​Bette Midler interview: 'I was the biggest coward in the world'

Singer-songwriter Bette Midler attends The Blonds fashion show during Spring 2016 MADE Fashion Week at Milk Studios on September 16, 2015 in New York City. Photo / Getty
Singer-songwriter Bette Midler attends The Blonds fashion show during Spring 2016 MADE Fashion Week at Milk Studios on September 16, 2015 in New York City. Photo / Getty

The Grammy-winning singer and actress tells Paul Sexton about her accidental, taboo-busting journey from Hawaii to Hollywood.

It's hard to believe that Bette Midler isn't a native New Yorker. She manages to combine a chutzpah and a Manhattan-style savviness that not everyone born to a seamstress and a house painter in Honolulu could manage.

CIRCA 1970: Photo of Bette Midler. Photo / Getty
CIRCA 1970: Photo of Bette Midler. Photo / Getty

But the entertainer has been living in the city for more than 50 years and her intimate relationship with its cultural evolution is once again in sharp relief, thanks to a new production of Hello, Dolly! on Broadway and a remastering of The Divine Miss M, the 1972 album which made her name.

She arrives for our early evening rendezvous in a small hotel off Madison Avenue, in convivial mood, modestly but elegantly attired in a simple sweater and large earrings.

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Her generous demeanour belies a busy day, with rehearsals and a Facebook Q&A with her ever-admiring fans.


The singer, actress and comedienne has been actively involved in the remounting of her first disc.

"I heard it again, and I like it," she says. "I was like, 'Oh, don't make me do that', but I had to listen. I really wanted the old sound, because I think part of the charm of that record is that it's very warm sounding."

CIRCA 1970: Photo of Bette Midler. Photo / Getty
CIRCA 1970: Photo of Bette Midler. Photo / Getty

Some of it, indeed, was made in front of a crowd invited into the studio to eat Chinese food and observe her show. "It's part-live," she says drily. "Like me."

As an ingenue in New York (she relocated to the city in 1965 using earnings from a bit part in a long-forgotten Julie Andrews film called Hawaii) Midler's first focus was on musical theatre, notably in a long-running production of Fiddler on the Roof.

Bette Midler performing. Photo / Getty
Bette Midler performing. Photo / Getty

As a solo singer, her style was honed in the city's live venues, but not to the usual rock club template. Instead, she performed her show in the bathhouses where gay men met for sexual encounters.

Looking back, Midler, now 70, takes satisfaction in the pathfinding role she played in the emerging Gay Pride movement. "I had no idea at the time," she says. "I knew there were gay people here, but I didn't know I was helping them kick the door open, because I was just in there doing my job. And it was a great job.

Bette Midler during Bette Midler's Clams On The Half Shell Revue show in New York City. Photo / Getty
Bette Midler during Bette Midler's Clams On The Half Shell Revue show in New York City. Photo / Getty

"I think I was the first person on television ever to say 'gay' on The Johnny Carson Show.

I said I was working in a gay bathhouse, and I think the house went up, but to me it was no big deal. I'd been in community theatres where the place was full of queens, and I'd gone to see the drag shows. I didn't pay any attention to it, it was just like 'Oh, humanity'."

"[The gay community] wanted me to succeed," she adds. "They saw something in me that I think people didn't see. The emotionalism [of my show], the intimacy, the fearlessness, the outrageousness. That's what they enjoyed in their life and they saw me as part of it."

Singer Bette Midler attends 17th Annual Grammy Awards on March 1, 1975 at the Uris Theater in New York City. Photo / Getty
Singer Bette Midler attends 17th Annual Grammy Awards on March 1, 1975 at the Uris Theater in New York City. Photo / Getty

You might assume that such fearlessness evolved from her Jewish upbringing in a chiefly Asian community in Honolulu, but she won't have it.

"I never fought anything," she says firmly. "I was the biggest coward in the world, I was hiding in the corner.

"I was the only white person in my class, so I had it the opposite way, but when I came to the 'mainland', as they called it, I didn't really understand what was going on with the civil rights struggle.

I mean, I knew vaguely that there was slavery, from my social studies class, but I wasn't living in the middle of it. But as your consciousness raises, you finally say 'This won't do'."
The Divine Miss M - which became a million-seller in the US and prompted the first of her three Grammys - was made on the back of her stage reputation.

However, critical responses to her live performances just prior to the album release were not always complimentary.

A reviewer for Billboard said: "Miss Midler sounded and even looked good during the Carpenters' hit Superstar. But she ruined the effect when, midway through the song, she started flopping her legs and bounced out of her bodice."

The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson (l-r) Announcer Ed McMahon and musical guest Bette Midler during an interview with host Ed McMahon on September 12, 1973. Photo / Getty
The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson (l-r) Announcer Ed McMahon and musical guest Bette Midler during an interview with host Ed McMahon on September 12, 1973. Photo / Getty

But after the album's debut, Midler was set. In 1979 she made her film debut in The Rose, which won her the first two of four Golden Globes, and other big hits followed over the years, including wartime drama For the Boys and, most notably, Beaches, one of cinema's ultimate weepies which included the anthemic song Wind Beneath My Wings.

With such a depth of experience, it's no surprise that Midler is prone to frequent conversational detours.

Singer Bette Midler on November 5, 2014 on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Photo / Getty
Singer Bette Midler on November 5, 2014 on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Photo / Getty

She asks me in detail about the intricacies of Brexit, demonstrating considerable awareness of the post-vote parliamentary intrigue, and showing real concern when I mention a rise in racially motivated violence in the UK.

Passionate as ever, and volubly democratic with both a lower and upper case "d", she gets serious as she tells me she hopes Donald Trump "hasn't poisoned the well permanently. I worry, because people have become disenfranchised in a way that they never expected to be."

Actress/singer Bette Midler performs onstage during the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre on March 2, 2014 in Hollywood, California. Photo / Getty
Actress/singer Bette Midler performs onstage during the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre on March 2, 2014 in Hollywood, California. Photo / Getty

Twitter is the perfect vehicle for her disdain.

"Trump sez he may not accept election results if he loses," she wrote recently. "I don't accept my ass, but guess what's stuffed in the back of my pants right now."

She also completed her Facebook Q&A on the day of our meeting with a mischievous reference to her witch character in the film Hocus Pocus. "My broom awaits. Winnie and I are flying to Trump Tower!"

There's a strong sense of justice running through Midler and this extends to her professional life.

This summer, she appeared as a mentor on the US version of the talent show, The Voice, alongside country superstar Blake Shelton, after she was persuaded by her friend, Bruce Springsteen.

"I said to [Springsteen], 'What do I tell those kids? They don't want to hear from me.' And he said, 'You have something to tell them. They don't want to know how to do riffs like Mariah Carey. They want to know how to do what you do'. [Old school pizzazz.]

A lightbulb actually went on. "I had the best time. Blake is a doll, and these voices - young, old, tall, thin, short, fat, it doesn't matter. If they can sing, they have an opportunity to be heard."

Midler's eye for new talent expands to theatre.

She speaks with optimism about the state of Broadway and singles out Lin-Manuel Miranda, the actor/rapper/writer whose smash hit Hamilton will come to the West End next year.

"I don't know how many people have the skill that he has, he's a genius," she says.

"But I would hate to think that suddenly it's going to be nothing but hip-hop, because a lot of people who are versed in the theatre don't really have those skills."

A portrait of Bette Midler performing. Photo / Getty
A portrait of Bette Midler performing. Photo / Getty

Her own contribution to the Great White Way was such that she won a special Tony Award as long ago as 1974.

She returned there for the first time in nearly 30 years in 2013, playing "superagent" Sue Mengers in I'll Eat You Last. But the Hello, Dolly! revival, co-starring David Hyde Pierce (Niles in the long-running sitcom Frasier), is a different proposition altogether.

"Today I met a few of the singer-dancers, excellent performers, and we did what we learnt," she reports.

"It was fun. I'm dancing a lot. I'm not a trained dancer, but I really like it, I lost a lot of weight from it. I just can't quite figure out what comes next. It's a steep climb, but I know I'll get there."

With Hello, Dolly! opening next year, there is no sign of Midler taking a breather.

"I came to the UK with that last tour, Divine Intervention," she says. "I was really beat after that, but I just didn't know whether it was time.

My husband [artist Martin von Haselberg, to whom she has been married since 1984] and I talk about it all the time, 'Isn't it time?' he asks. I say, 'To slow down?' and he replies, 'No, to stop, before you really look like the picture of Dorian Gray?

"You don't want people to come just to see if you're still standing. But at the same time, this thing is brand new to me, and it's energised me in a funny way, learning these skills. I'm kind of awake. I'm really intensely curious, and that will never go away."

- Daily Telegraph UK

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