The Daily Mail
The greatest showgirl on earth? You Bette!
By Richard Barber
Last updated at 9:49 PM on 25th September 2008
Bette Midler doesn’t disappoint.
Here on a flying visit to promote her greatest hits album – the same songs she sings in her Las Vegas extravaganza, The Showgirl Must Go On – she is to be found, the very picture of demure respectability, in a suitably old-fashioned London hotel.
But she’s fooling no one, least of all herself.
Ushered into her presence, you’re instantly aware of the febrile intelligence, the quick wit, the barely banked down capacity for knowing naughtiness. The room crackles with the essence of Bette.
She’s 62 now – she’ll be 63 in December – and she looks great.
The black top and fitted grey dogtooth skirt show off her still-curvy figure. The head-turning legs are encased in silk stockings, the feet in vertiginous stilettos.
But it’s hard not to look at that distinctive face, all dancing eyes and ready smiles.
She looks better today than ever she did.
Before she stepped up to the microphone on last Sunday’s edition of Strictly Come Dancing to sing Wind Beneath My Wings, there was a little banter between her and Bruce Forsyth (‘so adorable’ she says of Brucie).
Archive footage of the two of them together 30 years ago revealed a Bette with the sort of savagely permed red hair that would not have looked out of place in a First Division football team of the era.
‘Oh, but we knew nothing then,’ she protests. ‘The world hadn’t yet invented grooming.
‘I mean, doesn’t everyone put vinegar on their hair these days so it’ll come up shiny? Please!’ She chuckles.
For all that, she looks astonishingly youthful.
‘Well, I’m very healthy. I’m careful about what I eat, I don’t drink much booze and I take a mix of apple cider vinegar with a little molasses and two spoons of cod liver oil every morning. It lifts your spirits.’
Has she ever been anywhere near a cosmetic surgeon?
‘I’m not going to say I haven’t,’ she says, eyes twinkling, ‘and I’m not going to say I have.
‘Let’s just say I’m thinking about it. But I’ll never have Botox. It gives you eyebrows like Mr Spock’s in Star Trek.’
Clearly, she looks after herself.
‘I do half-an-hour on the treadmill most days as well as Pilates and yoga classes.
‘Then there’s my show: 90 minutes of non-stop running. No wonder I’m fit.’
She’s signed to do 200 shows in Vegas at Caesar’s Palace over the next two years.
‘I don’t have a live recording of the show.’ Hence the album.
She took over from Celine Dion who had played the same venue with spectacular success for five years, but says her production is ‘not only the biggest show of my career, it’s the biggest show in show business.’
‘I’m Celine Part II. And they were big shoes to fill.
(from the files of Berlin Dirk)
‘I saw her act several times and then went backstage for a chat. She was fabulous.
‘She warned me about the wind in Vegas. There’s so much building work going on with stuff flying around the whole time that you can end up with a sore throat unless you’re careful.’
It is invidious to pick favourite songs but, when pushed, she nominates This Ole House (‘it feels like old school spiritual’), The Rose, from her hit film, and a raunchy rendition of When A Man Loves A Woman.
She’s also fond of the less well-known Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.
‘It takes me back to my nightclub life in Honolulu, which was brief but beautiful.’
And a welcome respite from her sometimes difficult home life. She had two older sisters, each girl named after a film star.
Judy (after Garland) was tragically killed by a taxi when she came to New York in 1968 to see Bette perform for the first time.
Susan (after Hayward) now lives in New Jersey.
‘She’s much more down-to-earth than me, much less airy-fairy. I’m just up there living in the clouds.’
Her mother, Ruth, a seamstress, named her third daughter after Bette Davis, but was unaware that the screen legend pronounced her name with two syllables.
She has a brother, Daniel, who in Bette’s definition is developmentally disabled. Her father, Fred, was a house painter and money was tight.
‘My mother was overwhelmed,’ says Bette. ‘She stretched a weekly income of $60 to feed six people.’
Nor was life easy outside the home.
‘We lived in a largely Asian area of Hawaii, one of the very few white families. And there was discrimination.
‘It was hard. I got to know what it must be like to be black.’
For a long time, she says, she was driven by anger. She has remarked before that her parents gave her plenty of emotion but didn’t give her much love.
‘There was a lot of yelling going on. It was a strain.
‘I’m currently reading Cousin Bette by Balzac. There’s a whole passage on anger and how far it can take you. It’s so fascinating.
‘It’s out of my system now, of course.
‘I’ve had such a fabulous time and been rewarded so outrageously for what I do. What have I got to be mad about?’
She doesn’t know where her talent comes from.
‘My dad’s younger sister, Alice, had a good voice but she wasn’t a performer. She didn’t have the nerve.
‘I, of course, had nothing but nerve. It took me a long way.’
Not that she could have foreseen the extent of that journey, presumably. The brown eyes widen.
‘Oh no, I always imagined this. That was the impetus to get to this place. That ambition occurred early on.
‘I’d go to the library and look at the magazines and see the society photographs.
‘I knew it was a world I’d somehow have to get to. That’s why I sometimes think I’m living a dream.’
Temperamentally, she thinks she’s a mix of both her parents.
‘I’m a bit brash like my dad, but I’m also shy like my mother. I like to talk, but I’m not terribly comfortable in social situations.
‘On the one hand, I have an impulse to show off. But the stage is the appropriate place for that.
‘In real life, if you were “on” the whole time, it would be such a chore. Away from the spotlight, I just want to be left alone.’
But not on her own. In 1984, a year shy of her 40th birthday, she met again a performance artist called Martin von Haselberg.
Martin and Bette had first met at a party during which someone had broken into his car and stolen his radio. Bette says she’d have been sympathetic but it was a VW.
Two years later, Martin called out of the blue on a very bad day.
Bette’s prophetically titled movie Jinxed had just attracted a clutch of poisonous reviews.
‘He was such a breath of fresh air,’ she says.
Just six weeks later, Martin and Midler got married at a chapel in Las Vegas.
‘Was it a risk?’ she asks herself. ‘Yes, of course it was.
‘But I knew he was The One. And look, we’ll have been married 24 years in December.’
She’s proud that they’ve lasted the distance. It is, after all, not every man – von Haselberg is now a painter and photographer – who could accommodate being married to a superstar.
She laughs. ‘He’s a real dragon, I gotta tell you. But then he thinks I’m a dragon.
‘Our life is finely balanced. Who can out-dragon the other?
‘I count on him a lot. He’s very wise. He’s been very helpful to me, both as a husband and as a mentor.’
Not, she says, that marriage is easy.
‘You have to bend over backwards to see the other person’s point of view – and then be willing to compromise.’
She believes, too, in fidelity.
‘I’m not a cheat. I’ve never cheated. I don’t think he has, either.
‘We have a life together that’s very cosy in its way. We suit each other.
‘It’s got nothing to do with drugs and alcohol. It’s not what I’d call a whoopee life. It’s contemplative.’
Much of that has to do, says Bette, with the couple’s daughter, Sophie.
‘She’s 21, and she’s just graduated in sociology but she doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life.
‘She can speak Chinese, though, and she’s off to China. She’s hoping that when they arrive here, she’ll be able to tell them to leave us alone.’
Away from her work, Bette likes to read, to dance – she still takes classes – and to play any kind of instrument. ‘And, of course, I love to sing.’
But most of her spare time is taken up by her charity, the NY Restoration Project.
Dedicated to turning New York green, ‘it oozes into all the crevices of my life. I’ve now been elevated to President. I do a lot of fundraising, but I don’t pick up a spade and dig.’
And she adds, almost to herself, ‘Actually, part of the reason I took the job in Las Vegas was because I wanted to support the organisation. I’m their biggest fundraiser.
‘I love the environment. Fifteen years ago, people weren’t thinking about what was going on.
‘Our organisation really woke up New York City and I’m very proud of that.
‘We were a little bit ahead of the curve. Right now, we’re trying to get plastic bags banned.
‘And, this year, with funding from Mayor Bloomberg and working with the NYC Parks Department, we’ve started on a ten-year programme of planting a million trees.’
She’s also a big admirer of the Greenstreets initiative dedicated to planting tiny parks in New York’s streets.
‘In a town so full of asphalt, cement, steel and noise, these oases of green have made people feel safe.
‘Now, they want to return to neighbourhoods that once made them uncomfortable.’
Away from her charity work, Bette has lost none of her curiosity about the business that made her a star nor about the world around her.
‘I like the idea that I still want to learn, that I’m still curious. When curiosity goes, you might as well pack it in.’
Of the new crop of talent, her attention has been caught by Amy Winehouse.
She sighs. ‘Everyone thinks they can save her. We all have a Messiah complex.
‘We all want to make that phone call and say: “Now listen, this is how it was for me at your age.” And we imagine kids like her will listen. But they won’t.
‘I have a 21-year-old kid and I know she has to make her own mistakes.
‘Having said that, I think Amy’s going to come out of it. I believe that, I really do.
‘But it’s a shame she has to go through all this because it’s a bit degrading. It’s too bad for her.’
As to her own future – ‘Retirement?’ says the Divine Miss M.
‘Well, I’ve heard the word. I always used to say: “I’m not retiring and you can’t make me!”
‘But I’m beginning to think it sounds quite good.
‘If you’re going to retire, though, just go. Don’t talk about it.
‘Otherwise, you’ll wake up one morning with a great idea and then everyone will make a fool out of you if you’ve already told the world you’re retired.’
So will she be around in ten years’ time? You Bette.
â€¢ BETTE MIDLER: The Best Bette is out now on Rhino Records