Cher on the art of the comeback

A conversation with Cher on working with Lady Gaga and singing for Jackie O

Charles Sykes / Bravo / NBCU Photo Bank / Getty Images

Her voice—that famous contralto—has kept Cher on the Billboard charts, on TV and in films for more than five decades. She is one of only 16 people on the planet to be part of the EGO club—a rarefied circle of performers who have won an Emmy, a Grammy and an Oscar. And a Tony win may be in the cards in the future as she plans to stage a Broadway musical about her life. Her 26th album, Closer to the Truth, due out Sept. 24, comes more than a decade after her last full-length disc. Already, her latest single, Woman’s World, has made it to the Billboard dance club songs chart—her eighth No. 1 hit.

Q: I remember interviewing Eartha Kitt and she said she never wanted her name and the word “comeback” to be in the same sentence.

A: I met Eartha Kitt when I was 14. My mother took me to the Persian Room and I saw her perform. I took mental notes. She was fabulous. But I never think of the word comeback as a slap in the face—it’s a challenge. You are either on people’s radar or you’re not.

Q: Your first cover with Time in 1975 is one of those iconic moments in magazines. What were you were thinking when you were shooting it?

A: [Legendary Vogue editor] Diana Vreeland was on the set for that cover. It was originally for a Vogue shoot.She was wonderful. I met her because Charles Engelhard threw a dinner in Jackie Kennedy’s honour at the Waldorf Astoria towers and they asked Jackie who she would like to perform and she requested that Sonny and I sing. Jackie insisted we sit beside her at dinner—she told us that I Got You Babe was a favourite of hers and the kids. She also thought Sonny was so Shakespearean. I met Diana Vreeland there. After dinner, a strange old woman came up to me and patted my hair and said “My dear, you’re beautiful, you have a pointed head.” I thought, “Who is this old chick?” And then she said, “I must get Richard to photograph you.” Two days later, I’m with photographer Richard Avedon.

Q: Did you feel you wanted to be more glamorous?

A: Oh God, I’ve always wanted to be more beautiful.

Elsewhere at Maclean’s:

Q: Is it easier for a man to return to the entertainment business than a woman?

A: I think it’s easier for men to do everything in this industry—especially coming back.

Q: There’s such a change in the way people come back. It feels as if Lady Gaga never took a two-year break—she was making so much news. Does that pace set up artists for failure?

A: The business has changed so much. Who knows how she will evolve, but Gaga has an idea for herself and she follows it. Madonna was the same way. Madonna said and did what she wanted, whenever she wanted and she was ahead of the curve. Always. She had her ear to the ground more than anyone.

Q: Sade once told me she felt Lady Gaga was more authentic than Madonna ever was.

A: Madonna was authentic for her time. People like Madonna and me paved the way for the women who came after us.

Q: Many up-and-coming singers are strong-armed into doing media training and are quite scripted. Is this detrimental to a performer?

A: I don’t understand the whole media-training thing. When I was young, I gave some interviews that were devastating to my career. But I wouldn’t take those back, because I learned so much. Sonny and I weren’t polished. I got such a low blow from Peter Bogdanovich [who wrote the infamous Time cover story on Cher in 1975]. One thing I learned—never let a journalist live with you. It was such a betrayal.

Q: Yet you still said yes to working with him on Mask.

A: I had to. That movie was beautiful. He was a pain in the ass but I wasn’t going let him stop me from telling that story.

Q: You’ve been a huge supporter of Hillary Clinton for years. Why?

A: She’s so smart and so stubborn. She’s lived the life. She’s as good as we could get as a president. I’d be thrilled to death if she was in the White House and would gladly give her Woman’s World for a campaign song. It’s a perfect theme song for her.

Q: You’ve recently taken to Twitter to attack the anti-abortion laws in Texas.

A: When I was young, women were having abortions and they were dying from them. It is insane that all these clinics are closing down. Abortion is not the only service they provide—they are experts in planned parenthood, they do Pap smears and mammograms and they are a place where poor women can go to get proper health care.

Q: What do you think about what’s going on in Russia right now?

A: I can’t name names but my friend called who is a big oligarch over there, and asked me if I’d like to be an ambassador for the Olympics and open the show. I immediately said no. I want to know why all of this gay hate just exploded over there. He said the Russian people don’t feel the way the government does.

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Q: Do you relate so strongly to people on the fringes because of the way you were treated?

A: Absolutely. People hated Sonny and I in the early days because we looked and acted so different. Sonny was always getting into fights—people would called him “fag” and he’d get his nose broken—only because we were dressing different. And these were our street clothes! You can’t forget that. We tried getting on TV but the backlash against the networks was so bad, they wouldn’t invite us back.

Q: You are one of the only celebrity parents to publicly talk about having a transgender son.

A: When Chaz first told me she was going to do it—pronoun problem, when he first told me—and the process started, I was so frightened. One time I called Chaz and he had forgot to change his voicemail and it was his old voice. It shook me a bit. These are small changes that as a mother you never forget. It is the last taboo. It used to be against the law. Thank God we’ve come so far.

Q: So many young performers like Taylor Swift don’t want to identify as feminists. Why is that?

A: What is the bad connotation with feminism? When women have full control of their bodies, when women get paid exactly the same as men, when everything that happens for men happens for women, I can stop calling myself a feminist.

Q: You collaborated with Lady Gaga. The leaked version of that song sounds pretty strong. Why wouldn’t she release it?

A: She’s an artist and I respect that. I loved the song; I was disappointed but I got over it. The one that is out there isn’t even the right version.

Q: Why did you choose Pink to work with?

A: I remember sobbing after I heard her song Mr. President and thinking we are so aligned. That song just killed me.

Q: Are your new songs Take It Like A Man and Dressed to Kill two of the campiest songs you’ve ever recorded?

A: They are up there, but were so much fun. They are a drag queen’s wet dream.

Q: You were one of the first to bring drag to the masses. You hired J.C. Gaynor and Kenny Sasha to perform with you at Caesar’s Palace in 1979. Were you worried you’d shock the audience?

A: The crowd thought the drag queens were actually Diana Ross and Bette Midler—they had no clue. We got Diana and Bette to record their voices in the intro but I didn’t think it would fool them. I was never afraid to take risks like that.

Q: Is being a woman over 40 in Hollywood any easier now than it was 20 years ago?

A: Aging in Hollywood has always been bad. Men can get older in our business and women can’t. I always wanted to look good and be fit and I don’t want to change.

Q: Do you turn down a lot of scripts?

A: I don’t get the scripts that I want at all. I don’t get many coming my way. I was disappointed in Burlesque [the film she starred in with Christina Aguilera]—it could have been such a better movie.

Q: Obviously you will write a book, and a biopic will happen. Who can play you?

A: I hope to God it happens one day but nobody will get it right. Who is going to play me? That’s the only reason why I am going to write an autobiography, because someone will try and they won’t know what it was I lived through. At all. They weren’t there. With this upcoming Broadway show, I’m helping these guys out because they have no idea what was happening with [Sonny and I].

Q: You have an archive of costumes that is immense. Are you thinking of putting together an exhibit at some point?

A: At some point. I have so many clothes. In music, people are having some fun with costume, but actresses have gotten so subdued. It’s show business, where’s the show? I’ve got millions of racks of clothes in my office just sitting there. I can’t tell you how much they’ve enhanced my performances. My stylist started digging through them one day and found a fabulous helmet with spikes coming out of it and a necklace that was so drag queen that it made me scream, “Oh my God.”

Q: Working in fashion, I’ve had a lot of people tell me that all that stuff is superficial and nonsense. Do you get that reaction?

A: F–k ’em. Superficial things can be so powerful. They can lift your spirits. I’ve definitely found a place for them.


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