Gay Icons: Bette Midler and Cher
By Jim Koury
June 1, 2019
There are a plethora of female singers from the 1970s who can be classified as “Gay Icons.” In the 1970s, women began changing the lyrics of sugary love songs to tunes of independence. Women weren’t just singing men’s songs; women were writing their own hits. It was the 1970s that we were introduced to Linda Rondstadt, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Carole King, Debbie Harry, and many others. Personally, I call them “Women With Attitude;” their persona on stage gave the fans the feeling that they would kick your butt in an alley if you messed with them.
In music, there are two specific women of the 1970s who define sibling rivalry and yet hold the high standards of a Gay Icon. Who are they?
GAY ICONS: BETTE MIDLER and CHER
Bette Midler began her illustrious career in the late 1960s, playing small roles on Broadway shows as Fiddler On The Roof and Salvation. But it was 1970 when she made the decision to perform at the Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse in the Ansonia hotel. Accompanied by pianist Barry Manilow, it was there that she began to build her core following of gay men. She appreciated the audience of gay men, draped in towels and disrupting their “visiting hours” to watch her perform. It was here where Bette developed her “Divine Miss M” persona, one that she still uses today.
In the late 1990s, during the release of her album Bathhouse Betty, she commented about her time there (Houston Voice, 1998):
“Despite the way things turned out [with the AIDS crisis], I’m still proud of those days. I feel like I was at the forefront of the gay liberation movement, and I hope I did my part to help move it forward. So, I kind of wear the label of ‘Bathhouse Betty’ with pride.”Bette Midler
The Divine Ms. M always had an edgy performance to her, making racy jokes at her concerts that would make parents cringe and leave the children at home. Her provocative wardrobe was flashy, and while she never exposed any nude part of her body, one would leave her show thinking she did. Bette has mellowed over the years, starring in a string of Disney films, as well as contemporary classics like The Rose, Beaches, Hocus Pocus, and The First Wives Club. She has become an Emmy, Grammy and most recently, a Tony Award winner. However, she has never lost her essence. She still speaks her mind (check out her twitter feed). And she is at the forefront of many LGBT events and charities.
Cher had a different start of her career, yet she’s become an Icon of Gay Icons. Beginning in the 1960s, Cher was a part of the pop scene with her then-husband Sonny Bono, forming the team Sonny and Cher. With some hits like “I Got You Babe” and “The Beat Goes On,” Cher and Sonny moved to television, and the famous Bob Mackie dressed Cher in provocative gowns that turned heads of many. Always lacking confidence, Cher’s new attention gave her the self-confidence that she needed to end her marriage and start a new career on her own, winning her self an Oscar, Emmy, and Grammy awards.
Cher became a friend of the LGBT community not only for her music but also her costumes; her leather “drag” costumes of the 1980s made her extremely popular in the leather crowd. She is one of the most imitated people among drag queens. Cher was one of the first people to bring drag to mainstream media, hiring two drag queens to perform with her at her Las Vegas residency in 1979. With a transgender son (Chaz Bono), lesbian role (Silkwood), constant contributor and supporter of the LGBT community, Cher has forever transfixed herself to Gay Icon status.
Over the years, there have been numerous reports that there was a feud between the two women to a level of hatred (similar to Bette Davis and Joan Crawford). However, documentation speaks otherwise. While the two make sarcastic hits at one another, the two have also shared warm and loving stories performing on Cher’s TV show in the 1970s, and spending time visiting each other. (Recently, Bette has started an online campaign to get Cher inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame.)
They may not be the best of friends, of Bette Midler and Cher are friends to our community, and Gay Icons of our generation.