At 69, Bette Midler has a new album out and a huge tour in the offing. Just don’t call it a comeback, as I discovered.
Bette Midler is all business. I’ve been waiting nervously to talk to her all morning, and the first thing I do when the moment finally arrives is gush: “I can’t believe I’m meeting you! I’ve loved you since I was a child and used to see you on Parkinson.”
“Thank you,” she says crisply, as if an agenda item is being checked off, and I pull back, internally beating myself up for coming on all ‘number-one fan’. She has, I’m sure, heard variations on this so many times over the four and a half decades of her career, particularly from gay men, it probably all blends into white noise.
That career, of course, began with gay men during the summer of 1970 in New York City, when she performed at weekends in the now legendary Continental Baths, with Barry Manilow as her pianist. The 24-hour venue was the hub of gay liberation in the city, with its disco, cabaret lounge, sauna rooms and ‘Olympia Blue’ swimming pool.
“It was a very carefree time,” Bette remembers. “There was no such thing as Aids, there were no drug deaths really when I first started, none that you could count anyway. There was a war, but it felt like a very small war; it didn’t involve the entire world and it wasn’t a religious war, so the terrors were not as great.
“I was much younger, so I didn’t feel the stresses as I feel them now. I had no child, I had no husband; I had no home. I was just someone working, trying to get ahead.”
At the time New York was far from what we know nowadays. Times Square was a place you wouldn’t dare go near at night, crime levels in the city were through the roof, and it had a sleazy, dangerous reputation. It was also a perfect melting pot for outsiders and radicals, and it had a thriving creative underground.
“It was so busy,” Bette says. “There were no prejudices, no strictures, you could pretty much do anything you could think of doing if you were a creative person. You felt that something wonderful was going to come out of all this mixing and mingling of ideas and personalities.”
I ask whether she feels there’s space for such an underground movement nowadays.
“The underground had a lot to do with sexuality, and now so much sexuality is out there now, online.”
“I’m not sure,” she replies. “The underground had a lot to do with sexuality, and now so much sexuality is out there, online. We do miss some of those real eccentrics that we used to get, you know, the Quentin Crisps of the world. But that’s progress. We often talk about what mainstreaming meant to the creative class. I’m sure it was great for the mainstream.”
In 1972 Bette won a Grammy for her album The Divine Miss M, the title of which referred to one of the characters from her Continental Baths stage show. It was a toe in the mainstream, complete with a number one hit – her high-octane rendition of the Andrews Sisters’ ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’ – but it would take another 14 years before Bette Midler became a household name with the comedy film, Down and Out in Beverly Hills. In between there was an Oscar in 1979 for the loose Janis Joplin biopic The Rose, which Bette still cites as one of her favourite films from her career.
“I still love it,” she says. “We were talking about Outrageous Fortune earlier. It’s a really funny film. I like First Wives Club a lot too. I love Beaches.”
The latter has a huge gay following, but Bette seems surprised when I mention this. I ask her why she thinks it might be, and she replies, “Beats me”. Then she brings up her 1993 Disney Halloween comedy Hocus Pocus.
“I have had a lot of gay people come up to me and say it’s the greatest movie ever made, and that’s a real shock. Maybe it’s because it’s pretty camp.”
Indeed Hocus Pocus recently made headlines because Bette mooted the idea of a sequel in a Q&A on Reddit, telling fans to write and persuade Disney to do it.
“We were just having fun.” she says, when I ask if she’d really do a sequel, dashing the hopes of Hocus Pocus fans everywhere.
Bette’s here to talk about latest album, It’s The Girls!, a collection of girl group covers, with a heavy emphasis on ’60s bands like The Ronettes, Martha and the Vandellas, The Shirelles and The Supremes. It’s standout track is an odd choice, a slowed-down version of TLC’s 1996 blockbuster, ‘Waterfalls’.
“It’s a song that makes you cry, but I did not think that most people heard what was behind the beat,” Bette says of the original version. “The production was fantastic, it was a dance record, but it wasn’t a dance record to me, because I lived through the Aids wars. To me it was a really important statement about mothers who lost their children. It was a war in that way.”
This leads me to ask a question about the post-Aids gay community, and in particular the introduction of the pre-HIV exposure drug, Truvada and its game-changing affect.
“You’re talking about that drug?” she says. “Somebody was talking to me about it being a recreational drug, but I don’t know anything about it, so I can’t really comment.
“What I will say is I lost a lot of friends to Aids, people who we considered the best and brightest of our generation – architects, set designers, screenwriters, costumers, the list is endless. For me it was very hard to go forward having lost so many friends, but I guess that’s what survivors do. I didn’t have any other choice.”
Part of Bette’s enduring place in the communal gay heart is this sense of survival. Her career has had more phases (and awards) than Madonna’s, she’s about to embark on a massive tour, and last year she appeared in her first ever Broadway play, the one-woman show, I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers to huge critical acclaim. I ask her what she thinks drives her forward.
“I think it’s human nature,” she says. “If you haven’t been completely ruined by your parents or your childhood, most human beings are programmed to go forward. I guess I got a little extra dose of it because I enjoy going forward, because I’m interested to see what’s around the corner, what’s new, what else is there to do.”
Much has been made in the media of It’s The Girls! as yet another comeback for Bette, but she dismisses the idea.
“In my life and career I’ve worked very hard for certain periods of time and then taken a lot of time off to raise my daughter, to have a family life, to start a non-profit (the New York Restoration Project) – basically to have a life, because that meant a lot to me. The best part of the way I structured the whole thing was the idea that I could come and go at will, so I don’t really feel like it’s a comeback. I feel like it’s just picking up where I left off.”
But at 69, in an industry that prizes youth, especially in women, it must be harder and harder to pick up where you left off.
“I don’t suffer in the way that a lot of my peers do.”
Bette doesn’t think so.
“I’ve always made my own work, and I’ve always encouraged people who are younger than me to make their own work, to write their own scripts, to find their own friends that they can do their shows with. I don’t suffer in the way that a lot of my peers do, and I do a lot of things. I make records, I tour, I act. I try to be careful about the things I do; is it the right time for this, is it a good idea? Sometimes I make mistakes and that’s life too, but all I can say to people of my age-group is that if you are looking to do something, find something to do and then get the wherewithal to do it.”
It is only as my 15-minute slot with Bette inches to a close, that I finally get a glimpse of the gregarious, funny woman I had been expecting to meet. I mention to her that it’s the 300th issue of GCN, and that she will be gracing the cover.
“Oh my God, that’s amazing!” she says, and her trademark cackle bursts forth. “Oh, my! Congratulations!”
I ask her if she has anything to say to our readers as we approach next year’s same-sex marriage referendum. “Yes, I do,” she says. “Take heart! Follow my lead!”
Bette Midler’s ‘It’s The Girls!’ is out now in good shops and online, to read the original interview in the special 300th issue of GCN, click here.