Return of the Divine Miss M

Return of the Divine Miss M
PUBLISHED: 22:05, Fri, Jul 10, 2015 | UPDATED: 22:37, Fri, Jul 10, 2015

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IN THE days when Michael Parkinson was the go-to interviewer for those wishing to launch their careers in Britain, one of his lesser known guests was a bosomy blonde performer with a mass of frizzy curls who won the audience over not only with her singing but also her razor sharp wit and gift for telling funny ”“ and often very risqué ”“ jokes.

The divine Bette Midler (for it was she) is again gracing our shores in her first concert tour in Britain for 35 years.

Yes, 35 years! What happened? No one seems to have an explanation, least of all Midler herself.

The good news is that at 69 she is still on tip-top form. The voice is as strong as ever (“Yes, I’m a belter”) and if anything she looks even better now.

The frizz has been tamed into soft, sophisticated curls, she is slim and fit and her eyes still crinkle up into slits when she laughs.

Those 35 absent years have hardly been idle for her. She has made films which have brought her two Oscar nominations and three Golden Globe awards.

She has continued making albums and sold 30 million of them.

The latest, a covers collection called It’s the Girls! was released last autumn and is Midler’s tribute to female performers down the ages.

Her tour is named the Divine Intervention Tour, which is perhaps her own grateful nod to the character she created who got her noticed.

The Divine Miss M was outrageously bawdy. “Bawdy! I love that word,” says Midler, who started out singing and telling stories in the Continental Baths, a Turkish bathhouse in New York frequented by gay men.

It was 1970 and she says she took the job because it paid $300 for two nights a week which was much better than the $200 a week she was getting for playing the eldest daughter in the original Broadway run of the musical Fiddler on the Roof.

The men always wore towels around their nether regions so as not to embarrass her but winning them over took a while.

“I tried everything. I even took the pillow cases off my couch and wrapped them round my head.”

But she didn’t care, she adds because she was “starving” for experience as much as anything.

And she did win them over.

Years later as she was arriving home she heard a voice call out “Hey, Bathhouse Betty!”, her nickname from those days which she also used in 1998 as an album title.

“I wear the label of Bathhouse Betty with pride. I feel like I was at the forefront of the gay liberation movement and I hope I did my part to help it move forward.”

MAKING an emotional connection with the audience is, she believes, the key to a long career – a fact that too few younger performers have grasped.

“I don’t see people reaching for the heart and soul of their listener these days. That’s distressing because music is supposed to move you and if people don’t achieve that they can’t really call themselves artists.”

Similarly, she despairs of the lack of work ethic.

“Now you feel entitled to it without working for it. No one wants to learn the game and plunge in before they are a star.”

She describes appearing on American Idol was “one of the worst experiences of my life”.

“It seems much more formulaic than it used to be and I’m not in the formula. People had more patience in the past. If you had one bad record they didn’t throw you out totally. If they really loved you, they would keep you on until you started having hits again.”

Her accompanist at the bathhouse was Barry Manilow, who produced her first album, inevitably titled The Divine Miss M in 1972 and went on to have his own big career as a performer as well as songwriter.

She has admitted they did not part on good terms but in 2003 he phoned her out of the blue, saying he had dreamt they should record a tribute to the film and singing star Rosemary Clooney Midler agreed as she had known Clooney well ”“ “She was the kindest person you could ever wish to meet” ”“ and duly made the album.

Two years later, Manilow had another dream and she recorded an album of Peggy Lee songs.

Midler was born in December 1945 in Honolulu, Hawaii, where her father worked as a painter on a US Navy base.

Bette worked in a pineapple canning factory until she went to New York at 19, determined to break into acting.

Her father disapproved but her mother, Ruth, was secretly delighted.

She had named her three daughters after her favourite film stars: Susan after Susan Hayward, Judy after Garland and Bette after Bette Davis (though she didn’t know Davis pronounced her first name “Betty”).

AFTER the bathhouse her rise was stratospheric.

She won a Grammy for The Divine Miss M, her first album, and an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a drug addicted rock singer in The Rose, her first film.

She followed up with successful comedies such as Down And Out in Beverly Hills and Ruthless People.

And then in 1988 came Beaches, the ultimate weepie film. The first time Midler heard Wind Beneath My Wings, she thought: “I’m not singing that!”

Luckily she changed her mind and it became her biggest-ever hit. She has acted with Woody Allen (Scenes From A Mall) and was even nominated for an Oscar again in the 1991 film For The Boys.

But there have been a fair few flops along the way too and she has no illusions about her film career.

When she hears of a film for which she might be suitable she throws her hat in the ring, although she turned down the Whoopi Goldberg role in Sister Act, but she knows her name is no longer at the top of any wish lists.

It means her career can seem rather patchwork. “I’ve dabbled,” she says.

“I’m easily distracted but always focused.” Besides, she adds, she has “a big life” away from the limelight.

Twenty years ago she started the New York Restoration Project with the aim of beautifying run-down spaces and buildings.

One of the community gardens was transformed by Alan Titchmarsh and his Ground Force team.

Since 1984 she has been married to investment analyst turned performance artist Martin von Haselberg, whose stage name is Harry Kipper.

Their daughter Sophie is 28 and has embarked on an acting career, much to her mother’s surprise.

“She had a big life. She went to China, studied, travelled there, learned Chinese, worked there. Then she comes back and says she’s going to drama school.”

Most performers profess a desire to die with their boots on, in the job.

Not Midler: “Of course I’m going to retire!” She has reached that happy place where she feels no need to keep proving herself.

“It’s the most liberating thing,” she says.

“I do what I do because I love it. If people don’t like it, it’s not going to destroy me. I haven’t shamed anybody. It was a wonderful life I had. I think I did good with it.”

Miss M, you were divine.

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One thought on “Return of the Divine Miss M

  1. If they really loved you, they would keep you on until you started having hits again. Her accompanist at the bathhouse was Barry Manilow, who produced her first album, inevitably titled The Divine Miss M in 1972 and went on to have his own big career as a performer as well as songwriter.

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