Gay Iconography: Bette’s Divine Legacy


Midler got her start singing at New York City’s Continental Baths in 1970. She once told an interviewer, "Despite the way things turned out [with the AIDS crisis], I'm still proud of those days [when I got my start singing at the gay bathhouses]. 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."


Her first film, The Rose, earned her a Golden Globe for Best Actress (Comedy/Musical) as well as an Academy Award nomination.


Beaches (in which Midler co-starred with Barbara Hershey) not only left filmgoers drenched in their own tears, but it also launched one of Midler’s most enduring hits, "Wind Beneath My Wings." The soaring ballad (pun absolutely intended) reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and nabbed Midler her third Grammy Award. (This clip includes spoilers, in case you somehow haven't seen the movie.)


There will always be a little Bette in television history. She was famously Johnny Carson’s final guest on The Tonight Show. Watch her serenade the late-night legend in the Emmy-winning clip above. (She was also recognized for her small-screen work with another Golden Globe for her TV-movie portrayal of Mama Rose in Gypsy.)


A whole new generation fell in love with Bette for her portrayal of Winifred Sanderson in the classic Halloween flick Hocus Pocus, with Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy. Midler told Katie Couric it was one of her favorites. Three years later, she was part of another trio with Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn in The First Wives Club.

We only scratched the surface on Bette’s career. Tell us your favorite Midler moment in the comments!


  1. the other Ken says

    My first Bette Midler concert was at the Painters Mill Dinner Theater outside Baltimore. About 500 people in the audience. That was 1976 I think.

    The last time I saw her perform was at Staples Center in Los Angeles, which has a capacity of 20,000 and it was crowded and she added a 3rd concert while performing there.

    I’ve always been a big fan, despite her comment about same sex marriage in 2003. She’s a huge LGBT advocate. Huge. Huger than huge. About as huge as huge can be.

  2. stranded says

    Saw her Kiss My Brass tour about 10 years ago and it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Phenomenal staging and production. Her talent has only improved with age and her energy is unbelievable. She’s one of the greatest comic performers of our time (seriously, can nobody find some decent comic movie scripts that equal her talents?) What really shines through though is that she’s a decent and admirable person with a great outlook on life. I can’t believe that show wasn’t released on DVD. You can find a few clips on YouTube.

  3. Andy says

    The Bette Midler character she created is terrific but doesn’t really exist. In real life, she’s a surprisingly dowdy and prudish person. Not homophobic. But realize in public she is just playing a character.

  4. QJ201 says

    Seriously, no “Friends”

    Gay card should be revoked!

    This was a huge “gay anthem” in the late 70’s and became tragically relevant in the early days of the AIDS crisis.

  5. johnny says

    I’ll take the good with the bad, I loved her in the 70s and I love her now. She’s on our side, no matter how lopsided it comes out sometimes. But, IMO, she’s strictly for baby-boomers, I don’t think the younger crowd can relate to her style of humor.

  6. Scar2 says

    While the Carson farewell was nice, my favourite Bette moment was when she performed ‘Fat As I Am’ on the Tonight Show. It showed she doesn’t take herself too seriously.

  7. Martin says

    September 1973, the Universal Amphitheatre at Universal Studios, Los Angeles: Saw Bette from the back row with my first lover. And I was hooked! The lover is gone, but Bette has been a big part of my life for over 40 years.

  8. says

    She’s not prudish it’s simply that “The Divine Miss M” character she created is far more “knowing” than Bette herself.

    My boyfriend Bill knew her from WAY back in the day when she was just trying to get started. She’s not “pretty” or “sexy” in any conventional way, but he said when he walked down the street with her straight men would go wild, cause she bounced along with such vim and vigor it was impossible to ignore.

    Bill was in the room when she got the call about the Baths. He was going with Bette’s then boyfriend. When she put down the phone she turned to the two of them mystified by the idea of performing at the Baths. They fell apart laughing and then calmly explained to her exactly what the Baths were.

    Needless to say the rest is history. She’s a great entertainer.

  9. Bob K says

    In the later 70s,she used to show her tits at the end of the show on New Year’s Eve — I saw her at the Zeigfeld in NYC and (I think) at the Ahmanson in LA, as well at some AIDS charity things.
    It ought to be mentioned that her career was made when she debuted on the Tonight Show, singing “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”, with a bouncing ball onscreen following the lyrics — in a loose halter dress that sent her boobs all over the room. That was the only time I saw that showed stopped dead with applause for a new act.

  10. BrokebackBob says

    She’s been dead to me since the Larry King interview.

    Posted by: Merv | Jun 28, 2014 7:17:13 PM

    Me to Merv, She turned on us like many many
    others so she could “fit” in.

  11. David From Canada says

    At 68 years of age, Bette Midler is a senior citizen and doesn’t quite have the grasp on gay issues that one would think she would. She certainly is entertaining, but somewhat conservative in real life and just a tad out of it. Her gay icon status has slipped.

  12. Angela Channing says

    There is no doubt she is a gay icon, but I am 50 years old and always have felt she was just a little bit before my coming of age. I enjoy watching her but I am not *into* her. (Although I don’t feel the same way about Cher…Always was and still am intrigued by her.) Sure Bette’s comments on Larry King revealed her to be a bit more provincial than we thought, but it is probably time to move on.

  13. Brian1 says

    I spent two weeks with her on a holiday in a very remote location. She and her husband were traveling with a well known gay couple, and there were only four other people including me at this place. She’s definitely not the Divine Miss M character during her downtime, which frankly would have driven me crazy in this situation. Instead she was just very nice, a bit shy at first, and utterly at ease with my partner and I and her gay traveling companions.

  14. Pete says

    Disgusting woman. Makes vast sums of money off of us, but has never lifted a finger on any issue. Never donated a dime to marriage equality, ENDA, repeal of DADT. Nothing. Not even during the Prop 8 fight, when many celebs were donating, did she give a cent. She rarely even mentions us and when she does, as in the LK interview, it is to treat us like entertaining cartoon characters.

    Can’t imagine why anyone would see this person as a friend of gays let alone an icon.

  15. James says

    We saw Bette probably 40 years ago outside Frankfurt, Germany when she was on tour. We’d seen several BIG name (Vegas type) stars just before & she topped them all. Great Entertainer who had the entire audience in the palm of her hand from the get go! I love her.

  16. Dean says

    I’ve been a devout fan ever since I was 8 and now in my early 30s I love her even more. There isn’t a performer alive that can match her ability. A true original…who by the way is very liberal and extremely supportive of the gay community.

  17. MichaelJ says

    @Manny Espinola: No, it is not true that Bette Midler is a Republican. If you do a quick Google search for “Is Bette Midler a Democrat or a Republican,” you would easily see how much she loathes the GOP, as well as some of her more controversial statements.

    Bette Midler and Victoria Jackson do look alike, but put the two in the same room and soon Midler would be wiping the floor with Jackson’s mush of a brain.

  18. MichaelJ says

    I’ve particularly admired Bette for her work in restoring NYC’s parks, which she began when she moved back to the city. Her immediate focus was working to improve a park in a very un-gentrified part of Washington Heights, and not one of the major parks where her she would get a lot of attention for her efforts. (Compare Midler’s efforts to Diana Ross’s donation to build a Central Park playground named after her, so all the affluent Upper West Side kids and their nannies would know her name.)

  19. doodle says

    1976 concert, she cusses out the mostly gay male audience for cheering at the line “AM I GAY” in an old Cole Porter song Am I Blue. She stopped the song in the middle to be rude to us. She has never been our friend. She just used us.

  20. Stephen in Laguna says

    1973 – Houston, Hofheinz Pavilion (I was 17 years old and took a conservative female friend who couldn’t really grasp all the caftans and pot smoke)
    1976 – Houston, Music Hall (in my hand-sequined shirt featuring the cover art from her second album)
    1979 – Hollywood Bowl
    1979 (80?) – filming Divine Madness Pasadena Civic Auditorium
    1993 – LA, Universal Amphitheater
    2004 – LA, Staples Center
    2008 – Caesar’s Palace
    I’ve followed her career since I was a kid. I bought her first album when I was 16. She has always been a huge supporter of the community no matter how her comments get interpreted. As someone coming of age in the 70s I understand how she would view gay men as very fluid in their relationships.

  21. Michael says

    Legacy seems to be lost on the younger generation. These ICONS have been with us in the worst of times. The current crop cannot hold a candle to the talent of the last generation ( except for Gaga, who just needs to find her footing). There was an interesting read on Huffington Post recently, reminding the younger generation of why they are important, and will be forever a part of the pantheon. It’s worth a read:

  22. Andy says

    What’s a shame is that the outrageousness of her on-stage persona has totally overshadowed the fact that she is a criminally underrated singer. She’s not flashy, she can’t do fancy vocal runs or hold notes for eons or make her voice sound like a dog whistle, but she’s got a really sweet, almost mournful/melancholy tone that can really bring out the emotion in a song.

  23. Rory says

    I used to work for her former manager and he once told me he felt that she had an underlying disgust for gay people. I found her weird and paranoid but I never believed it until her comments on gay marriage. I wholeheartedly believe it now.

  24. Jerry6 says

    I was present at the Continental Baths in NY when she did her show. Everyone wore Black Towels (After all, it was a formal event),and the audience was wild about her.

  25. Rick says

    Like virtually all straight female entertainers whom effeminate gay men regard as “icons”, Bette Midler is, at best, ambivalent about gay men, and, at worst, a homophobe.

    Same is true of Cher and Barbra Streisand and Gloria Gaynor; same was true of Donna Summer

    The notion that these women relate to gay men or sympathize with us in any way is entirely a figment of the twisted gender-confused minds of the practitioners of the culture of effeminacy.

    They are not our friends, any more than ANY woman is or ever has beeen or ever will be…..and it is pathetic so see some gay men worshiping at the throne of people who don’t like them, while bashing every gay male entertainer who comes along….

    Talk about self-hatred…..

  26. Dback says

    I owe Midler a lot, since I met my partner of 20 years at her SF New Year’s Eve show in ’93; this, she will in a sense always be “our” diva, missteps and weirdness aside. (It was odd that she didn’t appear in the doc “The Continental” about the baths, but considering during her concert when she reprised “Friends”–“I had some friends but they’re gone/Something came and took them away”–she elaborated, “I do not exaggerate when I tell you every single person I started out with in New York in the early 70’s is dead.” Maybe it’s just too raw for her.)

    And no diss meant, but Ann Jillian played Mae West in a TV movie of the same name back in the 80s, and was nominated for an Emmy for it–she was spectacular. (She had a lengthy monologue about obscenity directed at some preachers who came to attack her on-set that I’ve never forgotten: “War is obscene! POVERTY is obscene!”)

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