Gay Iconography: Bette’s Divine Legacy

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Summer is camp season, and there are few people campier than the Divine Miss M herself, Bette Midler. (Seriously, who else could possibly do Mae West justice?)

Nearly a half-century since she arrived in New York City, Midler is still entertaining audiences on stages and screens, large and small. Her big voice and bawdy humor have made her a legendary performer, but her larger-than-life persona and roots in the gay community have endeared her to LGBT audiences for years. With Bette, it’s not all just attributed to her show-stopping numbers and over-the-top costumes. She got her start playing in a gay New York City bathhouse.

That doesn’t mean she’s always been in the gay community’s good graces. She ran afoul of LGBT advocates when she gave a less-than-supportive response to Larry King over the issue of same-sex marriage in an interview in 2003:

“I don't think it really hurts anybody. I think … gay men, they like to -- you know, they like to move around. … That's part of the fun of being a gay man. So if they're married, does that mean they're not going to cheat, they're only going to be with one…”

Like other public figures, her views seemed to evolve over time when in 2009 she told the Associated Press “I'm all in favor of gay marriage. I think it's fabulous.” 

From the bathhouse to the big screen, treat yourself to a few beloved Bette numbers, AFTER THE JUMP


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!