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My freaky, trashy, life-affirming weekend at Camp John Waters

Written by
Shadi Jurdi

Last Friday afternoon, I hopped on a bus packed with strangers who all had one thing in common: A deep love for John Waters. We made the two hour journey to our destination, the first-ever Camp John Waters at Club Getaway in Kent, Connecticut. Fans from as far as Australia had packed their best polyester to spend an immersive weekend with the cult filmmaker in the woods. On the bus, we threw back a few cocktails prepared by a Club Getaway staff member while Desperate Living played on the tiny TVs mounted above us. Jitters of excitement and anticipation built up what was sure to be a weekend to remember.

While Camp John Waters had all the fixings of the increasingly popular adult summer camp trend (think s’mores and an open bar), this camp experience was designed exclusively with his faithful fans in mind. All the camp activities you remember as a kid were there, like zip lining, mountain biking and canoeing. But if you grew up as a queer outsider like me and many other campers here, the burlesque classes, drag lunch and outdoor screenings of Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble are what made this camp experience the one you wish you had in your younger years.

I made this pilgrimage alone, and quickly learned that many others did as well. We all made quick friends and there were no cliques; just one big fluid tribe. During dinner Saturday night, a sea of Divine look-alikes—paying homage to the late drag performer and Waters' muse—filled the tent with her signature sky-high eyebrows and bright red lipstick. We all admired the beautiful, disgusting works of art. It was a living, breathing retrospective produced by his biggest fans. After dinner, Waters performed his spoken word act “This Filthy World.” He seemed relaxed and at ease as he made jokes and exchanged banter with the crowd until loudly proclaiming how was happy he was to be with his people—the “unchosen ones,” as he called us—and the crowd got on their feet and burst into applause.

After dinner, everyone headed down to the Boathouse, which Club Getaway staff transformed into the set of the Corny Collins Show from Waters’ first commercially successful movie-turned-Broadway musical, Hairspray, for the costume contest and dance party. Fans got on stage and proudly paraded their John Waters-themed costumes in front of the man himself, until he finally declared a winner. He crowned a camper dressed as Aunt Ida from Female Trouble because, Waters said, she looked the most like the original actress, Edith Massey. Then campgoers made trouble well into the dawn, dancing and drinking, high off their night with the Pope of Trash.

Photograph: Iris Bélanger Noel

On the last afternoon I took a burlesque class. Our instructor arrived dressed in the iconic red fishtail dress Divine wears in Pink Flamingos. “Filth is my politics! Filth is my life!” blared over the speakers as she tore off her dress and gave us a show (it involved peanut butter and a pegging dildo). When the lesson started, she instructed us all to remove our shirts as she came around and dumped gold glitter on us. “There. You are now a burlesque dancer.” Then she explained, “Burlesque is about loving your body and owning your sexuality, and not letting someone else do that for you.”

It was then that I realized, this camp weekend was more than a fan gathering. It was the celebration of queer-identity, self-expression and all the things that make us weird that made this camp so special. Everyone openly embraced one another and found community, if only for a weekend, in way they might not have access to at home. Most importantly, everyone at Camp John Waters heeded the Prince of Puke's advice: “Have faith in your own bad taste.”

John Waters, left, and the author
Photograph: Club Getaway

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