With a new album, a new tour and plans to travel the world, why life is still utterly divine for Bette Midler
After a gap of more than 30 years Bette Midler will play the UK next year. Andy Welch and Katie Wright find out what’s she’s been up in the interim
18 DECEMBER 2014
Next July, Bette Midler will play a string of gigs across the UK, her first here since 1980. A second date had to be added in London after the first sold out, so why has she been away so long? Was it something we said?
“No, no, no,” insists Midler, who is perched on a sofa in a plush London hotel suite. “I wanted to come, but I guess life interfered.”
To be fair, the artist, also known as The Divine Miss M – the title of her 1972 debut album – has been pretty busy.
As well as racking up a trio of Grammy Awards and selling more than 30 million records worldwide, she has proved her acting chops, starring in comedies like The First Wives Club and Hocus Pocus, not to mention the ultimate tearjerker Beaches, for which she also recorded her most famous ballad, Wind Beneath My Wings.
In terms of music and movie success, only Cher can really rival the Hawaii-born performer.
Midler hasn’t shied away from the stage, either. She completed a two-year stint of nightly live performances in Vegas in 2010, a time she looks back on as “the most beautiful show I ever did. That means a lot to me”.
Not that she misses the gruelling schedule.
“It was hard work,” she recalls. “I had a little adrenal failure, where you just can’t get up every night. I was having a lot of Vitamin B12 shots to get through it.” More recently, Miss M has been back in the studio, recording It’s The Girls!, an album of girl group covers. It’s an idea that she jokes has been “floating around since 1871 or something”.
Featuring ladies-only tracks from the Thirties onwards, Midler says she wanted the production style to reflect the Sixties girl group heyday.
“It was rough back in those days. The music had an immediacy, because it wasn’t processed, and that’s part of the charm, selling the music to teenagers because they sounded like teenagers.”
So does the 69-year-old think her voice can cope with such a youthful sound?
“There are certain parts of my voice that sound very young. I never smoked like a real fiend, so I didn’t lose the top end of my voice. You can keep your high voice, but you have to look after yourself.
“I run on the treadmill. And it’s only for the pumps – I don’t care whether I’m thin or fat, but I care about whether the lungs are working to drive the voice.
“It’s like a car, you have to take care of it, clean those spark plugs, baby!” she adds, laughing.
Whatever Midler’s doing, it’s clearly working; it’s hard to believe that the slender, 5ft 1in singer is heading for her eighth decade.
Nibbling on macadamia nuts and apricots during our chat (which she happily shares), Midler tells me she keeps up with contemporary music, too, and chose all the modern tracks on the album, like TLC’s Waterfalls, herself. In fact, she wishes she’d been able to do more.
“I was going to do Bills, Bills, Bills by Destiny’s Child, because I love it.”
The R’n’B hit didn’t make the final cut, but she says she’s a huge fan of “fantastic” Destiny’s Child.
“They were the last of the girl groups. I can’t think of another group that had their power. They had the close harmonies and the attitude to go with it. It’s otherworldly what Beyonce can do.”
She professes her admiration for “divine” Nicole Scherzinger, too, but Midler doesn’t feel the love for all the female artists in the charts today. She hit headlines recently when, during an interview, she criticised 21-year-old pop star Ariana Grande for “slithering around on a couch, looking so ridiculous”.
But the pair soon made up, after Grande responded on Twitter saying she’s “always a fan no matter what”, and Midler replied asking for forgiveness.
Right now, the universally adored star is focusing on the future and next year’s transatlantic tour.
“It’s a way off yet, so I’ll be getting ready for the most of 2015,” she says. “People here are real music fans. They like that I tell jokes on stage, they like the entertainment, but really they want a music show.
“And you guys get the music hall element of it all. You have that old showbiz tradition. In the States, a lot of people think what I’m doing is brand new but it’s so very, very old. I’m grateful to come to a place where this all makes sense, without having to explain it.”
As usual for an artist of advanced years, rumour has it this will be Miss M’s farewell tour. Are the whispers true?
“I don’t know. Possibly,” she admits. “I don’t know how wise it is to go on forever. If the spirit is willing and the flesh is strong, then go for it, but if something is holding you back, you shouldn’t be chained to the idea that you can’t retire.
“There are people who come alive when they think about the possibilities of travelling in their retirement.”
One of those people is Midler herself, who talks animatedly about a trip to Mexico City last year.
“My whole life, people have been telling me not to go, that it’s polluted and filthy, but going there was the greatest thing that ever happened to me.
“It wasn’t the cleanest place I’ve ever been, it certainly has major problems with inequality, but there was a vibrancy there and the food was fantastic, and the art and the history are overwhelming.”
The trip was an eye-opener. Despite touring the globe for decades, Midler now realises she actually saw very little.
“Nothing. I saw the inside of every hotel, a studio, and sound stages … but didn’t see anything.”
It sounds as though Midler quite fancies spending her dotage on a grown-up gap year, roaming the globe.
The next stop after this brief promotional stop in London is Asia, and she can’t wait. “We are going to India – I’ve seen the photos of the place and I’m beside myself with joy.”
With such a serious case of the travel bug, it’s hard to imagine Midler returning to the stage after next summer.
A safe bet would be to snap up a ticket now, and catch The Divine Miss M while you still can.
Bette Midler’s new album It’s The Girls! is out now. For tour dates and locations, visit www.bettemidler.com
From humble beginnings to superstar
Born in December, 1945, in Honolulu, Hawaii to a seamstress mother and a painter father
She was named after actress Bette Davis, though unlike the Hollywood icon she only uses one syllable to pronounce her name
Began her professional career in Off-Off-Broadway plays before taking on roles on Broadway in Fiddler on the Roof and Salvation on Broadway in the late 1960s
Came to prominence in 1970 when she began singing in the Continental Baths, a local gay bathhouse, where she managed to build up a core following
Her career has seen her release 13 studio albums as a solo artist, featuring hits such as The Rose and From a Distance
Married artist Martin von Haselberg in 1984, and their daughter, Sophie was born in 1986
From music to movies
1970s: released her debut album The Divine Miss M in 1972, and made her feature film debut in 1979 drama The Rose
1980s: showed off her comedy skills in Down And Out In Beverly Hills (1986) and made cinemagoers weep buckets in 1988 tearjerker Beaches (1988), with its accompanying hit song Wind Beneath My Wings
1990s: in 1990, she released a cover of Julie Gold’s From A Distance, which became a massive hit. But her turn in the drama Stella, the same year, earned her a Razzie nomination for worst actress
2000s: she landed her very own sitcom, Bette, in 2000. It was cancelled a year later, but she kept busy with appearances in romcom What Women Want (2000), The Stepford Wives (2004), and a Las Vegas stint, entitled The Showgirl Must Go On
2010s: in 2012, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Songwriters Hall Of Fame. Also that year, she appeared in the Billy Crystal family comedy Parental Guidance