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Ladies Home Journal
Author: Melina Gerosa
Best Bette
Date: 04-30-1999

Bette Midler comes clean about the surprising passion that has changed her life.

On the Road

Bette Midler is taking her act on the road. On this spectacularly sunny day, the actress escorts a clutch of well-heeled socialites to a place they have never been before: northern Manhattan's Highbridge Park, a onetime home to drug addicts and abandoned cars.

Today, thanks to an initiative launched by Midler, the garbage is gone. As the van turns into the park entrance, the passengers are met by double-flowering cherry trees and a team of groundskeepers busily weed-whacking away.

Bursting from the front seat, Midler runs up to a muddied worker in a Yankees cap and starts pumping his hand in gratitude. Squinting at the blond turbine in a black leather jacket, he asks tentatively, "And you would be...?"

She would be the Divine Miss M. That's M as in makeover. The performer best known for her trashy sensibility -- the outrageous bawdiness that propelled her from the gay bathhouses in Greenwich Village to Hollywood superstardom in films like The Rose, Beaches and The First Wives Club -- turns out to have a low threshold for garbage. So in the mid-90s, she started the New York Restoration Project, which has since hauled over 8,000 tons of trash out of parks in upper Manhattan, purchased small community gardens in low-income neighborhoods and launched a boat-building program for inner-city kids.

"In a funny way, I'm just a big housekeeper," says the 53-year-old actress. "Martha Stewart has it to a much worse degree, but it's definitely a compulsion. It's my dictator gene -- 'Let's all live beautiful!'"

Motherhood, home life and "housekeeping" on a national level (Midler also is a sponsor of a program to clean up the Los Angeles and New York highways) have become the focus for the 35-year entertainment veteran. The shift started about five years ago, when Midler moved back to New York after the 1994 earthquake shattered the Los Angeles area. "My daughter's school was in the valley, just under these houses, and if the earthquake had happened during the day, and the houses had fallen on the school, she would've been killed," explains Midler. "We couldn't bear the thought. So we came here."

Midler's relationship with Hollywood is bittersweet, even by her own estimation. After her Oscar-nominated performance in The Rose in 1979, critics and fans alike expected Midler's movie career to soar. However, her next feature, the aptly titled Jinxed, not only tanked, but took the star's chutzpah with it. "It really beat me into submission. I thought maybe they are right, maybe I don't have what it takes," she says. "But in retrospect I should have had more guts. I should have been more like Roseanne. Roseanne may have had a terrible reputation, but she got her way. Her sitcom was the way that she wanted it to be for years and years because she was a bitch. But I didn't want to be called a bitch. I'm ashamed to admit it, because women looked up to me. They said about me, 'You can do anything.'" She sighs. "Sometimes you can't do everything."

How did she get over the sting of failure? "I met my husband, I started working again, I had my daughter, and suddenly it really didn't mean so much to me," she says with a shrug. Ironically, marriage was never a priority for Midler. She met von Haselberg, an investor and performance artist, in a bar. They reconnected through mutual friends, started dating and got married within three months. What was the 'Aha!' moment with von Haselberg that changed Midler's attitude about marriage at the age of 39? "It wasn't 'Aha,'" she corrects. "It was a 'Hmmmm.' Like, this could be interesting."

Midler's hunch paid off -- the couple have been devoted to each other for almost fifteen years. The secret to their marital success is surprisingly old-fashioned. "A lot of sacrifice," she says.

"You can't put yourself first. If you try, all you get is cranky, cranky family members." Family life revolves around routine. The trio eats breakfast and dinner together every day -- "Martin cooks from scratch" -- and the couple competes to see who can make their daughter laugh first. "Sophie is entering the Sullen Years, so there is a lot of wiggle-waggle, face pulling, and singing of stupid songs," says Midler, who claims that Sophie takes the Famous Mother thing in stride. "She can take me or leave me," she says. "She likes her people: TLC, Matt Damon, Adam Sandler."

Midler is quite serious about raising Sophie with traditional values. Homework is a priority, and television is verboten with the exception of sports and old movies. When asked about instilling self-esteem in her daughter, Midler practically explodes. "Self-esteem is something you have to earn!" she sputters. "The only way to achieve self-esteem is to work hard. People have an obligation to live up to their potential."

The work ethic is an object lesson that Midler learned from her own parents, a housepainter for the Navy and a housewife, who moved from New Jersey to Hawaii in the thirties to raise their four kids. "We were really poor, and my mother made sacrifices that I can't even dream of making," says Midler. "My brother was mentally handicapped, and they raised him at home. That was a real struggle. They succeeded, but they sacrificed their entire life for it. When you have that example, you never really forget it."

"I never knew my impulse toward goodness was so serious. I think it comes from my parents. They gave to charity, and I remember them saying that no matter how bad things were for us, there were always people who had less," says Midler. "I have confidence that all this stuff will come back to Sophie, because it came back to me."

How Bette Lost Eight Pounds in One Month

"I got frightened. Five pounds on me is a lot, it means that I can't wear anything. It means I have to face overalls again," says Midler. "So this is what I did:"

" I didn't eat any carbs.

" I drank no wine or other alcohol. That's how I put weight on in the first place, drinking over the holidays.

" I bought this Spirutein powder, a high-protein supplement at the health-food store. I mix it with orange juice, ice and a couple of strawberries, and it is very filling.

" No Perrier or carbonated water. I don't have gas anymore, I'm not bloated, I'm not anything. I love it.

This article originally appeared in the September 1999 issue of Ladies' Home Journal magazine.