The age-defying singer has entertained us for almost six decades, turning 70 this week. We salute a true pop icon...
In April 2013, the news of the death of Cher – singer, actress, global icon – went viral, as distraught fans flooded social media with RIP messages. It took comedian Ricky Gervais to point out that the Twitter hashtag Life stories – Cher
It’s April 2013, and the news of the death of Cher – singer, actress, global icon – goes viral, as distraught fans flood social media with RIP messages. It takes comedian Ricky Gervais to point out that the Twitter hashtag #nowthatchersdead is trending due to the demise of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher. ‘It’s “Now Thatcher’s dead”, not “Now that Cher’s dead”, he corrects. Cher, 67, is not only alive and well, she’s the only artist to have had number-one hits in each of the past six decades, the only person to have won an Academy Award, an Emmy, a Golden Globe and Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival and just a few years back she recorded a new album with contributions from Pink, Timberland and Lady Gaga.
With her Malibu mansion and Las Vegas shows, Cher’s lifestyle may be the epitome of fabulous, but there were hard knocks behind the headlines. She was born in El Centro, California, in 1946. Her father, John Sarkisian, was a lorry driver addicted to drugs and gambling. Cher didn’t meet him until she was 11, as he spent years in and out of prison. Her mother, Georgia Holt, was a bit-part actress and singer who had performed in bars from the age of 13. Holt wed eight times – twice to Sarkisian. Shortly after Cherilyn Sarkisian was born, Holt became pregnant again and put Cher in a Catholic orphanage. When Sarkisian left her, Holt had an abortion and tried to reclaim her child, but the nuns accused her of being an unfit mother. Holt eventually got Cher back, then had another daughter, Georganne. ‘I raised my sister and that’s why she’s so normal and good’, says Cher. Issues of addiction, absent fathers, abortion and conflicted mother-child relationships have been a recurring drama in Cher’s life.
‘When I was a girl, I saw Cinderella with my mother,” says Cher. ‘I started singing the songs and said: this is what I’m going to do.’ At 16 she moved to Hollywood, hoping to become an actress and singer. She had sex with Warren Beatty (‘What a disappointment!’), but it was Sonny Bono who would steal her heart and change her life forever. He was recently divorced and 11 years older, he was also a songwriter, working as an assistant to record producer Phil Spector. Cher was introduced to Bono in a coffee shop in 1962. ‘I saw him walk in and everyone else faded away,’ she recalls. The feeling wasn’t mutual. When Cher needed a place to live, he agreed to let her move in – as a housekeeper: ‘I don’t find you terribly attractive,’ he told her. That changed once he heard her sing.
Soon, Bono was bringing Cher to the studio to sing backing vocals on other artists’ records. They became lovers and were unofficially married in a ceremony in a Mexico hotel room in 1964, formally tying the knot five years later. In 1965 they released I Got You Babe, their first hit as Sonny & Cher. By 1967 they had sold 40 million records worldwide, they had six top 10s on the American Billboard chart from 1965 to 1972; and, at one point, had five songs in the top 20. At the same time, Cher was having huge solo success with songs like Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) and Gypsys, Trumps & Thieves.
Cher and Sonny were huge stars, with a TV series and sell-out Las Vegas shows. But Cher was struggling. She had four miscarriages before having their daughter, Chastity, and her relationship with Sonny was blighted by his temper and controlling personality. ‘He always saw me as 16. He liked the idea that he was in charge,’ she says. Their divorce was finalised in June 1975, but their bond was never broken. Cher gave a eulogy at Bono’s funeral in 1998, after he died in a skiing accident.
Cher is the original cougar, famed for her ageless looks and relationships with younger men. After lurid press reports about her cosmetic surgery in 1990, she asked a doctor to confirm the procedures she had and hadn’t had done. It was yes to a nose job, breast lift and having her teeth fixed. No to cheek implants and removing lower ribs. Her looks and sexual confidence led to affairs with Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer, rocker Gene Simmons and record producer David Geffen. Just days after her divorce from Bono in 1975, she married Southern rocker Greg Allman. It was an unlikely partnership. Cher had barely touched drugs and rarely drank; Allman was a heroin addict. She filed for divorce after just nine days, before reconciling. ‘I married Gregory because I was so tired of someone telling me what to do that I chose someone who couldn’t even tell himself what to do,’ she says. They had a son, Elijah Blue, but divorced after three years together.
While Cher continued to record music – from a rock duet with Meatloaf to a disco album – her next great achievements would be on screen. Her breakout role was in Robert Altman’s Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, followed by parts in Silkwood, Mask and The Witches of Eastwick. But it was Moonstruck, where she plays a dowdy 37-year-old transformed by love into a passionate woman, that won her an Oscar in 1988. ‘Her comic timing is almost infallible,’ says the film’s director, Norman Jewison.
Cher is famed for her outrageous costumes, and the dress she wore to collect her Academy Award for Best Actress didn’t disappoint. See-through net, embroidered with spangles and beads, it was the creation of long-time collaborator Bob Mackie – his provocative designs have defined her image from the early days of Sonny & Cher, when she was said to be the first woman to expose her belly button on US TV, to her video for If I Could Turn Back Time, in which she straddles a cannon on a US warship, dressed in a transparent bodysuit and fishnet stockings. Yet despite her wild Oscar-night dress, instead of attending the post-ceremony parties, Cher headed home with her family to eat pizza and celebrate her success.
For Cher, family life hasn’t always been so harmonious. She struggled with Chastity’s decision to undergo transgender surgery to become a man in 2009, believing her daughter’s addiction to OxyContin was influencing her. Chaz is now drug-free and recently appeared on the US Dancing With The Stars. Elijah Blue is a musician and, like his father Greg Allman, has struggled with heroin abuse and alcoholism. Her relationship with both children has been strained at times, but the difficult dynamic with her mother has improved. Holt recorded country songs in 1980 that were never released. The tapes resurfaced in the 89-year-old’s garage, and Cher made them into an album. It entered the charts in May 2013. She has also directed a documentary about Holt called Dear Mom, Love Cher.
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Cher released her last album, Closer To The Truth, in September 2013. Holt once told her, ‘You’re not the prettiest or the most talented, so make the most of what you’ve got.’ Cher took her advice, creating her own Cinderella moments on stage. ‘It’s like an alternative universe,’ she says. ‘It’s magnificent! As long as I can do it, I don’t want to quit.’