It’s been over 40 years since John Waters first outraged polite society with his line-crossing cult comedy classics like Hairspray, Polyester, and Pink Flamingos. Together with his favorite leading lady, Divine (a 370-pound transvestite), they pushed the envelope on good taste (actually, they tore up the envelope and set it on fire…) and gleefully shattered taboos. His films were so over the top, he’d been dubbed “The Prince of Puke,” “The Pope of Trash,” and even “The People’s Pervert” by the media.
But after years of building a career on bad reviews and the hatred of the Moral Majority, he found unexpected mainstream movie success (twice!) and a Broadway triumph with Hairspray, which he describes as a “Trojan horse” that “snuck into middle America and never got caught.”
Nearly 30 years later, the boundaries he trashed back in the 70s and 80s aren’t off limits any more. And when he was asked to deliver the commencement address for the Class of 2015 at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, his transformation from renegade to beloved elder statesman was complete.
What qualifies John Waters to offer advice to young people? He cheerfully admits to having been suspended from high school, then kicked out of college in what he describes as “the first marijuana scandal ever on a university campus.” He goes on to add, “I’ve been arrested several times. I’ve been known to dress in ludicrous fashions.”
Despite those impeccable credentials, Mr. Waters’ wise words are meaningful for any artist, not just newly-minted college graduates. His speech was funny, touching, and inspiring and should be required viewing for any person (young or old) who wants to make their mark on the world. He sends the RISD grads out into the world with the mission of creating art that will disrupt the status quo, infuriate the old school, and push limits in ways not yet dreamed of.
The entire speech is full of quotable moments; here are a couple gems, but you should watch the video and savor every bit of it:
“A career in the arts is like a hitchhiking trip: All you need is one person to say ‘Get in’ and off you go.”
Real wealth, as he defines it, is the ability to live your life exactly the way you want to (and the best argument for self-employment ever!): “Somehow I’ve been able to make a living doing what I love best for 50 years without ever having to get a real job. “But how can you be so disciplined?” friends always ask when I tell them my job is to get up every day at 6 a.m. Monday to Friday and think up insane stuff. Easy! If I didn’t work this hard for myself, I’d have to go work for somebody else. Plus I can go to my office one room away from my bedroom in my own house dressed in my underpants if I want to.”
“Isn’t being an outsider soooo 2014? Maybe it’s time to throw caution to the wind, really shake things up and reinvent yourself as a new version of your dreaded enemy: the Insider, like I am… Ha! The final irony: a creatively crazy person who finally gets power!”
And that is the ultimate definition of success for the creative soul.