He is recognizable by his trademark pencil moustache.
An openly gay man, Waters is an avid supporter of gay rights and gay pride.
Waters was a great fan of the music of Little Richard when growing up. Ever since having shoplifted a copy of the Little Richard song "Lucille" in 1957, at the age of 11, Waters asserted, "I've wished I could somehow climb into Little Richard's body, hook up his heart and vocal cords to my own, and switch identities." In 1987, Playboy magazine employed Waters, then aged 41, to interview his idol, but the interview did not go well, with Waters later remarking: "It turned into kind of a disaster."
Waters often casts certain actors/actresses more than once in his films.This Filthy World (2006)
Hairspray (2007, original screenplay)
Frasier, episode "The Maris Counselor" – Roger
Mickey Mouse, episode "Dog Show"
The Simpsons, episode "Homer's Phobia" – John
Superjail!, episode "Ghosts" – Quetzalpocetlan
This Filthy World – Waters' touring one-man show, made into a feature film directed by Jeff Garlin
A John Waters Christmas – A CD of Christmas songs compiled by Waters
John Waters Presents Movies That Will Corrupt You – TV show for the here! network
Mommie Dearest (1981) – Audio commentary on film's "Hollywood Royalty Edition" DVD release (2006)
The Little Mermaid Special Edition DVD (2006) – Interview on 'making of' documentary about Howard Ashman, the theatre (i.e. Little Shop of Horrors), and the inspiration behind the character Ursula: Divine
A Date with John Waters (2007), a CD collection of songs Waters finds romantic
Christmas Evil DVD release (2006) – Audio commentary
Narrated the award-winning 2006 documentary film Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea
Featured in the documentary film This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006)
Breaking Up with John Waters – Waters' third CD compilation is currently in the works
The Other Hollywood – Commentary and opinions about pornography throughout the book
'Til Death Do Us Part – A Court TV series hosted by Waters surrounding stories of marriage murder
"The Creep" (featuring Nicki Minaj) – Appeared on a television set in The Lonely Island's music video "The Creep"
Art:21 – Introducing Host for Season Two, "Stories" episode – PBS DVD series
Waters, John (1981). Shock Value. New York: Dell Pub. Co. ISBN 044057871X.
Waters, John (2003) . Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters. New York: Scribner. ISBN 0026244403.
Waters, John; Hainley, Bruce (2003). Art: A Sex Book. New York: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0500284350.
Waters, John (2010). Role Models. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 9780374251475.
Waters, John (2014). Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 0374298637.
Waters, John (2017). Make Trouble. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books. ISBN 1616206357.
Waters, John (1988). Trash Trio: Three Screenplays: Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living, Flamingos Forever. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 0394759869.
Waters, John (2005). Hairspray, Female Trouble and Multiple Maniacs: Three More Screenplays. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press. ISBN 1560257024.
Waters, John (1997). Director's Cut. New York: Scalo. ISBN 393114156X.
Waters, John (2006). Unwatchable. New York: Marianne Boesky Gallery. ISBN 0977950301.