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."
Bette started out a long way from the starry world she now inhabits. Her hometown is Honolulu, where she grew up in a poor family (with two older sisters, one of whom was killed in a car accident in 1968, and a younger brother, born mentally impaired). Her mother, Ruth, a homemaker, and her father, Fred, a housepainter, gave the kids the best life they could, sending the message that hard work and discipline were necessary to survive. These lessons weren't lost on Bette—on her way up, she worked in a pineapple cannery in Hawaii, as a go-go dancer in a New Jersey club, even as a hatcheck girl and glove saleswoman at Stern's department store in New York City.
There's probably a lot of her parents in the private, real-world Bette I've come to talk with—the self-described homebody with a 14-year-old daughter, Sophie, whom she adores, and a 16-year marriage to commodities trader turned performance artist Martin Von Haselberg, whose calming presence is her anchor. We have an exotic Turkish lunch and, later, we drink a champagne toast. After a good long look at the dazzling view of Central Park, Bette and I settle in her living room. She is a woman of verve, charm, and chutzpah who combines the very best of herself and the Divine Miss M. When she tells me about her passions and priorities—cleaning up cities and parks through the New York Restoration Project, an organization she founded six years ago; making sure she doesn't miss out on her daughter's teenage years; using her sitcom to demystify stardom— it's obvious that time and age have brought her clarity.
Five years ago, when Bette turned 50, she made a conscious effort to pause and examine her past. "I recommend that for everybody," she says. "It's a chance to look at what your life has been about." Here's what the years have taught her—and what matters most in this new episode of her life.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Bette Midler
Note: This interview appeared in the January 2001 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
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.
Oprah: How did the Divine Miss M come about?
Bette: When I moved to New York City in 1965, I wanted to be in theater. I was following my Ethel Barrymore dream. But I was too young to be Ethel. So I started downtown in experimental theater—while onstage, people would take off their clothes, smoke dope, get drunk, throw food at one another. I just fell into a group of performers, and I absorbed a lot of their behavior. But I had always been divine. From the time I was in the sixth grade I had been saying, "Oh, darling, that's divine!" I'd seen so many movies where they said things like that. But, truly, my family was poor. Until I was 17, my allowance was 25 cents a week.
Oprah: That is poor, but at least you had an allowance! I was poor, too, but to be mundane and poor is the curse of life!
Bette: Yes. A lot of people have no access to beauty. When I was growing up, my mother had only a few pretty things to look at.
Oprah: What were they?
Bette: I'll cry if I tell the story—and I don't want to cry.
Oprah: Okay, but nobody but me will see you.
Bette: Well, my mother was a great needlewoman. She could embroider and crochet like the dickens—she used to make doilies—and whatever she made by hand was truly beautiful. She also had my grandmother's trousseau. Her sister had sent it to her in 1958, but she never unpacked the crate. After my mother died, I opened it, and everything my grandmother had made for her marriage was in there: her sheets, her towels, her napkins....
Oprah: Do you still have any of it?
Bette: I have all of it. But I don't use it; I just hold it.
Oprah: It's nice that you have it. Back then, a few doilies and napkins were all that a lot of women had. In the little house where I grew up, the pillowcases my grandmother embroidered were the only things of beauty.
Bette: That's why the library was so important to me. Through books and pho-tographs, I saw a world that was not my own—and I realized that there was another world. That's why I'm concerned about education, because it helps our children see other worlds. Education is my next big thing. When music and art were taken out of the schools, I went berserk!
Oprah: It's like removing the soul from a society.
Bette: That's what kills me. All these children go out into the world without knowing that there is anything other than what they have. Of course, children do look at TV, but what does it give them? Not much—and I'm making your show the exception.
Oprah: You're on TV now, too, so we're both the exceptions! Can we talk a little about fame? My theory is that when you're famous, you're no different from anybody else—it's just that more people know your name.
Bette: Once again, it involves parallel universes. There's the media-driven universe, in which the public perceives you in a superficial way. Then there's the universe that you actually inhabit, where you have to get up even if you didn't sleep so well, and you feel like crap and your face is swollen.
Oprah: Or your face is still in another city.
Bette: Right. Sometimes, when I wake up, my soul is in another city! I have to wait a week for it to catch up. I wake up feeling hollow.
Oprah: That hasn't happened to me yet.
Bette: That's real jet lag! You leave your whole personality in another place. It's deep. Just wait until you're menopausal, too. You have these out-of-body experiences.
Oprah: Oh, Lord.
Bette: The real you is over there watching while your body moves in space.
Bette: Oh yes. Then you go online and have menopausal chats with other women who are having out-of-body experiences.
Oprah: Don't scare me.
Bette: It's not scary—it's fabulous! I have no fear.
Bette: I did have night sweats and hot flashes at first. Then I did this soy–and–primrose oil thing, which helped tremendously. I don't suggest that anyone obsess over menopause or aging. Still, it is true that in this culture, they throw you out when you get older. I see it all the time, especially in my business. At my age, you're playing somebody's mother—and there aren't even a lot of those roles!
Oprah: Is that unfair?
Bette: No—it's the law of the jungle, the way of the world. Life is not fair. And you have to choose your battles, because there are some that you cannot win. If you're passionate about something, then you should pick up your flag and run with it. But I'm running with enough flags right now, you know?
Bette: Sometimes you have to make your own opportunities, and that's why I'm on TV. I wasn't going to sit around anymore, waiting for the damn phone to ring. I had to create my own place—I've always done that. That is why the Divine Miss M is so divine. She's always scheming. I call her the end-run queen. People put barriers up in your path, and one of those barriers is age. They tell you, "You're too old. You don't photograph so well anymore." I know I don't photograph so well anymore, so what can I do? I can do something different, where it doesn't matter as much how I look.
Oprah: TV! And you can be yourself there, too.
Bette: On television, they're happy to have me! Why do I want to join a club that doesn't want me?
Oprah: Were you depressed because people weren't coming to you with movie roles anymore?
Bette: Not even for a second.
Oprah: Were you depressed after you were nominated for an Academy Award for The Rose—
Bette: And didn't win? I was livid!
Oprah: But there's something validating about getting nominated—
Bette: Spoken like a true Oscar winner!
Oprah: I never won!
Bette: Didn't you win for The Color Purple?
Bette: That's the Oscars for ya—you remember who was nominated, but you don't remember who won!
Oprah: I never expected to win—I was just thrilled to be in the movie.
Bette: Remember, I came from the middle of the Pacific, so I didn't know how hard it was to win an award. When I was nominated for my first Grammy, I expected to get it—why wouldn't I? I had never lost before. In Hawaii, I was a big deal!
Oprah: Even back in the days when you worked at a pineapple cannery? How long were you there?
Bette: Three summers. I had a ball.
Oprah: Chunking pineapples?
Bette: I would put the pineapples in cans, but I would do it the lazy way. You were supposed to pick the pineapple up and take the bad ends off. I used to just grab the three good slices from the middle and put them in the can. To hell with sorting.
Oprah: That sounds like Lucy and Ethel at the chocolate factory in I Love Lucy!
Bette: Lucille Ball was one of the greatest. I laugh till I cry when I watch that episode. Lucy was an inspiration to me because she was older when she started, and she'd been completely wasted in movies.
Oprah: I've heard a couple of people say that your show is Lucyesque, which is a huge compliment.
Bette: It is a huge compliment—too big. She was like Chaplin. Most people don't deserve to be spoken of in the same breath as Chaplin or Lucille Ball.
Oprah: You once told me that you never read any of your press.
Bette: I decided years ago not to read stories about myself anymore. Each one is a potential minefield: Whatever it says, you're bound to take it the wrong way. Why do it if you know it's going to make you miserable?
Oprah: What in particular led to this decision?
Bette: I read a comment that made me think I should stop singing for a while. And I didn't want to stop singing, because it was the only thing I loved. At first I thought, "Maybe I'll get better and eventually please the person who wrote about my singing." But then I thought, "I probably will never please this person. I should just do what pleases me."
Oprah: So you made a vow never to read another thing?
Bette: Yes. We Midlers are tough!
Oprah: You won't even read this article?
Bette: No, I will not. Do you mind?
Oprah: I don't mind. I find it admirable. It takes self-confidence to do that.
Bette: Well, it takes knowing what you can and cannot absorb—knowing your own strengths and weaknesses.
Oprah: So do you come from a confident place within yourself?
Bette: I come from an overly confident place. But I'm overconfident because of feelings of inferiority. Know what I mean?
Oprah: Yes—I know what that feels like.
Bette: I'm confident that I'm as intelligent as many people, but I know that I'm not as intelligent as some. So in the presence of hyperintelligent people, I'm a shrinking violet because I don't want to look like a fool. I know a little about a lot and a lot about a little.
Oprah: Gotcha. Let's talk about those early performances at the bathhouse.
Bette: I had a ball. The audiences were very encouraging. I've always been lucky enough to have great audiences. It has been quite a life. When I turned 50, I threw myself a big birthday party, and I looked seriously at what my life has been about. I recommend this to everybody. Ask yourself, "What have I done? How did I do it? Where'd I mess up? Where did I do well?" When I did this assessment of my life, I said to myself, "It was really good." I made a lot of people laugh, made a lot of people cry in a good way, brought a lot of joy to people, picked up a lot of garbage. And in all those years, I saw a lot. I went to foreign lands. I met interesting people. And I got it!
Oprah: What did you get?
Bette: I got that a person's life is a journey, a road. Sometimes you go off the road and sometimes you stay on all the way through. But you are the only one on that road. It's your road.
Bette: And in a funny way, when you realize that, it demystifies everyone else's journey for you. You're not jealous of other people. It takes a lot of anguish out of life.
Oprah: That makes so much sense.
Bette: You can feel compassion for others without feeling victimized yourself.
Oprah: I know exactly what you mean. Gary Zukav, who wrote The Seat of the Soul, says that true humility is understanding that everybody else's journey is just as difficult as your own.
Bette: And just as important. That's what I got when I turned 50. That's when I stopped, took a breath, thought about all the years before, and said to myself, "What was that?" From the age of 14 until I was 50, I just got on a treadmill and ran. I never stopped to assess what I was doing or to pat myself on the back.
Bette: When I finally did stop and look at my life, I realized that I had done what I'd set out to do. In my pitiful little way, I had climbed the mountain I had chosen. And there I was, on top.
Oprah: Did you think, "And now what?"
Bette: Yes, but not in a bad way. I was thinking, "What's that mountain over there? It's more rugged and it has no glamour, but it's more interesting."
Oprah: You were looking at the after-50 mountain?
Bette: Yes. When you reach a certain age, you have fulfilled your childhood dream and whatever your first or second adulthood led you to do. Then you're in your third adulthood, the one that leads to the grave, and you ask yourself, "What will I do between now and then?" Instead of thinking in terms of glamour, you start thinking in terms of reform—your contribution to the world.
Oprah: Right. A friend of mine says that perfection is a road, not a destination.
Bette: I'm not interested in perfection, though. The universe is perfect, and there are some works of art that we see as perfect, but human beings aren't perfect.
Oprah: Okay, but do you believe in a power greater than yourself?
Bette: You mean do I believe in God? Oh, I'm mad about God! That's why I'm divine. When I started saying "Oh, that's divine!" I had no earthly idea that it had anything to do with God. Then I started reading about divine inspiration and divine light—I'm from a generation of seekers, after all—and finally I realized, "Oh, my God, they're talking about me! I'm part of the cosmos—everyone is."
Oprah: The divine is in all things.
Bette: Absolutely. We're all divine, but I was the only one who had the nerve to call myself that. And I thought of it first. So there!
Oprah: Did people ever say about you, "Who does she think she is?"
Bette: No one has ever said that to me. I always take the piss out of the whole Divine Miss M thing by being funny about it. Humor disarms people. They don't feel threatened. If someone were to say seriously, "I'm divine," she'd have to be locked up. There are lots of people in mental institutions going around saying "I'm God." But because I'm funny about it, they haven't locked me up yet. And I don't give myself airs, either. There are people who come from the same background as I do who give themselves a lot of airs. In my business, you are so encouraged to do that, with people blowing smoke up your butt and yessing you to death. I've fought that for 35 years. When the pompousness bubbles up inside me, I stop it. Lately, because of television, I've really had to work at this. My audience had actually been quite small; now it's enormous, and I could feel that people were looking at me in a new way.
Oprah: Let's talk a little more about how you started to pay attention to your life, because that's what leads to a reinvention of yourself—being fully present and in the moment.
Bette: You have to be alert. When my daughter, Sophie, came out of the womb, she was instantly alert, as if she had been here before. And she was a little disappointed that she was here again.
Bette: The expression on her face was, like, "Not this again!"
Oprah: I love the fact that you've reared Sophie to be so independent.
Bette: She's very independent. But if she's upset about something, she will absolutely let me know. She's great—a real tough cookie.
Oprah: I can tell that she's strong. Are you looking forward to the rest of her teenage years? I read that you had wanted to stay near New York so that you could be home with Sophie more.
Bette: I'm coming back to New York next year to do the sitcom. So far we've been doing the shows in Los Angeles because they are very elaborate, and the costume people can't get around easily in New York. With the traffic, every trip is at least half an hour.
Oprah: I know—New York traffic can drive you crazy. What has being Sophie's mother taught you?
Bette: To thank God for my husband! His presence is so calming. Don't you think he's great?
Oprah: Yes—he seems so at peace. How did you meet him?
Bette: We first met at a party; a group of us went to a concert together. I didn't see him for years after that. Then, in the early 1980s, I went to this performance-art show and he was there. He said, "I don't know if you remember me, but I met you at a show once." He took my number, but he didn't call for two years. The day he did call, I was sobbing—I was going through a bad patch. I picked up the phone, and he said, "Is this...who is this?" And I said, "This is Bette." We went out the next weekend, and a few weeks later we were married.
Oprah: Wow! So you knew he was the one that soon?
Bette: I did—and he did, too. And it was time. I was in my late thirties, and he and I both wanted to have a family. It was romantic and not romantic at the same time. Romance is an illusion. Well, romance is not a complete illusion, but it's ephemeral. It does not last....
Oprah: Unless you have the real thing to back it up. It takes a combination of things to make it work. I've interviewed thousands of women over the years, and a lot of them believe that the illusion is the real deal.
Bette: I can't believe that!
Oprah: Honest to God, I just interviewed a woman the other day who said, "I thought my marriage was going to be a full-time date." I said, "You must be kidding!" This was a 36-year-old woman who'd been married for 11 years. She said, "I thought marriage was going to be champagne and rose petals."
Bette: Good luck!
Oprah: I said, "Champagne and rose petals? First of all, rose petals are messy."
Bette: And they're dry the next day.
Oprah: And rose petals in the tub clog the drain. What a mess!
Bette: I've always said that people have unrealistic expectations.
Oprah: That's why the divorce rate is over 50 percent.
Bette: Marriage is such hard work. And it's full of rage and real human drama.
Oprah: It's an episode!
Bette: Every day is a struggle. My husband and I are having a good year, but the first years were truly terrible. We got married, and then we realized we had very different opinions about a lot of things. But this year we had a breakthrough.
Oprah: What was it?
Bette: In a marriage, you struggle and struggle and struggle, and then you realize that you have to ride the horse in the direction it's going. You stop trying to pull the reins in another direction.
Oprah: Did both of you realize that—or just you?
Bette: My husband already knows that stuff. But for me, it was the whole square-peg-in-a-round-hole thing. Finally, I said to myself, "This would be so much nicer if..."
Oprah: If you just let him be.
Bette: Let him be. That was my mother's big line in Yiddish. She used to say to my father all the time, "Leave 'em alone! Let 'em be!"
Oprah: And that happened in your marriage this year, with all that you have going on?
Bette: Yes. And I am so glad that I have him as my backup. He is so generous and overwhelmingly kind to let me do all this. He's never made me feel guilty for one second. He has always said, "Do what's good for you, and do what's good for the show. I am fine. I'm taking care of this; I'm pulling this together; I'm taking up the slack."
Oprah: Let's talk about your TV show. How important is it to you that it work out?
Bette: Not very. I did it as a lark. It was a big experiment. At first I felt like, I'm going to get thrown off any day now, so I gotta hurry! It's all a crapshoot; you never know what they're going to do to you. But now that people seem to like the show, I'm getting into it. I see the possibilities. I want to have fun, and I want to give people a good laugh. I also want to take the wind out of certain sails—the country is so caught up in this celebrity mania!
Oprah: Isn't it?
Bette: It would be good to do something to make people see that the emperor has no clothes.
Oprah: The emperor is just buck naked! The show seems like a lot of work, though.
Bette: And you can't let the effort show—it's supposed to look effortless. At first I thought I was going to die, but now...
Oprah: Now you have your rhythm.
Bette: Yeah. And everything is an episode.
Oprah: Everything in your life right now is a possible episode.
Bette: I do look upon all of life as an episode—which is why the people around me are probably on guard!
Oprah: I read that many years ago you had a nervous breakdown.
Bette: Now, that was an episode. After I made a picture in the early 1980s, I was unjustly accused of grandstanding, and I never did any such thing. It brought me up short, and I became very sad and depressed. I cried a lot and I couldn't get out of bed. I called it a nervous breakdown, because what was I going to say?
Oprah: Yeah. You can't say, "I'm crying a lot and I can't get out of bed." I've also read that when you get depressed, your solution is to go on the road so you can feel the love from your fans.
Bette: I have a ball—and it keeps my heart rate up. I get to wear fabulous clothes. I get to make people laugh. That's my core business, and that's where I'll always return.
Oprah: Do you fear the future?
Bette: Not my own future. I fear for the future of the planet. But in a funny way, I'm even sanguine about that.
Oprah: Because the planet will keep going.
Bette: Even if the whole human race dies off because we keep fighting and killing each other and being heartless, the planet will take care of itself. Eventually, after millions of years, it will cleanse itself, and new life forms, maybe better ones, will come. Meanwhile, we'll have gotten exactly what we deserved: annihilation.
Oprah: Because we haven't learned. Do you want to continue your work of cleaning up parks?
Bette: Yes! For some people, a park is the only place in their entire world where they can see something beautiful.
Oprah: That's why what you're doing is so powerful. You've cleared away lots of trash, right?
Bette: Five hundred million pounds! Most people are walking around the city like corpses; they aren't alive enough to notice the trash. They come from other places and they see it as a big garbage dump. Do you want to live and work in a garbage dump? I don't. That's partly because I grew up in the most pristine environment possible—Hawaii, where it is sacrilege to leave your garbage on the ground.
Oprah: And your next project is education?
Bette: Education reform.
Oprah: That is such a big job!
Bette: It's a quagmire. Maybe I'll just dip my toe in. I don't want to make any pronouncements.
Oprah: Do you have any role models?
Bette: One of my first role models was Eugene Lang, a wealthy businessman who went back to his elementary school in East Harlem and addressed the sixth-grade class. He looked out at that sea of faces and said, "If any of you wants to go to college, I will pay for it." When I read that, I burst into tears. It was so generous and so basic. Not fluffy. I can't understand why we scrimp on education and shortchange our kids. Why would the citizenry do that to the people who are going to inherit its republic?
Oprah: I'm baffled by that, too. If one of our young people today wanted to become a Divine Miss M or an Ethel Barrymore, what would it take to make it happen? There are so many images out there—how would such a person even get noticed?
Bette: Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera are doing pretty well at getting noticed— a lot of people are doing pretty well at it. But you wonder whether they'll last, because many of them don't have the ability to get an audience to love them. You say, "That's a fabulous body" or "I like that song"; you don't say, "I love them because I know them." You can't know them.
Bette: It's a different world now: Stars come and go quickly, and there are so many of them. I read a statistic that all the record companies combined used to put out around 3,000 albums in a year. Now they put out something like 30,000!
Oprah: So it's harder to make it big these days?
Bette: Much harder. You have to be very young, and you must have a really good body. Do you have to have talent? I don't know. Image is everything, and the voice or the idea or the song is hardly anything at all. Half the time the person isn't even doing the singing. I'm a bit cynical about this business. If you were to ask people who are starting out if they feel they have a shot, they'd probably have a happier outlook than I do.
Oprah: A lot of people see you, Bette Midler, as the Divine Miss M.
Bette: Please! I wish I were her!
Oprah: So you just created that character?
Bette: A complete fabrication. You have to love the illusion to make it work, of course; you have to fall in love with the character. But none of it is real.
Oprah: On the last page of the magazine is a column I write called "What I Know for Sure". I was inspired by the late film critic Gene Siskel, who asked, "What do you know for sure?" at the end of every interview. The first time I heard that question, I couldn't answer. Then I went home and thought about it. Bette, what do you know for sure?
Bette: That laughter feels really good. That there's a lot of conscious, tangible evil afoot in the world. That the planet will always go on. That you can find peace in nature. That music has great charm and is a great communicator. That dancing is good for the soul. That beauty is very healing and great for the spirit. That you gotta eat a little dirt before you die. That payback is a bitch. And that no matter who you are, there is no free lunch.