What to get for the person who has everything is always a difficult one. In the early 1970s Salvador Dali thought he had solved this quandary when he gave superstar Cher a unique present, albeit by accident.
ow it happened was, as she said herself, “a complicated story.” The controversial Spanish artist had invited Cher, Sonny Bono (her husband at the time), and film director Francis Ford Coppola out to dinner. They agreed to meet first at Dali’s home.
“And,” Cher told the Guardian’s Rebecca Nicholson in 2013, “they’d been having an orgy in the other room.”
“People were in different stages of undress, but mostly dressed. They were staggering around and speaking French, just crazy, you know?”
“So I have my hand on the chair and I see something in the crack, and it’s a beautiful, painted rubber fish. Just fabulous. It has this little remote-control handset, and I’m playing with it, and the tail is going back and forth, and I’m thinking it’s a child’s toy.”
Holding up what she thought was a child’s toy, Cher said approvingly to Salvador: Dali “This is really funny.” To which Salvador Dali said in reply — Cher affects deep, comedy Spanish voice: “It’s wonderful when you place it on your… [pause] clitoris.'”
“Now, Sonny and Francis, these little boys, are sitting there unable to control themselves, and they start eating the chocolate on the table. This happened to be these clocks that Salvador had made for decoration, and Francis and Sonny got so nervous they started eating them, these fabulous candy clocks.”
Notwithstanding having eaten the candy clocks, Sonny, Francis and Cher went to the restaurant across the road for the promised evening repast with Dali. The latter was joined by his assistant, Ultra Violet.
Ms Violet “kept” — as Cher remembered — “rubbing me with her cane and I thought ‘I’m going to break this cane across this bitch’s head!’ All of sudden, Salvador and Ultra Violet got up, moved to another table and sat down. We became hysterical. We were crying. And they sat there and had their dinner, and we sat there and had our dinner,” Cher chuckled adding that she didn’t, alas, “keep the clit vibrator.”
Despite a life full of tales such as this, Cher was born not “in the wagon of a traveling show” but in San Fernando Valley in suburban California on May 20, 1946. She was a little girl who “practiced” her autograph for someday when she believed she would become famous. “By the time I was 12 years old, it was the same autograph I sign today,” she admitted in 1983. “It’s the same autograph that I had down pat when I was 12 years old because I was going to be somebody famous. I wanted to be Audrey Hepburn.” She became Cher instead.
Cherilyn Sarkisian La Pierre grew up in El Centro, California beyond the bright lights of Los Angeles. There is a story that when she was four years of age she drove around the suburbs of El Centro on her bicycle, shouting to everyone: “We’ve got to get out of here! We belong in town!’”
Cher almost never made it into the world, let alone into LA…
The little girl who would make the cover of Time in 1975 (and would be paid $60 million a year in 2010 by Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas to perform a set amount of shows annually) was raised by her part-Cherokee single-mother, Georgia Holt, in reduced circumstances.
Cher’s father, an Armenian American truck driver named John Sarkisian, vanished when she was a very young child. During this period Cher had been placed for a time in a Catholic orphanage. “She was completely on her own and went to work in this all-night diner for a dollar a night plus tips,” Cher wrote in her 1989 autobiography The First Time. “She made this arrangement for the nuns to take care of me.”
Cher added in an interview: “My mother told me once about how she got pregnant with me and didn’t want to be with my dad; she was just so young and inexperienced. My grandmother said, ‘You have a bright future.’ She actually suggested an abortion, so my mom was in the doctor’s office – a back-alley doctor – getting on the table. And then at the last minute she said, ‘I can’t do this. I don’t care what happens – I can’t do this.’”
“Our life was so chaotic, just one insane moment after another,” remembers Cher of her her impoverished and slightly dysfunctional childhood (her father would divorce and remarry her mother two, maybe three, times).
Young Cher’s dark eyes, dark hair and dark skin only seemed to add to her sense of feeling like an outsider in society where she hadn’t two dimes to rub together. In her memoir The First Time, she wrote: “Women with black hair like mine were either evil queens or witches in all the Disney movies. In the real films they were always the ones who lost the man and got their just desserts in the end.”
The little girl who went on to become a billionaire with her endless mansions and her own private jet can vividly remember feeling shame about being so poor that she couldn’t afford shoes. She went to school with rubber bands around her shoes to keep her soles on.
A little luck started to shine on her when she left high school in the 11th grade, took acting lessons, and by the time she was 16 she was having a physical romance with an actor by the name of Warren Beatty, nine years her senior.
She told Playboy magazine of her one night stand with Beatty thus: “I did it because my girlfriends were crazy about him and so was my mother. I saw Warren, he picked me up, and I did it. And what a disappointment! Not that he wasn’t technically good, or could be good, but I didn’t feel anything. So, for me, I felt, there’s no reason for you to do that again.”
Post-Warren, in 1963 Cher met a songwriter in Aldo’s Coffee Shop in Los Angeles.
“Someone said, ‘There’s Sonny Bono,’ and I turned around to look at him and I swear to God, it was like Maria at the dance. Everyone just disappeared and there was Sonny,” Cher told CBS News last year. “I don’t know what it was … it was something I never felt before.” The feeling wasn’t reciprocated. Sonny said to Cher, who was looking for a place to stay, “I don’t find you particularly attractive and I have twin beds.”
Despite the 11-year age gap, Cher fell in love and moved in with Sonny — separated though not yet divorced from his first wife, with a four year old child — and his two twin beds; they married in 1964. A year later, Sonny & Cher as a musical duo, having previously tried out as Caesar and Cleo, had their first number 1 single with I Got You Babe. They went on to have eleven Top 40 hits in America between meeting in a coffee shop in the mid 1960s and 1972. There was also a TV show The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour from 1971 to 1974.
When that year their marriage came apart at the seams like one of her famous gunas, Cher would perhaps have imagined she’d have financial security. Sonny’s devious manoeuvring behind her back proved otherwise. Cher Enterprises, the company he set up, was owned 95 percent by him. Sonny and Cher’s lawyer owned 5 percent. “Sonny did a couple of things… treating me more like the golden goose than like his wife,” Cher said at the time. She had almost nothing to her name.
Her next lover, music mogul David Geffen came to Cher’s rescue. “When they broke up,” Geffen said in 2010, “she was deeply in debt and under contract to him. It was a terrible situation. It was certainly specific to their relationship. It’s hard to talk about this, because of the fact that Sonny’s dead [he died on January 5, 1998 in a skiing accident near South Lake Tahoe]. Let’s just say she survived all that.”
When in 1982 Robert Altman put Cher on stage on Broadway for ‘Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean’, another film director, Mike Nichols, came to a matinee performance of the play. “I didn’t know he was there, thank God, I could have been s**t,” she said of Nichols turning up in 1982 to see her on Broadway.
“He came back afterwards and offered me a part in his movie and I didn’t really believe him.” He put her in Silkwood opposite Meryl Streep. The performance led to Cher’s first Oscar nomination in 1983.
“I’m not destined to be a rich woman. I’m destined to be a woman who makes a lot of money and never has any,” she told Interview magazine in 1983. Still, she was to forgive Sonny and some say never stopped loving him.
Asked once what she thought were people’s preconceptions about her, Cher answered: “I think it hit home for me the most when people thought I was acting at Sonny’s funeral. [She delivered the eulogy at Sonny’s televised memorial service] That’s the definitive experience of people getting it so wrong that you just don’t know where anybody’s coming from. I was so blindsided by that. And that day, I actually did give a thought to packing it in and saying, ‘You know what? F**k all you guys, you don’t get it anyway. I’m out of here.'” It is worth nothing that Cher biographer Mark Bego wrote that Bono’s widow Mary appeared to be okay with Cher delivering the eulogy live on TV until the pop superstar told People magazine “that she had made peace with Sonny [posthumously] via famed psychic James Van Praagh”.
Cher is nothing if not resilient. In 2010, she told Vanity Fair magazine: “I feel like a bumper car. If I hit a wall, I’m backing up and going in another direction. And I’ve hit plenty of f**king walls in my career. But I’m not stopping. I think maybe that’s my best quality: I just don’t stop.” Nine years on from that declaration, Cher certainly appears to have no plans to stop yet, calling her new show that hits this island on November 1, the Here We Go Again World Tour.
She has been on the go for six decades. She had a number 1 in 1965 with I Got You Babe, and won an Oscar for Best Actress, in Moonstruck in 1987, to say nothing of three Golden Globes for her performances in The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour in 1973, Silkwood in 1983, and Moonstruck in 1988. She has been around for longer than she probably cares to remember but has given the world some unforgettable songs.
She had a solo hit in the mid 1960s with a cover of Bob Dylan’s All I Really Want to Do. “No one believed it was just me, because I did both the high part and the low part at the beginning of each verse,” she said at the time. Dylan approved of her rendition and told her so. In 1971, she was singing about racism, teenage pregnancy and prostitution on Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves, a track that years later Billboard magazine dubbed “one of the 20th century’s greatest songs”. She would go on to record many songs that have lodged in the pop culture consciousness and become anthems.
If Could Turn Back Time (“Eighties power ballads could have been invented for Cher: not big on subtlety, grandiose to the point of seeming slightly camp and requiring a powerful voice to deliver them,” wrote one critic) from 1989 and Just Like Jesse James (“An extremely well-polished bit of song-writing and a rare air-punch-inducing power ballad that resists the temptation to turn everything up to 11”) from the same year became instant classics, as did Believe in 1998 with its sound effects on her voice, and its belief in, um… life after love.
Cher made more comebacks than Frank Sinatra, “I never think of the word comeback as a slap in the face,” she said in 2013. “It’s a challenge.”
She was the stand-out of the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards in a sheer bodysuit. “So far tonight, I’m the oldest chick, with the biggest hair, and the littlest costume,” she said before she presented Lady Gaga in a meat dress with her award for Video Of The Year. “I never thought I’d be asking Cher to hold my meat purse,” Lady Gaga gushed. At her subsequent Vegas show, Cher joked to the audience: “I thought Lady Gaga said to hold her mink purse — f**k, this is a steak! I thought, ‘I’ve seen weirder things than that in my life.’” With this comment, as Krista Smith, Vanity Fair’s executive west coast editor, noted, Cher “wasn’t so much passing the torch as saying, ‘Remember, bitches, I was the original diva.'”
Be that as it may, she hasn’t been always everyone’s cup of tea. Stephanie Brush wrote in a 1988 New York Times piece: “A lot of people despised Cher in the mid-1970s because she had refused to follow the accepted rule and die in flames before the age of 30. We had made a pact with our mythic celebs of the 60’s: perish tragically, or we’ll bury you anyway. We despised Cher for insisting on remaining famous, but we couldn’t make her go away through ridicule, because she had become far too good at ridiculing herself.”
In an interview with Vulture in 1986, director Peter Bogdanovich was less than charitable about working with Cher in his 1985 movie Mask. “She didn’t trust anybody, particularly men,” he claimed. “She doesn’t like men. That’s why she’s named Cher: She dropped her father’s name. Sarkisian, it is. She can’t act. She won Best Actress at Cannes because I shot her very well.”
“I didn’t like her. She was always looking like someone was cheating her. I came to the set one day; I said, ‘You depress me, you’re always so down and acting like somebody’s stealing from you or something.’ But finally, after about seven weeks of this, we started getting to like each other… And we did end up liking each other and then when I sued the studio, she sided with the studio, of course. That was that.”
After being involved with much older men like Sonny Bono, Cher was to go to the other extreme, and started dating much younger men. In the late 1980s she dated a bagel baker 18 years her junior named Rob Camilletti who the media renamed The Bagel Boy, as well as briefly in 1982 seeing New York Rangers playboy Ron Duguay, eleven years her junior. There were also younger movie stars like Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer.
She told People magazine that Kilmer, who was 14 years younger than her when she dated him in 1984, had four key qualities: “sensitive, artistic, humour and he is a great kisser. My rule of thumb, and it’s never failed me, is if a man’s a good kisser he’s a great f**k.” In the mid 1980s, 39-year-old Cher dated 23-year-old Tom Cruise for a short time; she rated him years later as among “the top five” of her greatest lovers. Still, in a 2008 interview on Oprah, Cher said Cruise “was shy. He said he felt like such a boob in school and nobody talked to him. We went on a date once for dinner in a New York restaurant, and the waitress was from his old school. He told me she never talked to him back in school, but now [that] he was recognised, he got all her attention.” Tom and Cher, she said, “could have been a great big romance because I was crazy for him.”
She was also smitten with rock star Richie Sambora in 1989. The Bon Jovi guitarist was 13 years younger. In the late 1970s, Cher had a relationship with notorious ladies man, Gene Simmons of Kiss. “One Christmas I asked [Cher] what I should buy her, and she said, ‘Call my friend Diana Ross. She will tell you exactly what I like, as she is my best friend.’” Simmons told Notebook magazine in 2015. “So I called Diana up, and we went shopping. Then our feelings for each other developed very fast, and we started a relationship together.”
It is hard, even impossible, to imagine that she is now 74. Her style is possibly her way of never ageing in a sense. Of ageing, Cher said last year, “I feel older than 40. Sometimes I feel really young and sometimes I feel I don’t know if I feel 72 ’cause I’m not quite sure what that is and my mom says, ‘If you don’t pay any attention to age, age won’t pay any attention to you. And I always go, ‘Mom, that’s bulls**t.'”
As for halting the ageing process, Cher has freely admitted to having cosmetic surgery on her breasts and nose, and once said: “If I want to put my tits on my back, it’s nobody’s business but my own.” She wasn’t joking.
Cher is not afraid to speak her mind. She has described Hillary Clinton as a woman with “a f**king backbone. If I was in a foxhole, I’d want her there”; Sarah Palin as “a dumb woman”; former American President Richard Nixon was “a big idiot” while the current President Donald Trump is “an ignorant thug”.
The original diva, camper than Liberace, a feminist and LGBTQ icon, Cher has long been a figure of female empowerment. Lest we forget on Believe she sang: “Cause I’ve had time to think it through, and maybe I’m too good for you”. In 1996, she said: “My mom said to me, ‘One day you should settle down and marry a rich man.’ I said, ‘Mom, I am a rich man.'” Last year she told the crowd at the Las Vegas Women’s March: “If you don’t take it, no one is going to give it to you.” She also said in relation in women’s ongoing fight for gender equality, in an interview with the Sydney Herald, “This has nothing to do with men, I love men, but until women get paid the same, have control over their bodies, a number of things thought of as equal, then you can’t stop.”
In 1995, Chastity, her daughter with the late Sonny Bono, came out as a lesbian, subsequently having gender reassignment before legally changing his name to Chaz Bono. Chaz has a brother, Elijah Blue Allman who is Cher’s son with Gregg Allman of the Allman Brothers Band. In 1973, she met Allman at one of his shows. “She smelled like I would imagine a mermaid would smell,” he wrote in his 2012 book, My Cross to Bear. In 1975, they married in Las Vegas. The fact that the marriage didn’t last long is related to Gregg’s penchant for heroin.
“You know, I loved him,” Cher said a few years ago, “but I didn’t really want Elijah around him alone. It’s hard finding a drug addict who is also going to be a father.”
This was hardly a revelation as Cher in a 1983 interview told this anti-drugs story: “When I was 14 years old I took two Benzedrine and was up for a whole weekend. I chewed the same piece of gum and when I came down, my mouth felt like someone had broken my jaw. I went to my mother and started to cry and I said, ‘Mother, I did this and I’m so unhappy. I feel so bad, am I going to die?’ She said, ‘I hope you’ve learned your lesson.'”
“And I swear to God I did,” she continued. “I wouldn’t take an upper. I’ve never had cocaine in my life and I would never do it because I’ve never seen anybody that I knew who had money who could do it that didn’t… And I never saw it do any good. It’s like a banana split. I never had a banana split and then all of a sudden I was older and when I’d tell people I hadn’t had one they’d say, ‘You’re kidding,’ and so now I love the idea that I’ve never done cocaine. If I haven’t done it I couldn’t possibly miss it and I don’t want to get involved. I mean there are other things that I can’t handle in my life; I don’t want to add something else.”
When Cher was 8 years of age she wanted to be famous – “and I had absolutely no idea of what I could do that would make me famous.” Intriguingly, Cher would later say that what she really wanted was “to be special, and that it’s not enough to be famous for me. Famous is empty so quickly, it’s not what people think it is. It’s wonderful yeah, but if you’re famous and you feel that you’re an artist inside and everyone thinks you’re just a celebrity, it’s really painful. I really want to be good.”
Most of us, with the possible exception of Donald Trump or Sarah Palin, would say that Cher has long since achieved that goal.
Cher plays Dublin’s 3Arena on November 1 and the SSE Arena, Belfast on November 3.