‘I may look good to you â€“ but I’m held together with spit and glue’: Touring Britain for the first time in 35 years, Bette Midler says age is finally taking its toll – and she might be ready to call it a day
By RICHARD BARBER FOR THE DAILY MAIL
PUBLISHED: 17:31 EST, 10 July 2015 | UPDATED: 17:31 EST, 10 July 2015
Bette Midler is back in Britain touring for the first time in 35 years. At the age of 69 she’s spent a lifetime performing since she first sang for a crowd in her native Hawaii as a young teenager. But if you’ve ever dreamed of seeing the Divine Miss M do what she does best you might want to track down a ticket sharpish, because this may well be the last time she ever graces a stage.
Sitting in her elegant Mayfair hotel suite today, Bette is indeed looking divine in an all-black ensemble with an ash-blonde updo swept off her remarkably unlined face. (‘I’m not saying I’ve had work done and I’m not saying I haven’t,’ she says with a characteristic twinkle.)
And then the bombshell. ‘The stage has always been my home,’ she says. ‘Centre stage is where I feel most at ease. It’s the essential me, who I really am. And that’s been so ever since I first stepped on a stage aged 14. I love the limelight although I’m kind of sanguine about when it’s time to edge away.
‘There’s Bette the performer and then there’s the Bette who’s the much more contained, private person. Having said that, I feel the two characters are now merging. And as much as I love what I do, the spirit may still be willing but the flesh is beginning to fall to pieces. I may look pretty good to you right now but I’m held together with spit and glue.’
Performers don’t really give up performing though, do they? She arches an eyebrow. ‘Oh, I think they do. I might stop at some point. I’m coming to the end of the line. I have to admit it. When you have more of the road behind you than ahead, it becomes a very focusing thing. You start thinking about the world. I’ve never been to Africa or South America. I’ve never seen a rhinoceros. I’m not saying that entertainment is a childish thing but, in time, you do grow up. I’ve achieved my childhood dream. Now the dream is just about over. I’m still alive, still vibrant. I’d like to see what other dreams I can come up with.’
She began to realise that childhood dream just shy of her 20th birthday, when she made her mind up to leave the family home in Honolulu and head for New York â€“ a total culture shock. ‘I wanted to be in the theatre, to be a part of those things I’d seen in magazines. But when I got there, there was a garbage strike and I was walking along between piles of rubbish 10ft high. It was a very steep learning curve. But I believed with all my heart that something was going to happen. And it did.’ At first she stayed with an aunt in New Jersey and then a month later a girlfriend from back home showed up.
‘We shared a room in a real fleabag hotel but we didn’t care. I just knew that if I kept on going, I would get somewhere.’ So all of this was character-forming? ‘I have to tell you, I had a lot of character before I came to New York. I started earning my own money from the age of 15. If I wanted new shoes, I had no choice. We were poor. My mother had to feed six hungry mouths on $60 [Â£20] a week. My parents would say, ‘Girl, you’d better get used to this. You’re going to have to work for a living. You’re not going to get married. Who’s going to marry you?’ Thank you so much, Mom and Pop.’
As it happens, Bette didn’t get married until she was 39. ‘I wasn’t looking. I’d first met this guy [performance artist Martin von Haselberg] in 1982. Two years later he called me â€“ and we married six weeks later. We celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary last December.’ Two years after they married their daughter Sophie arrived. Can Bette ever imagine allowing her to head out alone into the big bad world at 19?
‘Listen, my daughter went to China when she wasn’t much older than that. She’s way more intrepid than I am. She’s fearless. When she came back, fluent in the language, she announced she was going to be an actor, enrolled at drama school and now she’s got a small part in the next Woody Allen film. At first we wanted to protect her from all the things that can happen to you but she seems to have taken wing so we’re very happy, very proud. I never ask about grandchildren. You can’t. But that doesn’t mean you can’t daydream.’
It never occurred to her that she’d have a child. ‘I’d had a full life before Sophie came along. I was 41 when she arrived â€“ by Caesarean section. I was in the midst of this gigantic thing I’d built, my empire. So it came as a total surprise and I was so happy. So was my husband. We wouldn’t be the same people without Sophie.’
She was already an established star when she and Martin, now 66, became an item. Not everyone, of course, could handle being Mr Bette Midler. But Bette says, ‘He’s the Rock of Gibraltar. I couldn’t live without him. He knows who he is. If someone calls him Mr Midler, he just rolls his eyes. Sometimes, people call me Mrs Midler. I don’t know who that is. I’m not married to my dad. And they spell my name wrong all the time.’
Theirs is a solid marriage. ‘But you have to work at it. At the first sign of trouble, too many people these days cut and run. Staying together requires character. You have to hang on in there. Of course there are really awful bits but there are really good bits, too. We don’t always see eye to eye but I’ve learned to pick my fights.
‘My husband always says to me, ‘Don’t give anybody any advice because you don’t have a clue.’ And I’ve finally come to accept that he’s right. So I’ve stopped trying to get on a soapbox. I’m not a therapist. I’m a hard-working mum. Or as I describe myself on my Twitter page I’m a pensive nymph, hausfrau and martyr. That’s who I am.’
She also believes in fidelity. ‘I read the Bible from time to time and the Bible is very big on fidelity. I’ve always been monogamous. I’m a very faithful, loyal person. I’ve had people working with me for 20, 30, 40 years. I’ve always tried to surround myself with decent people. I don’t want the drama. I’m like Obama: no drama. As Flaubert said, ‘Be orderly in your life so you can be original in your art.’ And that is how I’ve chosen to live my life.’
It was her new album It’s The Girls!, released last November, that persuaded Bette to play in Britain again after so long. ‘It pays homage to great girl groups like the Ronettes, the Chiffons and the Exciters,’ she explains. ‘I was thrilled with the end result so I thought it would be fun to sell some records. These were songs I’d covered in my shows down the years so I knew them all backwards, all the parts, all the harmonies.’ Some, like Baby It’s You and One Fine Day, are as fresh as the originals. Others, like Bette’s reworking of TLC’s Waterfalls, make you hear the song for the first time.
This tour is a far cry from her last outing, a two-year stint in Las Vegas from 2008 to 2010 where she did five shows a week for 20 weeks at a time. ‘That was 100 shows a year. It was like Groundhog Day. Towards the end I was starting to go stir crazy but then it was made worse by the financial crash. Vegas turned into a ghost town overnight. People just packed up their cars and abandoned their houses. Although we still sold tickets, I got very stressed out. My contract was for 250 shows, but as we approached the 200 mark I told them I didn’t think I could carry on and they were kind enough to let me go.’
Meanwhile, she’s found fulfilment through her work with the New York Restoration Project. ‘Since 1995, we’ve planted a million trees. We own 52 community gardens. We’ve hauled tons and tons of trash out of public parks and open spaces. Essentially, we’ve helped make people aware in poor neighbourhoods that nature is all around them and they’re the stewards of that nature. I’m not the only one who did this but I was in the vanguard and I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved. We look after the forgotten places. Any time left over from singing, dancing and keeping the hair on my head is given to this project.’
So would she say she’s a happy woman? ‘You’re looking at a woman in a state of flux. Every cell is changing in my body, even as we speak.’ She chuckles, gets up and shakes my hand. Our conversation is over. As I head for the door, she stops me in my tracks. ‘You have my permission,’ she says, ‘to make me sound funnier than I am.’