I am waiting in Malibu, in an over-stuffed flamboyant house: lots of velvet, gold leaf, plumped pillows, chandeliers. It could be Cher’s house but it is in fact the house of a rich Russian person who has rented it out for my interview. Cher lives eight miles away in another Malibu house and in her own gothic glory.
Cher, her manager, her make-up artist and her photographer get lost in those eight miles and arrive a little late. The photographer has been hired to take my picture with Cher. It wasn’t something I asked for, but Cher thought that I might like it.
She arrives with a green drink in her hand, giant hazel eyes sparkling as much as her giant treble-diamond ring. She is wearing a black tailcoat, white waistcoat, foamy chiffony shirt, dark jeans, thick boots. Rock chick clothes. Oddly she pulls it off. Her best features are her hair and her eyes, which are so mesmerizing you forget to look to see if the skin on her face has been pulled and tightened.
What everyone really wants to know about Cher is how did Cher — gay icon, gothic rocker, activist, former hippie chick, disco diva, Oscar-winning actress, daytime vamp, and the woman who launched a thousand drag queens — really feel when her daughter Chastity first came out as a lesbian and then underwent sex-change therapy to become a man.
And I wonder just how I’m going to ask her about this.
Cher is so slinky and feminine. She loves men, manicures and sequins. I look at her white fingernails, the pointed tips painted black, her ultra-pouty pink lips and feathery-mascaraed eyes, her long dark glossy curls. There’s something almost doll-like about her.
I stare at all of this and wonder, “How could Cher, the most girlie of girls, cope with having a daughter who wanted to be a son?” How could she have imagined that the gold-ringleted little girl who appeared with her parents on the The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour in the ’70s would grow up to be burly, bearded and hairy-backed Chaz.
I stumble over the pronouns. “She” and “he” get mixed up in my mouth. Cher gives me a look of empathy for my embarrassment. “Don’t worry,” she says encouragingly. “I screw up the pronouns all the time.” She flashes a Mona Lisa smile that reminds me of her Oscar-winning role in Moonstruck.
“I didn’t have a hard time in the beginning, because when Chaz came to see me and told me, ‘This is what I want to do,’ I said, ‘Well, if you’re miserable, then you’ve got to do it.’ But then as it was starting to happen, you know, it’s a strange change for a mother to go through.”
Cher says that when Chaz began his transformation, she was afraid to see him in case she didn’t recognize him. She asked if he would save his old answering-machine recording because it preserved his voice as it was before daily injections of testosterone had lowered it.
Chaz had his breasts cut off and fat redistributed in a thickset, mannish sort of way. He talks at transgender conferences and provides counseling for other female-to-male transgendered people.
In the sense that Chaz is a pioneer, he’s very much like his mother.
“When I’m talking about Chaz in the old days, it’s very difficult (to get the pronouns right),” Cher explains. “If I’m talking about something that’s happened with Chaz when we were in Aspen and when Chaz was little, he was she. But things that happen from now, or from a little while ago, Chaz is he.”
Did she have a sense of loss and mourning for her daughter?
“It was difficult, but now I don’t think about it so much. We talked about it on and off for years. He would talk about doing it and then he would go off it. And then finally, he did it. It’s a huge decision and not something you make lightly. But it’s turned out well.
“For the people who don’t understand it, I try to help them understand it by saying, ‘You know, I just love being a woman so much, but if I woke up tomorrow and I was a man, I couldn’t function. And that is the only way to describe it to someone who doesn’t understand. I know that if by some miraculous something I woke up as a man, I would hate it so much I can’t tell you.
“You know, your children go their own way, and I think it took so much courage. “I don’t think I would have had that much courage. But he was so miserable in that body and now he is happy. Totally happy.”
What’s impressive is that Cher is old school. When you ask her a question, she answers it unflinchingly. She doesn’t even try to plug her new record. She is not like some newbie pop star who only wants to talk about her music.
That doesn’t mean she doesn’t know how to be modern. She has come up with a record that is relevant — tracks produced by Paul Oakenfold and a song with Jake Shears from Scissor Sisters and songs written by Pink.
At 67, she still has the stamina to tour. On March 22, she begins her worldwide Dressed to Kill Tour, which includes an appearance at the BMO Harris Bradley Center with Cyndi Lauper in Milwaukee on June 6.
In her tiny, sequined outfits, she must feel as if she’s literally turning back time. At the end of her hot and throbby performances during her 2008–2011 residency at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, she always said, “Top that, you bitches.”
She doesn’t just like running with a younger crowd, she likes outrunning them.
“You know we were working out this morning, my teacher and a couple of friends, and I said, ‘Give me a break, I’m older than everybody here,’ but the teacher said, ‘You’re full of shit, you’re 30. You work out better than my 30-year-olds.’ So in some ways I forget how old I am, and in some ways I don’t.”
Cher’s age is indeed a conundrum. I’m not sure what 67 looks like, but it doesn’t look like Cher — and it doesn’t act like her either. Sure, she might have had a little help with her face. She admits to a nose job and a breast reduction. She denies the constant rumor that she had one of her ribs removed. She says that her good friends are often the teenage and 20-something children of her friends.
One of her young friends was Lady Gaga, who’s also appearing in Milwaukee in June. There was going to be a collaboration with Gaga’s prolific producer RedOne — a track called “The Greatest Thing.” RedOne thought instead of the original plan of having Cher sing it, it would make a great duet. In the end, however, Gaga was disappointed with the result and vetoed the release. When someone leaked a version of “The Greatest Thing,” Cher was all over Twitter expressing her anger at the unfinished version’s appearance.
Cher is an epic tweeter. I’m surprised she could take time off from her tweeting to talk to me. She tweets whatever comes into her head.
Her tweets to 1.7 million followers are uncensored and contain lots of swear words. In her tweets, Cher is forthright, funny and likes to complain about Madonna.
Her new album Closer to the Truth will be her first in 11 years. “I am not a Cher fan, she says. “I don’t listen to the records I’ve made for fun. This one I’m surprised by.”
Has she now become a Cher fan?
“No, no, no, let’s not go that far. It’s just my voice is very distinctive, and it’s not a voice that’s appealing to me. And on this record there are a couple of songs, ‘Silence’ and ‘My Love,’ that I sing in a different way, a kind of straight way, no vibrato.”
Indeed, those songs do not sound like Cher. The voice is high and melodic.
Recently Cher made a documentary — Dear Mom, Love Cher — about her mother. Georgia Holt looks tall and strong and at least 20 years younger than her 87 years. She also sings and sounds exactly like Cher. Her mother was six times married and says, “Don’t pay attention to age and it won’t pay attention to you.” Her mother is part Cherokee, hence the high, age-defying cheekbones.
“I had two grandmothers, one died at 87, the other at 97. And I said to the 97-year–old, ‘Nana, how old do you feel?’ And she said, ‘Darling, I look in the mirror and wonder who that old lady is because I feel so young.’ And that’s sometimes how I feel. I forget that I’m older.”
Does she feel that in her business becoming old is the same as becoming extinct? “No, there’s just not the access to older per- formers that there is to younger performers, especially women, because it’s a young person’s art,” she says. “More than any other time in history, the people who came up in my time are now having a hard time. We don’t want to stop singing. The Stones don’t want to stop, and I don’t want to. But it’s hard. You try to find your niche and stay relevant in your music and you keep going. I hoped there wouldn’t be a prejudice because I was a certain age, and people wouldn’t even give the record a listen.”
Is that why it took so long to get the record out?
“No,” she answers. “In those 11 years I wasn’t thinking about it. Honestly. I just forgot. I forgot to make a record. I was on the road, I was in Vegas. I did the movie Burlesque. I had some vacation and I didn’t really have a contract for a while, I was in limbo, so I went on the road and didn’t think about it.”
She performed a lot of shows.
“That was very stressful,” she says. “On the last day I wanted to kill myself. I cried and cried and cried. We were at the Hollywood Bowl, and I spent the night on the tour bus. I’d never done that before. It was so weird that suddenly I just didn’t want to stop. The only thing that is stressful about being on the road is the road. The shows themselves are fabulous. I love that part. I just don’t like the road, the isolation of the road.
It’s hard, because I can’t go many places. We might buy out a movie theater or miniature golf course or paint china or go bowling. The only way we’d do those things is if we buy them out and no one else is there. We want to be where there’s no people with iPhones. I remember going to the movies thinking, ‘Why is everybody texting and emailing,’ and then I realized they weren’t. They were taking photos of me. So it’s hard for me to go about in a normal way. I love having freedom. In the old days the paparazzi were polite. They would say, ‘Can we take a picture?’ They wouldn’t ambush you and be aggressive.”
It must be tough being Cher. It must be even tougher being Cher’s boyfriend. Traditionally Cher has dated men who are younger than she is, but not always less gothic-looking. There’s been Val Kilmer, Gene Simmons of Kiss, Bon Jovi Richie Sambora, and biker Tim Medvetz.
“I’ve also had some amazing boyfriends and some really famous ones but it takes a certain kind of man to be able to put up with (my fame). It certainly puts a strain on them.”
Does she have a boyfriend now?
“Well, actually, no. I just broke up with someone,” she says. “Or let me rephrase that. It went to a certain place and I couldn’t see me putting any more time into it so it wasn’t really a break-up. I think relation- ships have to go in stages and we just couldn’t go to the next stage. We are really good friends but there was no impetus to keep going. Love feels to me like unbelievable fun, and if it’s not unbelievable fun you stop it.
“I am a serial monogamist. My relation- ships seem to go for two-and-a-half years, maybe three, and then that’s it.”
Cher was married to Gregg Allman, from The Allman Brothers, from 1975 to 1979, but her longest relationship was with Sonny Bono. They met in 1963 and didn’t divorce until 1975. He died in a freak skiing accident in January 1998, at the age of 62. Meeting him, loving him and losing him were the most important things that happened to Cher.
“It’s like when people say losing a parent is a huge defining moment,” she says. “It was like that. Even though we weren’t that close at that point, in so far as we weren’t seeing each other very often, but it was a huge, huge loss.
“He was a mentor. He got me a job back- ground singing and he always believed in me and wanted me to be a solo artist, and I didn’t really want to and then we became famous together. I had so many milestones with him that would never have happened without him. I wouldn’t have done any of that. I had the energy but I was so scattered. He was the person who focused it all.”
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