Cher (Sunday Times Magazine, September 22, 2013)
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 in another Malibu house eight miles away in her own gothic glory.
Cher, her manager, her make-up artist, 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 mesmeric you forget to look to see if you can 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, the woman who launched a thousand drag queens, really feel when her daughter Chastity first came out as a lesbian and then underwent full-on sex change therapy to become a man.
You wonder just how you are going to ask her about this because you’ve read that she was mortified and you could imagine she would be. Cher, so slinky and feminine, loves men, manicures, sequins.
She made dresses for golden ringleted Chastity who would appear with her parents on the Sonny and Cher Show in the Seventies. How could she have imagined that her little girl would grow up first of all thinking she was a bull dyke and then realising she wanted to be a man, a very fat man at that?
I am surprised that Cher is warm with a relaxing motherly presence. Still, how does she feel about her daughter becoming a son is a difficult question.
Now the only child of Cher and Sonny Bono is 43 and renamed Chaz and is delighted to be burly, bearded hairy backed. He had death threats when he appeared as a male partner on Dancing With Stars, the US equivalent to Strictly.
I stumble over the pronoun. She and the he somehow get mixed up in my mouth and Cher gives me a look of concern and empathy for my embarrassment.
‘You mean Chaz. Don’t worry. I screw up the pronouns all the time,’ she says with a Mona Lisa smile and it reminds me that she won an Oscar for Moonstruck. Is this calm facade brilliant acting? Remember she was also nominated for her very un-Cher downbeat role in Silkwood, and so hilarious in The Witches of Eastwick. Of course more recently there was Burlesque where she simply a parody of Cher-isms. I decide rather than studied introspection what I see before me is real.
‘I would have said that Chaz is like Sonny and there is a portion of him that’s like me.’
What about when Chas became Chaz? ‘Oh yes, I had a hard time.’ She looks me right in the eye. You can tell her heart was quite pierced by this.
‘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.’ To suddenly have two sons instead of a boy and a girl. ‘Right,’ she says. I am surprised by how easy it is to talk to her about this.
When it was first happening she was afraid to see him in case she didn’t recognise him. She asked if he would save his old answering voice because it was his girl’s voice before it had been lowered by his daily injection of testosterone.
He had his breasts cut off and fat redistributed in a thickset blokish sort of way. As yet he has not had an operation to reconstruct his clitoris into a penis. He talks at transgender conferences and provides counselling for others in a similar situation. He is a pioneer. Perhaps he really is like his mother.
‘When I’m talking about Chaz in the old days it’s very difficult. [to get the pronouns right]. 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.’
Her voice has a certainty in it, and almost a soothing quality. ‘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. But it’s hard to relate to, oh, I must change my sex. But 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.’
I look at Cher with 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. How could Cher, the most girlie of girls, cope with having a daughter who wanted to be a son?
‘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.
‘When I say I knew he wanted to be a man I don’t know what I really knew. I knew that he wasn’t happy but I didn’t know the exact reason he wasn’t happy, but this seems to be the thing that was missing. [When he was a lesbian] he was in a relationship [with a girl] but they broke up a long time ago. She is a lovely girl.’ Jennifer Elia, an attractive brunette, was his partner for five years and he’d always told her about his gender struggle, but when the change was complete the relationship faltered.
Was that because she was in love with him as a girl? ‘I don’t know. I think she was having a hard time with her sobriety for a while. But also they had been together for a really long time and I think the transition for her was really difficult.’
Apparently when Chaz was charged with all the male hormones he got aggressive and sexually demanding and in a documentary Being Chaz, Jennifer admitted that her sobriety had been tested over her girlfriend becoming her boyfriend and she said, “He’s not the person I fell in love with.” Indeed he (she) wasn’t.
What’s impressive is that Cher is old school. You ask her a question, she answers it unflinching. 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 said, it 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 constantly (new world tour in 2014) and in silly tiny sequined outfits where she must feel she’s literally turning back time. At the end of her hot and throbby performances during her residency at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas from 2008 to 2011 she always said, “Top that, you bitches.” Sure, she likes to run with a young set because she likes to outrun 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 she doesn’t act it. 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 rumour that she had one of her ribs removed. She says that her good friends are often the teenage and twenty something children of her friends. ‘Young people like me. I don’t know why.’
Certainly she was friends with Lady Gaga. 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 Cher singing it, it would make a great duet. In the end Gaga was disappointed with the result and vetoed it. Cher voiced her own disappointment that the two icons could not be on song. When someone leaked a version of The Greatest Thing. Cher was all over Twitter in her anger at the unfinished version’s appearance.
Cher is an epic tweeter. I’m surprised she could take the time off tweeting to talk to me. She tweets whatever comes into her head. No censorship, lots of swear words,1.7 million followers. In her tweets she is forthright, funny, and likes to complain about Madonna. In person she is a lot less flighty.
Her new album Closer To The Truth will be her first in eleven years. ‘I am not a Cher fan. 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, these songs do not sound like Cher. The voice is high and melodic.
Does she feel like a different person to who she was ten years ago? ‘I feel like an older version of myself. I don’t think I’ve changed much in what I think is right or wrong or what I think is bullshit. My mother is 87 and she’s pretty much the same person as when I was little.’
Recently she 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 one, “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.
‘The other day somebody said how old are you and for a minute I forgot. I thought I was ten years younger and I still thought that was old. It’s not easy getting older in this business for sure.’ I notice she doesn’t mention any numbers here.
Does she feel that in her business becoming old is the same as becoming extinct? ‘No, there’s just not the access to older performers that there is to younger performers, especially women, because it’s a young person’s art.
‘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.’ She says this in a deadpan way but it is obviously something she’s thought about.
Was that why it took so long to get the record out? ‘No. In those eleven 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. 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 theatre 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 realised 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.’
‘Once we had to get a restraining order against a paparazzi. He made my boyfriend go into a ditch and we rolled our car. This was in the eighties.’ Her then boyfriend was bartender Robert Camilletti.
‘My boyfriend went to jail because he was so angry he went to their car and he ripped it apart and they said he tried to kill them. If you saw these guys they were just old and just wankers. If he wanted to kill them he could have done easily. But after they’d forced us to roll the car he was so furious he tore their car up. He went to jail for a day and then got so much community service. I think he could have killed someone and got less community service.
‘We had a restraining order on these paparazzi and they came on the property and they broke the restraining order and he was angry the whole time because he was trying to look after me. Whenever I went out I’d have to sneak out the driveway and lay on the floor of the car.’
Is being too recognisable a double-edged sword? Is there pleasure in being an icon as well as pain at the lack of freedom? Would she swap?
‘No, I’d rather have both of course.’ She pauses: ‘I’d probably go for freedom. Fame is great and then it gets hard. Like things you used to take for granted you can no longer do. Like if I wanted to make a run to Safora (a beauty supplies shop) I have to know exactly what I want to get and go for it, like a hunting expedition.’
It must be tough being Cher. It must be even tougher being Cher’s boyfriend. Traditionally Cher has dated men who are younger than her, but not always less gothic looking than her. There’s been Val Kilmer, Gene Simmons of Kiss, Bon Jovi Richie Sambora, and biker Tim Medvetz.
Did she find it unsettling that boyfriends didn’t like being Mr Cher? ‘It wasn’t so much unsettling for me. 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 it. It certainly puts a strain on them. Like Robert for instance. He didn’t buy into go into jail or having people chase him. He’s a private citizen and people were very mean to him. That stuff doesn’t keep you from having relationships it just makes it harder to go for a walk on the beach or something like that. You have to outsmart people and try and just live your life.’
What have the men she’s gone for had in common? She perks up. ‘Actually many of them have had amazing senses of humour and they’ve all been really kind. I love people who are kind and I wouldn’t date anyone who wasn’t, it just wouldn’t work for me.’ Kindness is very underrated. ‘Yes, and it’s a game changer for me. Intelligence is great but I don’t know that it trumps everything. Kindness and an adventurous spirit is what does it.
‘I still like to do dumb things. I like to do kid things. So I like it when the person I’m with wants to ride a paddleboard or go-karting or take a run to Disneyland or go to Hawaii. I like people who are adaptable because I have to pick my moments.’ Meaning if she suddenly finds a break in her schedule she likes to make the most of it.
Does she have a boyfriend now? ‘Er, well, actually, no. I just broke up with someone. 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 relationships 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.’
Is she the person that ends a relationship? ‘Most of the time. I am a serial monogamist. My relationships seem to go for two and a half years, maybe three, and then that’s it.’
She 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 broke up in 1972, but didn’t divorce until 1975. He died in a freak skiing accident in January 1998, aged 62. Meeting him, loving him and losing him were the most important things that happened to her.
‘Meeting him changed everything and leaving him changed everything as well, and losing him was huge. It’s like when people say losing a parent is a huge defining moment. 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.
‘I was in England when it happened and I remember going to a certain place that I didn’t think the paparazzi would follow because I was so upset. I got there and I was sobbing and sobbing.
‘It was the end of an era for me. It was the end of a time that had been so important for me. It was the end of something that had been a major part of my life. It was like a parent dying. When I met him I was 16 so he was…’ I finish the sentence, a father figure. ‘…Well he was a mentor. He got me a job background 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.’
She was born on May 20, 1946, the last day of Taurus. In some astrologers view the beginning of Gemini. Is that scattered energy her Gemini side? ‘If you knew me you would see that I am very Taurus. I am sturdy, in my own way a plodder, but I have the vocal energy of a Gemini.
‘Taureans can be very spontaneous and are stubborn. And I’m really stubborn, ridiculously. A lot of Taureans can end up quite corpulent because they like food, like Orson Welles, and I like food when it is good, but it’s not a major thing for me to eat for the sake of it, but I’m very materialistic. I like my house and I love things.’
Did she have to fight against the love of good food? Is she very disciplined? ‘No. When I was growing up we were very poor and my mother was from the South and we didn’t eat a lot of meat because it was expensive so I never got a taste for it. I eat vegetables because meat is something l don’t like the taste of. I do have a terrible sweet tooth.’
They moved around a lot when she was growing up and her circumstances could change dramatically depending on who her mother was married to or if she was on her own. Mostly she grew up in California where her mother had bit parts on TV shows.
‘She married my dad twice, I don’t know why. She told me she never loved him that much. She just said he was very convincing but that never made much sense to me. I didn’t meet him until I was 11.’
How was that? ‘He was nice. I enjoyed him.’ Wasn’t her whole life trying to find her missing father figure? ‘No, because when I met him it was fun. I was a lot like him in certain ways. Suddenly I knew where a lot of my expressions came from.’
So nature rules over nurture? ‘Right. Elijah is like that too with his dad.’
Unfortunately, Elijah, 37, inherited his father’s addictive personality. Gregg Allman was a heroin addict. Elijah had a problem with drugs. ‘There are so many thing that Elijah that Gregory does which is odd because they never spent much time with each other.’
Didn’t Allman once try to kill her when he was high on drugs? ‘No, he didn’t try to kill me. He would never have done that. But he lost his temper when we were in Jamaica and I had to spend the night on the beach with this fabulous who was the housekeeper in the house we rented and we sat on the beach all night while guys with torches hunted crabs. It turned out to be an interesting adventure. We didn’t split then. Not then. He and I went back and forth, back and forth because I was crazy about him. But you can’t have people that are doing drugs that are around your kids.’
Elijah inherited that side of him? ‘Well, yes. But he’s okay now. He’s great. But it took a chunk out of his life. A chunk out of both of them. He very much looks like his dad. I think he is going to be a manager.
Does she think not having her father around made her attracted to a certain type of man? ‘It might have done because Sonny was very nurturing. And when I first met him I was very sickly. He was much older than me and he had a vision. I was just running around dancing and hanging around with my friends. I wanted to be a singer, I wanted to be an actress. I didn’t have any focus. Maybe I would have got there anyway, but Sonny was the one who said if you do this, this will work. This will be the right thing to do. He was a catalyst for everything.’
Was that when she fell in love with him? ‘Oh no, I did that way before. We didn’t work together at first. I think I hero-worshipped him because he was as very extraordinary person. Not fabulous all the time for sure, but he was a very forward thinker, interested in life. He would do things that maybe men would have had a problem with. Like I used to dress him crazy in the beginning and he just said okay, fine, this is fun. He was open to a lot of things. He wasn’t open to a lot of things as well and we got into fights, but he liked to stretch himself. I think he’d given up before he met me and I was a spark for him too. He tried to have a career that didn’t work out so we sparked each other.’
So what happened with this man that was such a huge influence, what went wrong? ‘It didn’t go wrong. I was just finished. It started to become more about the work than the relationship. Plus I was 27 and I didn’t need to be told what to do any more.’
She says this without a trace of regret because regretting nothing is all part of her mantra. She takes a swig from her wheatgrass drink. ‘Honestly, it doesn’t taste disgusting. It’s got powdered vitamins in it. I’m not the kind of person who wants to suffer ill health.’
I’d heard she had a phobia of getting sick ‘No, that’s not true. But a long time ago I had Epstein Barr (syndrome) and it made my life a misery for two years.’ The symptoms are extreme tiredness, lethargy. ‘I’m not very phobic at all. In general, I’m very happy.’ If this is not the case, she’s done a very good job of convincing me.