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What John Waters taught me about eyeliner

Divine shaved back her hairline in order to have more room for make-up. If that’s not a handbook for living, then Christ, I don’t know what is.

I read about Pink Flamingos before I saw it – even in the 1990s, a film where the star literally eats shit was difficult to track down. I’d been introduced to John Waters’ films through a video of Hairspray, one of his first “mainstream” successes, a film about a fat white girl who defeats racism by dancing at it, a film that inspired my sister, four at the time, to ask my grandma if she wanted to “get naked and smoke”. In Hairspray, and Pink Flamingos before it, I found more than just excitement and politics and a right laugh – I found my glamour.


Ricki Lake in Hairspray (1988) Photograph: Everett/REX Shutterstock/Everett/REX Shutterstock

Every morning, Waters carefully shapes his moustache with Maybelline Velvet Black kohl; alongside Divine, the supporting actor in all his work is the eyeliner. Next month, the BFI celebrates “50 years of filth” with a Waters retrospective, including his 1968 short Eat Your Makeup, which has never been screened in the UK before. The story of a nanny who forces girls to model themselves to death after making them gorge on make-up, it was a precursor to my very favourite film, Female Trouble (1974), where they mainline liquid eyeliner as if it’s the best drug in the world. Which, I’ve learned, it sort of is.

Since I first watched a Waters film, black eyeliner has been code for something a bit bad, a bit rude. For a glamour that is not pretty, but instead is big and brash and smells of smoke. Like Divine, my make-up heroes (Cher, the Ronettes) share that sense of parodying femininity. The eyeliner is TOO black. The hair is too big. Rather than seductive or sweet, the beauty is intimidating. Almost monstrous. This, I think, is what make-up should be for. Not for prettifying, but for playing around. With fashion, with gender.


John Waters Photograph: HANDOUT

By casting an obese drag queen to play his beehived bombshells, Waters told us something about how we perform as women. There are no “natural” looks in Waters’ films – his are worlds of excess and campery, and crime and hair dye. Through his films, where men play women playing teenage girls, he taught me how to paint on the person you wanted to be, and for that I’ll love him forever.

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