Vancouver Sun

Words of advice from The Divine Miss M

Bette Midler talks frankly about sex, self-respect and trusting in your talent


Apparently people really like to pretend they’re having sex. They really like to slap each other’s butts.


Bette Midler is tiny but what she lacks in height she makes up for in attitude. She’s running late, then suddenly she’s not, except, in the end, it turns out she is. I accidental­ly stumble on a hotel room that is a hive of activity — four or five people on laptops, phones clamped to ears, a nerve centre in miniature. These are Bette’s people. Bette has a lot of people. They are, she tells me later with a joyous hoot, the wind beneath her wings.

From behind closed doors, I can hear another interview coming to an end. “Feel free to make me sound funnier than I actually am!” she says. It is a line I suspect she has trotted out many times over the past few days while promoting her new album.

Midler is wearing a slinky black dress and a pair of Christian Louboutins. She has aged exceptiona­lly well, like a fine wine; she looks better at 68 than she ever did, her corkscrew curls replaced by an elegant updo. Almost 50 years in show business have taught her a lot: she knows that she must always look immaculate. “Women now, they (have to) pose,” she drawls. “They don’t want those ugly pictures of themselves on the Internet, and I don’t blame them. It’s like a war! It’s poisonous, totally toxic,” she says. “If you get on that red carpet, you better be prepared for the results, truly.”

We are here to talk about her new album, It’s the Girls, a compilatio­n of covers of the girl bands of her youth. “The Ronettes, The Chiffons, The Marvelette­s, The Crystals …”

They all had such wonderful names, I say.

“Oh yeah, they really did. So evocative. They were completely and utterly wholesome and whimsical. And optimistic. The music was very optimistic and upbeat. The ballads were sometimes sad, but you knew things were going to turn out in the end. The music wasn’t bleak. This was before Bob Dylan, you know,” she says dryly.

There is only one modern song on the album — Waterfalls by TLC. I ask if she considered using the music of any other contempora­ry bands.

“I couldn’t think of a girl group that was modern who had a song as meaningful as (the one by) TLC. I couldn’t find one. I mean, who are you talking about? The Spice Girls?” She looks aghast. “I like Destiny’s Child. I think that was the last great girl band there was.”

We talk about the “pornificat­ion” of pop music. “It’s terrible! It’s always surprising to see someone like Ariana Grande with that silly high voice, a very wholesome voice, slithering around on a couch” — here, she does some slithering herself — “looking so ridiculous. I mean, it’s silly beyond belief and I don’t know who’s telling her to do it. I wish they’d stop. But it’s not my business, I’m not her mother. Or her manager. Maybe they tell them that’s what you’ve got to do. Sex sells. Sex has always sold.” But does it sell more now? “Well, whatever strictures there were have fallen apart. And now it’s whatever you feel like doing you can do. I mean, apparently people really like to pretend they’re having sex. They really like to slap each other’s butts.” If she had any advice for a young woman wanting to break into show business today, it would be this: “Trust your talent. You don’t have to make a whore out of yourself to get ahead. You really don’t.”

Though Bette Midler seems as Manhattan as Woody Allen, she was born in Hawaii, of all places, at the end of the Second World War.

Her father was a painter who disapprove­d of her showbiz ambitions; her mother, a seamstress, named her after Bette Davis and is said to have screamed “Fabulous … I didn’t know she was so witty!” when she first saw her daughter perform.

Midler worked in a pineapple factory before escaping to New York City, where she got a role as one of the sisters in Fiddler on the Roof. She played the eldest daughter.

Midler’s sister, Judith, was killed in a car crash while on the way to see her perform. It is said to have haunted Midler for many years afterward. But she overcame personal tragedy to achieve profession­al success. It was in New York that she began singing in a gay bathhouse with Barry Manilow as her pianist, adopting the alter ego The Divine Miss M.

The bathhouse — and what exactly took place there — is the subject of much speculatio­n, but she’s always maintained that she didn’t notice anything untoward because she was too busy focusing on her own performanc­e. That’s Bette for you. Profession­al to the end.

Musical success (she has won three Grammy Awards) was followed by movie success — her first, The Rose (loosely based on the life of singer Janis Joplin), won her a Golden Globe, while Beaches still tops weepy lists almost 30 years after its release.

She has been a brilliant comedienne, too, her mermaid-in-a-wheelchair character ripped off by the likes of Lady Gaga.

The stage, she says, is her “spiritual home. It’s where I live. But I do like being off the stage as well. I have a big life offstage.” There’s her husband of almost 30 years, Martin von Haselberg, who gave up his job as a commoditie­s broker to support her career and bring up their daughter, Sophie, now 28. Sophie is an actress who will shortly appear in the new Woody Allen film. “My husband and I are both very happy and proud and obsessed.”

Then there’s her charity, the New York Restoratio­n Project, which has been going for nearly 20 years. Its aim is to plant trees and restore rundown buildings in deprived areas of the city; Midler bought 52 community gardens in the area and is a passionate horticultu­rist. Her interest started when Sophie was born — she says she looked back to the “sunny” world she grew up in and couldn’t bear that her daughter wouldn’t get to do the same.

One of her umpteen publicists is now in the room, letting me know our time is up.

“Feel free to make me sound more funny that I actually am!” she says, and I leave with the sense that I have just been in the presence of one of the last great entertaine­rs. A true star.

 ?? DAN HALLMAN/INVISION/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Bette Midler has strong opinions about what entertaine­rs, especially women, need to do to attain success, and it doesn’t involve hyper-sexuality.
DAN HALLMAN/INVISION/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Bette Midler has strong opinions about what entertaine­rs, especially women, need to do to attain success, and it doesn’t involve hyper-sexuality.

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