The first time I met John Waters was when I tried out for the Broadway cast of Hairspray. I am not really an actor, although I’ve acted a few times in my life. I’m not really a performer, although I used to write funny songs and perform them in clubs around New York. I have cultivated these talents, but never really aspired to carry the label of actor or performer. The label I’ve aspired to carry is that of “personality.” Like John Hodgman. If I had a perfect career, it would be the career of John Hodgman. Who is John Hodgman you ask? Exactly. Who wants to be famous? People bother you. Better to be that guy who’s in things and can go to those parties but is seldom approached by people on the subway even if he looks vaguely familiar.
But I read in the paper that there were open auditions for Hairspray and that John Waters was going to be there, so I figured I had as good a shot as anyone. I didn’t bring my guitar, which was my first mistake. When I sing with my guitar, my voice is charmingly off-kilter. When I sing without my guitar, my voice is just off-key.
I stopped in to the deli next door ahead of time to get a beer. If I was auditioning for a Broadway play, I was doing it liquored up. And that was the first time I met John Waters. He was standing at the salad bar, assembling a, um, salad. He was all alone.
“Hi!” I said, “I’m auditioning for your play!”
He glanced at the beer in my hand and flashed me his famous alligator grin.
“Good luck,” he said.
“Thanks,” I answered. “I’ll need it!”
I waited for about two hours for my chance to go into the audition room. When I got in the room, John Waters was nowhere to be found. I thought maybe I could get in the room and do a little banter with Waters, thus working my way into his filthy, gay heart. But no, it was just two aging queens who had spent the day listening to a million other caterwauling freaks and had no time for my shenanigans.
“What song are you singing?” they asked.
“‘I’ll Get By (Don’t Worry)’, by Little Jimmy Elledge,” I said.
They turned to the piano player who shrugged his shoulders. Of course he’d never heard of it; no one had ever heard of it. It was a 45 I’d bought at a garage sale a few years ago because I liked the picture on the sleeve. John Waters is a well-known fan of quirky music, so I thought maybe my song selection would be enough to take me to the next round. These guys had no interest in quirky, though. These guys were looking for Susan Boyle, not Emo Phillips.
I started singing, and immediately saw their eyes glaze over. I belted my heart out, but no dice. Admittedly, I was awful. It’s a really hard song to sing. But at least I had moxie, and if John had been in the room, I swear he would’ve been charmed.
The next time I met John Waters was at Book Expo America in New York. I was there with my first publishing outfit, Contemporary Press. I’d just published my second book, I, An Actress: The Autobiography of Karen Jamey, which contained a character named Handy Peters who was an homage to John Waters. Mike Segretto and I spotted Mr. Waters walking through the aisles of the Expo in a plaid purple suit and we knew it was our destiny to get our works to him. So we rushed back to our booth, grabbed a couple copies of our books, and ran around the aisles until we came face to face with our idol.
“Mr. Waters!” we said. “Big fans! Here are our books!”
He took our books and glanced at the covers disinterestedly.
“Thanks,” he said.
And then he was gone.
I never heard from him, even though I made sure to include a business card. Which sucks, because I, An Actress would make a really awesome John Waters movie. And I would have been brilliant in the original Broadway cast of Hairspray. Everything happens in threes, so I’m sure he’ll come back into my life one of these days somehow. Or maybe I should just move to Baltimore.