Love and Understanding A Conversation with Cher
By Chris Azzopardi
Photo: Machado Cicala
Cher is so low-key about being Cher that calling her is like calling your mom. “Hi,” she purrs with signature simplicity when I phone her presidential suite in late August. We are speaking matter-of-factly about gay things, political things, Twitter things (“I’m finished with the emojis that we have”). About going to Walgreens and trying to remember why she went to Walgreens. This seems so very … normal?
Certainly, Cher is the most multi of multi-hyphenates – fiery human rights activist, Auto-Tune pioneer, a unicorn, the Phoenix – but no, not at all normal. Not from down here, where we’ve basked in the long-reigning diva’s treasure trove of film and music and bedazzled Bob Mackie costumes, and admired her ability to get down, do a five-minute plank (seriously), and somehow get back up again. That motion is the time-tested motion of Cher’s enduring six-decade career. It’s where grit meets guts meets glitter.
Our Oz, our Wonderland; a safe, shimmering space providing escapist refuge since the 1960s, a span which has seen Sonny (Bono, her late ex-husband) and Cher, anthemic rock and gay dance, inventions and reinventions – Cher’s mere existence brought us closer to those within our own community, and closer to ourselves.
She has three Golden Globes, a Best Actress Oscar (for Moonstruck), a Grammy (for “Believe”) and an Emmy (for Cher: The Farewell Tour), and in December, she’ll be the recipient of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor for her indelible contributions to culture. But Cher’s superheroine, Hollywood-royalty sheen isn’t without genuine normal-person realness. Unlike “Believe,” there is nothing artificially manufactured about Cher’s no-nonsense, everywoman, Walgreens-shopper persona. Because even when her sequins glisten like a galaxy of stars on a lit Vegas stage, when she’s floating high above you in majestic-goddess fashion, and when she’s still wearing a variation of her “If I Could Turn Back Time” music video one-piece at her current age of 72, Cher does the least pop icon thing a pop icon can do: remind you she’s still living in your world.
In July, she did her gay-icon due diligence by helicoptering onto the set of Mamma Mia 2! Here We Go Again to play the role she’d been playing in front of the world, most discernibly to generations of baby-gays and grown-up gays: maternal pillar. When I met Cher in 2016 on Halloween at a fundraiser stop for Hillary Clinton in the suburbs of Michigan, I was struck by her Cher-ness, the glitzy legend momentarily eclipsed by her warm, inviting humanness.
Armed with a cannon of glittery ABBA bops, Cher has come to our rescue once again with an ode to the Swedish disco-pop supergroup titled – what else? – Dancing Queen, her 26th album and first since 2013’s Closer to the Truth. In December, The Cher Show, the musical about her life, which she is co-producing, officially opens on Broadway. And next year, because she just can’t help herself, she will embark on a tour appropriately titled Here We Go Again.
The night we spoke, Cher was laid-back, reflective and full of hearty chuckles as she talked about that Walgreens detour, kissing Silkwood co-star Meryl Streep, the wedding dress she’d wear to Trump’s impeachment party, the “breadcrumbs” of her legacy, Twitter, the devil, jumping out of a window – and not only her long-standing influence on the LGBTQ community, but our influence on her.
Cher, I have a story you probably haven’t thought about in some time: It’s 2016, you’re at a Walgreens in Flint, Michigan, on Halloween. You were there campaigning for Hillary and some Walgreens shopper told you they loved your Cher costume.
Yes! Oh my god! Wasn’t that, like, the weirdest experience at the Walgreens?!
You tell me. I wasn’t there!
Haha! I needed to go into the Walgreens for something. Or: I had a moment to breathe … I don’t know. I went into Walgreens and I was looking for something, and then the girls who were helping me realized it was me, and then there was a whole kind of hubbub thing and all these little trick-or-treaters came in as I was leaving. So they were all outside and I piled them into the limousine and we were hanging out in there. I mean, I was supposed to be going to a whole bunch of fundraisers – I ended up making them, of course – and I was busy playing with the kids.
Are you frequently mistaken for a Cher impersonator? Because, I mean, how often would the real Cher be at a Walgreens?
Right? And in Flint! Well, probably not often. Ha! But you know, the minute I start talking, they pretty much know it’s me.
You’re hard on yourself when it comes to your music. Are you happy with Dancing Queen?
I think I did a good job. Now whether people are gonna like it…
Less studio drama than that time you stormed out on producer Mark Taylor after recording “Believe”?
Well… yes. Haha! But I have to tell you something: These songs are not easy. You’d think, “Oh, they’re pop-y and Björn (Ulvaeus) and Benny (Andersson) and the girls start to get into them,” and they’re not. No more Mr. Nice Guy! They’re rough songs. And they’re much more intricate than I thought, but I had a great time. Some of them are easier, and some of them have some rough spots.
You could’ve easily found enough inspiration in the world’s current plight for another album like your 2000 indie album Not Commercial, which was dark.
But we don’t need that right now! We need ABBA right now! If anything, we need to not be brought down because everything is so terrible. I was just talking to this one boy who came in and he was asking me what did I really think and I said, “Babe, I think the picture’s bleak. I think everyone’s gotta vote.”
Thankfully, Dancing Queen is a slice of gay heaven in hell.
Well, look, I wasn’t doing it for that, but I’m happy if it can make people happier than they were before they heard it.
When were you first aware that the LGBTQ community identified you as a gay icon?
I don’t think I was when I was with Sonny. I think it happened on The Sonny and Cher Show (which ran from 1976-1977), somehow. I don’t know – I don’t know how that happens. I mean, how does it happen? I have no idea! It’s just like, we made a pact and we’re a group and that’s it.
But you were seeing more of the LGBTQ community come out at some point? There was a switch?
Yeah, there was a change, there was definitely a change. And I think it was when I was not with Sonny anymore, and then somehow it all started to click. But I always had gay friends. I actually almost got arrested at a party with my best friend at school. He was gay but he couldn’t let anybody know, and he wanted me to go with him to a party and the party got raided. And we jumped out the bathroom window! It was high. We had to go over the bathtub into the window and jump out.
And you got away?
Do you recall the moment that galvanized you to stand up as an ally for the LGBTQ community?
I really don’t know if there was a moment. I’m not sure there was a moment; I’m not sure what it was. I just feel that, probably, there was a moment where guys thought I was just one of you. It’s like, there’s a moment where you’re either part of the group and you’re absorbed into the group and people love you as part of the group, or they don’t even know you’re alive, you know? Gay men are very loyal.
Look, I have a friend (makeup artist) Kevyn Aucoin – he’s dead now – but he told me when he was young, he was growing up in some place in Louisiana and said how horrible it was to have to hide and be frightened, and he said he loved listening to Cher records. I think that’s a dead giveaway! Haha! If you want to hide being gay, do not buy Cher records!
And I had another friend who had a Cher poster on his wall. I don’t remember where he came from – some small town too – and his dad ripped it off the wall and he bought another one, put it inside his closet and said it was a way to really be who he was in spite of who his dad wanted him to be.
When in your life have you felt like the LGBTQ community was on your side when the rest of the world maybe was not?
Always. I remember when I was doing (the play) Come Back to the Five and Dime(in 1976) and we had standing room only before we got reviewed, and after we got reviewed nobody came except the community – the community, and little grey-haired old women who came to matinees. We managed to stay open until we could build back up the following. Also, the gay community, they just don’t leave you, they stay with you; that’s one thing that always keeps you going.
What does that loyalty mean to you?
There’s been sometimes where I was just, you know, heartbroken about things, but it always gives you hope when there are people who think that you’re cute and worthwhile and an artist. It’s a great thing to have in your back pocket.
Your mother once told you when you were a child: “You won’t be the prettiest, you won’t be the most talented, you won’t be the smartest, but you are special.” What kind of mark did that leave on you?
It just left some sort of indelible, interior tattoo. Because I have gone through so much shit in my life. I can’t tell you how many times people have written, “She’ll be gone by next year.” I remember I got really pissed off at somebody and I went, “I’ll be here and you’ll be gone.” I don’t think I believed it at the time, but I was just angry.
So what you’re saying is what I’ve longed to hear: You’re immortal.
Well, no, I’m not saying that. Ha! I’m just saying I can be really pissy.
At the Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again premiere in July, you and Meryl Streep kissed on the lips. Was that meant to be the Silkwood reunion the internet wanted it to be?
Haha! No! We were just thinking it was stupid! It was so dumb! Meryl came behind me and I didn’t know it, and then we turned to each other, she looked up at me and she said, “You weren’t this tall yesterday!” And we laughed. And we just kissed! I had on my 10-inch heels, and you can see how tall I am next to her and we just thought it was funny. I said, “Kiss me!” And we just kissed!
I have to tell you something: She is funny. She is wicked funny! And I don’t know that she gets to show that side all that often, but she’s wicked funny and she just will do anything for a lark. She’s got a really great serious side, but she’s got this really hysterical side too.
How do you hope your role as the mother of a trans son, Chaz Bono, has influenced other parents of LGBTQ kids?
This is what I think, and this is what I would hope: I would hope that, look, I didn’t go through it that easily. Both times. When I found out Chaz was gay, I didn’t go through it that easily; when I found out Chaz was (transitioning) … except we talked about it a lot, actually. But then Chaz didn’t mention it anymore, so I kind of forgot. And what I think is, there’s such a fear of losing the child you love, and what will replace that child.
I think it’s about the fear, mostly. I felt, who will this new person be? Because I know who the person is now, but who will the new person be and how will it work and will I have lost somebody? And then I thought of something else: I thought, my god, if I woke up tomorrow and I was a man, I would be gouging my eyes out. And so I know that if that’s what you feel then that must be so painful that it doesn’t make any difference what anyone else feels or what anyone else thinks. Chaz is so happy now and we get along better than ever.
You’re known to speak your mind. When’s the last time your mouth got you into trouble?
I think it was my fingers that got me into trouble last time. I had to delete a couple of things that I tweeted, which now what I do is: If I’m gonna just go off on a rant, I do it first, I look at it, I delete it, but I take a picture of it first and then I have it. Then I decide if I really wanna put it on my Twitter or if I really wanna tweet it – or if I got it out of my system. I said something that I thought was really funny but obviously the people on Trump’s side didn’t feel it was funny and I got so much shit that I didn’t expect.
There seems to be a fair amount of homophobes who you end up calling out.
Yeah. I mean, I don’t know what they are. There’s just so much phobia of everybody. You’ve gotta be the same color, you’ve gotta like the same things, you’ve gotta be the same religion. It’s like if you’re not one of them, you’re an enemy.
You’re known for your emojis – do you have a go-to?
Well, I have a few of them. I have cake when I’m really happy, I have a ghost when I’m really happy, and when I’m really, really happy I put them together. I wish I had something that was more than the guy who’s got the blue head that is screaming. I wish I had somebody with a scream and his head was coming off the top of his body. I really wish there were better emojis. I’m finished with the emojis that we have.
Am I hearing right: You’re done with emojis?
Yeah, stick a fork in ’em! I just want there to be more. I like the emoji that’s the red-faced one with all the little signs over his mouth, which I always imagine is “fuck.” That’s what I put instead of the letters because they just get so angry. But also, I use the guy with the zipper across his mouth because I can’t say that. I have little fans, so I have to stop using that.
You could send out the shit emoji and you know what, Cher, the gays would go wild.
Oh, I’ve done that before! I put a bull and that together for when I think, “Oh, this is such bullshit.”
What will you be wearing to Trump’s impeachment party?
Well, I think that we’re all a little bit too premature for that, because I don’t think that’s gonna happen. But in my dreams I will be wearing something – oh, I think I’ll wear a wedding dress! Haha! I think I’ll just wear a white wedding dress. And a veil.
Just purity and excitement and something new. A new phase!
And we’ll all go on a honeymoon after.
Yes, we’ll go on one big honeymoon forever afterwards. I don’t see that happening because I think that there too many really smart people, in the devilish kind of way. All those people who are advising him, they’re really smart. But they’re really from the dark side. I don’t mean the actual devil in reality – not that I think that there is a devil in reality – but just a real dark side of gutting the entire government and gutting everything that was meant to preserve our safety and the water and the air and the land and schools and healthcare and all of it.
When it comes to our current pop landscape – Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, et cetera – who do you think does or doesn’t have the staying power that you’ve demonstrated throughout your entire career?
Gosh, I don’t know. It’s really hard to know until there’s more time under their belts, do you know what I mean? There’s got to be a little bit more time under their belts to know that. I think they’ve all done a pretty good job so far, but I think you’ve gotta have … like, I’m 54 years into this business, so I think we have to wait a minute.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how we interpret an artist’s legacy after Aretha passed, and every time an icon passes on. Do you think about yours and what you hope that will be?
You know, I don’t really think about it. The only provision I’ve made is: I want all my friends and family to go to Paris and have a big party. I’m gonna fly everybody to Paris and have a big party. But no, I don’t think about it too much because it’s like, thinking about it can’t do me any good. It is what it is, and to think about it, what will that get me? Kind of nothing. Also, what’s really great is there’s music left behind and there’s film left behind, you know? I’m gonna leave a trail. I’ll leave breadcrumbs.
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com and on Twitter (@chrisazzopardi).