With a new CD and her 40-city “Kiss My Brass” tour, the divine Ms. Midler is back in action. A sassy chat
By Frank DeCaro
From The Advocate, December 23, 2003
In more than 35 years in show business, Bette Midler has gone from being the big-bosomed Queen of Trash to being the big-hearted Queen of, well, Trash. Her annual Hulaween benefit on October 29, at which she sang a duet with another gay icon, Donna Summer, raised more than $1 million to restore New York City parks and gardens via the New York Restoration Project, which she founded in 1995.
The forever Divine Miss M—57, blond, and trim these days—just wrapped director Frank Oz’s big-budget remake of The Stepford Wives with Nicole Kidman (it’s due out next year). She then headed right into rehearsal for her upcoming “Kiss My Brass” concert tour in support of her new album, Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook, which entered the charts at number 14, her highest chart debut in 13 years.
The tour kicks off December 10 in Chicago, and she’ll blow into 40 cities before it’s over. Midler called from Los Angeles during her lunch break to offer a “Brass”-y preview and, with a little prompting, dished about an old friend, a new diet, a certain televised kiss, and the healing powers of disco.
You’re touring for the first time in years. What can we expect?
It’s just going to be a great big splashy outrageous show. The same, only more. The sets are very beautiful. The clothes are going to be great. We also have video this year. We’re trying to get into the 21st century like everyone else.
Why call it “Kiss My Brass”?
This time I’m carrying horns and they make a lot of noise and we’re very happy. I’m madly in love with all of them. Many of them come from the Royal Crown Revue band, a swing band in L.A. I don’t think I’m ever going to go without them.
Your new album reunites you with your old pal from the Continental Baths, Barry Manilow. What was that like?
It was a big thrill. We both are so old. We just don’t have time for all the games we used to play. We’re much kinder to each other than we used to be. It’s going to make a big difference to both of us by being in each other’s lives again.
He was instrumental in your doing an all–Rosemary Clooney CD, wasn’t he?
Barry called me up and said, “I had a dream that we did this together.” I hadn’t heard from him in a long time. We had parted company, and it wasn’t very pleasant. I was so glad he wasn’t still mad at me. If he’d said “We’re going to sing Chinese opera,” I would have said, “I’m in.”
Was singing the songs of such a beloved singer at all daunting?
I was afraid I couldn’t sing the material because her voice was so beautiful. I can’t sing it in her key, but I can in mine. I love that kind of music, and I sing it really well. I was a child in those years, and it had a profound influence on me. Rosemary’s music was the music I grew up with. I know so much of it, and so much of it I was afraid was going to be forgotten if I didn’t sing it real quick.
The CD is doing well…
It’s unbelievable. There are all these closet cases who love that kind of music but have always been too embarrassed to say so. I cannot believe what people say. I’m so shocked at the reaction. And they’re all buying it. Well, kids don’t buy any music. But the grown-ups are still buying them.
Speaking of kids, in the age of Britney and Christina, are you still a gay icon?
More than ever! I always say I opened the door for tasteless singers with big tits, and don’t you ever forget it! But do they ever write or call or say thank you to me? No.
Would you ever go on an awards show and kiss those two the way Madonna did?
I’m sorry, not to insult your “lesbianic” readership, but ew!
It seemed really desperate.
I’m glad you said that, but that word didn’t come from my lips.
So did you train for the tour? You look like you’re in great shape.
I’m thin. I’m not fit. I lost a lot of weight on the South Beach Diet, but my wind isn’t what it ought to be. I’m still on it. The food is really good. You’ve got to get on this diet. It’s fantastic.
Attending a concert of yours is like praying at the altar of Bette. What message will you be delivering with “Kiss My Brass”?
It’s really all about the music this time. I met with a designer before we started and talked about all the music. He pointed out that most of my songs are set at the seashore. The shore is a place where people throw their clothes off and become children again in a way. We decided the theme would be amusement park–ish and that Coney Island would be the imaginary place this was set. I was brought up on the beach. I have to be by the water. This show has a lot of water in it, although not real water.
What does that mean exactly?
Well, Delores [De Lago, my mermaid character] is back. Soph [Sophie Tucker] is back. But it’s all set by the sea. I hope it’ll give people a sense of eternal summer and that happy days lie ahead. It’s been a cloudy couple of years. I hope coming to my show will be an optimistic act.
Are you optimistic about the remake of The Stepford Wives you just finished shooting?
I had the best time. It was very strange. The first day I was on the shoot, I had to become the robot, without having played the other character yet. Nicole was great, and the director was great. Everybody did terrific work, and I met people I never had any hope of meeting, like Glenn Close and Chris Walken. I think it’s going to be a humongous hit.
Early in your career, you really redefined camp. What’s camp now? Is there still a place for camp in the world today?
I better ask Susan Sontag. Camp used to be just a euphemism for gay. Now gay is everywhere. There’s so much camping around, you almost wish people would quit it. But there is a place for irony and hilarity, and that’s part of camp. I love teasing and sending things up. People need to do it. I’d hate to be squashed. You look at the Iraqis and say, “These are not funny people.” I’m trying to be upbeat. I’d love to see people dancing in the aisles at my concerts.
There certainly was a lot of shaking of groove thangs when you and Donna Summer sang “Hot Stuff” together at Hulaween.
When they got up dancing, it was a dream come true. The energy that is unleashed! If everyone were dancing instead of shooting, it would be a lot happier world.
DeCaro, a contributor to The New York Times and TV Guide, appears on The Daily Show With John Stewart.