They always said Cher could survive the end of the world, but lately, she's not so sure
The superstar is among this year's recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors
LAS VEGAS — What sentient being doesn't know the six-decade story of her career? What's left to tell? From "I Got You, Babe" and the Bob Mackie gowns so provocatively sewn to the divorce, then the other divorce, then the Oscar-winning movie career ("Snap out of it!"), she is always rising up from a recent trip down. The nadir of hair-product infomercials vs. the thrill of the dance-floor comeback. It should be a required part of the SAT: Write 150 words about the life of Cher. Use examples.
The curtain drops, the audience screams, the beat kicks in and the diva descends on a tiny platform strung from the rafters of the Park MGM theater on a recent Wednesday night. She's dressed in a golden glamazon bustier, with a massive wig of bright orange ringlets cascading from her shiny crown. She belts out lyrics about the glory of living in a woman's world.
It is possible to be both in awe of Cher and a little worried for the woman who, at 72, qualifies for the senior discount and yet traverses the stage in dangerously high platform sandals while dancers writhe and kick around her.
One number ends, and she turns away from the spotlight into the darkness backstage, where "I'm completely blind and somebody's gotta get me." Five of her most trusted friends and employees reach out to undress and redress her. She describes the show's constant hair-to-heels costume changes as an out-of-body experience: the lifting, the snapping, the pinching, the laughter. They push her back out into that intense light, and who is she now?
She is 1960s Cher, the original recipe, barely 20 years old in Cleopatra eyeliner, tossing her long, shiny, raven hair, wearing bell-bottoms and love beads.
Something very odd begins to happen here, loosening one's general understanding of the time-space continuum. There is no 21st century. There is only this sort of present-tense past that we all live in, full of remakes and revivals and constant nostalgia. Cher will guide you.
She starts singing "The Beat Goes On," followed by "I Got You, Babe," accompanied by that sort of Dylan-derivative twang of her late ex-husband, Salvatore Phillip "Sonny" Bono, whose image is beamed 20 feet tall. It's the black-and-white footage of a much younger Sonny singing and grinning: the man she still loves.
Sonny and Cher's split in 1974 all but stopped America in its tracks, leading to the swift cancellation of their top-rated CBS variety show and leaving children everywhere to wonder if their own parents might also divorce. (Answer: Yes, probably.)
She says she never would have left him, except that her friend David Geffen had read the contracts that she had signed but hadn't taken time to scrutinize. She learned that Sonny owned 95 percent of her and everything she did. "Make me a partner and not an employee, and I'll stay," she begged him. He wouldn't. Today she's a fierce advocate for a woman's right to equal pay.
The Sonny and Cher story looks different in all this hindsight. The power imbalance is as galling as the chrysalis-butterfly narrative that follows it is inspiring. It's been another 20 years since Sonny died in that skiing accident.
Some nights, Cher says, "I actually look up at his face (during the show) and wonder, 'What are you thinking? I bet you're really happy up there.'"
Under the influence of this eerie duet, thoughts easily drift to the meaning of forever, eternity, persistence.
Now it's Thursday, her night off, and it's somehow 2018 again.
When she's in Vegas on these brief engagements, she stays in a secured, private villa that is apart from but within a casino complex, a hidden lap of luxury exclusive to the highest rollers — the Chinese business executives, the Russian oligarchs — and our dear, sweet Cher. She's wearing a comfy black hoodie and matching pants tucked into furry black Malibu boots, curling herself into a sofa next to the fireplace, sipping from a huge tumbler of soda and ice, the dark tendrils of her hair spilled just so across her shoulders.
It's very involved being Cher, just like you've always imagined it would be. "I just want to be famous and not have to do anything more," she says.
So then stop, everyone says. You've earned it. You're there. Even Barbra Streisand thinks Cher works too hard. Cher doesn't buy it, reminding you that she was dropped twice from her old record labels. She'll gladly take the constant motion, the incessant demands, the touring hither and yon and the 3.5 million Twitter followers all needing to know how their queen feels right this moment.
She tweets fast and sometimes furious and only occasionally regrets one. The brevity and playfulness of Twitter appeal to her; she instinctively took to the hieroglyphic language of emoji, which may, she says, have something to do with her dyslexia. "People like it, and some people make fun of me and they're right — I'm so grandma-challenged when I'm doing it," she says. "Sometimes I do one that makes me laugh so hard and no one gets it but me."
She tweets about her mood or her latest record (a surprisingly delightful array of Abba covers, triggered by her cameo turn in last summer's silly "Mamma Mia" sequel), or, mostly, the sustained animus she directs at her sworn enemy, the current president of the United States.
She's not just another Hollywood liberal trolling the right. Cher has done her homework, reading deeply on the history of fascism and nationalism. She takes in several newspapers and breaking-news alerts a day, tweeting out links with fresh outrage. She's been known to call in to MSNBC and fret about an irreparable erosion of American values. There's a line everyone knows, traceable to no one (Cher can't remember when she first heard it, but it begins showing up in news archives in the mid-1990s), that after a nuclear war, the only living things left will be . . .
"Cockroaches and Cher," she replies. "I don't know who said it, but I find it amusing."
What about now, with the end of the world constantly on her mind?
She sort of giggles, sort of sighs. "Not this one. I wouldn't last through what (President Donald Trump) could do. There's no lasting. Not even me. Not even cockroaches."
But don't give up all hope, Cher says.
"I know so many young people, (and) they don't seem to care about certain things that they don't notice." Things like race and sexual orientation. Because of her birth father's Armenian heritage, Cher was always darker-skinned than the sunny blondes she grew up around, which taught her a lot about perceptions. She also remembers meeting her mother's gay friends when she was 10 years old, "And I thought, 'Why haven't I met guys like this before? These guys are amazing (and) having so much fun.'
"The more we get mixed, the more we are tolerant. Eventually, it's going to be great," she says. "But I don't know if I'll see it in my lifetime, because Trump has done so much damage and I'm not sure people really understand how deep the damage goes."
Just days earlier, a wildfire roared through the hills of Malibu (a community she's called home since 1973), and she very nearly lost the 16,000-square-foot Italian Renaissance-inspired estate that she spent years designing and building. (When her mother, Georgia Holt, who is now 91, first got a load of the place, she told Cher that she was going to need to marry a very rich man to afford it. "Mother, I am a very rich man," Cher replied.)
As the flames approached, Cher was in New York, taking another look at "The Cher Show," a big, biographical Broadway musical opening Dec. 3. Although she is credited as a producer, she says she is only peripherally involved in its content. The story is told from three iterations of Cher — the young "Babe"; a middle version named "Lady"; and a seasoned survivor named "Star." The three Chers talk to one another across the decades. There's also a Sonny Bono and a Gregg Allman (Cher's second husband, "the sweetest ... this amazing guy who happened to be on drugs") and even a Rob Camilletti, the May-December romance that the world was, perhaps, too sexist then to recognize as the real deal.
"I have to tell you something. I think the cast is so talented," Cher says. "When I see them doing me and people that I've lived with and known, I'm astonished. I think the work they're doing on it — as a play — I think it's improving. I don't think it's soup yet, but it's on its way."
Kennedy Center honors
The night before the musical opens, she will be in Washington, D.C., one of the artists accepting this year's Kennedy Center Honors. For once, Cher will not be the one providing the evening's Cher retrospective. "This is a different kind of love song, a different thing," she says of the Honors. "I always wanted it."
If this were a world where Cher always got what she wanted, she would have already received the honor from President Barack Obama. Now, she says she is relieved that President Trump and the first lady won't show up for the event. The experience seems weird enough without having a showdown. If she's nervous about anything, it's the inertia required of the honorees — sitting and smiling and graciously receiving, instead of performing.
Somewhere in all the ups and downs, Cher became her own worst critic. Suggest to her that the Kennedy Center Honors will place her, culturally, alongside Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross, and she'll stop you right there. "I'm a worker," she says. "That's what I do. I go and I do my work. All my life. I don't do anything all that special, I just go out and do my job."
She looks at me dubiously (but patiently) as I launch into a grand unifying theory of the voice of Cher and its influence on American culture — both her singing and speaking voice. There's nothing like it. You know it's her the minute you hear it, deceptively low in register, then piercingly high. Everyone thinks that they can do an impression of it: toss the hair behind the shoulder, dart the tongue to the corner of your mouth, add an "r" into words that don't necessarily have one. Drag queens, Jack from "Will & Grace," even her comedian pal Kathy Griffin — they've all tried it, she says. (And failed, it's implied.)
She grew up in a house of music. Her mother worked as an actress and raised Cherilyn Sarkisian LaPiere and her younger sister, Georganne, through six marriages. Mom liked to listen to Hank Williams; they all loved Elvis Presley. No one ever asked young Cher to stop singing, except one time, when she was 14 or 15, "I was at my friend Barbara's house and I was singing, and her mother walked in and said, 'Cher, please.'"
As a teenager living (platonically, at first) in Sonny's apartment, she was singing one afternoon while making her bed, and Sonny, who was working as an engineer for record producer Phil Spector, overheard her. Not long after that, she was singing backup in Spector's "wall of sound."
At Sonny's urging, Spector recorded Cher (under the stage name Bonnie Jo Mason) for a single called "Ringo, I Love You." Radio stations wouldn't play it, partly because they thought it was a boy singing a love song to the famous Beatle. "My voice was terrible," she says, protesting. "I don't know how I ever found a job."
Cher says she never listens back that far, but at least let the rest of us hear it — truly hear it — and sense a sliver of the future.
Rather than sounding like a boy, Cher's voice in the 1960s suggests a coming era of the androgyne, with a whiff of all that multicultural, multiethnic and thrillingly exotic territory beyond race and gender. In their early hits, Sonny had her singing under him, so that they sounded like a pair of daffy outsiders in love. On one of their first albums, she sings a solo cover of "Unchained Melody" and it is hauntingly, even sonorously heartbreaking.
It makes you think of everything that is still ahead for her: She'll become one of the most famous people on the planet. She'll become a mother to two sons (Chaz Bono, 49, a writer, actor and transgender-rights advocate; and Elijah Allman, 42, a musician who has faced some of the same addiction issues as his late father). She'll conquer movies even though audiences will laugh when they first see her name with Meryl Streep's in a trailer for 1983's "Silkwood."
Her voice, too, will keep growing — louder, stronger, prouder. It will conquer the charts with a series of power '80s ballads. Then, in 1999, it will catch the world's attention once more when a producer puts a snippet through the latest auto-tune software on a hit song called "Believe."
Cher was less impressed by the technology than the fact that "75 songwriters," she says, took a stab at "Believe" and only she figured out what was wrong with it. "I didn't ask for a writer's credit, which was stupid," she says, "but I was in sitting in my bathtub one night with my toe in the faucet and came up with the line 'I've got time to think it through, and maybe I'm too good for you.'"
That's all it needed. "I don't mind if a woman is sad beyond what she can bear for one verse," she says. "But no way am I going to have a woman still broken-up on the second verse."
Kennedy Center Honors
This year's Kennedy Center Honors will go to Cher, Philip Glass, Reba McEntire and Wayne Shorter. The awards will be given out Sunday. A recording of the ceremony, hosted by 2017 recipient Gloria Estefan, is scheduled to air at 7 p.m. Dec. 26 on CBS.