What You Don’t Know About Bette Midler
BY MEG WALTERS
SEPT. 29, 2022
What You Don’t Know About Bette Midler: Few people can claim to have truly earned the label of “icon,” and Bette Midler is one of those few. The actress and singer’s name has become synonymous with Broadway and Hollywood excellence throughout her decades-long career. After first appearing on the New York scene in off-off-Broadway plays, Midler shot to prominence as a gay icon when she landed a gig singing in the famous Continental Baths and then released her debut album, “The Divine Miss M.” Since then, she has appeared on stage in musicals like “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Hello, Dolly!,” on TV in shows like her self-named sitcom “Bette” and “The Politician,” and in films like “Beaches,” ‘Hocus Pocus” and “The First Wives Club.” She also went on to release 13 more studio albums. Over the years, she has racked up two Tonys, two Emmys, and three Golden Globes.
As of 2022, the legendary performer is nearing retirement. As she told Parade, “I’m 75. I don’t have the impulse to prove myself anymore. I feel like ‘I did that.'” But before she does say goodbye to performing, she has at least one more outing — she is now returning as the much-loved Winifred in “Hocus Pocus 2.”
Want to learn a little more about this stage and screen icon? Here is the untold truth of Bette Midler.
Bette Midler grew up as a Jewish girl from a poor family in Hawaii
While it may be hard to imagine Bette Midler being anything but a well-loved star, there was a time when she was a young girl who felt like a misfit in her surroundings. Midler was raised in Hawaii, and, as a Jewish girl then, she felt out of place. “I was the white girl, the only one for miles around,” she said to Parade.
Many of the people she met in Hawaii had no idea about Judaism. “One year, my parents kept me home for Yom Kippur, and I brought back a note saying I was out for a religious holiday,” she recalled. “My teacher said, ‘What religious holiday?’ I said, ‘Yom Kippur.’ She said, ‘There’s no such thing.'”
Bette Midler got her start by landing a small part in the movie Hawaii & moving to New York
Everything changed for Bette Midler when she happened to be cast in her first film, “Hawaii,” in 1965 at the age of 20, alongside Julie Andrews and Richard Harris. According to Hawaii Magazine, Midler was essentially an extra in the movie, playing a seasick passenger on the Thetis boat.
Her family was also relatively poor, and Midler recalled that she couldn’t afford new records. Instead, she had to make do with the family’s old records from the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. “Those were the records that I sang along to until I wore out the grooves,” she said.
As she explained to Parade, the part meant she had enough money to pack up and move to New York that same year. As she told Interview, moving to New York wasn’t even an option in her mind at the time. “I came to New York because I had to…I just had to,” she said. “Now I’m here, and I just have to get away! … I just have to get out … I have to find a way to get out of here!”
Bette Midler once worked as an entertainer at a gay bathhouse
One of Bette Midler’s biggest jobs as a young performer is not what you may expect — before becoming a household name, she was better known by the nickname “Bathhouse Bette” as she worked as an entertainer at the famous Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse in Manhattan.
As she told CBS News, she got the job through her singing teacher. “So my teacher called me and said, ‘This gentleman I know is looking for an entertainer in a gay bathhouse.’ And I said, ‘Does it pay?’ And he said, ‘Yes, it pays $300 for the weekend.'” That was good enough for Midler, and she agreed.
According to Midler, she was a perfect fit. “When I was working at the baths, I could go there and feel right at home,” she told Roger Ebert. “I picked up the gay sense of humor almost like a sponge. Since I moved out into the world a lot more, my personality has changed, and even the sound of my voice has changed.”
Bette Midler has a few major career regrets
You’ll quickly see Bette Midler’s impressive resume and know why she’s already legendary in the industry. But even Midler, it seems, has a few regrets about missed opportunities over the years. “I’ve made so many,” she told Metro in 2010. “Oh my God, it’s all so tragic. But it’s best to forget those and put them behind me.”
One of her biggest regrets is saying no to the film “Sister Act,” which, according to Midler, was written just for her. “I said, ‘My fans don’t want to see me in a wimple,'” she recalled, adding, “I don’t know where I got that from. Why would I say such a thing?” So, Whoopie Goldberg got the famous role and, as Midler put it, “made a fortune.”
Midler also claimed that she turned down Kathy Bates’ Oscar-winning role in “Misery” out of fear.
Bette Midler wasn’t nearly as flamboyant as her on-stage persona suggested
As fans of Bette Midler probably know, she wasn’t exactly shy as a performer. She was anything but, with over-the-top costumes and what is often described as a camp flair. However, she couldn’t have been more different once she stepped off the stage.
“When I’m not working, I have one pair of old white painter’s pants I’ve had for ten years, with holes in the seat, and that’s what I wear,” she confessed to Roger Ebert in 1980. “I sit around all the time reading. I’m really quiet. I’m nothing like I am on stage.”
Midler said she didn’t know how to dress up for premieres and industry events. “I have no idea what to wear, and I buy all this conservative stuff as if I were trying to impress everybody,” she said. While many fans may have thought that Midler’s stage presence was natural, instead, she explained it was all a carefully honed act.
Bette Midler had what she calls a nervous breakdown after a stressful movie experiences
While Bette Midler’s career was picking up speed, she appeared to have it all. However, things weren’t always easy for the up-and-coming star. She went through a period of anxiety and depression that she even went so far as to call a “nervous breakdown.”
“After I made a picture in the early 1980s, I was unjustly accused of grandstanding, and I never did any such thing,” she told Oprah Winfrey. “It made me short, and I became very sad and depressed. I cried a lot, and I couldn’t get out of bed. I called it a nervous breakdown because what would I say?”
According to Midler, the only way she could pick herself back up again was to go on tour and perform live for her fans. “It keeps my heart rate up. I get to wear fabulous clothes. I get to make people laugh. That’s my core business, and that’s where I’ll always return,” she said.
Bette Midler claims to have been assaulted in the ’90s
As the #MeToo era has highlighted, Hollywood was and is often a toxic, dangerous place for women. In the ’90s, Bette Midler experienced this type of Hollywood misogyny when she was allegedly taken advantage of by journalist and TV host Geraldo Rivera. Rivera claimed in his biography that he and Midler had an affair during which she was “insatiable.”
During an interview with Barbara Walters, Midler painted another story (via YouTube). “The truth about it is that I didn’t, I didn’t remember,” she said, adding that she did remember one thing — how she and Rivera met, which she said was “not funny.” She then went on to describe how Rivera and his producer came to interview her in the early ’70s. “He and his producer left the crew in the other room, they pushed me into my bathroom, they broke two poppers and pushed them under my nose, and proceeded to grope me,” she said. “I did not offer myself up on the altar of Geraldo Rivera — he was unseemly.”
Bette Midler’s audition for Johnny Carson was full of mishaps
From 1980 to 1992, Bette Midler was a frequent guest on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” appearing as a guest on 26 occasions (via IMDb). As it turns out, the actress and singer almost missed her opportunity to appear on the show due to an audition that went awry.
Her first audition came while she was working at the Continental Baths. “It was incredible,” she told Interview. However, when she arrived at the audition, she stepped out of her cab, and her dress tore. “Fortunately, I was wearing underwear … one of the few times I was wearing underwear … and it was ripped all the way, right on the ass,” she recalled. Luckily, Midler didn’t let the wardrobe malfunction deter her. She used a paper clip to hold the skirt and went straight into the audition. She thought to herself, “If they don’t like the way you sound, they won’t buy you anyway, ripped dress or no ripped dress, ass hanging out or no ass hanging out,” she recalled, adding, “So I got up, and I sang, and I had a great time, and they had a great time, and they gave me the job.”
Bette Midler’s daughter is also an actress
Talent runs in the Midler family — Bette Midler’s daughter, Sophie von Haselberg, is also a successful actress. In 2008, Midler told People that von Haselberg had recently expressed an interest in following in her mother’s footsteps. While Midler was surprised, she didn’t get in her daughter’s way. “[Sophie] just started making noises like that recently, about six months ago, and I was, of course, as surprised as anybody else,” she said. “It’s the first time she’s ever mentioned the business, but God bless her … You know, everyone has to follow their bliss.”
It seems that von Haselberg did follow her bliss quite successfully. She attended Yale’s drama program in 2011 and, by 2014, was appearing on Broadway in the play “Billy & Ray” (via New York Post). She landed her first role in the 2015 Woody Allen film “Irrational Man.” Since then, she has also appeared in “The Wizard of Lies,” “House of Cards,” “American Crime Story,” “American Princess,” and “Pose.”
Bette Midler is a big Adele fan
Bette Midler may have one of the biggest, brassiest voices in showbiz, but that doesn’t mean she can’t appreciate other people’s talent. She’s a champion of young talent and has even acted as a mentor on “The Voice.” One of her favorite young performers is Adele.
“I adore Adele,” she gushed to Pride Source. “I think she’s a really good singer and a terrific songwriter. Her voice is such a beautiful voice.” Midler also added that she appreciated Adele’s “funny and warm” personality and how it added to her performances. After all, Adele and Midler certainly have that in common. “I’m really happy that she’s made it and that people adore her,” she said. “She’s going to have a long, long career.” And it seems the admiration is mutual. “I’ve loved [Midler] for years,” Adele told Vanity Fair in 2016. “I like her humor, but she’s a f***ing great singer, an amazing singer.”
The pair even performed in 2015 during Midler’s Divine Intervention Tour (via Instagram). Name a more iconic duo — we’ll wait.
Bette Midler got to play her first lead on Broadway at 71
Bette Midler may be a Broadway icon, but she didn’t get to play a leading role on a Broadway stage until the age of 71, when she took on the titular role in a remount of “Hello, Dolly!” — a role that has famously been played by the likes of Ethel Merman, Barbara Streisand, and Carol Channing. Quite unsurprisingly, the experience was life-changing. “The experience of doing this show changed my life, really,” Midler told “Good Morning America.” “[It] changed my intellectual and physical life, and I can’t say enough.”
Of course, for Midler, it wasn’t exactly an easy task. “Dolly is a big stretch,” she admitted to Time. “I’ve been in a Broadway show, but never the lead. It’s a brand-new thing, and at my age , it’s quite a challenge: she has to be funny, she has to sing, and she has to dance.” Midler even confessed that after playing Dolly, her days on Broadway might be over.
Bette Midler tried to make a Hocus Pocus sequel happen for years
As Millennials will undoubtedly know, one of Bette Midler’s most iconic roles was as the scheming witch Winifred in Disney’s “Hocus Pocus.” Since its 1993 release, “Hocus Pocus” has been a Halloween cult classic. However, despite its popularity, it took almost three decades for a follow-up movie about the Sanderson sisters to be made.
As it turns out, Bette Midler was at the helm of the campaign for a sequel. “Even when it became a phenomenon, [a sequel] wasn’t considered,” she told Entertainment Weekly. “Ten years on, when I started seeing the returns, I was surprised, and I started making calls.” Midler pressured Disney executives for the next two decades about getting a sequel. As time went on, Midler realized that “Hocus Pocus” was gaining popularity over the years. She would attend benefits as Winnie and, as she put it, she “realized something was going on.” She said, “I’d call the studio once a year to ask, ‘How about it?’ It wasn’t until about three years ago that they advocated for it, and the movement started.”
Bette Midler wrote a children’s book about technology
One thing Bette Midler has never fully embraced is technology. “I’m tortured by it!” she confessed to Parade. “If I do anything with social media, it takes me at least 20 minutes to recover.”
Inspired by her struggles with the modern world, Midler wrote a children’s book in 2021 about a real-life story: when a rare bird appeared in Central Park in 2018, it became a tourist attraction, and people flocked to the park to see it. In Midler’s book, the bird’s arrival leads everyone to put down their phones and live in the moment. As she told NPR, the characters in her book are “only interested in what’s on the screen and how they can photograph themselves against certain backgrounds.” According to Midler, this phenomenon is something she sees a lot in her own life.”And the duck comes to town and sort of reverses that.” Hopefully, Midler’s book will help young children learn to experience the real world without depending on a screen.
Bette Midler is embracing her fogey-ness and is preparing to retire from performing
Bette Midler is getting older, and she isn’t afraid to embrace it with her characteristic good humor. “I’m very old. I mean, I’m 115,” she joked to NPR in 2021.
She also commented “several times” on her oldness in a 2021 interview with Parade. But even though Midler seems to be painfully aware of her age, she’s happy to accept it and lean into it. “I’m a fogey. I celebrate my fogey-ness!” she said.
With age has come an acceptance that it might be time to slow down, and Midler is happy to give up the more strenuous parts of her career. “I’ve done a lot,” she said. “I’ve earned my rest. Am I going to make an announcement? No. I’m just going to fade away.” While Midler may fade away from performing, one thing’s certain — her icon status is here to stay.