As I wait outside
the Colosseum, the 4,100-seat theater at Caesars
Palace, the Las Vegas weekend is getting under way. Actors
dressed as Roman soldiers stroll among the slot
machines. A cheer goes up as somebody wins. Looming
over all is a huge banner of the Divine Bette Midler,
shapely gams and shoulders bare, clouds of boas hiding her
naughty bits. Advertising her new spectacle, The Showgirl Must Go On , she's an airbrushed goddess blessing the
casino from on high. And alone among the plebeians,
I'm about to meet the Divine.
The theater door
opens; a burly young man comes out and grins.
"I'm Bette's bodyguard,"
he says. We take an elevator below ground. You can
feel the mass of this place. It's like a bunker. At
the end of a chilly hallway, I'm shown into the
headliner's dressing room. Beyond a partition,
a piano pounds out a driving rhythm. "Viva Las
Vegas!" sings a full-out voice, more powerful
than I'd imagined. I sit down and let the voice
When it comes to
Bette Midler, we all have memories. Her star power is
such that, depending on our ages, we love her in completely
different contexts. For some, she's still the
wild child who sang for guys in towels at the
Continental Baths in New York City in 1970. For others,
she's the gloriously hammy leading lady of hit films
like Beaches and Down and Out in Beverly
Hills. In recent years she's had fun with her own
legend, serenading the kids on American Idol
and picking up litter on The Simpsons.
almost impossible now to remember how original she was. She
was completely on her own wavelength, a retro rebel in
the polyester '70s. She brought an outrageously
queer new groove to pop culture -- and why not?
Outrageous queers were writing for her, including peerless
comedy scribe Bruce Vilanch and, later, composer Marc
Shaiman, who would go on to write the score for
Her stage shows
were like musical thrill rides through pop history, bawdy
and often unexpectedly moving. Who else would zip onstage on
an electric wheelchair as a singing mermaid named
Delores DeLago, the Toast of Chicago? And who but the
gays were hip enough to get it?
world began to catch up. As she proved in 1979's
The Rose, Miss M could act. She became a
mainstream movie star, so bankable she brought Disney
a gold rush that lasted into the '90s.
Off-screen, her All-Girl Productions, with its motto
"We Hold a Grudge," challenged the
boundaries of the male-dominated film business. She
collected piles of Grammys and Emmys. She got the green
message long before it was in vogue, masterminding
such efforts as the New York Restoration Project,
charged with restoring and maintaining the city's
underserved parks and open spaces.
She also got
married in 1984 to performance
artist-turned-commodities broker Martin
von Haselberg. They wed in Las Vegas -- at Caesars Palace,
where 24 years later Bette is headlining now. In 1986, Bette
gave birth to daughter Sophie. The family moved to New
York City in 2000, with the idea that Bette would work
there on her titular sitcom for CBS. Although that
soon folded, her star kept on shining. Her Divine Miss
Millennium Tour played to nearly half a million
people. Her 2003 Rosemary Clooney songbook was her
best-selling record in 20 years. In 2004 she scored more
than $50 million with her Kiss My Brass tour.
nearly 40-year period, gays have stayed loyal to Bette.
But some of us wonder whether she stayed loyal to us. Which
brings up the topic of gay marriage -- and an
interview she did with Larry King in 2003. When asked
whether gays should have the right to marry, she was
unhesitatingly in support of civil rights like hospital
visitation, but she wondered aloud whether gay men
would want to commit to traditional monogamous
marriage. She wasn't insulting. (The transcript is
easy to locate online.) But many gay fans were
crestfallen. "We made her," their
argument went. "She should have supported us, no
In 2004 an
Internet prank fanned the flames. A blogger posted an open
letter to George W. Bush in defense of same-sex marriage,
and someone in cyberspace attributed it to Bette. The
letter went viral; she had to deny writing it,
disappointing fans again. Soon afterward, when an
Advocate reporter brought up gay marriage, she
remained politely noncommittal. He pushed her: "We
need you, Bette!" She retorted, "I
don't think you do. You're doing just
That pronoun was
what stung-- you, not we. Despite her long friendship
with the gay community, Bette Midler did not see herself as
a gay man. She thought of us as separate entities with
separate points of view. Could we forgive her?
I realize the
piano has stopped. Bette appears in the doorway. Her face
is not the airbrushed icon of the ads. She looks her age,
which is to say trim, attractive, and nobody's
fool. She's wearing light gray slacks, a zip-up
hoodie, and a scarf wound high around her throat.
She's sipping tea from a cup and saucer. We
Tell me about "The Showgirl Must Go On."
You know, the showgirl is a little bit of a
dying breed, a creature that's in retreat. So I
thought we'd take another look at her and dust
her off and breathe some life into the old girl, see what
she can do. I'm a performing arts archivist in
a way. What I've done all my life is take these
things that everyone kicked to the curb and pick them up and
dust them off and give them a new life. We've
got these girls, and we have a great look back at
Vegas costumes, and everything is very flamboyant,
very flashy. That's what Vegas represents and always
has, and you just have to go with it. You
shouldn't try to fight it.
different from what's going on now. You know,
it's a Cirque town. There's Cirques
everywhere, and they are sensational. But being a
headliner or a star performer or a solo act, I can't
compete with them. I can only take my work, my art
form, and make it a little bit bigger to suit the size
of the stage. I can't hang by my nipples, even though
it sounds thrilling. [Laughs]
Not six times a week, anyway.
Five times a week. All these girls are really
kind of a backup for me because I am of a certain age, and
it's not easy to do this five times a week.
It's not the typical marathon that I often run
when I go out on the road. But it's plenty hard
enough. I'm hoping it'll fulfill a lot
of fantasies, but in my typical way, it's not
very dangerous. It's not pretending to be overly
sexual or anything like that.
People just love
glamour. They can't figure out how it's done.
It's like being a magician in a way.
It's putting something on stage that people
can't quite grasp. This one gay friend of mine
who's very erudite said to me, "You have
to love the illusion." And that made a very big
impression on me, because everything that we build in
this particular form of live performance is a lie.
It's a construct. You don't really look like
that or sound like that. That's the art -- the
art of the illusion. It's heaven. I just wish
it wasn't so frickin' exhausting.
[Smiles] I've got to tell you, being at the
center of this much magic is a lot of work!
Can you tell my younger readers: What was it really
like to play the Continental Baths? When he interviewed
you for The Advocate in 1975, Vito Russo talked
about the wonderful risks that you were able to
take as a performer there.
I guess that's true. It felt like there
was a lot of room to grow. Whatever you could think
of, you could try. And I was very lucky 'cause I
had a lot of support. You have to realize that, for me, it
was very everyday. For me, it was not like,
"Oh, my God! I came from the Midwest, and there
are people here in towels." I'd been in the
theater since I was 14. I'd seen a few drag
shows in my day because I was from Hawaii, and
whenever we were at the theater, after the theater you would
go to a show, you know. I never thought twice about
So I went, not
thinking -- I just went to the venue. It was the basement
of the Ansonia Hotel, and I looked around, and I saw what it
was, and it was like a nightclub. And I love
nightclubs. I was really happy to be there. I had a
job that paid $300 a week for two shows. It was like the
most money anybody had ever seen on the face of the earth.
So what would be a typical night?
Friday and Saturday we would come in early, do a sound
check and do a rehearsal, and then I would go and do
my makeup, get dressed, and come out. [The emcee]
would say, "The Divine Miss M!" And the place
would go crazy, and I would just be as sexy and as hot
as I could possibly be. Because there was no danger in
being sexy and hot. What was going to happen to you?
I was just outrageous. Had thrown away my bra a
long time ago. I was wearing backless, frontless,
sideless, you name it. My hairdresser from Fiddler
on the Roof said to me, "You can't
just go up there and sing your songs. You have to talk
too." So we'd write all these jokes out,
and I would memorize them. And sometimes on the spot,
I would make stuff up, because by this time I was learning a
lot. It was so much fun. People act like I was there for 150
Like an epoch!
It wasn't that long. But after a while the word
started getting out. Straight people started coming --
of course, they didn't take their clothes off
-- and pretty soon it was like 50/50. And then -- the
original crowd started getting a little anxious -- he
started booking other people. Patti LaBelle came.
Opera singers started coming. It was real excitement;
there was a tremendous buzz about it.
And from there, I
got these television shows, and everything sort of came
together. I must say, I had colossal nerve. I sometimes
think that it was at least 60% nerve. It really was,
"Gangway, world, get offa my runway." I
think it was youth, just exuberance and hormones and drive.
A lot of it was luck too -- to be in a place where
this was going on in the gay community, where this
community was feeling its oats and had finally stood
up for itself after God knows how many hundreds of years,
and said, "No, this is not gonna happen to us
So it was just this confluence of my need to be
who I was and their need to be who they were. And it
was great. We kind of kicked each other upstairs.
Let's about same-sex marriage. How are you
feeling about the issue now? Because there have been
hurt feelings--people feeling you
weren't on their side.
It's interesting. I have some gay friends who are
for it, some gay friends who are against it. And I
just feel like it's evolving and it's
probably going to come to fruition, and it's probably
going to be just fine. I think it's going to be
fine. I think people should be able to commit
themselves to the people that they love. I have no problem
with it whatsoever.
It's great to hear you say that.
I especially think, you know, if there's children
involved -- the urge, the need to have children in
people's lives is really, really important. And
I feel that if you are going to have children, then you
should be committed to each other, because otherwise
it's really not good for the kid. I made a
movie with Woody Allen, and one of his lines was --
Paul Mazursky wrote it for him -- "We've
reproduced. Now we can die." [Laughs]
But there's a long way between reproduction
and, you know, shuffling off the coil. You have to
bring the child up. And it's a life's work.
I have seen a number of gay people get committed, have a
child, and then [gesture] go. Goodbye. And then
the kid is goingba-a-ack and forth, back
'n' forth -- just like [kids of divorced]
straight people! We need to set a better example than
What you're saying is going to be greeted with a
lot of happiness, because in that interview with Larry
King, you had to think it over. You were conflicted.
I did have to think it over. These are enormous, just
gigantic seismic shifts. People don't like
change. People have to get used to it. They have to
process it. They have to weigh it. You don't just
rush off and say, "I'm going to marry
that guy." You just don't do it. A grown-up
person analyzes it, hears it, processes it, and makes a
decision. You come to a conclusion after you've
thought it over, and you really -- I'm not so
quick. I'm still singing songs from the fuckin
'40s! [Laughs] Give it a rest! Come on!
I'm slow! [Both laugh]
But gay people
changed, of course, much faster than everybody else did
and suddenly wanted this thing. I mean, I've known
gay people, I've been around people and loved
them and have been my dear friends and buried 'em
and, you know, all that. But this is like a shift that
nobody even--nobody saw that coming.
A lot of gay people didn't see it coming.
And they still don't see it coming. They think
about their own parents and what their parents'
relationship meant to them, and they're looking
around saying, Is that what I -- ? Am I imitating
that? How is it possible that I would be imitating that?
And which part of it am I using, and which part of
it am I discarding? These are seismic shifts,
and I think for people to get upset or salty is really
bad behavior. I'm not casting stones or anything, or
calling anybody to task or anything. I just think --
Rome wasn't built in a day. [Imitating a
baby] "I want it, I want it now!"
Well, you can't have everything right now. You have
to give people a chance to get acclimated to it.
You expressed concerns about whether gay men could
make a commitment to monogamy. To me, that sounded as
though you were thinking of the gay men you met in
the Continental Baths. Now, years later, gay
people are saying, "Of course we can commit to monogamy."
Well, gay men are not monolithic. They're
not all just one thing. None of my friends are
monogamous [both laugh], but other people can be. No,
I know a few couples who have been together for a
long, long time. I know a lot of people who
don't choose to be. Ultimately, everyone's
relationship is made by themselves. There are no rules
or regulations that say, This is how it has to be. Two
people -- they make up what the parameters of the
relationship will be. Even when society tries to say what
it's supposed to be, people chafe against it
and change the rules to suit themselves.
How is it for your daughter being the child of
[Grins] She was a mermaid onstage with me
one night on New Year's Eve in San Francisco. You
know, I think she's had a pretty good time of
it. It's all very low-key in our world. We
didn't want her to grow up to be a weed; we
wanted her to grow up straight, and she did. When I
say straight, I mean we just didn't want her to get
into trouble. So we kept that eye out, you know; we
were hovering around. Sometimes you think the hovering
parents make a mistake. In this case I didn't
really think so. She's a very well-adjusted kid.
She's dear. She's got a great sense of
humor. She's a Chinese scholar -- went last year to
Where'd the Chinese come from?
She's always loved the Asians -- what can
I say? When she was 13 she told us she wanted to go to
Japan. And this was in the days when we were traveling
a lot. So we all went to Japan together. And we're
driving in Tokyo, and she's got her head out
the window, and she's going, "Ooh, he's
hot! Ooh, what a hottie!" [Laughs] And
we're saying, "She tricked us!"
You meet 20-year-olds. What's their biggest misconception?
They think it's going to last forever. In my
eyes, it's like, "Ha-ha! You got a big
surprise waiting for you!"
It's a shock.
But you know, you should embrace it. I do; I'm
like grandma. I'm like, "Now, young
lady, you just stop that right this minute!"
I'm loving it. I love to talk about how old I
What do you want to say that I forgot to ask you?
Good question. I look unbelievable. That's what
they always say. "You look
unbelievable!" I do. I don't know how come.
Always, under the lights I look unbelievable. So
I'm happy to make everyone happy that I'm not
some old crone. They can come and they can feel relieved.
Because I look fabulous.