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Everyone needs to hear Bette Midler’s moving Kennedy Center honors speech

Bette Midler in 2018
Bette Midler (Photo: Shutterstock)

You probably already know that Bette Midler was among those to receive a Kennedy Center Honor on Sunday evening, but did you catch her inspiring speech?

Midler, 76, grew up in Hawaii before relocating to New York in 1965 to pursue her dreams of an entertainment career. Among her earlier gigs, she famously sang regularly at the Continental Baths in New York City, where she first built up a sizeable gay following.

She made a name for herself with her raucous sense of humor and ability to belt out a tune. The Kennedy Center reprinted her speech, in which she reflected on her career and belief in working hard, to Facebook.

“I’m no fool—I brought a hanky ’cause I knew it was going to get very, very emotional,” she began. “Because this is something that, you know it’s a kind of, you sort of sit at home and you watch these shows. And you think ‘Well, what about me?’ You know? (laughing) And you can’t help it! You’re a human being.

“I want to say that there’s this David Byrne song—you all know it! …Most of you know it. (speaking lower) Maybe a *few* of you know it. ‘You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack. You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile. And you say to yourself “this is not my beautiful house, this is not my beautiful wife. How did I get here?”’ How did I get here? I have absolutely no earthly idea how I got here. I really don’t.

“I came from nothing. I came from the most isolated place in the United States: Hawaii. And I spent most of my time reading books in libraries. And I had a mediocre education. But somehow or another I was mesmerized by the idea that someone would get up in a pool of light and be completely and utterly transformed. And transfigured. And beautiful. And that, when the light hit them, they had something not just to say—but something to reveal.

“And I remember when I was a kid I saw Édith Piaf on television, and I saw her… I think it was the first time I’d ever seen a human being do what she did. Which was to completely unzip her skin and show her soul. And I… I never really recovered from it. I really felt that I understood what that was. And that I could do it.

“And subsequently in my life, I saw many people do it. People that I learned to love. I saw Tina Turner, I saw Aretha, I saw Janis Joplin. I saw so many people, so many men, so many women. And I fell in love with them, and I fell in love with the idea of what they did.

“And I have to say, when I say ‘How did I get here?’ I say it because I… I… I never looked up. I had my nose to the grindstone every moment of my life. I worked like a f—- animal. I did. I worked like an animal. I couldn’t help myself. I was compelled to work. I was simply compelled.

“And now that I’m older, sometimes I think ‘Was it the hormones? Was it a dream? Was I just swept up in some vast illusion? What was it?’ Because now I’ve slowed down and I look back.

“But I have to say that it was—talk about “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride”—it was a hell of a ride. I had a blast. Even though it was work, it was work that I loved with all my heart. And it was work that brought me into contact with the most brilliant minds and the most wonderful wits and the most brilliant music. Things that made my heart soar and my heart sing.

“So even though I had my nose down, I heard it all, I saw it all, and I loved it all. And I have to say thank you so much to the Kennedy Center for validating this insane dream that I had when I was just a kid. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Kennedy Center Honorees (L-R) Justino Díaz, Lorne Michaels, Joni Mitchell, Bette Midler and Berry Gordy
Kennedy Center Honorees 2021 (L-R) Justino Díaz, Lorne Michaels, Joni Mitchell, Bette Midler and Berry Gordy (Photo: Scott Suchman/CBS)

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Sunday’s event was the 44th Kennedy Center Honors, and besides Midler, lifetime achievement awards for artistic excellence went to the opera singer Justino Díaz, Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, Saturday Night Live (SNL) creator Lorne Michaels, and folk music singer Joni Mitchell.

President Donald Trump spurned attending the honors during his four years in office, and the 2020 event was canceled because of Covid-19. However, President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden reignited the tradition of supporting the event. They held a gala reception for the honorees in the White House, in which Biden paid tribute to each, and attended the ceremony later at the Kennedy Center, along with Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff.

CBS will air the full Kennedy Center Honors show on December 22.

Related: Adam Lambert had everyone (including Cher) sobbing with his performance at the Kennedy Center Honors