The diminutive diva went from doing cabaret in gay bathhouses with Barry Manilow to selling out Carnegie Hall. But who is the wind beneath her wings?
Bette Midler grew up with her sisters Judy and Susan. She soon developed an interest in music and started singing from a young age, winning a number of talent shows.
She played small roles in a television series, The Edge Of Night (1956), before graduating as a valedictorian from Radford High School in 1963 and going on to study drama at the University of Hawaii in Manoa.
Following university, Midler made her big screen debut in an uncredited role as an extra in Hawaii (1966), a drama with Julie Andrews and Gene Hackman. Her salary from this film enabled her to realise her life-long dream of moving to New York City where, before long, she was cast as the eldest daughter, Tzeitel, in the hit musical Fiddler On The Roof, on Broadway.
In the early 1970s, Midler began singing in clubs and news of her rich and distinctive voice began to spread. The owner of The Continental Baths, a well-known gay ‘bathhouse’ or men’s club, offered her a job, performing cabaret. It was her first opportunity to really be herself onstage and she warmed to it, naming herself 'The Divine Miss M’. She donned tacky costumes and delivered forthright, ribald humour as a stand-up comedienne, and the crowds fell in love with her. This, combined with her unforgettable renditions of songs, often accompanied on piano by Barry Manilow, soon earned her a reputation as a performer of substance.
Ahmet Ertugun, the president of Atlantic Records, heard Midler sing and immediately signed her to the label. Her debut album, The Divine Miss M, released in November 1972, reached number nine on the American Billboard’s Top 200 Chart, before going platinum. The Midler phenomenon was spreading and she was presented her first Grammy Award in 1973 for Best New Artist. Not content to sit on her laurels, the driven Midler then toured the world with the Tony award winning play Clams On The Halfshell, before returning to Broadway. She also recorded her second album, Bette Midler (1973), followed by Songs For The New Depression (1976).
Turning once more to screen acting, Midler was determined to hone her skills and played the Virgin Mary to John Bassberger’s Jesus Christ in independent film The Thorn (1974), a religious comedy, before appearing in several episodes of television series Vegetable Soup (1976). Having gained recognition for her acting, Midler then set her sights on Hollywood. She was cast in the lead role of Mary Rose Foster in Mark Rydell’s The Rose (1979), about a self-destructive female rock star, modelled on Janis Joplin. The unforgettable film won two Golden Globe Awards, a Grammy for the title song and Midler was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role. The rising star was shining brightly.
There was no stopping Midler as she went on to star in many successful films, playing roles in a variety of comedies and dramas, as well as continuing to release albums and working on film soundtracks. There was the Divine Madness soundtrack (1980) and albums No Frills (1983) and Mud Will Be Flung Tonight (1985). Midler starred as Bonita Friml in Don Siegal’s comedy, Jinxed! (1982), and played opposite Richard Dreyfuss and Nick Nolte in ‘Down And Out In Beverly Hills (1986). She was the insufferable wife kidnapped in Ruthless People (1986), with Danny DeVito; played Sandy Brosinski in Arthur Hiller’s comedy Outrageous Fortune (1987), about the CIA and KGB; and starred as disparate twins with Lily Tomlin in Big Business (1988). One of Midler’s fans' favourites was the huge hit Beaches (1988), a poignant story about friendship, with Barbara Hershey and John Heard, that Midler also sang on the soundtrack of.
Midler starred opposite Woody Allen in the comedy Scenes From A Mall (1991) before her role as Dixie Leonard in the World War II drama For The Boys (1991), with James Caan. Midler was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for For The Boys, as well as contributing again to the film’s soundtrack. She starred as Mama Rose in Gypsy (1993), a Golden Globe award-winning television film, based on the autobiography of Gypsy Rose Lee, actress and burlesque entertainer.
Following an uncredited role in Barry Sonenfeld’s Get Shorty (1995), Midler starred alongside Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton, playing three divorced women seeking revenge on their ex-husbands, in the unforgettable First Wives Club (1996).
At the start of the new millennium, Midler starred in a television sitcom, Bette, which ran from 2000 to 2001. The show was extremely popular and received a nomination for a Golden Globe award, along with four other award nominations. Bette also won Midler a TV Guide Award for Actress of the Year in a New Series (2001); a People’s Choice Award for Favourite Female Performer in a New Television Series (2001); and the Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design Award (2001).
Always a live performer at heart, Midler toured with her saucy and successful show, Kiss My Brass, first in America from 2003 to 2004 and then in Australia in 2005. Turning to her music, she released Bette Midler Sings The Rosemary Clooney Songbook (2003), a tribute album to the late singer Rosemary Clooney, her long-time friend. She was a big fan of Clooney’s music and originally titled the album Rosemary For Remembrance. This was followed by Bette Midler Sings The Peggy Lee Songbook (2005). Both of these albums were nominated for Grammy awards. Trying her hand at holiday season music, Midler released Cool Yule (2006), an album with a Christmas version of the song From A Distance.
Midler starred as Bobbie Markowitz opposite Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Glenn Close and Christopher Walken in Frank Oz’s comedy thriller remake of The Stepford Wives (2004). Her next feature film role was as Bernice Graves in Then She Found Me (2007), a romantic drama directed by Helen Hunt, who also starred in it, with Matthew Broderick and Colin Firth. She provided the voice of Kitty Galore in the 2010 animated feature Cats & Dogs: The Revenge Of Kitty Galore.
Committed to charities and fundraising, Midler has lent her voice and her time to many worthy causes over the years. In 1985, she sang on USA for Africa’s hit single We Are The World, which raised money for famine and disease relief in Africa. On 13 July 1985, she performed at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia as part of Bob Geldof and Midge Ure’s multi-venue rock concert Live Aid for famine relief in Ethiopia. She is also the founder of the New York Restoration Project, which reclaims, restores and maintains neglected public spaces. The project offers environmental education for at-risk neighbourhood youths; arranges community programmes such as boating activities and park festivals for local families; and creates green spaces for inner-city communities.
Currently in her late 60s, Midler lives with her Argentine husband Martin von Haselberg. The couple were married on 16 December 1984 in Las Vegas and have a daughter, Sophie von Haselberg, born in 1986. Midler has been in the entertainment industry for over 50 years and shows no signs of slowing down. She has graced her fans with innumerable record-breaking performances and been awarded no less than four Grammys, four Golden Globes, three Emmys and a Tony. Her fabulous figure, powerful voice and sassy style are as youthful and energetic as ever. Hats off to the Divine Miss M.