Jacqui Gal

Brassy Bette Midler is back

She’s unmistakable. The sassy, confident tone, the curls, that smile – Bette Midler has graced the stage, both big and small screens, and now she has arrived Down Under to give Australians a taste of her stage show Kiss My Brass.

“It’s huge, it’s glamorous, the clothes are fantastic and I’m traveling with horns for the first time, which is a real thrill,” she said in Sydney last week on the eve of her concert tour.

Although she is 59, Midler exudes the same energy and cheekiness she undoubtedly did when she was last here in 1979. One of her first impressions is of how much Australia has changed since her last visit.

“There is not one stick of anything that is the same. It was a pit, but it was a lovable pit. And I loved it so much, but I told everyone, ‘It’s a little funky’,” she said.

“And [now] there’s no funk left. We were poking around, trying to find it. I said, ‘Could you take us to the poor side of town now’, but they said, ‘There isn’t one’.”

Midler grew up in a predominantly oriental suburb in Hawaii where hers was the only white family. “They didn’t even know what a Jew was,” said Midler, who sometimes posed as Portuguese, because it was more accepted than Jewish.

“I passed for a little while. The Portuguese were very similar to the Jews – they chatter, they are very lively, they love their music, they are very opinionated and they yell. “All the things that are traits that people say are all of our traits. It was an interesting way to grow up.”

Midler’s big break into showbusiness came in New York in 1967 when she stepped up from the chorus to take the role of Tzeitel in Fiddler on the Roof. She spent three years with the musical.

In New York she played at a variety of venues ranging from small smoky clubs to the infamous Continental Baths. In 1972 she won a Grammy award for her debut album The Divine Miss M before bursting onto the screen in 1979 with The Rose, which was loosely
based on the life of singer Janis Joplin.

Her films have included Ruthless People, Beaches, The First Wives Club and more recently – The Stepford Wives. She has won Emmy awards for televised broadcasts of her stage shows, and a People’s Choice and TV Guide award for her short-lived sitcom series “Bette”.

Her latest album is Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook – a tribute to Midler’s mentor, which was inspired and arranged by Barry Manilow.

Never one to shy away from politics, Midler joined the Kerry camp on the campaign trail last year. “People really were pulling for him and thought he had a shot … people thought that because [from President Bush] there was so much demented behaviour that, well there’s no way this guy can win again,” Midler said.

“When he did win, the air really went out of the balloon. And I think even today, so many months afterwards people are just barely able to pick themselves up from the shock.” She also pioneered a charitable venture, the New York Restoration Project, for which she dons overalls and wields a shovel in an effort to beautify and make useful patches of abandoned and neglected New York City.

A lot about Midler has changed since she was last in Australia. Now married to Martin Von Hasselberg, she has a grown daughter Sophie who has just begun college.

“Sophie really likes the music business, and she does play. But she really hasn’t said anything about [pursuing] it,” said Midler. “It was probably because I said to her, ‘If you go into showbusiness I’ll kill you.’ That probably scared her off.”

Bette Midler’s Kiss My Brass concerts are at the Sydney SuperDome on Wednesday April 13, Friday April 15 and Saturday April 30. Bookings: Ticketek 132 849.