The Wind Beneath Her Wings: Bette Midler on the Rise and Reign of Michael Kors
OCTOBER 18, 2018
By BETTE MIDLER
Michael Kors is what every young designer wants to grow up to be: a gajillionaire.
There, I’ve said it—but let me add that I don’t think there’s a single soul who would begrudge him a nickel of that. He made it the old-fashioned way—by working hard and using every ounce of his enormous talent, his intelligence, and his radiant good humor to lift him to the top of a business based on dreams and that most ephemeral of things: beauty.
It was many, many years ago that I first encountered Michael, on the island of Capri, at the sidewalk bar in front of the Grand Hotel Quisisana. (I mean, of course it would be Capri—doesn’t it make perfect sense? Just look at his ads! Everyone in them is either on their way there or just returning from a brief rendezvous—private jets, yachts, great clothes, and a little mischief.) There he was at a tiny outdoor table, wearing a turquoise linen shirt the color of his eyes and surrounded by a group of people clutching their sides with laughter. He left his table, bounded up to me and introduced himself, and I fell in love then and there.
This was before Michael became known around the world as the hilarious judge of Project Runway, where, season after season, the young (and youngish) designers tried their best to impress. I think people tuned in mostly to hear what Michael would say about the various outfits that came strutting or stumbling down the catwalk week after week. Critically, he always hit the nail on the head, but he did it with panache, and somehow managed to be funny rather than cruel. Of course, this endeared him to all of us watching: Those poor hopefuls could have been any of us! Who knew fashion could be so much fun (and so much hard work)?
Now the world recognizes Michael as a wildly successful designer—not just of fashion but of what is essentially a lifestyle brand, with 1,000 stores around the world. His fashion shows are a perennial top ticket, and every year brings new accolades. I am so happy for him—many people are, because he has done the impossible: He has made a success without sacrificing a scintilla of either his honor or his vision; he has remained human (and hilarious) and has earned our love and devotion by making us all feel good.
When I returned to New York City after nearly 20 years in L.A., I found myself on the Upper East Side with nothing to wear. Aiuto! I was unprepared for how many benefits and public appearances made up “the season” in New York, and found it not just daunting but horrifyingly expensive. I ran from one designer to another but still looked underdone. Then I remembered Michael. Not only was he delighted to help, but he put me at ease by showing me how I could make a big splash with very little effort. (There’s nothing that appeals to me more.) Before I knew it, I was in possession of beautiful sheath dresses and sparkling skirts worn with low-cut sweaters—a perfect mix of formal and informal. One skirt in particular, which he had had made in India, was composed mostly of silver crystals and was see-through up to the thighs, where it zigzagged around the body—a knockout. Years later, I still wear most of those clothes.
There is, however,
I remember the AIDS crisis in the beginning of the eighties vividly. It was a time of true horror for the gay community, which had done so much for me—a cascade of confusion and terror with no end in sight and no interest or help from the federal government. Everywhere was death and rumors of death—of friends, colleagues, stars in their fields, people we loved and admired, with whom we worked or who lived next door. It was unbearable. I lost my two best friends to AIDS, along with so many more that I lost count. For years, funerals and memorials made up my social life.
Michael was proactive. After first volunteering in the kitchen of God’s Love, he quickly became their vocal advocate—putting himself right in the trenches of the crisis to bring actual relief to the suffering. Michael worked with God’s Love for 20 years before joining the board, where he has served for the past five years. In 2015, with the help of many donors and a very significant contribution from Michael and Lance, the organization’s brand-new, state-of-the-art building opened in SoHo.In 2013, after years of learning about the effects of hunger on children’s lives, Michael entered into a long-term partnership with the United Nations World Food Programme. His Watch Hunger Stop campaign has delivered more than seventeen million meals to hungry children through the WFP’s school-meals program—a primary reason parents send their children to school in countries including Cambodia, Nicaragua, Uganda, and Mozambique. For all of these efforts, Michael was named a Global Ambassador Against Hunger for the United Nations World Food Programme in 2015, and in 2016 he was awarded the McGovern-Dole Leadership Award for outstanding contributions to ending world hunger.
I may as well confess: I, too, have a nonprofit—not quite as well known, but certainly every bit as meaningful to me. It’s called the New York Restoration Project, and it’s devoted to keeping parks and gardens in all five boroughs of New York clean, green, and accessible to all. We have been in business for nearly 24 years and have removed tons of garbage from public parks; we have built parks; and we are the proud owners of 52 community gardens, where people grow their own food and hold outdoor events in their neighborhoods. NYRP is a great organization—but a tough sell! (Want to clear a room faster than a 110-slide PowerPoint? Just say the words clean, green, open space!)
Of the 52 gardens we bought in 1999, most have been renovated, and all are in public use. Michael and Lance have been staunch supporters of NYRP for 21 years; in fact, they adopted a garden, the Essex Street Community Garden in Brooklyn. I was at that garden’s opening, and everyone was in tears. The lot had always been in use, but now it is beautiful. Michael has been on our board for six years, and every year at our chief fund-raiser, Hulaween (Halloween with a Hawaiian twist, natch), he re-creates his duties from Project Runway by serving as our costume judge. (We have had some unusual categories: My favorite is What the Hell Were You Thinking? You can only imagine.)
All politics is local, as the saying goes, and most charity and philanthropy are, too. What you do on your block, and in your town, matters. Eleanor Roosevelt said a mature person is one “who walks humbly and deals charitably with the circumstances of life, knowing that in this world all of us need both love and charity.” By this definition, Michael and Lance are surely two of the most mature people you are likely to encounter, wise in the ways of what it requires to be at peace with yourself. They are a light in this world—and isn’t that why we are all here?