The story concerns Rose (Bette Midler), the world's most relentless stage mother, who lovingly but unremittingly drives her two daughters, June and Louise, across America, from theatre to theatre, in search of success.
But success proves elusive. Only Herbie (Peter Riegert), the warm, likeable theatre veteran who is in love with Rose, manages to hold the family together. When June suddenly elopes and runs away, Rose turns her full fury into transforming the shy Louise (Cynthia Gibb) into a star.
Herbie unknowingly books the act into a rundown burlesque house. Upon learning that one of the strippers is unable to perform, Rose pushes Louise to the fore. Louise, introduced as "Miss Gypsy Rose Lee" suddenly finds her femininity. She becomes the Queen of Striptease, and an overnight sensation, while Rose now finds herself in the shadows.