Bette Midler: her agony at turning 60

She's spent a lifetime making us laugh; now it's Bette Midler who needs cheering up. She tells Simon Gage about her bruising political battles and her worries about growing older

Sunday 19 March 2006 01:00 GMT

These are very dark days," says Bette Midler, shaking her head, her eyes hidden behind blue-tinted glasses. "They are dark days in the Middle East. Dark days in Russia. And they are dark days here."

We're sitting looking through floor-to-ceiling windows over the whole of Manhattan and even though it's sunny and crisp outside, Midler is in sombre mood. She's cold and can't seem to warm up, no matter how many heaters and blankets are brought in to supplement the fashionable little jacket she's wearing. She's tired, and she's fed up with always talking about herself - "Not me again!" - even though she does have a great new album with her old friend Barry Manilow to promote.

It's certainly not what you expect from the First Lady of American Comedy, the shameless vulgarian who kick-started her career telling dirty jokes in a gay men's sauna while sexual activity went on in the background; the woman whose official motto - in response to all the offence she has wilfully given over the years - has always been "fuck 'em if they can't take a joke". She even gets audiences to shout that one out.

But she's also never shied away from the serious side, even if her forthright political outbursts at a recent benefit in New York for Hurricane Katrina survivors, where Midler let both Bush and the Republican Party in general have some, drew boos from the crowd and vilification from some sections of the press.

"I could stand up here and talk for hours about ineptitude, stupidity, blame, inequality, global warming..." she told the crowd at Madison Square Garden. "But if I did, what would all those other people have to talk about?" And she didn't leave it there. "I got a letter from the Republican Party thanking me for supporting this administration's policies," she went on. "I did what any self-respecting American of integrity would do. I wrote 'go fuck yourself' and I sent it back. Postage due!"

Then, in classic Midler style, mixing personal attack with high camp (after all, this is the woman who had a hit with the album Mud Will Be Flung Tonight) she moved in on George W Bush himself, saying she shouldn't criticise him as he was clearly a fan of her work. "He came to see me in concert in the 1970s," she said, pausing for comedy effect. "His coke dealer brought him."

But the reasons for Midler's blue funk are not all based on world events. For a start, her only child, 19-year-old Sophie, recently left home for university; Bette scheduled a tour to coincide with the emptying of the nest, knowing full well how hard it would hit her. And then there's the fact that she "celebrated" her 60th birthday with a two-week downer: "I was fine for a week, then I crashed." She reckons she's now climbed out of it and says she and her husband, performance artist Martin von Haselberg, are making trips, keeping themselves occupied, the way people do when families move on and life starts slowing down.

But it has been quite a struggle for Bette, no matter what kind of burlesque spin she usually puts on it. Having done hard time in a local pineapple factory in Honolulu, she left high school and then home at the age of 19, for Broadway. Quite literally. "My daughter still can't believe I did that," says Bette. "At 19! But we didn't have the nuts we have today. There was no rampant drug use. A little drug use, but not rampant."

Bear in mind, though, Midler is talking about a pre-cleaned-up New York with a thriving drugs and sex scene, probably the most debauched city this side of Bangkok at the time. The knowledge that she was go-go dancing in an orange leotard, white boots and a red wig on bars in the Bronx would not have brought much comfort to a mother waiting for news back in Hawaii. "But this was before the Bronx was the Bronx," she protests, adding that her mother would have been frantic, her father furious if they'd known how she was making ends meet. "But I had blinders on. I was just in my own little world, dancing. To me, it wasn't really the low-life. I was in my Bette Midler bubble and it was a happy time. Most women like to dance." (omega)

Although she joined in with the late-1960s experimentation with sex and drugs, she always kept excess at arm's length, having learned all about the pitfalls of your Billie Holidays and John Coltranes. "I did a little bit," she says, when asked how far her drug career went, "but I couldn't hold up physically. If I smoked dope, I'd have a wonderful time. I'd be there for days, you know: 'Get her off!' Once I actually came off the stage, ran up the aisle, bought myself a bag of popcorn, got back on the stage..."

The munchies right in the middle of the act? She laughs her head off and admits it. "I did a little cocaine in the early days but I didn't like my nose running into my soup the whole time. So unattractive! I also didn't like grinding my teeth. All it did was make you chatter. So dreary. So I finally said, 'It's not worth it.'"

As for sex... "Oh, crazy, crazy, crazy sex. We did a lot of our crazy sex. Oh, the memories. I can't speak for everybody, but I can speak for friends who enjoyed sex. It was a time when it didn't seem like anything was going to happen to you... Actually, I didn't have a lot. I just did what people did in those days."

But there was certainly a lot at the venue that changed her career path: the Continental Baths, a gay sauna where men would break off from promiscuous, pre-Aids sex to catch a couple of tunes and some off-colour jokes. In fact, Midler's residency at the Baths became so infamous that before long, fully dressed celebrities were squeezing in next to the men in towels to catch the show. At this time, the very early 1970s, Midler was the talk of the town, the buzz so great that Ahmed Ertegun, the legendary Atlantic Records mogul, made a point of catching her show - albeit in an alternative location.

Midler was actually taken seriously, not just as a performer but as a cultural icon. The feminist Rosalyn Drexler argued that she had "given camp back to women", while Gloria Steinem noted that Midler demonstrated "that women too are trained to be female impersonators".

Even at 60 - and she certainly doesn't look it, even if she lays all credit at the doors of her "beauty squad" and dermatologist - there seems to be no diminishing of her power to entertain. But despite four Grammies, album sales in the region of 15 million and collaborations with the likes of Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Aretha's producer, Arif Mardin, her comedy schtick has always distracted, if not detracted, from the fact that she is a great vocalist. For every classic ballad like the big Grammy-winner "Wind Beneath My Wings" ("That song has bought me a lot of great art") there's a jaunty comedy number, often about breasts. Not to mention a few genuine clunkers as well.

"I made so many mistakes because I got caught up in the record company fever of chasing the chart," she says, though her albums still do very brisk business. "So stupid! The thing is, I can tell a joke and I love to be funny. They never gave me a decent A&R guy, and I was on this treadmill constantly..." The voice on her new Peggy Lee Songbook album is every bit as good now as it was on her gold-selling, Grammy-winning debut album of 1972, The Divine Miss M - better even; richer, less brassy.

And then there's the film career, which kicked off with an Oscar nomination in 1978, when Midler played a Janis Joplin-esque rock star on a downward spiral of drink and drugs in The Rose. Her movie collaborations with Disney earned the company over $300m (£173m), while films such as The First Wives Club and Beaches have been top box-office grossers. Yet she feels she was somehow blackballed out of the dramatic roles she was more than capable of. "I just never got the jobs," she says, even though she's still pitching up in big-budget movies like last year's Stepford Wives remake. She even started up her own company to provide roles - All Girl Productions - but she now describes the whole experience as "a terrible struggle, very hard".

In 1984, Midler married on a whim, just six weeks after her first date with Martin von Haselberg, better known as Harry Kipper. The two got hitched in a spur-of-the-moment ceremony in Las Vegas and just over a year later had their daughter. Midler tried for more children through her early 40s, resorting to fertility treatment, but suffered miscarriages and eventually decided to accept that they had "a good one" and to leave it there.

Now, with Sophie - no doubt named for Sophie Tucker, one of Midler's main inspirations - at university, she and Martin are spending more time together. "Oh, I give him a hard time," she cackles, quipping that they're still sexy for each other, but that she now has trouble with her knees. "It's been fun and interesting. And hard. There are plenty of times when I could have said goodbye, he certainly could have, but we keep plodding along and in the end it turns into something you just didn't expect."

Midler is still willing to put her money - and her time - where her mouth is, when it comes to causes close to her heart. She is a veteran Aids campaigner and a keen environmentalist, sponsoring rubbish removal (for which she was dubbed the Queen of Trash, not for the first time).

She needs little encouragement to attack those Americans who don't really care about such issues, the ones, no doubt, who booed her at Madison Square Garden. "I simply find it very distressing - terribly, terribly sad." But despite her maudlin moments, she's ever the trouper. "I can't say I'm depressed," she says. "I'm trying to be realistic about it and not let it get to a point where I'm completely paralysed."

And she's got plenty to be cheerful about, looking back over the 40-year climb to where she is now: Oscar nominations, Grammies, Golden Globes, and the world's fastest-selling solo concert tour. "It's been really interesting," she says. "It's not all glamour, and the women have it harder than men. But on the whole, as a career, it's been enchanting, even though I made plenty of mistakes. I'm still here. And now I have choice: I can either do it or not do it. That's the great freedom that everyone wants. And I achieved it." s

'Bette Midler Sings the Peggy Lee Songbook' (Columbia) is out now

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