Film critics have long charged that filmmaker John Waters stoops to bad taste. That's just not fair. John Waters has never merely stooped to bad taste. John Waters plunges into it, diving lower than any who have gone before, on grand voyages of discovery to the uncharted depths of tastelessness—and he brings back footage! This Lord High Pooh-Bah of Repulsion bows to no one in matters of poor taste. "I've always tried to leave them gagging in the aisles," Waters says.

The question most frequently asked of the 41-year-old Baltimore bachelor is "Do you have parents?!" How could he really? Yet, somehow, he does. John and Pat. While Waters was making such cult classics as Polyester, Multiple Maniacs, Mondo Trasho and the incrementally (and excrementally) more disgusting Pink Flamingos, his mother pleaded, "Why can't you make something nicer, something more like The Sound of Music?"

Well, Mrs. Waters, he has! Hairspray, which recently premiered nationwide, may not be all that similar to The Sound of Music, but it's certainly a lot closer than, say, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket or any of Waters' nine other previous films. Hairspray contains only a few mildly revolting scenes, not one four-letter word—and is rated PG. Waters doesn't find the PG rating at all embarrassing, explaining, "It was intentional. It was the only shock left."

At times there is almost a—dare we say it?—wholesome quality about Hairspray. Isn't Waters afraid of alienating his fans? "Not really," he says. "I'd love to sell out completely. It's just that nobody has been willing to buy."

Waters pitched Hairspray to three Hollywood studios, two of which dismissed it out of hand. The third said no thanks after a studio executive took a look at Pink Flamingos, in which two families compete for the title of "The Filthiest People Alive." The executive, unfortunately, concurred with Variety's review, which ran under the headline, "Dregs of Human Perversity Draws Weirdo Element. Monstrous." The showbiz bible went on to call the film "one of the most vile, stupid and repulsive films ever made," describing one scatological scene as "the most nauseating capper in film history."

With such an impressive track record for "trash"—what Rex Reed called Waters' work—problems with financing, casting and advertising do arise. He was unable to persuade Amy Carter to appear in Hairspray and is still trying to put together a film starring Lana Turner and Benji. Once, the New York Times declined to run an ad for Waters' Desperate Living. He couldn't understand why. Something about showing a dead rat on a dinner plate.

Still, his last film, Polyester, had no four-letter words and won some good reviews in mainstream publications: "Very funny...with a hip, stylized humor"—the New York Times; "Looks Good. Smells Good"—the Village Voice. (The latter appraisal referred to the "Odorama" scratch-and-sniff cards distributed to audiences for use at various points in the film.)

The demand for his lectures at colleges and universities increased. The Baltimore Museum of Art honored him with a three-day retrospective. Waters was becoming almost—respectable. But Polyester and Hairspray would not be confused with anything else playing over at the local eleven-plex. "All my humor is based on nervous reactions to anxiety-provoking situations," Waters explains. Hairspray, as he describes it, "is an almost big-budget [$2.7 million] comedy extravaganza about star-struck teenage celebrities in 1962, their stage mothers and their quest for mental health. Kids are torn between dancing their lives away to ridiculous gimmick dances, such as the Madison and the Roach, or throwing caution to the wind and joining the national fight for integration. It's a satire of the two most dreaded film genres today—the teen flick and the message movie." Waters tosses in a little terrorism for good measure: a bomb in a beehive hairdo.

Divine (Glenn Milstead), the 300-lb. actor who dresses in drag and will seemingly do Anything! on-camera, has always been at least partly responsible for causing Waters' films to sink to such depths. Divine is back in Hairspray, but not being molested by a 15-foot lobster—as he, dressed as a she, was in Multiple Maniacs. This time, Divine trades his glamour gowns for a housedress, playing the mother of a girl who dances on the Corny Collins TV show. The Divine One also plays the role of Arvin Hodgepile, the loathsome station manager who will only allow blacks on his dance show on Negro Day.

Divine is one of a Baltimore ensemble that met in high school and has been making films with Waters since the '60s. "We filmed in Laundromats, where the lighting was always good," Waters recalls, "and in alleys, where we could run away." Sometimes they didn't run fast enough; Waters and four actors got arrested for conspiracy to commit indecent exposure during the filming of Mondo Trasho.

In addition to the usual suspects, the Hairspray cast features Sonny Bono, Jerry Stiller, Debbie Harry and Pia Zadora, Waters' favorite movie star. Really. Waters himself is in the film, playing the role of a mad psychiatrist who tries electrical behavior modification on Divine's daughter.

Waters also played a small part as a very-used-car salesman in 1986's Something Wild, Jonathan Demme's superb terror-comedy. He has added "acting" to his lengthening list of careers, which already includes writing and directing films, lecturing, performing in comedy clubs and writing books (Shock Value and Crackpot) and magazine articles. In his spare time he's taught a course, which he calls "How to Laugh at a Life Sentence," at a Maryland prison. "I can't help it," Waters explains, "I enjoy the company of violent offenders." They don't always enjoy his. Several of the inmates bolted from the room during the climactic feces-eating scene of Pink Flamingos.

For fun Waters attends sensational murder trials. He regularly visits former Manson family member Charles "Tex" Watson in prison. An electric chair (in which Divine was electrocuted in Female Trouble) sits in the hall, near the fake fire in the fireplace. An oil portrait Waters commissioned of Gertrude Baniszewski, a monstrous child killer, glowers from the wall. The artist refused to sign this painting, but another notable oil is signed—by John Wayne Gacy, the artist and mass murderer.

Other appointments in Waters' spacious quarters, located in a yet-to-be-fashionable part of Baltimore, include a photo of Waters with Julie and David Eisenhower, pictures of some of Waters' heroes (Liberace, Captain Hook, Jayne Mansfield, the Wicked Witch of the West), posters from some of his favorite films (e.g., Don Edmonds' Ilsa—She Wolf of the SS), a bottle of Tylenol bearing the same lot number as the infamous capsules that killed seven Chicago-area residents in 1982 and a sheet of Adolph Hitler's personal stationery. "I don't endorse this stuff or these people," he said. "I'm just amazed they exist."

Waters is an avid reader. His apartment is awash in books of all types—heavy on the murder mysteries, of course—and he has a bus depot-size magazine rack packed with current issues of 52 magazines, including: TIME, The New York Review of Books, Town & Country, Tokyo Journal, GQ, Corrections Officer and Weekly World News ("Trick Cigar Blows Man's Head Off! Militant Anti-Smoking Group Blamed").

He calls the apartment his "warped think tank," and it is here that he writes his film scripts and books. Waters leads a highly ordered and, in many respects, rather conventional life, listing his day's activities on a white index card, which he always carries with him. He usually writes from 7 a.m. to noon and doesn't go out socially Monday through Thursday. "Fridays I go out with a vengeance," he says. "I like to go to the Club Charles, which has a nice mixture of debutantes, drag queens and politicians, among others. I love that!"

In fact he loves just about everything about Baltimore. He refers to his hometown fondly as "the hairdo capital of the world," adding, "I've always liked to watch hair." He particularly liked watching it three decades ago on The Buddy Deane Show, Baltimore's real-life model for The Corny Collins Show. "The most popular girl on the show," he says, "was Mary Lou, who had really high hair that she wore in a 'double bubble' one day, an 'airlift' the next. She disappeared one day from the show, and rumor had it that roaches had infested her hair"—a charge made about Divine's daughter in Hairspray.

This film, like his first 10, was shot almost entirely in Baltimore. "It's easier to do things here," he says. "If we need six sets of false eyelashes at 2 a.m., we know where to get them." Here, too, are the people he relies on, such as Pat Moran, his best friend, confidante and casting director {Hairspray required more than 1,000 extras) since the days when Waters used filched film and props. Another local resource is Vincent Peranio, Waters' talented art director. "We work together almost instinctively," says Peranio, stopping on a tour of his workshop at the "car of the future" he made for Hairspray. "For the car, all John said was, 'Make it futuristic and make it stupid.' "

Waters grew up in Baltimore. It was here that he used to cut school to go to the movies. ("The nuns made it easy to know which ones to see by reading a list of the ones you'd go to hell for watching," he recalls.) And it was here he returned after being thrown out of New York University for smoking marijuana.

"They used to test-market exploitation films in Baltimore," Waters points out with a touch of civic pride. Some of his favorites were Door to Door Maniac and I Dismember Mama. His idol was William Castle, who took a very modest picture, Macabre, and hyped it by posting nurses and hearses at theaters and by insuring every member of the audience for $1,000 with Lloyd's of London, should they happen to die of fright. "But," says Waters, "the single greatest influence on me was Howdy Doody. My parents took me to New York to see the show when I was a little boy, and while other kids were disillusioned that there were several Howdy Doodys and that Buffalo Bob was nasty in person, I loved it all the more! It was show business."

In Baltimore, too, Waters has the support—oddly enough—of his family. His parents have become accustomed to reading awful things about him, but when New York Times film critic Vincent Canby suggested that her son might have received faulty toilet training, it was too much for his mother. "You did not!" she insisted. "Leave me out of this!" His father managed to laugh, but suggested, "When you do interviews, just tell them you're an orphan."

"I can understand what my parents have had to go through," Waters says, "when I try to imagine how I would react if I had a child who wore polyester, ate health food and only wanted to talk about the spiritual rewards of jogging."

In fact, his father loaned him money to make his first films. "Dad has pretty much given up on interesting me in his fire-protection equipment business," Waters says. "He clips newspaper articles on particularly gruesome murders he thinks I'll be interested in."

His mother spent months needle-pointing an X—as in film ratings—for Waters' office, and his parents have allowed him to film at their suburban Baltimore home as neighbors looked on, aghast, at an actor dressed as a Ku Klux Klansman on the roof, men in drag in the driveway and the Cavalcade of Perversion filmed on the lawn.

It's a wonder For Sale signs didn't sprout up and down the street. But the people of Maryland are extraordinarily tolerant of Waters. Gov. William Schaefer declared Feb. 16 John Waters Day in honor of Hairspray's world premiere in Baltimore. "My daughters love your films," said Tom Marr, a conservative talk show host who introduced himself to Waters the other day at the Stone Tavern, a beans-and-franks lunch spot Waters frequents. "Are they seeing a psychiatrist?" Waters replied.

Some of his friends in the film business urge Waters to abandon Baltimore and go where the action is. But he will not be moved. "If I'm thinking up a film, I go out on the streets of Baltimore looking for a little inspiration. Baltimore has a great tradition of eccentrics," he says. "Most movie producers make the mistake of living in New York or Los Angeles, and you can tell by their films they've lost touch with the real America. Baltimore keeps me sane."