There aren’t many career paths that will take you from desolate truck stops off of I-70 to the stage at Lincoln Center in a matter of weeks, but that’s exactly what happened to John Waters in the spring of 2012. After embarking on a cross-country hitchhiking adventure (all in the name of research for a book) the iconic filmmaker (he directed Pink Flamingos, Hairspray, and Cry Baby, to name but a few) was invited to accept two awards on behalf of absentee recipients Rei Kawakubo and Johnny Depp at the CFDA Fashion Awards two years ago. Fresh from talking his way into the cars and hearts of travelers on his journey, Waters found wooing the glamorous Lincoln Center crowd to be a cinch. Waters’s quick wit and snappy observations got him invited back to host the gala event again this year, and he did so with his signature aplomb. Walking onto stage wearing a formal white-tie tuxedo, he quipped, “I got the wrong night? Oh god, I got the dates mixed up. What a fashion blunder. I thought tonight was the white-tie event. Oh well, I guess I’m overdressed as usual.” (For more of his great punch lines, you can watch the whole show at cfda.com.)
We spoke with the 68-year-old auteur a few hours before his grand entrance, as he was preparing not only for his CFDA hosting duties but also the launch of his hitchhiking tome, Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America.
You traveled from Baltimore to San Francisco by hitchhiking across I-70. What was the most surprising thing you learned along the way?
Hitchhiking is a fantasy, in a way. Before I left, I wrote the first two parts of the book, imagining the worst and the best hitchhiking fantasies. What happened for real was not extreme, but it was surprising that the people I met were so great and unjudgemental and open-minded. People who live in New York and L.A. or San Francisco, they think that people in the middle of America are not like that. I can tell you that the ones that pick up hitchhikers sure are.
Reading your book, one is struck by the omnipresence of chain hotels and restaurants.
I didn’t mind the chain hotels, but it’s the lighting in them that gets me. The lighting in the Holiday Inn, you couldn’t read anything! You couldn’t even read the paper, it was so dark in there. I do regret not going into one hotel that had a full trucker disco with a disco ball. I want to go back there with somebody else driving because that looked like fun.
Did you buy any special gear for the trip?
I did buy some REI hiking boots. It was really embarrassing because when you buy the boots, there’s a little rock you can climb up. I was so embarrassed being there and trying on these things. Although I did wear those REI boots. Now, I keep them in New York for when it’s snowing and stuff. I’m telling you, those boots did work.
What else did you bring?
I brought my worst underwear to throw away a pair there every day. Hitchhiking underwear, you don’t take your best. I dressed pretty normal. I had an Issey Miyake jacket I wore every single day, and it’s hard for me to wear that again. To put it on, instantly the sound came humming from the pockets. But it was a very functional jacket. When you’re hitchhiking, you want inside pockets on both sides, no flash pockets because things fall out. You want a little flap on the pocket so things don’t fall out. I only took two credit cards, one key—I traveled the lightest because what did I need? I wanted to go shopping on the way. And I only needed the key to get to my apartment San Francisco at the end of the trip. I wanted to look like me but I didn’t want to look like a fashion casualty standing on the side of the road.
You’re such a gentleman. You treated almost everybody who gave you a ride to a tank of gas or a meal.
Yeah, the hitchhiking actually cost more than a coach airline ticket. I offered. Most people wouldn’t take it, but the few that actually really could use it, took it so reluctantly. They seemed to be embarrassed. Like, are you kidding? I’ll ship you your car payment.
Would you do a sequel, like “John Waters’s European Adventure?”
No, I think one hitchhiking trip is all I need. I know what it’s like now. But I could always do it, and if I do it, it won’t be for a book or movie. It’ll be because I need to get to somewhere fast. If I have to, I know I can do it. It doesn’t scare me.
How are you getting ready for your CFDA event this evening?
I just did a big rehearsal last night, so that is done. All my clothes are there. I can’t tell you what I’m wearing because it’s part of a joke. [Note: Waters arrived wearing white tie, with a nod to the Costume Institute’s Gala.] It’s going to be fun! We’ll see if everybody has a sense of humor. Nobody usually gets mad or anything because I like what I’m making fun of.
Editor’s note: Like the vintage photo by Henny Garfunkel of John Waters, shown above? Framed prints are available at jonathanadler.com, for $1,900.