NO TURNING BACK
We’re still totally into Cher.
HAVE YOU EVER STOPPED TO THINK ABOUT CHER? You are aware of her, of course, the way you are aware of the sun, with its blinding light, its rising and setting. But have you ever considered the totality of Cher — not just the celestial body herself, and not just the epic arc she has travelled, but the sheer range of stellar explosions she has undergone?
Let’s review. She became famous as half of Sonny and Cher in 1965, at the age of 19. They sold millions of records, morphed into a lounge act, then drew more than 30 million viewers a week on their hit show, The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. Cher launched a solo career on the side, releasing three number-one singles: “Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves”, “Half Breed” and “Dark Lady”. After divorcing Sonny in 1975, she starred in her own damn TV show, thank you very much, which was called — what else? — Cher.
Many more Chers followed. There was Disco Cher, Punk Cher and Rock’n’roll Cher. In the ’80s there was Best Actress Cher, who starred with Meryl Streep in Silkwood, Jack Nicholson in The Witches Of Eastwick and Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck. She ended the decade with one of her biggest hits, “If I Could Turn Back Time”, giving the world Battleship-thong Cher. She’s long been a fashion icon. Cher was the first megastar to wear a “naked dress”, decades before J.LO, Rihanna and Kim Kardashian did.
In fact, we’re currently in the early stages of a new version of Cher. Did you notice how her mid-2018 Mamma Mia! Here
We Go Again cameo segued into a surprise ABBA tribute album? Those amuse-bouches have recently culminated in her new musical, The Cher Show.
It’s only when I set foot in her presidential suite at the Sunset Marquis one balmy night and begin climbing a spiral staircase, that it hits me: Wait, Cher is also an actual human?
But there she is, standing at the top, wearing a black blouse, black pants and black boots, with an unearthly glow emanating from her porcelain face and platinum bob. She’s been interviewed all day, by many different people. I gather that most, if not all, were men, because as I enter her line of sight and extend my hand to shake hers, Cher beams a cheeky smile and exclaims, “A woman!”
Talking to Cher, she’s exactly who you expect her to be, and also the opposite. She’s the same woman who called David Letterman an asshole on the air and, more recently, offered this critique of political lobbyist Paul Manafort on Twitter: “FYI… Manafort… [gangster] John Gotti called… he wants his look back!!” When I ask if she’s ever met Donald Trump, she says she doesn’t think so, then adds: “I do remember seeing him once in a place I used to go to and thinking, ‘God, what an idiot.’ And all he was doing was walking around.”
About the genesis of the musical, she explains that a producer first approached her with the idea more than a decade ago, “but then that script was terrible”. It has taken years to develop the show, and she is still working with its writers to get the script right. “I’m fussy ‘cause it’s my story,” she says. “I want it to be honest and right and funny and sad, like my life.”
While you might guess a personality as strong as Cher would suck the oxygen out of any room, her physical presence — we are now sitting alone on a leather couch next to a grand piano — is quiet, still, calm, even delicate. The word vulnerable also comes to mind, yet doesn’t feel quite right, since it’s so often taken to mean “weak”. It’s rather that Cher is open and listening, and thus exposed. If in her work she is on output, in person she is on input. Powerful but not overpowering.
Nicolas Cage gets at this quality when I ask him to describe her acting talent. “Cher is a person with a huge heart, and that really comes through not only in her music but as a screen performer. She has an extraordinary blend of strength and vulnerability on-camera,” he says. Micaela Diamond, the 19-yearold actor who plays a young Cher in the new musical, used this quality in her interpretation of the star. “I just tried to find her superpowers. My favourite is her combination of power and vulnerability. To be so vulnerable and yet have the most power in the room, that’s a hard place to stand in. She was born with that.”
There is a unique irresistibility to Cher; she is both otherworldly and relatable. “My earliest impressions of her were when I was a freshman in high school, and ‘I Got You Babe’ was number one,” remembers Meryl Streep. “I knew she was also high-school age, but she had such a deep, velvet, mature voice. I sounded like Tweety bird at that age. And her hair was like a dark curtain that swung and shone, and she had one crooked tooth that made her even more perfect.”
In an alternate universe, the world doesn’t meet Cher at all. Her mother, Georgia Holt, was a 19-year-old aspiring actress. Her father, John Sarkisian, was a young truck driver. The two met at a dance in LA and married soon after. By the time Holt realised she was pregnant, she’d left Sarkisian. Holt’s mother gave her daughter a choice: go back to your husband, or abort the pregnancy. Holt chose the latter but then couldn’t go through with it.
Cherilyn Sarkisian was born in El Centro, a border town in the Imperial Valley. “My father’s father had a refrigerated-truck business, and they were just driving through,” says Cher. Sarkisian was a ne’er-do-well with a gambling and heroin habit, and Holt divorced him a year after Cher’s birth. Though Cher had a series of stepfathers — Holt was married eight times, to six different men — she mostly watched her mother survive alone. Cher spent some of her childhood in an orphanage in Pennsylvania, most of it in Los Angeles, and very little of it with Sarkisian.
Cher grew up poor in close proximity to Hollywood, and her mother socialised with an illustrious group, including comedian Lenny Bruce and actor Robert Mitchum. Cher vowed to become
“I’m fussy ‘cause it’s my story.i want it to be honest, funny and sad, like my life”
a star when she saw her first colour movie, at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. It was Dumbo. “I was in the movie, right along with those elephants and crows,” she later wrote in a memoir. “That was my first career ambition: to be a star in animated films.”
She was a precocious teenager. She got her driver’s licence as soon as she turned 16 so she could cruise Sunset Boulevard in her stepfather Gilbert’s Skylark. One night, while passing popular hangout Schwab’s pharmacy, she was crashed into by a white Lincoln convertible. “Are you nuts?” she remembers saying to the guy. “Then I looked at his face, and I thought, my god, it’s Warren Beatty.” Spoiler alert: Cher and Beatty started dating. “But you can’t call it a relationship,” Cher tells me. “It was very Warren.” Cher didn’t get home until well after curfew that night. As punishment, she was barred from seeing Beatty the following night. Beatty called Holt and negotiated Cher’s release.
This was right around the time that Cher met Sonny Bono. Their first encounter was at Aldo’s Coffee Shop in Hollywood. “Everyone just disappeared,” remembers Cher. “He was the most unusual person I’d ever seen. He had longish hair, and he had the most beautiful suit on, and beautiful long fingers, and Beatle boots, but they were Cuban heels.” By then, Cher had dropped out of high school — “I was dyslexic, so school for me was one big nightmare” — and moved into an apartment with a few other women. Sonny moved in next door. When Cher lost her apartment, she moved in with Sonny.
Sonny was working for Phil Spector, and soon Cher was singing backup in Spector’s arrangements, including the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”. Sonny was gunning to produce Cher as a solo act, but Cher didn’t want to be onstage alone. So they began recording and performing together, first as Caesar and Cleo, then as Sonny and Cher.
Sonny once described them as “the first unisex couple”, which pretty well captures their sound and look. Cher says none of it was calculated. “When we first started out, I wore a dress and he wore a suit, and then they lost our luggage at Cow Palace, and we had to go in our day clothes. That was who we were. Sonny wore that bobcat [vest], and I wore huge bell-bottoms,” says Cher. “We didn’t think, ‘Oh, we’re breaking some taboo’ or ‘We’re avant-garde’ or any of that. We just loved the way we looked.”
They didn’t resonate at first. “Kids liked it, but adults just hated us,” says Cher. “I mean, really hated us. Fistfights hate.” When “I Got You Babe” came out, in 1965, they went to London. “It sounds so dumb, but everything happened so fast,” says Cher. “I didn’t even know where I was. One day we were poor. Two days, three days later, we were famous.” Meryl Streep recalls, “It was the first time I had ever seen anybody wear sheepskin inside out, with the scratchy stuff on your skin. I thought that might be unpleasant. And how do you wash it?”
There was a run of hits, including “The Beat Goes On”. But as the movements of the late ’60s picked up — free love, psychedelics — Sonny and Cher, a straight-edge couple, lost their aura of cool. By 1968, they were facing a backlash. “We broke big barriers, but we didn’t do drugs,” says Cher. “And we didn’t change our sound. That was really wrong.” They had their child, Chastity, in 1969. Then they went on the road, performing in nightclubs — or, as Cher has referred to them, “nightmarish clubs”. To entertain the band during slow nights, they started talking. Without meaning to, they had turned their banter into a comedy act.
The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour premiered on CBS in 1971 and became an instant hit. Cher was an obvious star. “You couldn’t watch her show and not recognise her natural talent as an actress,” says Streep. “She made everybody else on TV look like they were trying too hard, pushing. She was so immediate, free, and she was canny about landing the jokes. Skilled, but it was invisible.”
The marital barbs may have been the biggest draw. They were usually delivered, deadpan, by Cher, with Sonny providing the set-up. Sonny: “What, you think you’re living with a dummy?” Cher: “I never said this was living.” If that sounds tame by today’s standards, consider this: when Rolling Stone profiled Sonny and Cher in 1973, the writer included this: “Many of my friends favour the belief that after work, Sonny beats the shit out of her with a tyre iron. They had asked me to reaffirm this.”
There was another lure. Cher had brought on Bob Mackie to design her costumes, as many as 13 looks a week. “To be cute and pretty back then, you had to have a turned-up nose and lots of blonde hair,” says Mackie. “But Cher is an amazing-looking girl. She can look like anything. She loved getting dressed up, and nothing intimidated her. By the end, people were turning on the show just to see what she was going to wear.” Colours were bold, sequins were plentiful, coverage was minimal. “Almost nothing he ever made me did I hate,” says Cher. “The minute I started getting beads, I didn’t care what happened.”
As the show took off, the marriage tanked. Sonny had more than an eye for other women. Cher began to chafe against the constraints Sonny put on her. They separated in 1974. Some time that year, Cher’s new boyfriend, David Gefen, urged her to seek information about her business arrangements with Sonny. When she did, Cher learned that
she was not an owner of Cher Enterprises, the company Sonny had founded in her name. Sonny owned 95 per cent of Cher Enterprises. Their lawyer owned the other five.
Cher suggested to Sonny that they become business partners. Sonny wouldn’t do it. Instead, he warned her that if she left, “America will hate you and you won’t have a job.” Cher filed for divorce, claiming that Sonny had tricked her into “involuntary servitude” and that their business dealings amounted to a violation of the Thirteenth Amendment. When the divorce became final in 1975, Cher walked away with nothing. Worse, because Cher Enterprises had outstanding contracts Cher broke by leaving, she owed Sonny millions. That same year, Cher was on the cover of
Time, alone, in the original beaded nude dress Mackie designed for her. In some parts of the South, people ripped off the cover.
But it didn’t derail her. She’s had decades of hits and paradigmshifting fashion moments, plus won an Oscar. If you somehow have not seen the movie Moonstruck, go to Youtube right now and pull up the clip of Cher’s character Loretta Castorini watching
La Bohème. Watch the scene knowing this: “There was no-one onstage. The director was whispering what was going on, what was happening: ‘And now she’s dying, and now the snow,’ and all that. And I started crying,” says Cher. In Streep’s words,
“Moonstruck was when she showed how completely effortless her fully-rounded talent was — funny, heartbreaking, inimitable — no-one else could’ve done it that way. She owned that part. She jumped out of the screen. It was like we’d been waiting for her, and round the corner she came: ‘Yeah, and I can do this, too!’” When Cher accepted her Oscar, on her way to the stage, she tripped, lost an earring, and said, “Shit!” At the podium, she addressed the audience, including her children, Chastity and Elijah Blue, her son with Gregg Allman; Cage and Streep; and Rob Camilletti, the bagel baker she still describes as the love of her life.
The average person might need a rest after all this. In any event, the average person definitely does not then release a music video in which she straddles a cannon aboard the USS Missouri in front of thousands of sailors. But the really un-average thing is that Cher is still at it. Just this morning, she went back to Television City, where she and Sonny once filmed the Comedy Hour, to be a guest on
The Ellen Show and to promote her new ABBA album, her new Broadway musical, and her
Here We Go Again tour. How on earth do you fit all this into one Broadway musical? How on earth did Cher fit it into one lifetime? We haven’t even gotten to the part where Chastity became Chaz five years before Bruce became Caitlyn. If you must know, Cher was scared at first, mostly about the public’s reaction and especially for Chaz. But this, she weathered: “All of a sudden, this person comes in, and it’s fine. That’s the child that you love, just in different wrapping paper.”
And we’ve barely touched on the time she magically knew the robotic Auto-tune effect would be the next big thing a decade before everyone else, knew it with such conviction that she told an executive he could change the effect “over my dead fucking body”, and thus unleashed, at the age of 52, what remains her greatest-selling single to date, posing the question: “Do you believe in life after love?”
Before I leave, I ask Cher why she thinks following fun and acting on instinct has, in her case, produced so many pivotal moments. “It doesn’t always,” she says. “Look, I’ve had huge failures in my life. Huge dips and ‘Oh, you’re over. You’re over.’ This one guy once said, ‘You’re over,’ every year for I don’t know how many years. And I just said to him, ‘You know what? I will be here when you’re not doing what you do anymore.’ I had no idea if I was right or wrong. I was just tired of hearing him say it.”
“MY MUM SAID TO ‘YOU KNOW, ME, SWEETHEART, YOU SHOULD SETTLE DOWN AND MARRY A RICH MAN.’ I SAID, ‘MUM, I AM A RICH MAN.’”
“ALL OF US INVENT OURSELVES.
SOME OF US JUST HAVE MORE IMAGINATION
THAN OTHERS.” IF I HIT “I FEEL LIKE A BUMPER CAR. A WALL, I’M BACKING UP AND GOING IN ANOTHER DIRECTION. AND I’VE HIT PLENTY OF FUCKING I’M WALLS IN MY CAREER. BUT NOT STOPPING.”