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A Showgirl of a Certain Age

Bette Midler loves, hates, loves Las Vegas.

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"Will you excuse me?” asks Bette Midler. “I just want to get a lozenge. My throat’s very dry. The humidification doesn’t seem to be working in here.” Midler rises from the sofa and disappears into the kitchen of what she calls her dressing room, which is actually more like a subterranean bunker apartment underneath the Colosseum theater at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. “I’m looking for those lozenges!” she calls out to her assistant.

It’s the day after opening night of her show, The Showgirl Must Go On, and the fluorescent-lit hallway outside is lined with dozens of floral arrangements from old friends—white roses from Goldie, a tasteful branchy arrangement from Oprah, a sad-looking three-foot-long reclining white tiger from Siegfried and Roy. The only one that appears to have made it over the threshold is sitting on top of a Steinway baby grand that in the seventies was exclusively used to accompany Frank Sinatra when he played Caesars. (Or at least so says a framed plaque leaning nearby.) It’s a huge, fragrant arrangement featuring a Styrofoam mannequin head with a tall showgirl headdress sent by the previous occupant of these rooms, Céline Dion. “Isn’t it brilliant?” Midler asks without a hint of her trademark queenie derision.

“Miss Dion”—as Midler calls her—is the one who got her all hopped up about humidification and the horrors that can befall a singer’s voice in the desert. Not that Midler, who first played Vegas in 1972, had never heard of Vegas Throat. “They used to think it was because of the way they cleaned the carpets,” she says. “They used to put powder down and vacuum it up.” Doctors now say it’s caused by the low desert humidity and dust particles in the air combining to mimic the effects of an allergy attack. It’s Vegas legend that in 1981, after agreeing to a then–Strip record of $350,000 for one week at the Riviera, Dolly Parton got Vegas Throat on her first night and didn’t set foot onstage the rest of the week.

With 200 shows ahead of her, Midler, a performer with a well-known reputation for obsessive worrying, was not about to let the same fate befall her. Dion said that everywhere she went, the air she breathed was to be moistened to between 55 and 62 percent relative humidity; Midler follows a similar protocol. People in Dion’s wardrobe department told her of a homeopathic product called Las Vegas Mix Spray. “They discontinued it,” says Midler. “So I bought two years’ worth.” She also refuses to go anywhere in the casino without a scarf around her neck. “Drafts,” she explains.

This afternoon, Midler can tell—thanks to an unseen hygrometer, or just skin that’s become super-attuned to moisture content—that the room’s humidification system is only getting the air up to 50 percent humidity. This missing 5 to 12 percent is a real problem and requires one of the licorice-flavored lozenges her assistant is searching for. Tom Jones—whose show at the MGM Grand Midler and her husband saw last year—told her about them. “He had a little table all set up, and all night long he would drink water and he would spray his throat with Entertainer’s Secret,” she says. “He gave me the cue about the Vocalzone. It’s a pastille made in England that was created for Enrico Caruso. I had to send away for them.” Once her assistant has produced the foil packet, Midler pops a lozenge into her mouth and takes her time settling back into the couch, as if giving her vocal cords a moment to get properly lubricated before speaking.

It’s hard to reconcile this slitty-eyed woman in a brown cardigan gripping her black-framed eyeglasses in her hands, concurrently sucking a lozenge and drinking a cup of Throat Coat Tea, with the person who made Midler rich. The Divine Miss M, the juggy-broad persona—“confident as Cleopatra’s pussy,” she used to say—was created in 1970 while playing the Continental Baths in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel on Broadway, out of a need to hold the attention of a bunch of gay men who had the choice of either having fun, risk-free anonymous sex or standing around in towels listening to her sing vein-openers of old torch songs. It’s a 35-year-old trope that Midler—who once described her pre-Baths self as an “ugly, fat little Jewish girl who had problems”—is not much at all like her alter ego. But over the years, the gulf between Bette Midler and the Divine Miss M has widened to the point where the two perhaps can’t even coexist in the same town.

Ask anybody who knows Midler why she’s never had a long engagement in Vegas before, and they’ll explain that playing Las Vegas would actually require Midler to stay in Las Vegas. It’s a town she referred to as “Lost Wages” after she first played there 35 years ago, opening for Johnny Carson at the Sahara to an audience that couldn’t care less about her act. “They just didn’t know what to make of me,” she’d said back then. “They didn’t understand why they had left the gambling tables.” And her love-hate relationship with the place has just grown more complicated since.


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