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Setting up an audience with the showbusiness behemoth that is Bette Midler is an unnerving experienceâ€¦ for all the right reasons. Let me explain.
When interviewing the famous – especially those of Midler’s calibre – there’s often a life-draining ritual that must be negotiated before the golden ticket is granted. This usually involves calls from a sycophantic entourage demanding to see questions in advance, veiled warnings that straying into “personal” territory may constitute an “international incident” and countless last-minute cancellations before it actually happens.
There’s none of that nonsense with Bette. Maybe because she’s old-school, smart and not afraid to express an opinion. Or maybe it’s simply that she’s got nothing to prove. She exploded onto the 1970s scene in the guise of The Divine Miss M with her meshuggah “mermaid in a wheelchair” act, (eat your heart out Lady Gaga), belting out Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy and telling dirty gags (too dirty to repeat in a family newspaper).
Since then, in a career spanning almost half a century, she’s been twice Oscar-nominated (The Rose and For the Boys), won four Golden Globes, multiple Emmys and Grammys, sold over 30 million albums and is responsible for one of the greatest anthems of all time – Wind Beneath My Wings – from one of the greatest chick flicks ever – Beaches. Enough already.
Even more impressively, when Midler, 68, calls from her home in New York, she’s so on the dot, you could set the speaking clock by her.
She’s surprisingly softly spoken and seems shy and nervous, in contrast to her brash onstage persona. But it doesn’t last for long. We’re here to talk about her long-awaited new album, It’s The Girls, her first studio album in eight years. It’s her homage to girl groups like The Shirelles and The Ronettes who have been a constant inspiration.
“I’ve always loved that kind of music and it seems to be in the zeitgeist now. I shouldn’t be so pompous but I think people need this music at the moment. It’s joyous, makes you dance and has a wholesome quality that you don’t get to feel any more. I’m full of adoration for those women and there were so many unsung heroes. I don’t think we’ll ever see their like again.”
Talking of which, Midler seems to be one of a dying breed who values the importance of connecting with an audience through her music â€“ and her shtick.
“Oh, I don’t think connecting with an audience is something that most of today’s young artists consider. Just as most of them don’t speak when they work, if they ever talk they’ll say ‘Hello London’ and that’s it.
“They don’t see that talking is something that brings an audience closer to you, so they have no real sense of who they are as people. They don’t realise they have to bring some personal charm – and that’s entertaining. Especially those kids on American Idol. At Motown, they had charm school, maybe I should start my own!”
Easy for her to say. Charm, chutzpah and personality is something she seems to have been born with. And it clearly helped in her journey from small-town Hawaiian girl and one-time “chief chunker” in a pineapple canning factory to New York’s gay Continental Baths where Barry Manilow became her accompanist, when she invented The Divine Miss M andâ€¦ well, you know the rest.
Midler’s parents Fred, a house painter, and Ruth, a seamstress, were both from immigrant families and relocated from New Jersey to Hawaii before she was born. There’s still sadness in her voice when she recalls their reaction to her leaving home for New York at 19.
“They were horrified when I announced I wanted to go into showbusiness. My mother thought it was a fantastic idea but she was afraid for me. My father thought it was horrible and insane. He loved me but, until the day he died, I think he thought it was a total waste of time, that I should have been a teacher or a nurse or something like that.
“When people are really poor – and we were really poor – you ask ‘what can I do to get myself out of this situation?’ I had tried other things. I went to college, I had a job at a radio station, but I couldn’t really follow instructions, although I could give orders. So I had to make my own way. I was completely fearless because I was young and had the self-belief and energy to make it happen. It’s only when you get a little bit older that the doubt sets in and you think ‘what’s coming to me now?’ ”
Despite her hard graft to get to the top, Midler says the thought of starting out as a singer today terrifies her.
“I wouldn’t even want to hazard it. The music business is so treacherous and crowded. There’s people who can barely sing, but that doesn’t stop them. I was listening to one today – who shall remain nameless – and I thought, ‘how does she have the balls to open her mouth?’ It defies belief. I know I sound ancient, but who gives a s**t? Now I’m old, I can say anything I damn well please.”
As we speak, she’s preparing to take on the role of feisty Mae West, in a new TV biopic. However, it’s her role as self-obsessed but vulnerable diva CC Bloom in the 1988 film Beaches that defines her.
“No one was more surprised than me at how the film found a place in the hearts of so many generations. I think that’s not only due to the relationship between the two women but the song Wind Beneath My Wings had a lot to do with it.”
Intriguingly, she reveals she almost never recorded the song, written by Jeff Silbar and Larry Henley. It was brought to her attention by her long-time producer, arranger and friend, Marc Shaiman. An esteemed composer and lyricist, himself, he penned the music and co-wrote lyrics for the hit musical Hairspray.
Despite her huge achievements – which include founding the successful New York Restoration Project, which regenerates urban spaces for the community – it’s her role as wife and mother that she values above everything.
Next month, Midler celebrates her 30th wedding anniversary with her husband, performance artist Martin Von Haselberg.
She chuckles at the suggestion that by showbusiness standards, her marriage deserves its own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
“There are so many secrets: Patience; not losing your temperâ€¦ Marriage is a hard proposition and you have to be willing to make sacrifices and to compromise and it has to be worth it. A lot of people don’t think that, so they get divorced. But we thought it was worth it, we had our daughter (Sophie, 28), we kept ploughing through and we’re in heaven, because we came out the other side.
“Sophie’s so smart she speaks German and Mandarin and studied and lived in China for a while. Now she’s back and has just graduated from Yale drama school. She’s going to be an actress. What a thrill! She’s a real good person, too. I think what we did right was that we paid attention and we listened. We let go of our preconceived notions and e treated her as though she had worth and that what she was saying was right. We’re so proud of her.”
I’m sure Sophie feels the same. After all, she couldn’t have any more “divine” inspiration than her mother.
‘It’s the Girls’ is on East West Records.