Before the whole world knew her as “The Divine Miss M,” Bette Milder was ours. In the early ’70s, bawdy, belt-y Bette was performing for the NYC bathhouse boys, and don’t think she’s forgotten it, either. “I mean, if I had a nickel for everybody that said they saw me at the baths,” says Midler in our recent interview, “I would be Joe Billionaire by now!”
Midler would go on to global fame, reaching beyond music to become a celebrated name in film, television and on the stage, winning Grammys, Golden Globes, Emmys and a special Tony Award. And in fall 2014, the eagerly awaited return of one of show business’s most versatile performers arrived with the release of her first album in eight years, It’s the Girls!, a tribute to some of the greatest female harmonies in history.
Midler talked about the 2015 tour—which stops at Tampa’s Amalie Arena May 11—and the truck full of hairpieces she’s schlepping along (“Cher has 55 wigs; why can’t I?”). She also touched on her early support of the LGBT community, the degradation of the word “diva” and her plan to avenge Mae West for sending her a cease and desist.
WATERMARK: You know how much we gays love our girls. How much do you keep your gay following in mind when you make music, particularly with It’s the Girls!?
BETTE MIDLER: To tell you the truth, it really didn’t cross my mind. The music I chose is music I had a lot of affection for. Some of these songs I’ve known since I was a little girl. I feel like if I have a strong feeling for this music, people will also have a strong feeling for it. The truth is, you cannot pander. You have to go with your gut and your heart and be true to yourself, and hope that people like it. They generally do.
When you look back at your early support for the LGBT community, what do you recall as being the moment that galvanized you to stand up as an ally?
I had been in the theater for a long time, from the time I was a young person, and I’d always known gay people—and they were just, like, gay people! Just ordinary friends. People that you knew, and that you never thought twice about. You didn’t think of them as being different, although looking back on my high school years, I think there were a lot of people in my high school—this is so many years ago; this is 50 years ago—who probably were gay and didn’t ever talk about it. As a matter of fact, one of the kids that I went to school with, an enormously popular guy—really funny, really wonderful—who was in my Latin class, wrote me before he passed away from AIDS to tell me that he had been gay and that he had contracted AIDS.
So, I mean, what was the moment when I said that it was time to stand up? Oh my god—it never occurred to me not to. These were friends of mine—people that I had worked with, people that I had danced with, people I had broken bread with my whole life—so it never occurred to me not to. You do what you do because there’s nothing else to do. There’s no other option.
Did you experience any backlash for supporting gay people at the time?
You know, I might have, but I was very well-protected in those days. I actually did not feel it. I remember the first big benefit that anyone had done for gay rights (“A Star Spangled Night for Rights” in 1977). I remember the poster, and it was at the Hollywood Bowl. Lily (Tomlin), Richard Pryor and Tom Waits were on the program, but nobody ever said LGBT then. That didn’t exist.
So that night, Tom Waits sang “Standin’ on the Corner” and then Richard Pryor came out and Richard Pryor started off great. I don’t even know if this is in your history books or anything, but he started off great and then worked himself up into a real frenzy as only he could. He said that the gay community had never supported civil rights and, “Where were you when we were riding and they were kicking us to the curb and we were being fire-hosed?” Then he said, “You all can kiss my rich, black ass!” and he stomped off the stage.
And I had to follow him! I mean, I’m just stripping it bare, but imagine what happened. So I went out and said, “You all can kiss my rich, white ass,” and of course then everything was much better, but it was such a curious evening.
I think Stonewall, in’60s, was the first time (the gay community) fought back, but, you know, in history everyone says “I was there.” I mean, if I had a nickel for everybody that said they saw me at the baths, I would be Joe Billionaire by now! I would be playing at Madison Square Garden instead of a rickety-tickety little bathhouse on 73rd Street!
I really do think that this big fundraiser in the late ’70s was a little shot across the bow too, and then not long after that, in the middle ’80s, AIDS came down and it was so horrible and, even though he knew so many gay people, Ronald Reagan did nothing. Nothing!
If a gay fan approaches you, which of your projects would they most likely mention?
You wanna know the truth? Hocus Pocus. Honestly, I cannot believe what happened with Hocus Pocus. I’m just dumbfounded by the number of people who mention Hocus Pocus—and they’re young people!
Was your 2014 Halloween costume—when you went as your Hocus Pocus character, Winifred Sanderson – the closest we’ll ever get to a sequel?
I tell them all you must write the Walt Disney Company because I don’t have anything to say about it—but they do!
But you’d be up for it?
Oh yeah. The girls and I have talked about it, and we all laugh and say, “Yeah, we’ll wait for that phone call.” But sure, we would all do it. We had a wonderful time.
It’s the Girls! celebrates and honors female performers who branded a very particular image. I mean, they definitely were not twerking.
Ugh. I don’t know what to tell you. I just saw that Jennifer Lopez video with Iggy Azalea—“Booty booty booty…”—and oh, girls, please! What can you say? Girls… please.
How do you compare the girl groups from the era you’re channeling to what you’re seeing now?
It was a really wholesome era in retrospect. It was sexy, but it was not blatant. It was intriguing and it was mysterious because it wasn’t flat out in your face. It was also supremely elegant. You know, I talk about this with my girlfriend Toni Basil, another gay icon: Those voices, the black voices, were not familiar to white ears. They simply never heard those voices singing harmony before. You never really heard those really strong, vibrant black girls singing until The Shirelles, The Crystals, The Chiffons, and then the Motown girls, and the girls who came after: Sister Sledge, The Emotions and down the line.
The Honeycombs? Is there a group called The Honeycombs? I personally wanted to cover (The Weather Girls’) “Two Tons o’ Fun” but everyone said, “No, no, you can’t cut that,” so I didn’t.
You cover TLC’s ’90s pop hit “Waterfalls” which famously dealt with HIV/AIDS and safe sex. What significance does that song have for you?
The first time I heard it I was really struck by it because it seemed like such an important song. To me, it was one of the saddest songs I’d ever heard on pop radio. So, I wanted to do a stripped-down version of it because I really wanted the story to be clear. I had thought about it for a long time, and when I first heard it, I was so moved by it. I shed a tear myself, and I always use that as a kind of litmus test. If it really moves me, I can bring something to it; I can make it my own.
What about the song in particular hit you? Did you know the original song was inspired by the AIDS-stricken and promoted safe sex?
I do remember that, but it was a dance song. It was for the dance halls. It was for the discos, and yet it really is a song about the mother who can’t do anything, who’s completely helpless in the face of this. I felt that, and that’s the way I wanted to interpret it. I think it worked out wonderfully.
You’ve been a self-proclaimed diva and have said you were the “People’s Diva.” At this point, has the meaning of the word “diva” changed so much that you no longer identify with it?
It’s a word that is just so overused that it’s really lost all currency. It no longer has any meaning at all. Any old slob on the Internet can say, “Well, I’m a ‘diva,’” and have some people believing it, but not me. In the old, old, old, old days—you know, during the Civil War when I was just a child—it meant “the star.” It was an opera term, and it meant a female opera singer who really could carry the whole opera, and it has been so degraded now. It’s a shame because it really was a wonderful word.
When you hit the road for your first tour in 10 years, how many wigs are you bringing along with you?
Oh my god—I have a truck! I have a whole truck. Well, Cher always does. Cher has 55 wigs; why can’t I? To tell you the truth, I have been wearing wigs since, let’s see, the very, very old days. Since I first started making motion pictures—movies! I’ve always worn wigs. Always, always, always. It really does spare you. It really is a time-saver, and I really enjoy them.
And I love makeup and hair. I just love it, love it, love it! I love becoming somebody that I’m not. As they used to say about Mae West: “A little old lady used to come in onto the set and go into the trailer, and four hours later Mae West would come out.” It’s really kind of like that.
A lot of drag queens would agree with you and Mae. What advice do you have for a guy who wants to dress in Bette drag?
A good pair of shoes—a really good pair of shoes—because you’ll really hurt yourself. You’ll hurt your joints. And a serious undergarment. And if your panties fall down all around your feet, step out of them and keep on singing.
That’s good advice even if you’re not a drag queen.
(Laughs) Well, I’ve been accused of (being a drag queen) many times! But I take it with a grain of salt. To me, it’s a supreme compliment.
You mentioned Mae West, and it was announced in late 2013 that you were cast as Mae in an upcoming HBO biopic. How’s that project coming along?
I’ll tell you something: The script just came in, but I haven’t seen it. I’m waiting for the director, Billy Friedkin (director of The Exorcist), to make his notes, and then he’s gonna hand it off to me and we’ll see what happens.
I’m really looking forward to it because I’ve been reading and doing my due diligence. She’s such a fabulous—she’s so fucking nuts! I mean, she was so insane. And you know, when I started my career all those many moons ago, I used to do an impersonation of Mae West, and I did it on The Johnny Carson Show—my very first Johnny Carson Show—and she sent me a letter telling me to cease and desist, which I swear to God I still have.
I didn’t understand it at the time. I thought, “What’s wrong with her?” Now that I’ve done all the reading and am of a certain age, I totally get it. She was protecting what she had made. She was protecting her creation. That was practically a trademark and she didn’t want anyone to mishandle her creation.
Ultimately, she was right. So I bowed to her wishes; I ceased and desisted. And I think it’s so amusing. (Laughs) After all that, if the script actually comes to the point of doing it, it certainly would be revenge. Take that, Mae!