Oprah Talks to Bette Midler
Oprah: One of my theories about life is that we become what we believe. While you were growing up, what did you believe?
Bette: I believed I could do anything I could think of. So the challenge was always to keep thinking—to get to where I wanted to be and then to think of somewhere else to go. When I started in this business, I had a dream, but it was amorphous, and I had no experience. I just had a fuzzy notion of what life would be like if I became what I pictured.
Oprah: And what did you picture?
Bette: I pictured myself as a kind of grand lady—a great dame.
Oprah: When did you start to picture yourself that way?
Bette: The first time I saw a picture of [fabled actress] Ethel Barrymore—she was on Broadway and she was wearing pearls. I thought, "That's who I should grow up to be." It's odd, because it was her physical image that I wanted; I had no idea what it was like actually to be her. In those days, we weren't bombarded by images the way we are now, and the ones we did have were more vivid in people's minds. When the movies first started, audiences were dumbstruck to see actresses walking around in evening gowns. They'd never seen anything like that. They wanted to be like those actors and actresses, so the movies informed their behavior. A lot of people started drinking martinis and smoking cigarettes because they felt it was cool.
Oprah: That's right.
Bette: And I grew up so far away from it all, in the middle of the Pacific.
Oprah: How did your family end up in Honolulu?
Bette: My dad was in the army, and when he was posted in Hawaii before World War II, he liked it because it was warm. In 1937 he married my mother, then brought her from New Jersey to Hawaii on a ship that went through the Panama Canal. In those days, that was a big trip. And Hawaii was still a territory, not a state.
Oprah: How old were you when you saw the photo of Ethel Barrymore?
Bette: Nine or ten. My parents used to park us kids at the public library in downtown Honolulu every Saturday. They'd leave us there at 8 A.M. and pick us up at 4 P.M.— so between those hours, you'd better find something to do! I sat upstairs in the picture room and went through opera, ballet, and theater books. I loved the photographs of people wearing elaborate makeup and costumes—they really pulled at me inside. I was in that library every week for years, until I was about 13. I had a rich interior life, because I didn't have much of a social life.