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The legendary Bette Midler holds forth on art, illusion, marriage, kids, and the eternal lure of Las Vegas.

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 transport me.

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.

It's 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 Hairspray.

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?

Eventually the 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.

Throughout this 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 questions asked."

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 fine."

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 begin.

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.

It's very 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 it.

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? Nothing!

Right. 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 years--

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 anymore."

Absolutely. 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.

Agreed. 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 that.

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 Dolores DeLago? [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 Beijing University.

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 am.

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.

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Anne Stockwell