One of the foremost names that arise when the word ‘gay icon’ is mentioned, Bette Midler has built her career almost exclusively for, and by gay men. From getting her start in the gay bathhouses of New York to throwing shade at Trump via Twitter and all the musicals in between she is fabulous. She is outspoken. She is a gay icon.
With more chutzpah than any performer living or dead, she is the lady with a witty humour, endless talent, and a caring heart that has drawn in gay men for decades.
Born and raised in Honolulu Hawaii, Midler was always the outcast as one of the few Jewish families in a mostly Asian neighborhood. However, popularity and fabulousness were destined for this young diva who was voted ‘Most Talkative’ and ‘Most Dramatic’ in high school, after all she was the namesake of Bette Davis, another noted gay icon.
Midler got her start in the industry by working as an extra on the 1966 movie Hawaii, folloing which she used the salary earned to pay for her ticket to New York. Here she landed her first professional onstage role in Tom Eyen’s Off-Off-Broadway plays, Miss Nefertiti Regrets and Cinderella Revisited, a children’s play by day and an adult show by night.
Her talents were evident as the following year, she upgraded to Broadway, playing the role of Tzeitel in Fiddler on the Roof. After working for three years on Fiddler, she joined the original cast of Salvation in 1969.
After polishing her onstage talents, Midler began to build her own fanbase by singing in the Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse in the Ansonia Hotel, during the 1970’s. During this time, she became close to her piano accompanist, an undiscovered Barry Manilow, who wound up producing her first album in 1972, The Divine Miss M. Obviously, due to performing in a gay venue, her core following were homosexuals and she gave them everything a true icon should – drama, vocals, sass, vulnerability, comedy, dance, and a whole lotta spunk!
A show-stopping singer, over the course of her career Midler has been unstoppable releasing fourteen studio albums, four soundtrack albums, five live albums, one spoken word album, seven greatest hits compilations, four video albums, thirty-nine official singles, nine promotional singles, and twelve music videos.
With a voice that is second to none, she has the ability to switch between jovial fun to heartbreaking pathos in a sense that feels authentic to her. Gay men have always loved a diva with pipes, and Midler has that and more.
Her stage shows have always been bright, colourful, and raunchy – a true fun celebration of music, performance, and theatricality. She captures an audience like nobody else can while feeling like both an untouchable starlet who is larger than life, and your good Judy who you like to drink too much wine with.
As if her glittering music career wasn’t enough, Midler was also a noted actress, starring in a number of sucessful movies that scored her two Academy Award nominations, and winning four Golden Globes. From her initial breakthrough in The Rose she gained traction as an exceptional actress earning a number of awards, and highly praised reviews.
Much like her music career, Midler displayed her versatility to switch between drama and comedy effortlessly and with great success – thought it was her comedy for which she is perhaps best known. Many of her most successful proceedings are treasured camp classics such as Beaches, First Wives Club, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Ruthless People, Outrageous Fortune, Big Business, and especially her iconic turn in the musical Gypsy! Even her flops were the epitome of cult camp viewing: Drowning Mona, For the Boys, Stella, and Isn’t She Great.
Perhaps her most iconic role for gay men: Winnie in Hocus Pocus. Everybody know Halloween is the gay mens holiday, and this is the greatest Halloween movie of all time. Her role is a true drag queen, her wit is sharp, and she even performs a catchy musical number!
A gay icon for the post rock and roll, sexual revolution and gay liberation ‘70s and ‘80s, she gleefully encaptured the post-closeted attitude of being outspokenly, aggressively, and unapologetically yourself and to fuck anybody who had a problem with that.
From the beginning of her career, she surrounded herself with gay men, and embraced them in a time when few would. All the way back in 1977, Midler supported one of the first gay rights events called A Star ‘Spangled Night for Rights’. The night was deemed by some as having the makings of the cabaret version of Woodstock.
In the late 1990s, during the release of her album Bathhouse Betty, Midler commented on her time performing there: “Despite the way things turned out [with the AIDS crisis], I’m still proud of those days. I feel like I was at the forefront of the gay liberation movement, and I hope I did my part to help it move forward. So, I kind of wear the label of ‘Bathhouse Betty’ with pride.”
In 1998, she stated in a Village Voice article: “I feel like I was at the forefront of the gay liberation movement, and I hope I did my part to help it move forward.”
Bette has also been a larger support for AIDS research and has given many important concerts to help AIDS’ foundations. In 2014, her stripped-down remake of TLC’s “Waterfalls” her continuation for the cause was exemplified.
Bette Midler manages to incorporate aspects of all the gay icons who had come before her, West’s sexually-charged wit, Garland’s powerhouse vocals, Davis’ acid tongue, Streisand’s confidence, and Minnelli’s larger than life charisma. She is the icon of all icons.
Recently she was cast in a revival of the gay-favourite stage musical Hello, Dolly! a role made famous by another gay icon Carol Channing. Her latest album It’s the Girls!, was only a few years ago, and she has not long finished her Divine Intervention intervention tour where she revived her Winifred character from Hocus Pocus (for which she is trying to commission a sequel). Though she has had a glistening character that few could rival, she is still trucking giving the gays everything they could ask for.
As an icon she will be remembered as one of us. A girl who is not too classy to have a crude joke with you, and it not too untouchable that she wouldn’t put on her boots and march alongside you at a rally. She is fearless, outspoken, and highly opinionated – don’t believe us, check out her Twitter – she continues to be as sharp, and as brave and that is why we love her.