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.