BetteBack: Camp For A Cause

New York Times
PARTY PLANNING WITH: Bette Midler; From Queen of Trash to Queen of Clean

LIKE Ziegfeld making an inspection in size 6 Bottega Veneta flats, Bette Midler paraded through the workrooms of a set-construction studio on West 22d Street, stopping to glue a gold paillette on a floral backdrop already blooming in sequins. Pleased with the paint crew’s progress, she wandered over to a worktable to try on a pair of white feather, angel-wing opera gloves last seen at a Victoria’s Secret fashion show.

”Those are very Harlette-y,” the singer said, referring to the Harlettes, her famously tawdry backup group. Then she spotted some foam spider costumes being built for an Eliot Feld ballet. She made a mental note to call the choreographer. Perhaps the oversize arachnids could be incorporated into her latest extravaganza, too.

Creating a hubbub on a rainy afternoon, Ms. Midler was not preparing for a concert tour in support of her latest album, ”Bathhouse Betty” — that’s still months away. She was working on another ambitious undertaking: the stage set for Hulaween II: The Sequel, also known as the Makeover Ball. The evening, to be held Friday, is a benefit for the New York Restoration Project, an urban beautification group Ms. Midler founded in 1994. Determined to outdo last year’s Polynesian-style dinner-dance, which raised $1 million, Ms. Midler and her cohorts are transforming the ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria into a hellish version of Canyon Ranch crossed with a batty Betty Ford Clinic.

”We’re calling it the Hootz Spa,” Ms. Midler said. This year guests who ante up $500 to $2,500 a plate will find themselves in a cooler clime than last year’s Big Island soiree — somewhere between Baden-Baden and Worsen-Worsen. ”We have the pampering, with a horrible twist,” Ms. Midler said. ”It’s very sort of Northern, Swiss, Austrian — I hate to say German. It’s kind of ‘The Island of Dr. Morose.’ ” The expected 1,200 guests are being encouraged to ”come as you wish you were,” to drink ”colla-gin and tonics” and to feast on Dermabraised Chicken, Ebola Soup and Mad Cow Pies with members of the Von Trapped Family Singers.

Call it camp for a cause.

A singer whose most enduring stage persona is that of a disco-loving mermaid in a wheelchair, Ms. Midler has grafted the flamboyant sensibility of her concerts onto what could have been a staid, nature-lover’s bene fit. The Makeover Ball, like the first Hulaween, may not be the largest fund-raiser, but it is one of the quirkiest. Where else can Manhattan’s greenest swells (swellest greens?) bid on plastic surgery consultations, with Rosie O’Donnell serving as auctioneer?

Last year’s luau-themed event, also held at the Waldorf, was like prom night at Trader Vic’s crossed with Honolulu’s tourist-y Kodak Hula Show. Ms. Midler, who grew up in Hawaii, performed not only her hits but also her infamously ribald version of the ”Hawaiian War Chant,” recorded on her 1977 album ”Live at Last.” As she erupted into song so did the stage. ”We were very proud of our volcano,” she said.

For the Makeover Ball, her costume will likely be a kind of vaudeville variation on nurse’s whites. Last week, she visited Parson-Meares Ltd., a costume shop on West 19th Street, where she was fitted in a low-cut uniform with a short crinoline skirt and a matching nurse’s cap. ”People want me to come in a fat suit, but I don’t know if I want to go that far,” Ms. Midler said.

Ms. Midler has always pushed the boundaries of taste. Before her movie success in such 1980’s comedies as ”Ruthless People” and ”Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” she built her career on outrageousness. She got her start playing to towel-clad gay men at New York’s Continental Baths in the 70’s. In further camp displays, she has emerged from a clam shell on national television and sung ”Lullaby of Broadway” while perched in King Kong‘s hairy hand,

The outlandish nature of Friday’s Makeover Ball is pure Midler, too. She chose the benefit’s cosmetic theme because ”makeovers are on everyone’s minds these days, and it’s so cheap and cheesy,” she said. ”I love it when the people being made over look better before some crew got a hold of them.” As for plastic surgery, Ms. Midler said: ”People just love it. I think it’s a scream.” Asked if she herself has gone under the knife, the actress turned coy. ”I had a wart removed,” she said. ”I had an ingrown toenail removed. I have a very dainty Caesarean scar. . . . ”

She is ”conflicted” about her own exotic features, she said, quickly adding: ”Everyone in our society is conflicted. I’ve made my peace with myself. I like stylishness way more than prettiness anyway.” On stage, however, Ms. Midler is always proclaiming her beauty. ”I look good,” was the refrain of her last concert tour. ”The limelight is very forgiving. The lights are really bright and the audience is really far away.”

With the Makeover Ball and her new album, Ms. Midler is returning to her roots as an entertainer. ”Bathhouse Betty,” her first CD for Warner Brothers after decades with Atlantic, harks back to her earliest recordings. She got the title when a drunken fan outside her California beach house started shouting for Bathhouse Betty to come out and play. ”He was loaded,” she said. ”It was Laguna. You know how they get.”

Her new label asked for a more eclectic CD than her last, ”Bette of Roses,” a collection of romantic ballads released in 1995. ”I said: ‘You want variety? Well, stand back!’ ” Ms. Midler recalled. The new CD includes a 1925 Hawaiian ditty and some light rap amid songs written by such heartbreak heavyweights as Leonard Cohen, Carole King and Ben Folds. Billboard magazine called the aural smorgasbord ”a testament to Midler’s immense talents.”

Although pleased about the good reviews, Ms. Midler still proudly calls herself the Queen of Trash. Her next movie is a bio-pic about the potboiling author Jacqueline Susann. And she considers her greatest achievement to be the work her Restoration Project has done to spruce up New York, particularly the north side of Fort Tryon park, above the Cloisters. A staff of 50 workers has removed 2,000 tons of debris, including cars, refrigerators, and 2,000 tires from project sites in northern Manhattan and Long Island. ”I cried when I saw it,” she said. ”It’s 4,000 percent better.”

Parks and Recreation Commissioner Henry J. Stern said, ”Ms. Midler is doing in the 90’s for the parks of northern Manhattan what was done in the 70’s for Central Park. . We think she’s divine.”

Sounding like Auntie Mame on a Martha Stewart bender, Ms. Midler said her dream was to turn New York into a city as glorious with greenery as Paris. ”Where are the Luxembourg Gardens?” she asked. ”Where’s L’Orangerie? Where’s ours?”

With manic zeal and a chunk of her own money, the adoptive mother to several stretches of metro-area highway has been working toward that goal since she, her husband Martin Von Hasselberg and their daughter, Sophie, moved back from Los Angeles in 1994. Ms. Midler, whose organization has raised $2.5 million for renewal projects, said she has wanted to clean up the city for 26 years. ”I tried to do garbage in 1972,” she said. ”I asked John Lindsay and he turned me down because he thought I only wanted publicity.” Her idea was to pay the city to put her logo on garbage trucks and get others to do the same.

Ms. Midler is not sure the war on garbage is winnable. But what the heck. ”You just can’t lie down and not put up a fight,” she said. ”Nature is the only place where you can gather yourself again. It makes you human again. I actually believe that when people are on a beautiful highway they feel better. I think they’re kinder to their fellow man.” She is positively Capra-esque. A spotless New York ”might just be a dream, but so what?” she said, adding: ”Someone has to make a stab at it. I’m waiting for these big machers to join in. Any celebrities worth their salt should find themselves a park. Yesterday, I sold Larry King a mile.”

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