5 October 2008
Bette’s hot pot
EXCLUSIVE HOW AND SCREEN LEGEND MIDLER HAS STAYED SO YOUNG SUPERSTAR’S RECIPE FOR HAPPY LIFE INCLUDES SECRET TRIPS TO UK FOR PUB GRUB AND BEER
By Garth Pearce
Legendary performer Bette Midler has a very down-to-earth passion – British pub grub.
The superstar singer and actress toured Britain in an anonymous van with her husband last year sampling the delights of the English inn.
Bette says: “We picked up a good pub guide and just went from place to place, enjoying some fabulous food and beer.”
And it’s those simple happy family holidays that Bette, 62, believes have helped her hold back the years – as BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing viewers saw last week when she appeared with host Bruce Forsyth.
Film from 30 years ago was shown of them performing together. And Bette looks younger today than she did back then.
“I was flat-out committed to my career in those days,” she recalls in an exclusive interview with The People. “Nothing else mattered.
I wanted to be a legend.
“What was the point of being in something I loved and then just being another person in it? Success is a big game and I wanted to play and win.”
Bette certainly did that.
Her first albums, The Divine Miss Mand Bette Midler, were best-sellers and she became an instant sensation.
She even overtook Barbra Streisand as the world’s biggest singing star. And when she turned to acting, she won an Oscar nomination for best actress in the 1979 film The Rose, setting up a succession of movie hits.
But from the moment she married German performance artist Martin von Haselberg in 1984 she changed.
“I grew up and realised that constantly being in competition and looking for a way to get ahead is not really very satisfying,” she says.
“What mattered was the relationship with family, friends and how you see beauty and the world. That’s what has kept me young.
“I met Martin in a bar and he’s been my rock ever since.” Bette and Martin, now 59, have a 21-year-old daughter, Sophie. Bette says: “We believed that the family that eats together stays together.
“So we have made sure that we’ve eaten together, with Sophie, virtually every day of our lives.
“Martin has been there for me and sacrificed his own career for mine. But we have had long holidays and shown Sophie the world.”
Those holidays include that upmarket pub crawl around Britain.
Bette says: “I wasn’t bothered or recognised. And even if I was, the British are so polite. They didn’t want to spoil my holiday.”
Bette’s mixture of long holidays and family happiness have kept the years at bay.
“You can tell I’ve had a good life,” she says.
“I have had a great career and I have been lucky enough to enjoy what I do. But it has not been all-consuming.
“If I’d kept working at the same pace, with the same naked ambition, to the exclusion of all else, it might have killed me.”
Bette has been a survivor, unlike many she knew when first moving to New York from her birthplace in Hawaii. She sang in the city’s Continental Baths, a fashionable gay sauna and cabaret bar in the early ’70s.
“I have lost 60 friends from those days – all to AIDS,” she says.
“I reached a point by the early 1990s when they had all gone. I remember them now.
“I had a lot of gay friends in theatre, like Richard Amsel, Ken Duncan, Tom Eyen, Peter Dallas and Ben Gillespie.
They have all died.
“I never thought it would happen. It seemed like a fun thing to do for them, to go along to the Baths and hear me sing.
“Do I feel guilty about it? Only in the sense that I made homosexuality seem like fun. I never took part, of course, but that became their meeting place.”
But Bette’s gay following at first was a relief after years of appearing old fashioned to those on the music scene in the 1960s.
“I was the opening act for other people, mostly comics,” she says “So I was not playing to people my own age.
“During the day, I watched the news as soldiers got killed in Vietnam. By night, I played to chubby people in fur coats.
“The audiences were wonderful, but they did not seem to know what was going on in the world. So it was a relief to be suddenly fashionable.”
Bette’s ambition knew no bounds in those days. She would do anything to get recognised.
She had dominated the 1970s with hit songs, Broadway shows and movies.
By the time she met husband Martin she was in her late 30s and her singing and movie career was the only life which mattered.
“I was supposed to be the funny one but he made me laugh,” she says.
“He tells jokes, pulls faces and does impersonations. It was a wake-up call to fall in love. It was a reality check from what I was doing and the way I was living.
I liked being vivid and vivacious when I was very young. But I had to realise that time was over and move on.
“I had lost my anger, thanks to success.
That anger comes from feeling you are being passed over or people are not paying attention. You can only stay on the road for so long, before alcohol and drugs start to seem like a lot of fun. I did not want that to happen.”
So she swapped the high life for home life. “I love my house and garden,” she says.
“I love to sew and bake. It keeps my feet on the ground.
“I wanted to have a family and a life and that family and life has made me feel young. But I am not self-effacing or modest about myself !”
She has since combined a booming career – including hit films Beaches and The First Wives Club – with a family life.
And the work has never stopped. She’s back on screen in the new romantic comedy Then She Found Me and has released a new CD, The Best Bette, of her 18 classic hits. She also has a two-year deal at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.
She travels between her New York home and Vegas to perform for two to four weeks at a time, to deliver her 20-week contract.
Elton John and Cher make up the rest of the year in what has become the world’s most famous hotel gig.
“I love to perform live,” says Bette. “If you can do it and enjoy it, then there is no better way to live. But there are too many young performers around who don’t speak to their audience.
“They say ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank you’ in between songs and that’s about it.
“The advantage of being around a long time, and building up an audience, is that they are with you and you have to treat them as friends.”
One former boss of 20th Century Fox said of Bette: “She is a superstar who connects emotionally with her audience as well as entertaining them.”
She says: “I know what my audience likes. What I like, they like. They are not a stupid lot. They like to be titillated and prodded. They laugh a lot, too, which is important. They are never quite sure what I am going to do or say – and neither am I.”
But when the show is over and the music has died, Bette Midler is more than happy to go back to being Mrs von Haselberg.