The Divine Ms M
"It's like your house. If you don't fix your roof, and clean the gutters, and wash the windows, pretty soon you're going to be living in a dump. So it's maintenance. And you know what they say: after 40, it's patch, patch, patch!" Bette Midler on taking care of herself.
“I don’t have an appointment but they said you would help me anyway.” She breezed by the bra bar with a flourish of her hand, while simultaneously shrugging her compact body out of her jacket, and unwrapping her neck from a swath of shimmering silk.
I remained seated at my desk, chewing the inside of my lip, as I watched her make herself comfortable, and begin to browse the racks, and riffle through bras, trying to find her perfect needle in our haystack. During her last fitting with me a few years earlier, she had been cranky, and given me a tongue lashing for her perceived failure on my part to recycle broken plastic lingerie hangers, which she spied in the transparent, neon orange plastic trash receptacle in my fitting room just as I was about to unhook her bra.
“Don’t you know how plastic pollutes our planet?” she huffed. I knew. Believe me, I knew. “Why don’t you return the hangers you don’t need to the manufacturers for re-use or to be re-purposed? Can’t you recycle them or do anything besides throw them away? Plastic is the scourge of our time. Achh! This makes me so mad!” She growled at me.
She threw up her hands in disgust, ranting, plastic bags grrrowl, urban blight, harumph, and the black silk robe she had slipped on when I went to fetch some bras a few minutes before, unwrapped, revealing her Goddess 689, lace strapless longline bra with the overbust wires that increased the forward projection of her boobs. Her torpedo tits stared me right in the eye.
“This is so wasteful. 80% of all trash that winds up in the oceans is plastic! It’s just too bad that people aren’t as worried about plastic killing our oceans as they are about plastic surgery.”
She had a point there; when it came to plastic, there was no “away” when something was discarded. Some plastics last hundreds of years, and kill over a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals every year. I saw a video in which dead birds on Midland Island, two thousand miles from the nearest land mass, were autopsied, and their innards were filled with plastic waste. A recently found beached, deceased whale had over four hundred pounds of plastic in its guts.
I couldn’t get a word in edgewise, and each time I tried to interject, “but…” she waved me off and continued her harangue. She was a moving target, pacing and muttering about the plastic and I couldn’t unhook the Goddess so she could try another bra. All I could do was listen and nod and say “you’re right” until her ire subsided and she remembered her boobs were the focus, not the plastic.
In my thirty eight year tenure as the Bra Tender, and very few times in my whole life, besides from my mother, had I received such a scolding, as if I alone had created the plastic plague with my little lingerie hangers. Which we re-used dozens, if not hundreds of times, trashing them only when they broke in pieces, or were missing too many parts to be useful any longer.
In all honesty, I suppose I added to the plastic problem in my own way. I bought water in plastic bottles, and also bought grab and go lunches packed in plastic boxes. Bra Tenders also used a lot of paper, our invoices were billed in duplicate, we had “file copies” and office copies, and hadn’t exactly embraced the paperless society. Alan insisted we had copies of everything, for us, and the accountant. We had copies of copies. And we used plastic shopping bags, in three sizes. And for all the nights that I lay awake, ruminating about the death of our oceans, and the little ones in the family living on a hot, parched Earth, I seemed not to be able to escape plastic.
But this fitting was about Bette’s boobs, not my failure as an eco-advocate. She had been harried and hurried, squeezing in the bra pit stop at the last minute, between rehearsals and a costume fitting. She admitted to being exhausted, and when I inquired as to how she was doing, she said, “I’m dancing my ass off.” She wanted to try something new in the way of bustier, she’d been wearing the Goddess since I first encountered her in 1978, and probably since long before then too. Innovations in the bra biz gave busty babes a bevy of new choices, and I was excited to school her. But the plastic had derailed her mission. And mine.
“Oh, I can’t do this now, “ she sighed, out of gas. “I have to be at my fitting in ten minutes. Just give me a new one of these.” She pointed to the Goddess, and I could tell she had mentally checked out so I had no choice but to back off. Pushing her at that point would have been useless and made her angry. Oh well. Not exactly the uplifting or divine experience I had hoped for.
The Divine Miss M, once dubbed Bathhouse Betty for her bawdy performances at the infamous Continental Bathhouse in NYC during the late 60’s and early to mid 70’s, Bette Midler was well known for her environmental activism. She boasted about living in an entirely plastic free home, and started the New York Restoration Project, which besides making improvements in city parks in low-income neighborhoods, employed a squad of “baggers” whose sole responsibility was to pull stray plastic bags out of trees and shrubbery in those spaces.
In 2014 she urged New York City Council members to support a bill that would charge a ten cent fee to users of plastic bags in order to reduce the number of them flying aimlessly around the city and surrounding green and water spaces. I shared her concern about the environment and had, in fact, asked several vendors whether they would accept unused or broken hangers for recycling, but to no avail. She left for her costume fitting an unhappy camper.
It’s not often we get a do-over in life, but apparently I had a second chance to make a good impression. I didn’t know if Bette remembered the plastic interaction as clearly as me, or even at all, so I approached her as I would an unfamiliar animal: prepared to make friends, but also ready to run like hell if she snapped at me.
“Hi Bette, so nice to see you again, you look fantastic!” She really did. The word new came to mind. “I hear you’re going out on tour, that must be very exciting. How can I help you today?” I seemed to tower over her, and felt huge next to her diminutive stature, but also felt cowed by her powerful presence.
“My new album is about to be released too. It’s The Girls.”
“How apt,” I quipped, giving my boobs a quick pump.
The album was a tribute to the girl groups who influenced and shaped her career, and she’d put a new twist on some of their old standards. In order to promote the album and upcoming tour, she would be making the rounds on all the chat shows. I thought to myself, so that’s what prompted her visit. Would she do The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon?
Bette’s charcoal grey, wool/lycra blend, sleeveless, jewel neck dress was simple and elegant, tailored perfectly to hug her curves. A narrow belt defined her small waist. I really liked her new shorter hair style, it accentuated her prominent cheekbones and flawless, pale skin. I wondered why she bothered to wear the dated looking wigs for her performances when this short, sophisticated do flattered her in so many ways. She projected power and confidence, and looked extraordinarily young…
She had ten years on me, but her skin was so taut, so firm, plump, and dewy. How was it that she didn’t have a frown line or wrinkle? No turkey neck, not a crows foot, nor a single bag under her eyes. Hmm. I was envious, and decided, the hell with aging gracefully.
Which, for the most part, I was doing. Maybe a little filler here or there, once or twice, and I did have my eyebrows tattooed by a world renowned artist, since plucking all mine out in high school, because that was the look of the day in the late 60s. As I aged, my face screamed for bolder eyebrows.
Clearly, since the past plastic polemic, Bette had reversed the aging process, and grown younger looking. Had her crack about plastic surgery during our last encounter been an indictment of the gossip mills, or of critics who knew that she planned to surgically erase the effects of time? I thought she looked better than she’d ever looked in her career, and that her “adapt or die” attitude allowed her to maintain superstar status and cultural relevance in a youth oriented, dog eat dog business and society.
“See this?” She placed jazz hands alongside her boobs to emphasize the fullness. “I look too wide here. I want a minimizer.”
“You can do much better than a minimizer, trust me.”
I knew well what Bette wanted, her superstar status didn’t give her any competitive leg up on defying time and gravity. Or did it, hmm. Many women shared a similar complaint about looking too wide on top, and also held a common misconception about “minimizers.” Many expected such a bra to magically reduce their F cups to look like Cs. Though this type of bra did flatten the breasts so that they appeared smaller, minimizers mashed the boobs like two lumps of pre-pizza dough, and created the shape of the Godfather’s grandmother. Minimizers pushed the breasts east and west, while attempting to contain their volume and reduce their projection. I personally didn’t think minimizers created an attractive look, flat and wide, with the boobs hovering under the armpits. Bad, bad, bad.
The trick to a longer, leaner torso is to capture and contain all the breast tissue, and place it up north, centered high on the chest wall, above the ribs and off the belly, away from and out of the armpits. This creates a slimming effect, we appear to be ten pounds thinner and ten years younger in a New York minute. A boob job without scalpel, sutures, scars or silicone.
For many of us, especially those with more than fifty thousand miles on our cabooses, time and gravity have taken their toll on our physical appearance. Each time I see my face in a mirror, it hurts to see how far my skin has slid off its cheekbones, the sagging jawline and impending jowls, just like Mom’s. I am compelled to gawk at god awful infomercials for the Lifestyle Lift surgery that promises to restore youth and beauty to my profile, and ponder the question, Am I that vain? Why yes, yes I am.
Boob droop is a common affliction, and even young women with heavy breasts, sag some. As I tell my customers, gravity is the strongest force in the universe, and a good bra is our only defense against the constant drag on our mammaries. My boobs started developing when I was ten, and even after reduction surgery in my thirties, they not only continue to grow with age, they also get longer as they head further south. It’s not the stuff dreams are made of.
That’s why it’s so important to have a well fitted bra, so the underwires, which add shape, capture all of the breast tissue in a neat little package, which eliminates those side boobs, lifts and centers the breasts, and puts them back up, where they started. We happened to stock a few styles of bras which created this desired silhouette: long and lean.
I escorted the Divine one into a storage alcove that doubled as a fitting room, and silently wished that she had made a proper appointment so we could have worked in the luxury of our more spacious one. The alcove was jammed with bras from floor to ceiling, and felt a bit confined, and had been set up strictly for display and storage when we first moved into the space. Back then I was the only fitter. Ten years later, we had two fitters plus me, and two fitting rooms booked on the hour from 10:00a.m until 6:00 p.m Monday through Friday, with five hours on Saturday.
It was often not enough to accommodate the demand during the peak of bridal season when it coincided with the Spring season on Broadway graduations, proms.
“Unzip me,” she said, turning her back to me. After I did, she slid her arms out of the dress and let the top of it fall around her waist. She turned around to face me, and her stomach was toned and flat, though clearly a fetus had once been in residence. Her legs were shapely, arms toned, and she obviously worked her bodily rigorously to maintain her figure.
“Whaddya think?” she asked about the bra she wore.
“Hmm, it’s too big.” I grabbed a fistful of her Wacoal bra, then unclasped the back to look at the tag. “I think 34F is a better size for you, maybe even 32. I have a couple of “magic” bras that will do just what you want.” I cupped her breasts and slightly squeezed them in and up to show how the new bra would shape her. My hands on approach didn’t faze her, though some women were surprised to be handled thusly.
Many women compared their bra fitting with getting a mammogram. I once worked with a young bride who surprised me when she said, “I was the tech who did your last mammogram. Now you have the chance to get even.”
The bra I wanted Bette to try did wonderful things to restore the youth and beauty to the bosom. I can attest to the fact that women instantly stand up straighter and are taller when their boobs ain’t draggin’ them down. I understood that us middle aged birds liked our comfort as much as our beauty, and I wanted to earn her trust before boldly taking her where she had never gone before. She had been wearing size 36 bands, and if I had my druthers, I’d bring her down to a size 32, though I would start with 34F. It does take some adjusting to the fit of a new bra, especially when the band is snug, and a woman is so accustomed to the relaxed fit of a bra that is “comfortable”, and too big to do what it’s meant to.
Over the years I have worked with various costume designers or stylists and dressers who worked with Bette on various gigs, and watched her career evolve on a parallel path to mine. Bra Tenders provided fishnet hosiery and other skintimates for her Las Vegas revue The Showgirl Must Go On between 2008 and 2010. We knew some of the same people in a six degrees of separation way - oh, you know so and so, ha, me too! In fact, Mark Shaiman, the Tony winning lyricist of Hairspray, produced her new album and convinced her to sing her own version of Ronnie Spector’s classic hit Be My Baby. Ronnie Spector is a Bra Tenders customer. As vast as our world is, the entertainment community is rather small and tightly knit.
I don’t know why bra fitting is such a mystery for the majority of women, who know neither their size, nor how to put on a bra. You can’t just strap the thing on and call it a day: you must adjust the bust. Women are prone to buy bras because they’re cute, rather than how they fit.
You cannot squeeze a pair of G cups into a double D, it just does not work. That first creates all the gripes women have with bras - it rides up, the straps fall down, boobs fall out the bottom of the cups, quadraboobs and cups that runneth over, side boobs, backfat, back cleavage. Yet most women accept the bulges, red marks and discomfort caused by ill fitting bras as normal. And, one bra does not fit all occasions. If you wear a low cut, little black dress, you need a different kind of bra than if you’re wearing overalls to go apple picking. If you’re going horse back riding, I hope you’re wearing the best sport bra money can buy.
“But do they minimize?” She asked. I had to admire her singular focus, even though that sort of stubbornness irked me. Hadn’t she heard a thing I said? .
Our mothers had brainwashed us early about minimizers, and wanted us to wear them because they were big, ugly contraptions that suppressed our burgeoning, bouncy, ripe womanhood, and which no hormone crazed, boob obsessed, adolescent boy could possibly unhook with one hand.
“They are not technically minimizers, no, though they will eliminate this fullness that you’re concerned about. Let me show you. There’s nothing to lose by trying it on. You don’t have to like it, just keep an open mind, OK?” She assented and I left her alone in the alcove, while I pulled the stock.
When I came back, she was wearing a demi bra three cup sizes too small, one she found hanging on the wall, and boobage spilled in all directions. I held up the two bestsellers that delighted women of all ages, even women who didn’t want to wear a bra.
“Women love the way this bra shapes and uplifts the bosom. It creates a gentle swell of cleavage, and elongates the torso to visually subtract ten pounds.”
“How do you know all of these bras?”
“I’ve been in the business a very long time. I’ve known you, sort of, for ages. You shopped at a store where I worked, S&S on West 50th street.”
“I remember that place. You worked there?”
“Yep, first contact with Goddess 689 bra. You wore 34DD then. At some point you switched to 36D. You once bought something softer, but tend to gravitate to that Goddess. I guess it works with your costumes. We supplied the corsets to Stepford Wives.”
“There was some heavy undergarments in that one.”
“Are you ready to try?”
“Let’s go.” I unhooked her bra. She talked about the custom made body shaper she wore while performing, made by one of the costume shops, Matera or Donna Langman, my memory isn’t clear. “I want to find a bra they can use to “frankenstein” into a bodysuit,” she said. I adjusted the straps, swooped and scooped her breasts until each sat perfectly centered in it’s own cup, way up north.
“Alrighty then, take a look at that,” I said, admiring my handiwork, gently turning her by the shoulders to face the mirror. “See how your boobs are forward, and there is no fullness at all on the sides. Nice lift, natural shape. Pull up the top of your dress and let’s see what you think.” I felt like a proud mama. The girls looked so damn good.
“Zip me up,” she said, and I obliged. She took a step back and evaluated her figure, turning to the left, then the right. “How do you find all these bras that you sell here?”
“Well, I go to trade shows and showrooms and look at the lines. When people ask for me a particular item, I relentlessly pursue it. I consult with some of the designers for some of the brands, and have requested certain tweaks to bras that could improve their functionality, like adding a tab so the straps can be converted to different positions. I take requests, so if you need a special sort of büstenhalter, I can look for it when I go to market. Call me anytime you need something lingerie related.” You had to love the Germans - büstenhalter, or BH, literally meant ‘bust holder.”
“I love trade shows, they’re so much fun. I went to one a few weeks ago.” I wondered what sort of trade shows a diva attended, but didn’t ask.
“I don’t have so much fun when I go. It’s work. A lot of schmoozing, everyone is selling something.”
“Well, let me know when you go. Maybe I’ll go too.”
“Well, that would shake things up at the Javits Center! I can see the trade mag headlines, Divine Miss M Tours Curve Show. That would really freak out my sales reps! What a headline!
I knew a lot of exhibitors at the Curve Intimate Apparel Expo, and most of them were very well aware of my Broadway connection. But if I showed up with Bette Midler at my side, a lot of folks would plotz, and a lot would kvell over something so wonderful. I could see the selfies now, every sales rep would want a photo with their brand name and logo and Bette. Oy.
“So, how do you like this bra?” I asked her.
“I like it. I see what you mean. It doesn’t mash me down, and it’s slimming on the sides. What else have you got?”
I showed her another bra, and this one had a deeper cup that lifted the breasts from underneath, and gently pressed them upward, closer against the chest. This reduced the projection, so it had a minimizing effect which was not dowdy. This bra created no cleavage, and helped with buttons-don’t-close syndrome. One enterprising entrepreneur I knew had tried to make bra sized blouses, but after many trials and errors, hadn’t been able to figure out the right proportions, and they didn’t fit very well, yet, for their hefty price.
“I like this one too. Show me one more and then I’ll decide. I appreciate you squeezing me in today. Pun intended.” Aw shucks.
“Its my pleasure. You have a fabulous figure, and with this new bra, you’re even more divine than ever.”