Jerry Springer

Jerry Springer’s stranger-than-fiction life has seen him move from politics to trash TV, surviving scandal after scandal to become an unlikely voice of reason in an unreasonable world. But how will that voice hold up when he takes the stage in Chicago?


This may sound ingratiating, mainly because it is, but as I’m leaving the house to meet Jerry Springer for breakfast in Soho, I remember a small metal brooch I have somewhere and go back to dig it out. It’s one of those Stars and Stripes presidents have in their lapels, only this one is crossed with a Union Flag. I picked it up in 2003 – that strained time in Anglo-American relations – and I have never found the right occasion to wear it, until now.

When Springer, a trim 65-year-old with collar length, silvery-blonde, centre-parted hair, notices it, he leans across the table and, being long-sighted, lifts his glasses up to his forehead, so that he can see it better. ‘God love you,’ he says with an easy smile. ‘I’m right in the middle. A true Anglophile. Born in Britain, raised in America. You knew that, right?’ I did know that. He was born in an East Finchley Tube, during an air raid in 1944.

I also know that the talk-show host feels comfortable here: likes the tea; likes the humour; likes the politics (he began his career as a politician, a Democratic mayor of Cincinnati, before becoming a local television news anchorman). And I know he (mostly) appreciated Jerry Springer: The Opera, an extravagant joke at his expense, or rather, a uniquely British take on his notorious American daytime, blue-collar television show – the one featuring assorted inbreeding, punch-throwing, exhibitionist trailer trash.

(The opera, more a musical, featured a nappy-wearing Jesus declaiming he was ‘a little bit gay’, and when the BBC screened it in 2005, it prompted 63,000 complaints amid claims that it was blasphemous.) Such are Springer’s bona fides as an Anglophile, he has spoken at the Oxford Union, appeared as a guest on Any Questions and Question Time and been the subject of Who Do You Think You Are? He wept on camera when he learned that his grandparents had been tortured and killed by the Nazis at Theresienstadt concentration camp. And from June 1, for six weeks only, he has, to his surprise – because he can neither sing nor dance much – accepted a role in a West End musical, Chicago.

We shall come to that. For now we are talking about how our attitudes to Americans have changed since Barack Obama came to power. ‘Before, when I would come over here, I would sense a hostility to Americans. Now that Bush has gone you can sense the good will. Hey, we’ve got Obama. Who is cooler than Obama? I know the anti-Americanism was only on the British left, but even there I think most of you guys accepted that if you are going to have a bully in the world, America is not a bad bully to have.

‘I never noticed the animosity being personal towards Americans, though. I guess it’s like being angry at your parents – ultimately you know they are on your side.’

Oof! A little patronising perhaps, but we’ll let it go. While Springer doesn’t think too much should be read into Obama returning that statue of Churchill to us, he can see that there might be a parallel between the new president’s attitude to the British – informed by his grandfather’s persecution in colonial Kenya – and his own attitude to Germany, informed by the Holocaust (Springer’s mother, a bank clerk, and his father, a shoe shop owner, were forced to leave their parents behind when they fled Nazi Germany for England in 1939).

‘But I don’t hold it against modern Germans, just as I don’t imagine Obama would hold what happened to his family against the modern Brits. I recognise clearly, having been there, that the people responsible, the Nazis, have long gone. This wasn’t always the case. When I first went there in the Sixties, right out of law school, every time I saw a man in his fifties or sixties waiting tables I thought, could he be a former Nazi? It reminds you that this happened within my lifetime. This wasn’t something from a thousand years ago. It reminds you that, if it could happen there, in one of the most civilised countries in the world, it could happen anywhere.’

Springer believes his Jewish identity enables him to identify with the marginalised and dispossessed that he has on his show. ‘No question. Why have I always been such a liberal? I’m convinced it is because of my family Holocaust experience. It has taught me never to judge people on what they are, only on what they do. If people could live by that, there would be no discrimination in the world.’

Ah, his first homily of the interview! For those who haven’t seen his show – for people who have jobs, say – there is always a moment at the end when the tears dry and the teeth stop gnashing, a moment when Springer stands back and reflects. What have we learned here today? It is this that (sort of) makes it OK to watch the exploitational parade of low IQ misfits that is The Jerry Springer Show.

Clearly, he is an educated and urbane man, one with nice manners and a warm and crinkly personality. With him in charge the programme doesn’t feel like quite so voyeuristic and seedy, doesn’t feel as if you have come to stare at the lunatics in the asylum. Incidentally, what does he see as being the difference between what he does, and what went on at Bedlam Hospital, a mile or so from where we are sipping tea this morning?

‘Well, for one thing, people on our show volunteer to do it. People come on because they want to get something off their chest. They say: “You can hoot and you can holla all you want, but I’m going to say this.” I would never go on the show. You would never go on the show. But 10 per cent of the population of America would. I hate the snootiness of looking down on people like that. Be honest, when you meet a snob at a cocktail party you are thinking, he’s a fine one to talk.’

But is it fair to say that his role is like that of the Greek chorus? We look on these chaotic events, the swearing, the chairs being thrown, through him. He allows us to indulge our morbid curiosity, legitimising it because he has had a good education, he is one of us. ‘My role is to stay out of the way. The less I talk, the better the show is. I’m totally non-threatening. I’m the guy next door. I just bring out the acts. I’m non judgmental.’

What about when he gives a platform to a bigot – does he find himself judging them?

‘Me? Absolutely not. Nor do I ever endorse what they do or say. I can’t recall one occasion where I said something like: “You know, incest is great, give it a shot.” ‘

So he never wakes up in a cold sweat at 3am and thinks, I’m going to burn in hell for this? He grins. Nods. Acknowledges the reference to Jerry Springer: The Opera. ‘Look, the show – and I have to keep emphasising that it is a show, a show, a show – is about people who are outrageous and outside the norm. I’m hired to do a show about dysfunction. But if you watch the 18 years of shows, I think you would be hard pressed to find an example of me being mean or disrespectful. When all the media is coming down on them, saying “How can you give these people air time?”

‘I want to say, “What is the difference between you and the people on this show?” You dress better. You are richer. You had a better education. In the genetic lottery you had better parents, but you didn’t choose your parents. It was luck. What’s the difference between a person on my show and me, or you? Luck.’

It smacks of an intelligent man trying to justify to himself a job of which he is, if not actually ashamed, then certainly not proud. I suspect he feels cursed by the show’s huge ratings – 25 million viewers in the US, and many more in the 40 or so countries it is screened in around the world. He uses humour to deflect this unease, joking that he thinks it saves defence dollars. ‘When other countries see our show, they no longer want to take us over.’

In more serious moments, though, he will admit that he wouldn’t be doing the show if his mother was still alive. He would be too embarrassed. She had wanted him to be a doctor or a lawyer, but his early career in politics met with her approval, too. Springer read political science at Tulane University in New Orleans before becoming a campaign aide to Robert F Kennedy. After the assassination of his boss in 1968, he joined a law firm, and in 1970 ran unsuccessfully for Congress. He was elected to the Cincinnati city council the following year. But then, in 1974, Cincinnati police raided a brothel and found a cheque he had signed.

Springer admitted he’d been well and truly sprung, and resigned. The voters rewarded his honesty by returning him to his seat the following year; and his triumph was complete when he became Cincinnati mayor in 1977-78. But realising that the sex scandal would always be dragged up if he tried to go any further in politics, he decided to try his hand at television instead.

I think he could have made a good career politician, possibly one in the Bill Clinton mould. Warm, reassuring, unflappable. Does he wish his political career had gone differently? ‘No. Every day I think maybe I could give all this up and go into politics again, but then I realise that politics is part of my life anyway. I spend most of my time in the States making political speeches, raising money, campaigning. So I have never left politics, in a way. Besides, once you make politics your career you become intellectually dishonest because you have to win the next election to put food on the table. You compromise. You couch things.’

And nowadays, I suggest, politicians can’t be ‘normal people’ anyway because their records have to be squeaky clean. Even as students they have to avoid sex and drugs and potential scandals. ‘Actually, I think we are probably over that. Maybe 20 years ago that was the case. Even with the [Monica] Lewinsky scandal, Clinton left office higher in the opinion polls than when he arrived. People may have told jokes about him at cocktail parties, but there was never a question that if he had been able to run again, he would have won.’

So Springer was a victim of bad timing? ‘Not exactly. Back in the Seventies when I came clean I found the public were totally understanding, I think because I was the one who broke the story. I figured I would be blackmailed forever on this so I may as well just hold my hands up and say I really f—– up and I shouldn’t have done it.’

Was it liberating to get it off his chest? ‘With hindsight possibly, but at the time I felt like a piece of crap. I make no excuses for it. But again, there was a record there that people could judge me on, as a councillor, I mean. I had balanced the books. They figured that I shouldn’t be judged on something that lasted an hour. It was flat-out wrong, sure. But there are worse things a guy can do than go with a prostitute.’

I ask if now that he has reached official retirement age he looks back on his life and feels fulfilled. ‘Yeah. ‘Course. I mean, what a life. I don’t need to make a living now, so I can do things because I want to, because it gives me a kick.’

Like this musical? ‘Exactly.’

Did he also agree to do it because he knew it would take him out of his comfort zone? ‘Way out! It wasn’t something I saw coming. I mean, I haven’t acted since college. My agent called me while I was in London last summer and said, “Do you fancy it, Jerry?” I said, “Sure, why not?”

‘Then he said, “You’re going to have to audition.” Audition? “Sing. They need to find out if you can hold a tune. Go along to the Cambridge Theatre at 4pm this afternoon.” So I showed up and there were six people sitting in folding chairs. They said, “Let’s hear it”. I thought it would be a train wreck. I was with Bob.’

Bob is his bodyguard in Britain, a burly, deadpan cockney who is sitting one table away from us now. I ask Bob what he thought of his boss’s singing voice. ‘Fantastic. He was like a nightingale.’ Pause. ‘A nightingale being shot at with an air rifle.’

‘But it will be fine,’ Springer continues. ‘They will coach me and I’ll be having a singing instructor. Sure, I’m going to be nervous. Why wouldn’t I be? There’s nowhere to hide. I’m already memorising the script so that I am word perfect by the first day of rehearsal.’

How are his moves? ‘Someone yesterday pointed out that I was the oldest person ever to play Billy Flynn. Jeez, you really don’t need to hear that. They have told me that I have to get in shape because
I’ll be singing while I’m dancing. Well, I’m a circle, is that a shape? [He’s not, actually. He’s pretty lean.] Luckily, drinking and smoking aren’t among my vices.’

What is among them? ‘Well, I do smoke the odd cigar. And I eat horribly and I don’t do exercise. A round of golf once in a while. I’m going to have to go on a treadmill. I’m going to treat it seriously.’ His biggest fear is going blank and when I tell him that performers can now have a concealed earpiece through which prompts can be heard, he leans forward excitedly. ‘They can do that?’ He turns to Bob. ‘Have you heard about that?’ Bob: ‘Course.’

Jerry: ‘Oh, I am so happy. So if they see me hesitate they will cue me?’ Bob: ‘Yeah, and it’ll be handy because they can shout “duck” when someone from the audience throws a bottle at you.’

Springer’s fellow cast members look rather glamorous, I note. ‘Boy, you’re telling me, it’s a very visual show. A period piece playing with the stereotypes of Chicago gangsters.’

Come on, he knows what I mean. Day after day rehearsing with beautiful young women. Will he be tempted? Will he flirt? ‘Hey, I’m 65. I just want to be still breathing at the end of this.’

I only ask because in 1998 it was rumoured that Micki, his wife of 35 years and the mother of his grown-up daughter, left him after he slept with a porn star the day before she appeared on his show to discuss her attempt to beat the world sex marathon record. He will neither confirm nor deny the story, although he does describe himself to me as still married. ‘When I’m not working, I like being at home with my family. I don’t go out much. But like I say, I’m 65. What do you expect? That’s why most people don’t have room-mates.’

Room-mates? What does he mean? Does he not have a room-mate at the moment? ‘I’m not, I haven’t, since I was in a fraternity… I mean, yeah, I’m married. But when you go home, if you’re not with your family, then who do you want to be with? No one. You want to be on your own.’

Part of the problem, he admits, is that he is too recognisable. People chant ‘Jer-ree, Jer-ree’, at him when they see him walking down the street, as they do in the television studio. Generally, he has a sunny disposition, he says, but if he is in a rare dark mood, he won’t go out because he doesn’t want to be horrible to members of the public. ‘I love being alone but that’s because I don’t have a normal life,’ he says in a low voice, leaning forward. ‘As we sit here I have already noticed someone point at me.’

And there is the need of a bodyguard. His show plays a dangerous game, stirring up emotions in people who find it difficult to control them. In 2002 a man killed his ex-wife after they both appeared on the show. More typically, though, people find it cathartic and shake hands afterwards, feeling relieved they have aired their grievances. As host, Springer is keen to stress that the show is supposed to be entertaining rather than uncomfortable.

That is why it is layered with knowing, self-mocking allusions. The titles of the episodes are intended to raise a smile: ‘Honey, I’m a Call Girl,’ or ‘Pregnant by a Transsexual’ or ‘Mom will you marry me?’ (that was about a divorced woman who was engaged to marry her ex husband’s son from a previous marriage, but you probably already guessed that). One of the most watched clips on YouTube is of two dwarfs having a punch-up on the show, while the studio audience holler their approval. It makes the circus at Rome look tame by comparison.

It all makes you wonder, though, how a man obsessed with serious politics from an early age could end up presenting such a frivolous show. When the camera pans around to see his reaction, he does seem detached, nodding sympathetically perhaps, but his mind elsewhere. He is defensive about accusations that he has not only dumbed down television but that his show is vulgar and exploitative. ‘What critics mean by that is that guests on the show are vulgar. Snobbery again.’

Is there anything that shocks him, anything at all? ‘No, but neither are you shocked by anything. You can’t be a grown-up in the modern world and be shocked. I mean, we have had a Holocaust, a presidential assassination and 9/11. You may be surprised, because it happens to someone you know, but that is different.

‘What fascinates us is human reaction to certain behaviour. You look to the person you think will be most surprised. In other words, if someone comes out on the show and tells his girlfriend, “I’m really a woman”, everyone will look at his girlfriend. You are not shocked that a guy could really be a woman. That stuff has been around for as long as there have been humans. I mean, read the Bible. What is new in our show that you can’t find in the Bible?’

Um, how about “I married my horse”? ‘OK, that one might not be in the Bible, but you take my point. We did a follow-up to that one. The horse had left him. The point is, it is human nature to gossip. ‘You could take an Oxford professor and say, “Did you know Mrs Jenkins down the road is having an affair?” and he would lean forward and say, “Really? Tell me more.”e_STnS’ He grins. ‘Look, I don’t know why I’m defending this because I don’t even watch the show. Why would I? It’s not aimed at 65?year-old men. Our main audience is students.’

What about the relentless swearing on the show? Does that make him uncomfortable? ‘Well, we’re different in America because we bleep it out.

‘But anyway, television did not invent swearing and I personally don’t have a foul mouth, unless maybe when I’m with my buddies, telling dirty jokes. The people I work with will never have heard me curse. And I never lose my temper.’

I turn to his bodyguard again. That true Bob? ‘I’ve never seen him.’

‘Maybe, I’m passive aggressive,’ Springer concedes.

Certainly he seems self-contained. When not in England, he divides his time between the television studios in Chicago and his second home in Sarasota, Florida. The thought of living in Hollywood does not appeal to him and he doesn’t have celebrities as friends.

Part of him may revel in his reputation as an outsider who pushes the boundaries of taste too far, but another part seems to cringe at the thought that this, and not his political life, is what he will be remembered for. In 2003, Stewart Lee, the British comedian who wrote Jerry Springer: The Opera, invited the presenter to the first night of his musical and, afterwards, asked him to come up on stage. When the applause died down Springer simply said: ‘I’m sorry’. It got a laugh.


Andrew Marr

On my way to meet Andrew Marr, I get a call from him. A meeting has finished earlier than he expected so could we bring our interview forward by half an hour? Such is his frenetic life. It is Monday afternoon. This morning, he hosted Start the Week on Radio 4. Yesterday he presented his weekly political show on BBC1. On Thursday (tonight) his latest documentary series, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, will begin on BBC2. Oh, and he’s just delivered the manuscript for the second volume of his best-selling History of Modern Britain. I imagine it is another doorstopper, the first having weighed in at about 30 lbs.

He will be 50 in July, which makes him too old to be having a mid-life crisis. So what is it all about, this freakish workload?

When he arrives at our rendezvous in Holborn, holding a BlackBerry to his ear and carrying a framed painting he has just bought (those spare minutes weren’t wasted), I ask him. “It’s fear of laziness,” he says. “I have an indolent streak and would lie around on a sofa eating chocolate all day if I didn’t fill up every minute. It’s also that I have an unbelievably short attention span. A grasshopper mind. Spending time focusing on one thing drives me nuts with boredom.”

Bet he’s relaxing company at home. “I am capable of relaxing. I run. Is running eight miles a week relaxing? I don’t know.” Well it’s not exactly standing and staring. “OK, I draw and paint.”

Activity again. “Yes, I suppose it is doing something, rather than relaxing in the sense of doing nothing. Um, um, OK, I drink. And eat chocolate.”

What’s slightly galling about all this activity, this quantity of work, is that it has real quality. His new documentary not only has the production values of an Attenborough wildlife programme, there is also an original and thought-provoking thesis behind it. Over three, hour-long episodes, Marr explores Darwin’s influence on thinkers as diverse as Marx, Nietzsche and Freud.

The Freudian ideas, especially, seem poignant in light of our discussion about Marr’s restlessness and drive. He reckons that Darwin inspired Freud when he concluded that all human behaviour could be explained in terms of our sexuality.

“Not all, most,” Marr corrects now. “There are other things going on for Freud. Fear of death. Primal things. Competitive issues. But certainly in terms of showing off, the peacock aspects, yes. It’s all about sex.”

Marr has form on the subject of Darwin, having championed him in 2002 for the poll to name the Greatest Briton. (He is also the president of the Galapagos Conservation Trust.) But it seems everyone wants a piece of Old Beardie now, and it’s not just to do with the anniversary of his birth. I mean, we’re talking about a cult here, aren’t we?

Marr nods earnestly. “Yes, thanks to popularisers such as Richard Dawkins. The cult of Darwin is also to do with the recent leaps in our understanding of genetics and climate change. They have made an interest in biology a crucial area of debate. There is a danger in Darwin becoming an ersatz deity, though. I thought of that going into the Natural History Museum. It’s like a Gothic cathedral. There Darwin is, where the altar would be, with his god-like beard and domed head. He’s got his bishops and there have been schisms.”

While Darwin was agnostic, his disciple, Marr, is a full-on atheist. He was brought up a Christian, but at the age of 15 had “a blinding moment of disbelief”.

Marr was born in Scotland and went to boarding school there – “all Latin, the cane and unheated swimming pools” – before going to Cambridge, where he took a first in English. His intellectual confidence; was it nature or nurture? “I don’t know. My parents were bright. My mother went to Cambridge and my father was an investment trust manager. At my first school, I was an academic catastrophe, so my parents took me out at the age of eight or nine and sent me to a boarding school. I was a daydreamer there. And an obsessive bookworm.”

In the introduction to his book My Trade (2004) he writes that he couldn’t sing, act, tell jokes, play an instrument, catch a ball or speak another language, “and I had the iron determination of a butterfly. Journalism seemed the only option”. It is nice self-deprecation, I say, but disingenuous surely.

“Actually, there was some truth to that. I remember applying for a job in a second-hand bookshop and not getting it.” He went on to become an award-winning columnist and, in 1996, the editor of The Independent. But his time in newspapers also represented a moment of failure for him. “Absolutely. I was sacked. Twice. From the same job. A rare distinction.”

How did his ego recover? “It was a big blow because I was relatively young, late thirties, and I had had a seamless, upward trajectory and was bumptiously self-confident. It was fairly brutal – the bin bag at the bottom of the stairs. But the thing about being an editor is that it turns your head. Everyone defers to you. I was probably quite difficult to deal with, because I thought I was so clever.”

Then the BBC picked up the phone and he became political editor? “More or less. As one eminent newscaster said to me, ‘Don’t worry, think of it as a conversation – a conversation with five million people and everyone wants you to screw it up.’ My knees were trembling and my palms were sweating for the first few months. I did once go blank. I wanted to say, ‘Blair picked up a stick and jabbed it into the middle of an anthill.’ What I actually said was he jabbed it ‘into the middle of a hill of… flying flies.’
I crept away, thinking I was going to be fired. No one said anything until the next morning, when the gatekeeper at Millbank looked over her glasses and said, ‘Hmm, a little bit Salvador Dali last night, Andrew.'”

I ask him what morale is like at the BBC these days. From the outside, it looks like the place has had a collective loss of nerve. “I think that when the Jonathan Ross salary thing came up it was too much for some people. There is an element of 1789 and the tumbrils about what is going on. But in our defence, I would say the BBC was never intended to be all things to all people.”

His own BBC salary must be quite sizeable; is it the money that motivates him to take on so much work? “No. Though I do have certain financial responsibilities as a father.”

Marr lives in East Sheen with his wife Jackie Ashley, the political columnist, and their three teenage children. As one of his daughters is coming back from holiday today and he would like to see her “before she crashes out”, we call it a day and share a taxi to Waterloo. Seems he’s a wage slave like the rest of us, I say, but what about if he won the Lottery? “I would become a full-time painter.”

Really? Surely he would go mad with boredom. He laughs. “Possibly. Yes, possibly you’re right.”


Bette Midler

The prima donna-ish behaviour is there in the subtext, between the lines of those around her, in the way the air seems to tighten before she enters a room. I’ve been told, for example, that it is ‘very’ important that I arrive on time – 3pm sharp – because ‘Miss Midler likes things to run smoothly’. Best to get there 15 minutes early, actually.

As it happens, train times dictate that I am there an hour early, but I figure the foyer of the Connaught hotel is as nice a place as any to kill time. I’m just settling into a book when the air tightens and a strong-voiced American asks who is joining her for lunch. I look up to see Bette Midler, all 5ft 1in of her, with a green pashmina draped theatrically over her shoulder. Three men and a woman are hovering around her, a dance of attendance. The singer/actress/comedienne is 63, but the blondeness of her hair and the smoothness of her skin says 10 years younger. Certainly she is recognisable. The high cheek bones, the full mouth, the chin like the prow of a ship. Once she and her entourage have taken their seats in the restaurant, a couple of the waiters nudge each other and whisper her name.

I get a message to say what I already know, that Elvis, as it were, has entered the building. It also says that she is ‘in good spirits’. Well, phew to that. She can be very difficult, with one interviewer describing her ‘terrifying gaze that threatens to turn you to stone’. Strong photographers have been reduced to tears, apparently, and one boyfriend who crossed her found that his car had been crashed into. She tells the story herself. She was in a Jaguar that was insured. He was driving an Oldsmobile that wasn’t. You don’t mess with Midler. You arrive on time.

Needless to say, it is 3.45 before the interview starts. We are upstairs in her suite, a suite with several doors leading off it. She has entered through one of them, having changed out of what Americans call slacks into a just-above-the-knees skirt, high heels and a bright red top that shows her cleavage. She now has big eyelashes, two black butterflies resting on her cheeks. Show time.

‘I hear you’re in good spirits,’ I say.

‘And if I wasn’t I would know how to pretend,’ she says crisply.

And presumably if you pretend to be happy, you become happy. ‘Exactly, I try to be upbeat and that can be self-fulfilling. It is about acting “as if”. Act as if everything is just great. Things lighten up when you do that. It’s about stepping into character.’

Let’s address this character she steps into first, then. It, she, ‘The Divine Miss M’ as she used to style herself, is warm, funny and camp. To emphasise a point she rolls her eyes and pulls faces. She is or was (she always wore wigs on stage) a larger-than-life, wisecracking redhead who could be bawdy and insinuating one moment and then sing a tender ballad the next. A fairly gentle example of her humour is what she once said in her act about Madonna: ‘Pity the poor soul who has to rinse out that gal’s lingerie.’ But actually her comedy route was so spectacularly lewd, even now, 30 or so years on, I struggle to find an example I can quote or even allude to in a family paper. Think cunnilingus, erections, flatulence…

One of the alter egos she does in her show is a mermaid in a wheelchair. That says it all really. ‘I didn’t invent tack,’ she once said. ‘But I definitely brought it to its present high popularity.’

As a film star, her most memorable characters were versions of herself, from the self-destructive rock star in her Oscar-nominated film The Rose (1979), to those string of comedies in the mid-Eighties – Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Ruthless People (in which she played an obnoxious wife opposite Danny DeVito, one who became more sympathetic as the film progressed) and The First Wives Club.

She was good, too, opposite Woody Allen in Scenes from a Mall – again, a version of her own character. In truth, she was so charismatic playing herself that it was hard to cast her as anyone else.

There is something very glitzy and Vegas about this character, then.

Very Caesar’s Palace. She is doing a two-year residency there at the moment – performing about 200 days, in rotation with Cher and Elton John. She got off lightly. Celine Dion had to do five years before she was given parole. They do it for the money. Midler is reportedly being paid $150 million. Her show is called The Showgirl Must Go On and everything about it is big, big, big. Twenty high-kicking showgirls.

More sequins and feather boas than the imagination can cope with. Midler describes it as ‘not only the biggest show of my career but the biggest show in the history of showbusiness’.

We talk about how Las Vegas has its origins in the Great Depression. The town wouldn’t have been built there in the desert had it not been for the construction of the Hoover Dam, that towering symbol of Roosevelt’s New Deal. It soon became a place for people to escape the doom and gloom, live out their fantasies. Presumably she is noticing history repeat itself at the moment? ‘Definitely, my audiences want spectacle and glitter. They want escapism and I give it to ’em, right between the eyes. That’s what entertainment is, escapism. People in my profession give themselves airs and graces, but essentially it is about entertaining, helping people forget their lives. I used to be mortified in the Sixties at the thought that that was what I was. I didn’t want to be known as this kind of entertainer, I wanted to be a serious actress, a serious singer, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve realised an entertainer is not such a bad thing to be. I’m kind of proud that I’ve survived and that I’m good at what I do. I must have had some talent and done something right to be still doing it. Most of the kids I started with have given up.’

This sounds modest enough, it is even said with a slight stutter, but when she returns to this theme, as she does from time to time, she speaks more quickly and her resolve hardens. Increasingly, she bigs herself up, tells me several times about how proud she is of her achievements. But the secret, she reckons, is to think you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread but know you’re not. With Midler, it seems, there is a mask of confidence covering her insecurities. Is that fair? ‘Sure I feel like an impostor sometimes. Everyone does. I’m a worrier.’ It’s a Jewish thing, she adds. Worry, worry, worry. She’s a bit of a hypochondriac, for example. And she says that however confident you are about your skills, you are never quite sure how divine you actually are.

But is she happy more often than she is unhappy? ‘I’m happy at the moment. Happy that I’m not touring because the market has fallen out of that for a lot of people and being in one location, Vegas, is a good alternative. The population there changes every three days. They want to see the one big show. They are laughing and crying and it is therapeutic. They come away feeling buoyant. My husband stands back and sobs openly.’

Oh come on, she’s not that bad… (No, I didn’t really say that. Of course I didn’t. She means her husband Martin von Haselberg weeps with pride.) Is that when she sings Wind Beneath My Wings? ‘He loves the flights of fancy in the show. He likes the wackiness. He thinks that’s inspired. He loves it back stage. But yeah, when I sing Wind Beneath My Wings, that’s my guy.’

Because? ‘When I was on the road and on location he had to pick up the slack with our daughter. He sacrificed a lot. He kept her on the straight and narrow, knew how to reel her in.’

Their daughter was a handful? ‘No, it was more my daughter never wanted to hear any advice, always wanted to go her own way. You know, she was like, “If you say that one more time I’ll never speak to you again”.’

Sophie, their daughter, looks spookily like her mother. Midler calls her Mini-me. She has just graduated from Yale. Now that must have made her proud. ‘Hey, we must have done something right. We were proud, so proud. One of the best days of my life. She read Chinese at university. She lives in China now. Martin taught her German and she is trilingual.’

Midler went to Hawaii University. Read drama. She had grown up there, the third of four children and had worked in a pineapple-canning factory. While she sorted she sang ‘at the top of my lungs’ and no one could hear. She reckons this is the reasons her lungs ‘are made of leather’. She has said that nothing beats working in a pineapple factory. It was one of the happiest jobs she had, along with go-go dancing. For all this happiness, though, she was desperate to leave the island. Now she says that her fellow citizen of Hawaii, Barack Obama, has made much better peace with the place than she has.

The problem was she grew up in what she describes as ‘dire poverty’. Her father ‘worked like a dog all his life’ as a painter for the Navy. Her mother was a seamstress. Her parents weren’t very demonstrative. They showed her ‘plenty of emotion’, but they didn’t give ‘much love’. ‘There was a lot of yelling going on. It made me self-centred, a result of not getting any attention as a child. If you are neglected, you go for it elsewhere.’

I ask whether, as a mother to Sophie, she has consciously tried to avoid being like her own mother was with her. ‘My mother didn’t know we were there. She was in her own world trying to make ends meet. I was more hands-on, trying to make a well-rounded person. But it was Martin who provided Sophie with everything she needed, when I wasn’t there.’

It is touching the way she refers to her husband. She uses words such as ‘cosy’. Talks about how they ‘suit’ each other. Says their relationship is nothing to do with drugs and alcohol or having a ‘whoopee life’. She is the breadwinner. He does the cooking. He used to be a commodity broker, and some-time performance artist. That was how they met. Their marriage got off to an unconventional start. It was in Vegas. An Elvis impersonator conducted the service. ‘Yeah,’ she says now. ‘We only got our wedding pictures back last year after 24 years. Got a letter from a guy saying, “I’m closing my chapel and I thought you would like these”.

‘He sent us our pictures and we looked like children, even though we were quite old. I was 37, Martin was a couple of years younger, and all his hair is dark, no grey hairs. I’m a redhead. My hair is silver now, but you can’t tell. It was frivolous to do it there with an Elvis impersonator but it was a whim.’ It took them a long time to get to know each other properly, she adds. All their friends said it wouldn’t last.

She shakes her head, gives her easy smile. ‘Boy, the time. Time used to be so sleepy and slow. I swear they have cut an hour down to 15 minutes.’

How does she keep the spark in her marriage alive? ‘We don’t always. There were plenty of times we felt like throwing in the towel because it was so hard, with my working. But we kept putting one foot in front of the other. It was hard. We kept plodding along and each success you have within the framework of the marriage you build on.’

They live in New York but her husband goes with her to Vegas for her residencies. Does she have homely touches in their rooms there – family photos, ornaments, flying ducks? ‘No, we live in the hotel and it’s OK now that I have moved rooms. I was getting distressed because everything in the suite they gave me was grey. Grey walls, grey rugs, grey furniture. Grey, grey, grey and right across the road they were putting this new tower up, so for the first 77 shows I was tearing out my hair. I’m an artist so I’m sensitive to colour and light. I was getting depressed. Getting the blues. I begged them to move me and they gave me the Asian suite which is where all the high-rollers from Asia stay… It has doors and you can breathe the air and that has made such a difference.’

The worst part of success, she reckons, is finding someone who is happy for you. She has a new album out, a collection called Best Bette, and it shows her range – pop, jazz, soul, swing, music hall. Since its release in this country it has sold 400,000 copies. I’m happy for her, I say. ‘Thank you, thank you. This album has taken me by surprise. No one ever told me I had so many fans here! It’s strange to find this out at my age, but then everything surprises me about getting old. I’ve never been this old before. I never thought I’d feel this good.’

Her career began in earnest on Broadway in the late Sixties when she starred in Fiddler on the Roof. One of her two sisters was killed by a taxi on her way to see the show and it took Midler a long time to recover her equilibrium, and career. In the early Seventies she reinvented herself as Bathhouse Bette, a cabaret act singing in New York’s bathhouses, a meeting place for gay men. Her accompanist on piano was one Barry Manilow. ‘It was such a fun time,’ she recalls. ‘Camp. Frivolous. I was getting a chance to do all the things I dreamed of. It was kind of a wave you rode. You didn’t want to look too closely. I didn’t think it would ever end. I’m happy I didn’t know better. If I had known then what I know now, what a struggle it can be, I might not have done it.’ She adopts a squeaky voice: ‘How did I get so far on sooo little?’ But when she takes stock now, does she feel fulfilled? I mean, isn’t the fact that she hasn’t got performing out of her system yet tantamount to a kind of failure? ‘When I was 50 I had a big party and I looked back and felt good about it. It hadn’t all been for me, me, me. I had done stuff for other people. Yes, I had done some beautiful shows and I had sung some beautiful music, but sometimes I was in too much of a hurry. On the whole, I was very proud of myself.’

And her film career? ‘Yes, I’m very proud of that, too.’

Even Jinxed!, the 1982 film that received such poisonous reviews it nearly finished her career for good? It bombed. Everybody blamed her.

She didn’t work again for a couple of years. ‘No, Jinxed! was a turkey.’

She flutters her hand, waving the memory away. ‘People ask if I’m pissed off I don’t make pictures any more but I’m not. I had a good run. You have to make your peace with that and not cling. You know, you can’t keep saying, ”Why isn’t it me, goddamit.” You can’t be bitter.’

Sounds like something she might have been told in therapy, something she doesn’t entirely believe. Still, what about her life generally? Has she done things she is ashamed of? She gasps. ‘Oh! SO many things. I can’t even talk about it. I wake up screaming in the night. Some things, I’m so appalled at the way I behaved!’ I lean forward. Like what? Like what? ‘I really can’t talk about it, but I was cruel more than once. I never wanted to be like that but the DEVIL made me do it. Even I was disturbed by my behaviour. I felt ashamed. I still wake up shivering. But I feel I have done enough good to balance it out.’

Blimey. Does she sleep well? ‘I don’t sleep at all. Sleep really badly. Always exhausted. It’s a function of getting old. No more melatonin. No more hormones. I have to do a lot of exercise. That helps a bit. But I still sleep badly.’

Bette Midler is more delicate and dignified than I had imagined. She has better posture, too, sitting straight-spined in her chair, her hands cupped demurely in her lap. And while it’s true that, as someone once wrote, she always looks like she is on the brink of an amusing rebuttal, she is, actually, for all the cheerful brassiness of her stage persona, quite ladylike.

She says she would never discuss money because she is ‘a lady’. It’s meant as a joke but you suspect she thinks that a lady is exactly what she is, or would like to be. She mocks herself, her shallowness, says she is like a magpie because she loves ‘shiny stuff’, but you suspect this is a defence mechanism, that she is saying it before someone else does. She wishes she had been taken more seriously, especially in her film career.

One of her most memorable roles, after all, was not a comedy but a weepy – Beaches. Hers was an odd film career. She began to think Hollywood was out to get her, but in fairness she did make some bad calls – she turned down the lead role in Misery, and despite the fact that Sister Act was written for her, she turned that down, too.

She admits she does still call around from time to time. ‘I get on the phone and I ask people, “Is there anything out there?”‘ And when she quickly adds that she has no regrets now and that she accepts her film career is over, you know that she protests too much.

Is she any good at switching off, chilling out? ‘The trouble is I overcommit myself. I just keep thinking I don’t have much time left! There are so many things I haven’t done that I wanted to do. Darn, I should have learned French.’

Does she keep a diary? People find that therapeutic. ‘I don’t, no. But I have started photographing everything. If I don’t photograph everything there are months when I don’t know what I’ve done. My memory is so shabby. I put the photographs in a scrapbook then I have a record of my life. It’s a full life, no question, but it’s not all meaningful. There is a lot of crap. There are highs but then there is also garbage, garbage, garbage.’

She sits up and widens her eyes. ‘Shall I take your picture? May I take your picture? Ken! Ken!’ A member of her entourage appears from behind a door. ‘Ken. Take his picture.’ She bounds over from her chair and cuddles up next to me on the sofa. I battle momentarily with my English reserve then put my arm around her. Click.

When Ken turns the digital camera to show us the picture, we are both grinning like lunatics.