The Divine Miss M's Enduring Magic

Better Midler
CBS/The Early Show

Bette Midler's life so far has been great. She has been making music, movies and comedic mayhem for nearly 40 years.

Now, as she is set to release a new Christmas album, Midler is throwing herself not only into her career, but also her mission to help clean up New York City. Both things, she said, are fulfilling.

"I'm having a great life. I'm thrilled," she told The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith. "I have a great husband. I have a lovely child ... I have an interesting career. I'm a good citizen. I listen to great music. I meet wonderful people. I'm having a great time."

Midler was born and raised near Honolulu, the daughter of working-class Jewish parents. Ironically, the first song she ever performed was "Silent Night" when she was in the first grade.

"And I knew, because I was a Jewish kid, that these songs were not really in our group of songs," she said. "And I won the prize. And I went home and I wanted to tell my mother ... that I had won this prize. And I was scared! But she was proud. She was proud."

By the time she was 14, Midler realized she had to leave Hawaii. She was performing regularly in community theater and even got kicked off a show because she was told she hogged the spotlight.

"Those little colored lights were just going in front of my face. And I said, 'Yes, I'm going to go,'" Midler said. "And I told my folks. And they were just, 'Oh, poo, poo, poo.'"

Midler was determined. At age 19 she moved from Hawaii and soon landed a part on Broadway in "Fiddler on the Roof." Her big break came in a very unusual venue: New York's Continental Baths. The Divine Miss M reigned supreme in the cabaret at the gay bath house where she met and performed with Barry Manilow.

"I mean, I put a turban on, you know, towel on my head and a couple a cherries and my platform shoes. And hey, I was in," she said.

Manilow produced Bette's first album, "The Divine Miss M," and it was a hit. Midler's career was taking off — something she said she had always taken for granted.

"I had something that was so bizarre in retrospect and that was an utter belief that all this was going to fall into my lap," she said. "It never occurred to me that it would not."

Midler has made more than 20 recordings and earned four Grammys by often taking something familiar and making it her own.

Her favorite song is a remake of the Bobby Freeman classic, "Do You Wanna Dance," which was an up-tempo song that she turned into a ballad.

"That's really what I do — take something that everybody thinks is one thing and kind of make it over and show it in a different light," she said.

The best Midler you can get, though, is on the stage, where she can unleash all her talents, including her ability to tell naughty jokes.

"People love it," she said. "Well, I do love dirty jokes, I have to admit. That's a flaw in my character, just can't help it. It's traditional."

Midler the actress isn't bad, either. In 1979, she exploded on the screen playing a self-destructive rock star in "The Rose" and received an Academy Award nomination. She also gave a heart-wrenching performance in "Beaches" with Barbara Hershey. She played brassy women with big emotions in a string of comedies like "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," "Ruthless People" and "Outrageous Fortune."