John Waters has had underwhelming meals in overpriced restaurants — so you don’t have to.
He’s been caught in long airport security lines. He’s taken the BoltBus to New York City and been delayed while the driver took a dump in the on-board restroom. He’s had to sit in a doctor’s waiting room with an embarrassing ailment and been barraged with questions from other patients who recognize him and demand to know what he’s got.
Now the Baltimore-based filmmaker and writer, who just turned 73, has put all of those experiences and more into a book of opinions and advice, presumably so people won’t have to endure what he has. Called “Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder,” it’s his ninth book, and it comes out on May 21. He’s described it as “my opinion on everything” and “how to avoid respectability at 70 years old.”
When it comes out, readers will discover that “Mr. Know-It-All” isn’t just a book about coping with life’s indignities and humiliations, even though there’s plenty of guidance about that. It’s also part memoir, part celebrity tell-all and part movie industry guidebook with separate chapters about each of his last seven films, all filmed in Baltimore (“Polyester,” “Hairspray,” “Cry-Baby,” “Serial Mom,” “Pecker,” “Cecil B. Demented” and “A Dirty Shame.”)
The book is filled with anecdotes about many of the actors he’s worked with, including Kathleen Turner, Johnny Depp, Tracey Ullman and, of course, Divine. There’s the time Waters turned down Brad Pitt at an audition for “Cry-Baby” because Pitt was too handsome to be cast as Depp’s sidekick, a decision that he thinks makes him perhaps “the only director who ever said no to Brad Pitt.” He remembers that Rikki Lake lost her virginity halfway through “Cry-Baby;” how he called Tab Hunter out of the blue to star in “Polyester” and how he battled with motion picture censors to let him use the word “Pecker” as a movie title.
Other readers may be drawn to his essays about non-cinematic subjects, which range from art collecting and Brutalist architecture to Yippie protests, Andy Warhol and taking LSD at 70. In one chapter, he names the one female he has adored since childhood. In another, he imagines returning to the apartment he lived in during the 1960s, a sign that, in some cases, you can go home again (especially when you still live in the town where you grew up).
“Mr. Know-It-All is here to tell you exactly how to live your life,” he writes early in the book. “I’m never wrong.”
Though the title says it’s a book of wisdom, this is not a rehashed litany of someone else’s platitudes. All the advice he offers grows out of his own experiences. As a result, readers gain insights into the maker of “Pink Flamingos” and “Female Trouble” by learning what he’s gone through and how he dealt with it.
One of those insights is that Waters can be quite frugal and down to earth. He not only takes the inexpensive BoltBus to New York but also goes to a Laundromat when he spends the summers in Provincetown. (And of course, he hitchhiked across the country and wrote about it in his bestseller, “Carsick.”)
In many of his stories, Waters reveals a knack for handling even the most humiliating situations with humor and aplomb. He also says he licks important packages before he puts them in the mail — “to remove any ‘curse’ of show business rejection” — and instructs his staff to do the same. In the LSD chapter, he mentions texting “my boyfriend,” whom he never names.
Next week, Waters begins a national tour to launch his book, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. East Coast stops include Barnes and Noble’s Union Square location in New York City on May 21; Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington (the 5015 Connecticut Ave., N.W. location, with first-come, first-served seating) on May 24 at 7 p.m. and a book signing at Atomic Books, 3620 Falls Road in Baltimore, on May 25 at 7 p.m.
West Coast stops include ticketed events at The Green Arcade at the McRoskey Mattress Loft, 1687 Market Street in San Francisco on May 30 at 7 p.m., and Book Soup at The Renberg Theatre (Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Village), 1125 N, McCadden Place in Los Angeles on June 1 at 7 p.m.
Waters recently sat down at his home for an interview with the Washington Blade to talk about his book and his life as a filth elder. The interview has been condensed.
WASHINGTON BLADE: A good alternative title for your book would be “The Influencer,” don’t you think? How To Win Friends and Influence People 2?
JOHN WATERS: I’m Norman Vincent Peale, you’re saying?
BLADE: You do give a lot of advice: Come up with a gimmick. Have backup plans. Get at least one other person to believe in you. Sound advice, with a John Waters twist.
WATERS: I agree with that totally.
BLADE: Why an advice book?
WATERS: Well, I always kind of parody things, so I thought an advice book coming from me would be kind of a parody in the first place. I needed that kind of genre to be able to talk about all the things I wanted to talk about.
In some ways it’s like “Shock Value” because “Shock Value” ended right before we made “Polyester,” so this has the rest of the movies in it. But I also wrote it from a viewpoint of how to tell young filmmakers how to deal with Hollywood and what happens and all that kind of stuff, and how you fail upward. And then the other subjects I had to put in about love, about fashion, about art, about death, about every possible thing. But to talk about them all, you need a theme that runs through the whole thing, so that’s how I came up with [giving] advice.
Do I expect every person to follow my advice? No, but I believe that I gave good advice. It’s not really told ironically. I believe everything I say in it. But I hoped to write a humorous book at the same time.
BLADE: Who are you giving advice to?
WATERS: I’m giving advice, first of all, to the people that like my work, because they’re hopefully the first people that buy the book. Secondly, even if you don’t know anything about me, I’m giving advice to younger people about how to handle what’s coming, failure and success, in your life if you’ve chosen to be in the arts in any way. So I think I’m trying to give advice to anybody probably younger than me, because older than me are dead, you know. And I tell you how to beat that too.
BLADE: You’re not writing just for the hardcore fans?
WATERS: No, not at all. If you’re never seen any of my movies, you can still read the book.
BLADE: A lot of your fans may be the “others” in society, those who don’t fit in or conform, the people in “Desperate Living” and other movies.
WATERS: The people that used to be the “others” in society are often now the leaders. Everybody wants to be the “other” now. They didn’t used to. Even Trump would probably want to be an outsider. Obama thought he was an outsider. Everybody wants to be an outsider, and I want to be an insider. I said that in “Make Trouble,” that it’s more fun to cause trouble from within. Which is what “Hairspray” did.
BLADE: But a lot of the others aren’t the ones who would typically be disposed to take advice.
WATERS: Maybe from me they might.
BLADE: Why should someone follow your advice?
WATERS: You don’t have to. I think you could read the book and not follow one bit of it and still enjoy the book. You don’t have to. I don’t expect anybody to, really.
BLADE: Your advice grows out of your experiences. It’s not warmed-over Norman Vincent Peale. And because it comes from within, your advice in turn provides insights into you.
WATERS: I always thought that is a joke, that book, which I probably never read. But my parents had it and it was such a thing then that it became a joke in a way. That same title could apply to this book.
BLADE: The other thing about your advice is, you chronicle all the ways you’ve suffered indignities. You’ve had bad dinners at good restaurants. You’ve had bad seats on international flights. You’ve been harassed at the doctor’s office.
WATERS: I’m also saying all the wonderful things that happened to me. So basically, there are different kinds of problems. It is a high-class problem to worry about being recognized in a doctor’s office. It’s the one time that it’s really bad to be seen. Although, if you weren’t [famous], you wouldn’t have gotten the appointment. So in the long run, it isn’t bad.
BLADE: Do bad things happen to you more than most, like Joe Btfsplk in “Li’l Abner?”
WATERS: No. I say in the book, not one bad thing has ever happened to me from being famous, in any way. It really hasn’t. I mean, high-class problems, some of the things I talk about. But, generally, I can bitch about flying all the time. Bitch about first class, which is really bold. But I get to fly all the time and I don’t pay for it. But I’m working, you know? So I’m trying to tell people that when bad things happen to them, they can use it and how they can appreciate it and how they can look back on it and it doesn’t mean really anything terrible.
BLADE: You bring up all these universal things that anybody can identify with and you’ve come out on the other side, none the worse for wear from the indignities you’ve suffered.
WATERS: Everybody has indignities.
BLADE: Are you more sensitive to things than others?
WATERS: No, I don’t think so. I think I notice them more and it’s more, like, ludicrous, some of the problems that you get from being known.
BLADE: And then you use it for comic relief.
WATERS: Yeah, comic relief. In my own life, even.
BLADE: Is there one disappointment that tops them all?
WATERS: I only regret one thing, smoking cigarettes. It’s the only thing I regret in life. Because I’ll probably die from it. I mean, I don’t have cancer, but I’m just saying that, both my parents died from some form of cancer. They were 90 though. They had a long, good life. So, yes, I regret smoking cigarettes.
BLADE: You lived through all these indignities, and that’s a sign that others can too.
WATERS: The other day in New York somebody yelled at me, a homeless person, ‘You’re still alive?’ Which really made me laugh. I thought, ‘Well, yes I am, are you?’
BLADE: You and the Queen of England ought to compare notes.
WATERS: She probably has some really good ones.
BLADE: On your book tour, you’re appearing at Politics and Prose in Washington. Is this book political?
WATERS: Sure it is. All humor is political. And this book, definitely. I have a whole chapter, ACT BAD, which is really [suggesting ways] to go further than ACT UP did. I think comedy is political, trying to get you to laugh at things. I think every chapter in this book is political. But the worst way you can be political [is to] rant. If you get people to laugh, they’ll listen. If you lecture, in a strident tone, like Elizabeth Warren, no one will pay attention. Even though I totally agree with her politics, I hate to hear her talk. She’s never said a funny thing in her life. So the thing is, it’s important, if you want to change people’s minds, to make them laugh. It’s the first way to get their attention.
BLADE: What will you be doing at Politics and Prose?
WATERS: Well, probably a conversation with somebody and read a chapter and sign books. Like what I do everywhere. It’s always “a conversation with.” It’s basically a free lecture tour.
BLADE: As opposed to Atomic Books in Baltimore, where it’s primarily a book signing.
WATERS: That is usually the biggest one in the whole country, which is pretty amazing. That tiny bookshop, on the last two books, I think, sold even more than Barnes and Noble in New York.
BLADE: For your “Carsick” book-signing there, it was raining and the line was around the block.
WATERS: That bookstore, I get all my fan mail there. It’s really a great place, so I’m all for it.
BLADE: Does your book have any bombshells in it? Landing Tab Hunter for “Polyester?” Not casting Brad Pitt when he auditioned?
WATERS: That’s not up to me to say. The only thing I could think in there, maybe, is the [taking] LSD thing, in a way. That’s the stunt of the book. That’s something that I did that I thoroughly enjoyed. I think if there’s a sentimental chapter in the book about friendship, then maybe that is that. If I had known how strong the LSD was that I took, I probably would have been uptight. But I didn’t and it was great. I spent eight months getting the right acid from the purest source I could find, practically from Timothy Leary’s asshole. The Blade can print that. But the provenance of it was high and it was great. I don’t have to ever do it again. Just like I don’t have to ever hitchhike across the country again. Why would I? I did it. I don’t know if that’s newsworthy, but that would be, maybe.
BLADE: You had a big build-up about it in the book: We don’t know what this is going to do to us. And then you stopped hallucinating and it was OK and the sun rose…
WATERS: It was more than OK. It was great. I never had a bad experience when I was young, or I probably would have never done it. What I wanted to see is, what is it like to do it now, when I’m 70 years old? I certainly would never imagine that many 70-year-olds try to take acid. Especially if you haven’t done it since you were young.
BLADE: Do people still take LSD?
WATERS: Oh yeah. All the young people now do micro-doses. All the people that work in Google. All the tech kids take teeny doses of it. But not many 70-year-olds take it. People I know don’t take it.
BLADE: You write that you tried to get transgender pioneer Christine Jorgensen in a movie. That’s something probably a lot of people don’t know. You’ve sprinkled in all kinds of things that are going to be part of your lore.
WATERS: There are lots of things that people don’t know. But I don’t know that that means it’s Stop the Press. Most everything in the book is probably new information to most people.
BLADE: Who do you wish had been in one of your movies but never was?
WATERS: Always Meryl Streep. But I would have had to stop her from doing a Baltimore accent. And she would have done it brilliantly.
BLADE: Did you have a part for her?
WATERS: You know, at times, any of those movies she could have been in, yeah. We’ve met before, maybe a couple of times, at parties. She’s lovely. But she didn’t say, “Oh, I’ve been dying to work with you.”
BLADE: Roseanne Barr has come up.
WATERS: Well, Roseanne, when I dealt with her, she was a liberal. Completely. Yes, she came up a couple of times. I was friendly with her.
BLADE: For “Serial Mom?”
WATERS: Yeah. “And A Dirty Shame.” She was possible for that at one point. So, I was always friends with a liberal. I did her show and everything. Traci Lords was on her show. Who knows? I don’t know. I guess she’s just on the Internet too much.
BLADE: Who was the greatest delight to work with?
WATERS: They all were a delight, in a way. I mean, making movies is horrible. I say that in the book. Basically, it’s not fun, because there’s so much pressure and you have to do something every day and we’re not going to get this shot and it’s going to be over budget. But they all were team players. That’s what I can say they were.
Somebody said about my mother after she died: She was game. And they were game. They had to be game, to come with us, come to Baltimore, especially joining a group of people that had known each other for 30 years, a lot of them. I didn’t have any trouble with any of them. They were pros. But we were pros to them. I think I was prepared. I knew what to do. It wasn’t like we mistreated them. And they sort of got into the spirit of it.
BLADE: Would you do a word association? Kathleen Turner.
WATERS: A pro. Still see her. Great actress. Stage. Screen. Movies. She could play men, women, anybody with great conviction.
BLADE: Johnny Depp from “Cry-Baby.”
WATERS: I’m on his new album, I hear. I’m not sure how. I remember I talked to him on the phone with Alice Cooper recently and he said, “Say this.” I don’t remember what I said, so I guess they put it in the album like when I did in The Creep [a song with Nicki Minaj]. Johnny Depp was always a pro with me.
BLADE: Tab Hunter.
WATERS: Well, he voted for Reagan, you know. He used to shock me. He was for Trump, too. He used to laugh when he told me, because he knew how crazy it made me. I love Tab. You know, that’s the thing. He was from a different era. Completely from a different era.
BLADE: Was he like Rock Hudson?
WATERS: Rock Hudson, I don’t know if he was a Republican. Tab, I think was always a Republican. Oh yeah, he was in the closet forever. He had to be. It was illegal. You know. He was loved by every woman in America. It would have ruined his career. And he wrote about all that in his book.
BLADE: Did he write about you?
WATERS: Yeah. He was lovely. I stayed friends with him right up until the end. I just talked to his husband recently. Tab was great. He was a team player too. Lovely to Divine. Matter of fact, he liked the experience so much he went and made a movie with Divine afterwards, called “Lust in the Dust.”
BLADE: Andy Warhol?
WATERS: I remember him at the Baltimore Museum of Art meeting Edith [Massey] and saying, where did you find her? And he was very supportive. He took Fellini to see “Pink Flamingos.” He put Divine on the cover of Interview. He was always supportive.
BLADE: Mink Stole. You named her?
WATERS: Her real name is Nancy Stoll. S-t-o-l-l. I knew her forever. I met her in Provincetown. She was early in my films. She was a character actress, always. She usually played Divine’s enemy. We’ve been friends forever and ever. And I think she’s a really good actor. She still works all the time.
BLADE: Any way to sum up Divine, 31 years after his death?
WATERS: He gets more and more famous as the years go by. And he’d still rather be here. He’d be pissed he’s dead. I’m still shocked he’s dead. I still am. That’s still a shock. But, it’s kind of amazing. Well, we’re all being buried in the same graveyard where he is, you know, all my friends. Obviously, he is still with us.
BLADE: You’ve been good to the guys who commissioned the Divine mural in Baltimore, Jesse Salazar and Tom Williams.
WATERS: They were lovely. Why wouldn’t I be?
BLADE: Your book has only one chapter that’s named after a female.
BLADE: The finger-painting chimp from the Baltimore zoo. You reveal this life-long love affair that you’ve kept secret until now.
WATERS: Well, I didn’t have sex with Betsy. I want to make sure that people understand that.
BLADE: You wrote a chapter about her appearances on TV and about The Golden Age of Monkey Art, which she inspired.
WATERS: I just remembered her in that dress and getting national attention and being all over the country. She was on Garry Moore, who was from Baltimore, too.
BLADE: In the last chapter, you write about death and dying, specifically about your death. You try to imagine what happens after you die, and you go back and visit your first apartment at 315 E. 25th Street in Baltimore. Why so morbid?
WATERS: Is it morbid? I don’t think it’s morbid. I think, who at 70-some years old doesn’t think about that?
BLADE: Why such a potential downer?
WATERS: You think it’s a downer? I don’t think it’s a downer… I think everybody at 73 [thinks about death], and I think my friends think about it more than I do. I don’t think about it that much. But you can’t help it when you go to funerals and you think, I am 73, you know, something is going to get you. So I tried to just imagine beating it, how I could be such a control freak that I would refuse to die. And I do always dream about that apartment, so it is just a fantasy of what happens after you die.
But it was to me dealing with the one subject that you’re really not supposed to joke about or kind of focus on. To think about it was sort of liberating in a way, to go through the whole thing. Except that I want to be sure that just because I write something here to be funny, it doesn’t mean that I want my heirs to follow every single thing. Like I say in there, I don’t want something funny on my tombstone. So, I don’t know. I thought it was optimistic. I beat death in it in a way, spiritually at least. That’s optimistic.
BLADE: How is your health?
WATERS: My health is fine.
BLADE: You didn’t write the book to fight death?
WATERS: Well, you write all books to fight death. I mean, I’ve never been as busy as I am. I have more projects than I’ve ever had in my entire life.
BLADE: You don’t name in the book any kind of significant other or life partner.
WATERS: And I never would. Because every person I’ve ever been involved with …doesn’t want to be public. I wouldn’t want somebody that would want to do the red carpet with me. I don’t want a groupie. I don’t want a fan. I want somebody that has their own life.
BLADE: Do you have a partner?
WATERS: Yes, I do.
BLADE: Is that in the book?
BLADE: You don’t want to say who it is?
WATERS: If you don’t keep some things private, you don’t have a personal life. It’s the same thing I say, I have some restaurant receipts that are not tax-deductible. That means I have a personal life. When I read celebrities are telling everything, I think, don’t you have any friends?
BLADE: Your book is so wide ranging it makes one wonder what you’re saving for the next one. After “Mr. Know-It-All,” what is there to write about?
WATERS: Do I have any stories left? Well, I’m writing a novel. I’m on page 64. So, yes, there’s stuff to write about.
BLADE: Is that why your next book is fiction, because you’ve exhausted the autobiography?
WATERS: I’ve written 17 movies. They‘re fiction. The first part of “Carsick” was fiction, too, except that I was in it. That makes it a lot easier. I had never written a novel, so I wanted to try it.
BLADE: Are you ever going to slow down?
WATERS: I hope not. I don’t need to slow down. I like what I’m doing. I don’t know. I guess when I drop dead, I’ll have to.
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The ultimate guide to queer gift giving
Perfect presents for everyone from roommates to soulmates
Searching for special deliveries for that special someone? Consider these elf-approved, consciously curated presents perfect for everyone from roommates to soulmates.
Star Wars Home Collection
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‘Arquivistas’ Crystal Book
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Bovem Globe Trimmer 2.0
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Lexington Glassworks Decanter Set
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Joule Turbo Sous Vide
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Outlines Shower Liner System
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Mikey Rox is an award-winning journalist and LGBTQ lifestyle expert whose work has been published in more than 100 outlets across the world. Connect with Mikey on Instagram @mikeyroxtravels.
Anatomy of a post-cancellation comedy tour: Ashley Gavin in D.C.
After doxxing and death threats, a focus on jokes that transcend identity
I was dressing up to go to Ashley Gavin’s stand-up comedy show at the Lincoln Theatre when I got a text from Sydnie, Ashley’s assistant. I didn’t remember giving Sydnie my number — although I must have, surely? We had been in contact the past few days about setting up an interview with Ashley about her show here in D.C., and just today we had managed to schedule a time for tomorrow afternoon.
But suddenly the interview wasn’t looking so sure. Sydnie was texting to ask for a list of my questions for the interview, and if I didn’t provide them, I wouldn’t be getting tickets to tonight’s show. I had two hours to get back to her. “So sorry about that!” Sydnie texted.
The ultimatum caught me off guard — but perhaps it shouldn’t have. Ashley Gavin was the subject of controversy this summer for some of her crowd work during a show in Indianapolis. After a fan cheered a little too loudly at a joke, Ashley informed her she was the “the most annoying fan who has ever been to one of her shows,” and that she should “kill herself.” When the fan responded, “I’ve already tried,” Ashley responded that she didn’t try hard enough, and implored her again and again to kill herself. The fan broke down in tears, and left the show.
The familiar cycle of celebrity cancellation played out. Calls were made on Reddit to boycott Ashley’s shows. Ashley released an apology video. YouTubers scrutinized the apology clip-by-clip on their channels. Ashley reported getting doxxed in death threats. (The irony!) The fan Ashley accosted, Olivia Neely, raised money for suicide awareness online. And now Ashley Gavin is back on tour, for the first time since the incident. No wonder Ashley had her assistant screening my questions.
When Ashley took the stage at the Lincoln Theatre, it quickly became clear that her audience is kindling for controversy fire. All the way up front, in the first few rows, are Ashley’s die-hard fans. Some of these fans have paid hundreds of dollars for meet-and-greet tickets after the show. They’re on the younger side, and are largely lesbian or queer. They turned 21 during the pandemic, and they haven’t necessarily been to a comedy show before. They’re fans from online — of Ashley’s TikTok, or her podcast. But all the way in the back are more casual viewers, people who aren’t fans of Ashley specifically, but of comedy more generally. They might have bought their tickets last minute. They’re a little older than the die-hard fans, a little less queer, and they’re more familiar with the offline comedy club scene.
It’s great that these two different groups can come together to enjoy a comedy show. But there’s one big problem. The online die-hards and the offline comedy regulars have very different expectations for the show. And Ashley isn’t looking to satisfy all of them.
On the one hand, the comedy regulars aren’t necessarily used to the content of her show, which especially on this tour, is largely comprised of material about being lesbian. Ashley wants the straight people in the room to know these jokes are for them too. One of the few bits Ashley carried over from her first special to this new tour involves picking out a random straight man in the audience. She’ll learn his name, and then check in on him after this or that joke later in the set as the ‘representative straight man’ in the crowd. “I’m speaking to the people who might not feel comfortable in the room,” Ashley explained to me during our interview. “I’m saying like, hey, I know you’re there, and this is for you. And I’m really glad that you’re here, you know.”
But if Ashley wants the comedy regulars to adjust to the content of her show, she also wants her online, die-hard fans to adjust to the form of her show, which is offline, at a comedy club or theater. Her die-hard fans are new to the comedy scene, and she wants to make a proper introduction. This isn’t simply out of magnanimity. Ashley intends to put on the kind of show the comedy regulars are there to see. And if her fans from TikTok or her podcast are going to enjoy it, that means adjusting their expectations.
“I’ve read it in my comments [online] before,” Ashley lamented. “I’ve read like, ‘This was not a safe space.’ Maybe because of gross things, or some of the darkness of the jokes. I’m frequently like, what made you think it was going to be a safe space? Art is not a safe space.”
As Ashley sees things, part of going to a comedy show is letting go and not worrying about whether the jokes are offensive. It’s giving the comedian the benefit of the doubt, especially if you know them from online. And she thinks letting go of your worries isn’t giving up on your political convictions — it’s empowering. “[My fans] are very into social justice, and very into doing the right thing, [and] I want to give them the opportunity to let go a little bit, and release some of their tension, and their pain, and their struggle.”
So one of the more unique things Ashley will do as a comedian is address her online, die-hard fans directly at the beginning of her show. She’ll tell them that she’s on the right side of things, that she won’t pull the rug out from under them, politically speaking. She’ll tell them that they should feel free to laugh, to let it out, not cover their mouths. “I know who my audience is, and they want some safety. And they want some trust. And the fastest way that I can earn that trust is to be up front, and just say I’m not going to trick you tonight. The person you came to see, the person you think I am, I am that person.” But it’s a difficult balancing act. How do you promise your audience safety, while maintaining that a comedy show is not a “safe space”? It’s no wonder the kindling might catch fire, despite Ashley’s best efforts. You’d be forgiven for wondering whether there wasn’t an easier way. Why ask fans who want safety to ride out a non-safe space?
I think it helps to understand what Ashley wants out of being a comedian. A major theme of Ashley’s first comedy special was her frustration with being called a “lesbian comedian.” She talks about wanting to be called a great comedian, not a lesbian one — someone who is in the running with other great comedians, whose jokes transcend any particular identity. And if you want to be a great comedian, and not “the lesbian comedian,” it makes sense that you might want your mostly queer online audience to acclimate to the comedy club scene. She doesn’t want to put on a lesbian show. She wants to put on a great comedy show.
So what of Ashley’s hopes for being a great comedian, post-cancellation? On her Chosen Family podcast, taped just one day before her show in D.C., Ashley gave a picture of where she thought things stood. “My audience has changed. I’m experiencing this new audience now that might be a better fit. Because it’s the folks that saw what happened and kind of understand, OK, these were meant to be jokes,” Ashley told her co-hosts. “The folks who don’t see it that way aren’t really at the show anymore, and the show is far more enjoyable for everybody there.”
When I surveyed the audience after Ashley’s show, her prediction seemed to bear out. Everyone I talked to either didn’t know about the summer’s controversy, or didn’t care. “I know nothing of drama. That takes a lot of energy to follow,” said Sunshine, a fan of Ashley’s from over the pandemic. People wanted to chat about Ashley’s crowd work, particularly the drunk girl from Missouri who just wouldn’t give up. They had nothing to say about Indianapolis. Perhaps for Ashley Gavin, the post-cancellation cycle doesn’t end with her remaining fans forgiving and forgetting. Just the forgetting, and moving on.
CJ Higgins is a postdoctoral fellow with the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
Meet two key figures behind the most LGBTQ-friendly video game ever made
Baldur’s Gate 3 debuted in August to widespread critical acclaim
Baldur’s Gate 3 (BG3) is perhaps the most LGBTQ-friendly AAA video game ever made. It’s also one of the best role-playing games ever, according to Metacritic, the premier website owned by Fandom that aggregates reviews of films, television shows, music albums and video games.
Baldur’s Gate 3 by Ghent, Belgium-based Larian Studios, is a series of role-playing video games set in the Forgotten Realms Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting. The game has spawned two series, known as the Bhaalspawn Saga and the Dark Alliance.
Baldur’s Gate 3 was released on Aug. 3, 2023 to widespread critical acclaim. Unusually for a AAA game, it had spent six years in development, and almost three years of that in early access open beta testing. Larian Studios developed BG3 as a sequel to the first two games, which were released in 1998 and 1999 respectively.
Recently the Blade had the opportunity to interview two of the key figures in the game’s development.
Actress Jennifer English played the role of Shadowheart, one of the main characters of the game with whom the player can have a romantic relationship, regardless of their gender. Her partner is Aliona Baranova, an actress and motion capture (mocap) performer who worked as one of the Performance Directors on the game. They met during the production of the game and worked closely together during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Jennifer identifies as lesbian and queer, while Aliona identifies as bisexual and queer. They graciously agreed to give the Blade an hour of their time, right after a grueling weekend at London Comic Con.
BLADE: How was London Comic Con 2023? How were you both received?
JENNIFER: It was like being a rock star. It was incredible. We were both there for Comic Con  this time last year [and] when I first turned up there was no one in my queue [for autographs]. Now this year, there were people queuing for 6 hours at one point. It was absolute madness. But it was also just really beautiful.
We did one of the panels [this year]. And I was expecting it to be like a 500 or 1,000 seater. When I looked out, it was about 4,000 people. It was really wonderful because Aliona was next to me the whole time, and so many people wanted her autograph as well–like a good third to a half.
ALIONA: The number of people that wanted to take a photo of the both of us was so touching, as was how many people [that] came up to us and said, “We watch your streams” and told us that the representation that we gave them, and how open we are about being neuro divergent, was so meaningful.
BLADE: Did either of you play Dungeons and Dragons before you started work on this game?
JENNIFER: I always wanted to. I just hadn’t been invited.
ALIONA: No, never!
JENNIFER: I was really lucky that the first time I got to play D&D was with the cast for High Rollers, and we got Mark Humes, who was the best dungeon master, to walk us through it. We felt so safe and guided. It was a really wonderful start into D&D. The space felt very welcome as well, which was nice, and no one seemed to mind too much that we were fumbling through somewhat. And it was really nice to play together as a couple.
BLADE: You posted how you auditioned for the role of Shadowheart in BG3, and Jennifer got it. This led to an interesting start to your relationship.
ALIONA: So I auditioned, and didn’t get the part. And then another call went out looking for people that had mocap (motion capture) experience, which I did have, to direct. When I sent in my mocap reel I was secretly hoping they’d watch and think, she should be in the game as an actor. But no, they didn’t. They rang me to say they thought I should direct.
I came to direct, did a couple of sessions, and then, during my fourth or fifth session, Jen comes in to record Shadowheart. Everyone is telling me “Jennifer is coming in today. She’s lovely. You’re gonna love her”. And I’m like, yeah, yeah, I’ll see.
When Jen came into the studio she was an absolute ray of sunshine. It was sickening–she was so wonderful, I could not hate her. I wanted to, so badly, but I just couldn’t. She got along with everyone; she was so friendly. I thought, “you’re making this so hard for me”.
Then we went in to record, and I thought, okay, well, maybe she’s not that good at the role, and I can swoop in and save the day and be Shadowheart instead. But she was amazing. I wanted to hate her even more, but I couldn’t, because she was so talented and incredible. I was very naive and very confident. I definitely couldn’t do what Jen has achieved, and she was a far better performer than I was back then. I’ve learned a lot from her since then to become a better performer myself.
It could have gone one of 2 ways: I could sabotage her and direct her really badly, or I could help this incredible and kind woman out and be a good director for her. The rest is history. And I think we nailed it with Shadowheart.
BLADE: Jennifer, how did you find out Aliona wanted to be frenemies initially?
JENNIFER: I can’t remember how I found out, but I remember being shocked, to say the least. And now we laugh about it quite a lot.
BLADE: What was it like finding the character of Shadowheart?
JENNIFER: I found the voice quite easily, and felt like I accessed her [character] reasonably quickly. There was a lot of collaboration and creativity involved with it. But the one thing I really struggled with at the beginning was the physical side of it, because it’s such an overwhelming thing…you’re put into a grey room with loads of cameras on you, and you’re wearing what is essentially a Velcro cat suit with bobbles on it, and then you’re just told to act naturally.
One thing that Aliona quickly picked up on was the fact that I have ADHD. A lot of our creative process together was working to find Shadowheart within that—to not fight against it, but use it. That was really wonderful.
BLADE: Are you having any problems with people blurring the line between Shadowheart and Jennifer when you meet them in real life or online, or are people pretty good about keeping them keeping them distinct?
JENNIFER: I think if I had [Shadowheart’s] kind of black cat energy, perhaps. But I am a golden retriever puppy with blonde hair that’s five foot one. I don’t have that kind of statuesque, armor-clad cleric-of-Shar thing going on. So I think our energies are so distinct that it would be pretty impossible to get us confused.
There is a lot of me in Shadowheart, because I wanted to make her as truthful as possible. [She’s] the part of myself that you’d have to find me in a very vulnerable state to see. That’s a deeper part of myself. Certainly not one that you’d see at Comic-con, or if you bumped into me on the train.
BLADE: I know people who generally don’t like video games who are really into BG3. What’s your take on why this is?
JENNIFER: Yeah, it’s interesting, isn’t it? Baldur’s Gate 3 is mainstream. It’s been on South Park.
ALIONA: It’s the mocap. It’s not often that you have nearly all 248 actors do their own mocap. I think that’s why it feels like a TV show or film. I’m biased, but I do think it makes a difference, because I’ve looked at another recent release and you can tell that the voice is done separately from who’s doing the body. You can’t care for them as much as you do in this game, because there’s a disconnect.
JENNIFER: It feels quite jarring because you can’t be immersed in this in the same way, you can tell everyone’s acting, whereas [Baldur’s Gate 3] feels like people are their characters. They’re so good in them.
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