Chad Michaels on Cher's Musical Legacy & What It's Like Impersonating the Pop Icon to Her Face

Santiago Felipe/Getty Images
Chad Michaels attends VH1 Presents RuPaul's DragCon Party at Belasco Theatre on April 28, 2017 in Los Angeles.

Since topping the Billboard Hot 100 in 1965 alongside Sonny with "I Got You Babe," Cher has remained an indelible part of American culture. It's nearly impossible to name another performer who's had such a consistent impact on music, film and fashion as Cher.

From "The Beat Goes On" to "Gypsys, Tramps and Thieves" to "If I Could Turn Back Time" to "Believe," Cher's musical legacy has given legions of Cher impersonators plenty of fodder for their tributes. Of that group, no name stands taller than Chad Michaels, a fierce drag queen (he won RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars) and acclaimed Cher impersonator (the woman herself loves him) who knows as much about performing Cher songs as the Goddess of Pop herself.

Ahead of Cher receiving the Icon Award at the 2017 Billboard Music Awards on Sunday (May 21), Billboard got on the phone with Chad Michaels (forcing him to put down his work on a Cher wig for a moment) to chat about her various musical periods, which Cher album he loves the most and why he fell for her as a child. 

Ahead of the BBMAs, we spoke to Cher for our new cover story -- she honed in on her late '80s material as her favorite musical period. Do you have a favorite period of her music?

Personally, I like a bit of each decade. She evolved each decade. She had a very specific sound in the '60s with Sonny, and then alone. And in the '70s, on her own, she adapted to the disco era that came. And when the '80s came she did her own take on the '80s. The '80s were kind of new wave-y, getting to be very experimental with music, and she almost went against that with that rock n' roll edge. "If I Could Turn Back Time," "I Found Someone," "We All Sleep Alone." I call them epic rock -- those are anthems. I can see why she'd love that era the most because those are the songs that really made an impact on people, young and older fans. When I perform I like to mix it up. I do a mix, "Take Me Home" into "The Way of Love" which is one of the most well-known love songs of our time – "The Way of Love" is classic, especially with older fans. I love blonde Cher, anything from Living Proof era until today. It's exciting to see her evolve with the times. "Believe" brought us into the 2000s and then this decade with "Woman's World" has an even harder dance edge to it.

What about her '70s No. 1s on the Billboard Hot 100: "Gypsys, Tramps and Thieves," "Dark Lady," "Half-Breed." Some might say those songs have aged a little bit, are you a fan?

I love it because they all tell a story. Those are storyteller songs – "Gypsys," "Half-Breed," "Take Me Home" -- how many people lived that ["Take Me Home"] lifestyle in the '70s? They were out at the disco, at Studio 54, partying and free love, all of that. She's done it all. Those songs stand the test of time and tell a story. It's definitely a look back, but an important part of her career. She brought them all to life on her show, they all had a costume that went with the song and a production number that told the story. In a way she started music videos with her TV show. The concept of a video was there in her work.

What was the first musical period of Cher you fell in love with?

I'm a child of the '70s so for me, my parents always had The Sonny & Cher [Comedy Hour] show on the television, so "I Got You Babe," "The Beat Goes On" -- those songs remind me of my childhood. That's what I was first attracted to. You don't know at that age how to put into words what you do and don't like, but all I knew was I saw this beautiful lady on the television in sparkly costumes singing catchy songs. So that's what attracted me, like a crow I guess.

If you had to pick one decade of Cher's music to listen to for the rest of your life at the expense of the others, what would you lean toward?

I would lean toward '80s because "Turn Back Time" is the quintessential classic Cher song, and then "Believe." But I'm a fan of it all, I have a good time performing all the different eras.

Do you tailor your performances to different crowds?

Yes, I'm very conscious. When I go to work in a place I find out what the age bracket is. If it's mixed I feel like I have carte blanche to do what I want. If it's younger, for them to grab onto something and relate to it, it's gotta be "Believe" up. "Believe," "Woman's World," "Song for the Lonely," something that is dance-y. Kids have a short attention span, they have a lot coming at them and they need something that catches their attention. If it's an older crowd, I feel like I owe them the classics. Anything from "Turn Back Time" back in time to the '60s. It's age specific, the taste in music, so I pay special attention to it.

Is there a start-to-finish Cher album you'd recommend for someone looking to dig deeper than a greatest hits?

It's hard because the songs are so spaced out over different albums. I think for the contemporary, the Believe album is really good, it has a cool selection of dance and remixes and stuff, but I think if you wanna go back, the album titled Cher [from 1987] -- "We All Sleep Alone," "I Found Someone" -- that is the one I truly love. It's the go-to for me. The big hair, the leather jacket and the body suit. "Bang Bang" was a hit in the '70s, then she brought it back up to speed with the epic rock feel [for that album], she gave it that Meat Loaf feel. She's adaptable. That's what I love about her. It's so crazy, I look at her and go, "In no way are you 70 years old." Physically, mentally, you're like a 45 year old. She's so in tune with the present. She's like "This is what I need to do now" and it's relatable to any era.

Cher is getting the Icon Award at the BBMAs. What makes her such a quintessential icon?

I think just standing the test of time. We're looking at five decades of hits and No. 1s in every decade. And the fact that she absolutely loves what she does -- she proves that on tour. She does that for her fans. She's sustained herself and lives tenaciously. She's the queen of rock n' roll, the goddess of pop -- she's got this coming to her and I'm so happy you're giving her the award this weekend.

And she's seen you several times?

Yeah, definitely. I got to work with her in 2002 for a fundraiser for David Foster at his house. They had me come over. I was told she gets a little nervous at small crowds so they had me do "Turn Back Time" as an icebreaker, and I was escorted out and she came out. A few years ago she came to a club in West Hollywood in L.A. when she was No. 1 on Billboard with "Woman's World." She came to celebrate that, and myself and a couple other performers did a show with her and a meet and greet. She knows me and has always been very kind and patient with me. It must be strange for any celebrity to come face to face with an impersonator. When you're that much of a personal icon and reference point that people impersonate you, it's gotta be a little weird. She's always been so sweet and kind, and at least feigned she's into it [laughs]. She's a sweetheart. It was cool of her to step into our world. I appreciate the fact that she's a down to earth, real person yet does these amazing things.

Any particular film roles of Cher you love?

Yeah I love The Witches of Eastwick, it's a classic, it's hilarious, I did a parody play in San Francisco and New York with Peaches Christ and Coco Peru. We did Witches of East Bay in San Francisco and Witches of East Village in New York. I love her stint in Stuck On You, her monologue in that where she goes off – her part is smaller, but she plays this souped up version of herself that's so funny and so tongue-in-cheek. And of course Moonstruck, who doesn't love Moonstruck?

Can you talk about her role in your life?

Obviously I've grown up with her. I never, ever anticipated I would be a 46-year-old man impersonating Cher. It kind of snowballed over the last two decades but I couldn't be more honored to impersonate someone with such integrity that has made so many people happy. That's the bottom line. Her music has made people happy and she's got hardcore fans that will lie down in the mud for her to walk across. My feeling at the end of it all is gratitude. I'm really grateful I can take this amazing ride and have it mean something. I love what I do and the person I impersonate has integrity and is amazing. You can't lose that way and you can't lose as an entertainer. I made my own reputation on [RuPaul's] Drag Race but people love Cher, and when you step out onstage as Cher and are good at it, you're making a lot of people happy. I never leave a gig not feeling great and I'm grateful for that.