It's fitting that a woman who calls herself divine should be surrounded by so many beautiful things. The living room in Bette Midler's Manhattan triplex is a perfect tête-à-tête between antique and modern: lush area rugs on hardwood floors, paintings in brilliant colors, oak shelves laden with photographs in silver frames, a spectacular spiral staircase. Here, all things opposite can live as one—old and new, light and dark, even real-life Bette and the Divine Miss M. Not that Bette has issues with the campy character she created early in her career, a trash-talking broad in toreador pants and platform shoes who sang retro hits like "Do You Want to Dance?" and "The Leader of the Pack" in her own larger-than-life style. The Divine One is based on a bolder fantasy self that has always lived inside her, and in the 35 years since big stages and bright lights lured her to New York from Hawaii, Bette has often borrowed from her alter ego's brazenness. But get one thing straight: Bette Midler is not the same as her audacious creation. "If I were," she explains to me during our Saturday afternoon visit, "I'd be married to some Italian nobleman and living in a palazzo. I'd have bangles up to my elbows and I'd be drinking martinis and smoking—none of which I, Bette Midler, can do."
But there's a whole heap of other things that the real-deal Bette can do—like use her brilliance to parlay a big-screen career into an eponymous TV series. "I was sitting around waiting for the damn phone to ring with movie roles, and it wasn't working," she tells me. So last year, she did what any end-run queen (her own phrase) would: She admitted to herself that Hollywood dismisses women of a certain age—in her case, 55—and she went after a different kind of work. Within a few months, she had talked her way into Bette, a screwball sitcom in which she pretty much plays herself: an actress, mother, and wife whose Lucille Ball–style antics land her in weekly pickles. Naturally, she can't squirm out of these predicaments without cracking us all up.
Cracking people up is one of the many things Bette excels at. Over the years she has wowed audiences with her stage routines (you gotta love her mermaid-in-a-wheelchair number!); fans still rave nostalgically about her 1970s performances in the surreal atmosphere of Manhattan's Continental Baths (a gay male scene where she earned the nickname Bathhouse Betty and where Barry Manilow was her accompanist). Her track record since those early days is flat-out amazing: two Academy Award nominations (the first for her 1979 film, The Rose, and another 12 years later for her performance in For the Boys), three Emmys, three Grammys, a Tony, and four Golden Globes. She also found the time to start her own film company, All Girl Productions (motto: "We hold a grudge"); its first movie, Beaches, was released in 1988. I still hold back tears when I hear her perform the hit single from that film, one of my all-time favorite songs, "Wind Beneath My Wings."