Cher’s hotel suite has an indoor swimming pool.
She has been performing at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas for years, including her (try not to laugh) Farewell Tour in 2002. MGM always gave her a suitably fabulous suite. But one day, a few years ago, she stumbled on a secret.
While walking the grounds with an MGM executive, she noticed a hidden part of the sprawling casino — a gated enclave called The Mansion, which resembles an 18th century Tuscan palace. The Mansion has 29 villas that are, she was told, reserved for high-rollers — Middle East sultans, venture capital titans or Donald Trump relatives who can lose $250,000 in a weekend and giggle about it. These villas can’t be requested or reserved. They are for the most “I” of VIPs.
I want to stay in one of those said Cher.
Oh, no no no said the casino executive, possibly even bowing to her. We don’t do that. Not ever. Never.
I want. To stay. In one. Of those she repeated.
She met each refusal with insistence. Eventually, they relented.
Close to midnight, she’s sitting on an elegant couch in one of her MGM suite’s approximately 100 rooms, and thumbing out a Twitter message.
Jen Ruiz, Cher’s personal assistant and protector for the last 24 years, peers over her shoulder and winces. “Cher, don’t,” she says gently.
Cher laughs. The delight of doing things she shouldn’t do still resounds in her, even at the age of 71 (which she turns on May 20). “Jen, I am who I am, it doesn’t make any difference what I’m supposed to be.” It’s easy to imagine this exchange of caution and defiance happening several times a day.
No one has ever said, “Gee, I wonder what Cher is thinking.” During her six-decade career as a singer and actor, she has earned a reputation for blunt opinions, clothes that reveal more than they conceal and an unchaste flair for expletives. Long before the acronym DGAF was in vogue, Cher had no F’s to give. In one of her most infamous moments, she called David Letterman “an asshole” — to his face, and on his own TV show.
“They don’t make them like her anymore,” says Pink. “She is the smartest, wittiest, most sharp-shooting rock star ever. And her style was always the most fearless.” Cher has won an Oscar, a Grammy and an Emmy. As a solo artist, she has had 22 top 40-charting hits on the Billboard Hot 100, and because of her unmatched longevity, she was the first artist to score a No. 1 single on a Billboard chart in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, ’00s and ’10s.
There were, however, way, way, waaaaaay more failures than successes. “Things just didn’t come easily to me,” she says. “I made lots of mistakes.” Nevertheless, she persisted.
“She has been a big star for a long time,” says entertainment mogul David Geffen, her longtime friend and former romantic partner. “Not many people can say that. But she’s beautiful, talented and incredibly funny, so it’s not a surprise.”
A few weeks after our May 1 interview in Vegas, Cher will be back in town to accept the Billboard Icon Award. “ ‘Icon’ is a stupid word,” she says dismissively. And she’s right — like “diva” and “legend,” it has been ruined through overuse. If Ronald Reagan and John Waters are both icons, what does the word mean?
And yet — sorry, Cher — “icon” is a useful word if it’s clarified: An icon of what? To some, Cher is an icon of having an indoor pool in your Las Vegas suite. But as she talks about her volatile, unlikely career, it becomes clear that’s not how Cher sees it.
To ferry Cher from Los Angeles to Vegas, MGM has sent its largest private jet, a narrow-body, twin-engine Embraer 190. During the 41-minute flight, stewardesses serve champagne topped with raspberries to the small group of passengers, followed by a light dinner and, the coup de grace, cookies with Cher’s name on them. (They are delicious.) Several of her girlfriends sit in the rear of the plane, chatting about iron deficiencies and ex-husbands.
Cher sits in the front and announces that she’s sick. “What can we do for you?” asks Roger Davies, her co-manager.
She took a long and indirect route to this kind of luxury and attention. “When I think about my life, it was a really good life. It was hard. It was crazy. And it was laced with amazing and treacherous and sad, like everybody’s life.” For every “Believe,” there has been a “War Paint and Soft Feathers,” a “My Best Friend’s Girl Is Out of Sight” or an Allman & Woman, the duo she formed in 1977 with temporary second husband Gregg Allman. Sometimes, she jokes that after nuclear war, only two things will remain: cockroaches and Cher.
Fame was always going to be Cherilyn Sarkisian’s path out of poverty. Her mother, Georgia Holt, worked as an actress, with scant success, and married eight times. Cher’s father, John Sarkisian, was a truck driver and a heroin addict who went to prison four times and was, perhaps fortunately, rarely around. Unable to care for a baby, Holt put Cherilyn in an orphanage for a few weeks. They lived a volatile, bohemian life in the San Fernando Valley, a tantalizing 30 minutes from Hollywood. “My mom was destitute,” says Cher.
She began running away from home, she claims, as soon as she could ride a tricycle. “I hated school. I’m dyslexic. I couldn’t really read or spell, and I didn’t understand numbers. If you’re dyslexic, numbers look like little scratches.”
Cher wanted to be an actress since she was 4. “Not exactly an actress — I wanted to be a cartoon. I saw Dumbo and Cinderella, and I wanted to do that.” There was one problem: no evident lack of talent.
The story of how she met Sonny Bono, a married songwriter who was 11 years her senior, has never been told the same way twice. But Bono led her to stardom, despite a path that resembled Napoleon’s march to Moscow.
“Sonny was 28 or 29, and he had given up his dream of being a singer,” she says. Bono had co-written a hit, “Needles and Pins,” but he’d had little other success, so he took a job in record promotion. “I was this massive amount of energy with no direction,” says Cher. “I knew what I wanted to do, but I never would’ve gotten there without Sonny.”
Bono also worked, as a lackey and punching bag, for Phil Spector, the greatest music producer of the pre-Beatles era. While hanging around Gold Star Studio with Sonny, Cher sang backup vocals on a few momentous Spector hits, including The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ” by The Righteous Brothers.
In Cher, Bono saw one last chance to be a hitmaker. No one else shared his confidence. “Everyone hated us,” recalls Cher. Doris Day was the model of femininity, not a woman with long black hair, a big nose and an androgynous, almost manly contralto voice. “People were frightened of us. They thought we were dirty, because of how we looked. They tried to beat us up.”
She and Bono released songs under different names — Caesar & Cleo, Bonnie Jo Mason, Cherilyn — with no success. When a single bombed, they would pick a new name and go to another record label.
Finally, in 1965, Sonny & Cher had a No. 1 Hot 100 hit, the enduring “I Got You Babe.” The next year, Cher released “Bang Bang,” written and produced by Bono; it went to No. 2. Of her next 12 singles, only one made the top 30; eight didn’t even chart. She and Bono landed 10 top 40 hits, but also made two feature films that were epic flops. By the late ’60s, the hippie look they had helped create was common, and Bono’s ’50s-inspired songs sounded passé.
Audiences were indifferent to their live shows, so the pair passed the time onstage by making the band laugh: Cher insulted Bono, and he took it with a lovestruck grin. It was a classic comedy-duo partnership. “He was Lou Costello and I was Bud Abbott. I was the sharp one who looked good in clothes. Sonny was the lovable goofball.”
A TV executive at CBS liked their shtick and gave them a variety show. By 1971, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour was one of the 10 most popular shows in the United States. It was the first of Cher’s many second lives, and cemented her image — not so much an image as a fact, really — as a woman who claimed privileges usually reserved for men, including honesty, independence and confident sexuality.
The show was a striking mix of comedy, music, costumes (Cher’s tight, low-cut dresses were designed by Bob Mackie) and animation. It was, for its time, innovative — one of the first shows to use chroma key special effects, a forerunner of green screen. Sonny & Cher were hip, at least for network TV, but also married, with a young child, Chastity — now Chaz — who often appeared on the show, establishing them as a traditional TV family.
The ratings never flagged, but Cher was unhappy with Bono’s dictatorial control of her life and career. “I weighed 93 pounds, was constantly sick, could not eat, could not sleep. I got suicidal,” she once said. So she left him.
“Maybe we should have never been husband and wife,” she muses now. “Sonny could be the best person you ever met — the funniest, the most adorable.” She pauses, reluctant to insult Bono, who died in a 1998 skiing accident. “Or not. He was like the little girl with the curl.”
But once she was free of Bono, she floundered. “He had made every decision for me. I knew how to sing and how to be a mother. I didn’t know anything else.”
Cher learned that Bono owned 95 percent of Cher Enterprises, and she owned none. “That was rough,” she admits. Again, she won’t linger on the grievance. “I could forgive him almost anything. I mean, he tried to take our daughter away from me during the divorce, and it didn’t work. The day our divorce was final, he grabbed me in front of the courthouse, bent me back and stuck his tongue in my mouth. We were both laughing hysterically.”
According to their contract, Cher was forbidden from working without Bono. “I really was alone. Flat-out alone, and penniless.” For advice, she turned to David Geffen, then a young and canny music executive. “She needed a lot of help, in a lot of areas,” he recalls.
Cher needed another second life.
One evening in march, At MGM’s National Harbor casino, 10 miles south of Washington, D.C., a married couple eating Southern food at the bar of a Marcus Samuelsson restaurant chat up other diners who are similarly excited about seeing Cher. “I had to twist his arm,” says a 50-ish woman wearing a blazer over a plunging lace top. She nods at her gray-haired husband, who looks like the leading man in a Viagra ad, and adds, “I told him, ‘She’s not going to do this forever.’ ”
Cher’s tour, dubbed Classic Cher, is a speed-run through her hits, costumes, videos and marriages. The set design evokes a Persian flophouse. There are about a dozen costume changes — Cher doesn’t wear the same outfit for more than two songs — plus wigs, aerialists, lasers, a montage of her films, a giant mechanical elephant, lots of butt-cheek and, via video, duets with Bono. It’s dizzying.
There are also jokes, mostly about Cher’s age (“Instead of showing my ass, I should be in an old folks’ home”). It’s festive and cheeky, but by the end of the show, when she finishes with “Believe,” the middle-aged man next to me is quietly crying.
Lindsay Scott, her effectual Australian co-manager, shepherds me backstage, where Cher is meeting and greeting. Scott asks if I want to take a picture with Cher; I hesitate. Scott introduces me to Cher, and adds, “He’s not sure if he wants to take a picture.”
“Take the picture!” she commands. “I could die!”
We take the picture.
In her Classic Cher concerts, she sings truncated versions of the three No. 1 singles that, in the first half of the ’70s, defined her post-Bono career: “Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves,” “Half-Breed” and “Dark Lady.” She seems uninterested in those songs, and Geffen confirms, “She didn’t like a lot of her big hits. She wanted to sing rock’n’roll.”
When I ask, in her Las Vegas villa, if I could convince her that “Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves” is one of the greatest pop songs of the last century, which it is, she stares blankly at me the way she once did at Bono. “No,” she says decisively.
In the ’70s, her Hollywood friends — Geffen, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Joni Mitchell — were making great art; Cher felt ashamed of her songs. She wanted to sound like Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen, Mitchell or, especially, the Eagles. Anything but Cher. “I’m not a Cher fan,” says Cher. “I just don’t think my aesthetic taste lies in her direction.”
On the strength of Cher’s comeback, Geffen moved her from MCA Records to Warner Bros., music’s most prestigious label. She recorded serious songs, by respected writers — Jackson Browne, Janis Ian, Neil Young — and they flopped. America didn’t want Cher as a Serious Artiste or a Rock Chick. She didn’t have another hit until, bending with the wind, she went disco in 1979 and recorded the lascivious “Take Me Home.”
In the ’80s, she solidified an excellent movie career, starring in Silkwood, Mask and, in 1987, Moonstruck. But even in Hollywood, no one banked on her — when Moonstruck did badly with test audiences, “MGM shelved it,” she says. “They hated it, weren’t going to put it out. But MGM had a movie called Overboard, which didn’t do well. They had nothing to put in the theaters.” Cher won an Academy Award for best actress, as well as praise from film critic Pauline Kael, who called her “devastatingly funny and sinuous and beautiful.” (“I fell in love with her in Moonstruck,” says Pink.)
At the same time, she revived her music career with a new incarnation: the MILF of hair metal. “If I Could Turn Back Time,” driven by a memorable music video in which she wiggles in a fishnet body stocking in front of a crowd of approving sailors, became her biggest hit since “Dark Lady.”
She likes “If I Could Turn Back Time” and her other late-’80s power ballads, which is puzzling — those songs aren’t exactly Joni Mitchell, or even the Eagles. “That was OK. By that time, I figured out I wasn’t going to ever be the Eagles.”
Like autumn follows summer, her MTV phase led to another Cher’s-too-old period. She was also laid low by the Epstein-Barr virus, which causes prolonged illness and fatigue. By 1993, she was rerecording “I Got You Babe” with Beavis and Butt-head, surely not her worst collaborators. No American record label wanted her. Then Rob Dickins, president of Warner Music U.K., offered her a deal.
Her first album for Dickins, the ballad-heavy It’s a Man’s World, “was crap,” she snorts. “I don’t remember what’s on it — I didn’t like any of it.” Dickins wanted her to make a dance album in England, but by insisting, he triggered Cher’s teenage rebellion. She refused. “So he said, ‘Let me rephrase that. I’m going to send you some songs — when you like them, tell me.’”
In England, she recorded “Believe,” which went to No. 1 in 23 countries. Who but Cher could score the biggest hit of her career at 52, with a song she hated, in a style she didn’t want to sing? Recording it was “a nightmare” — she fought with producer Mark Taylor, and after she stormed out of the studio, he dosed her vocals with Auto-Tune, giving the song its surprising, modern feel. It was the biggest single of 1999 on the Hot 100.
Since that triumph, she has released only two studio albums on a major label, and she has made only one live-action movie since 2004. Her peers are either dead, retired (Tina Turner) or similarly puzzled (Aretha Franklin) by the same dilemma: What’s the role of an old, restless icon in American culture? “I don’t like getting old. I’m shocked that I can still run across the stage at my age. I thought I’d be dead,” says Cher.
She lives in a Malibu mansion with her son, Elijah Allman, 40, a musician and painter (“He’s talented, but he won’t buckle down,” she frets). Chaz completed sex reassignment surgery in 2009. “My relationship with my kids is great right now,” she says with a big smile. “Let’s freeze this moment, because God knows what’ll happen tomorrow.” She’s single, and has been “for a while. I loved all the men I was with, but I seem to have a two-and-a-half-year sell-by date.” She explains this with a quip: “My mom once said, ‘You should marry yourself a rich man.’ I went, ‘Mom, I am a rich man!’”
Her grandmother lived to 97, and her mother is 91 and still fussing, so Cher may have another few decades to go. She has slowly been working on an album she won’t discuss, “an idea I’ve had for a long time.” She’s also working, with Jersey Boys writer Rick Elice and Hamilton producer Jeffrey Seller, on a Broadway musical about her life and career. (Seller has told her it will open in 2018.)
She has been and is an icon of many things: strength, good humor, sarcasm, fashion, doing what you want whenever you want, not behaving appropriately, dressing outrageously, disrupting convention and dating younger men, to pick just a few. She’s also a model of versatility and, a trait of which she’s proud, durability.
“I seem to be able to keep tapping into [the culture]. Like, Twitter. How? At my age?”
With 3.3 million followers, she may be the social network’s oldest influencer. Buzzfeed only half-insincerely called her “the world’s most beloved Twitter user.” She has coined her own 140-character language, full of emojis, CAPS LOCKS and insults. The chief target of her ire is the orange-tinted 45th president of the United States.
“Since Trump was elected, I have to hide my telephone, because I’m so outraged. Twitter is like a drug. It creeps into your life, and you have to say, ‘Time to put a stop to this. I’m a grown-up.’” However, her commitment to mature silence never seems to last long, especially if Trump does something egregious.
“The president is cheating and getting away with it, and using the White House to make money, and he’s going to take health care away from people, and people are going die. It’s outrageous. You feel like you’re screaming ‘Fire!’ and no one’s listening.”
“The Democrats fucked up so bad in their message, and how old [the leadership] is. You’ve got to pray that old people die before young people can get involved with the party. I told Hillary [Clinton] she should have a group of millennials give their ideas about government.”
On Twitter, as in her concerts, Cher knows and accepts what people want from her. “My idea, every night before I go onstage, is that this is a gift I was given, and can give to people. While they’re watching my show, they don’t have to think of anything else. It’s something that makes people feel good. That’s all I do — make people feel good.”