Gathering around the small black and white television to watch the Sony and Cher show was a highlight of my early childhood. That long and beautifully manicured “Cher” hair was inspiration for my four sisters and I and we followed suit -including all of the painstaking maintenance that came with it. Those incredible costumes and that witty, condescending repartee with Sonny left a lasting imprint on our lives and those of millions of others. Cher rose above her trials with grace to become the ultimate combination of hippie, rockstar and Diva. Fast forward to the Moonstruck years and that outrageous Oscar dress, offset by her heart melting acceptance speech, “..I know that this doesn’t mean that I am somebody , but I’m on my way……”
Despite never having coined any particular brand or gimmick for herself, other than, herself, Cher has endured. It is her humanness that has drawn us in and kept us there. In our conversation she lovingly sings the praises of a Hell’s Angel and an Oscar winning friend in the same breath -never valuing one over the other. Cher is an underdog, a divorcee, a pioneer, a mother, an advocate, a patriot and a survivor. At 67, Cher is still “on her way” never resting on her laurels as one who has arrived, despite having several Emmys, Grammys, an Oscar, and being the only musical artist to have a number one song every decade for the past 6 decades.
Throughout grade school, high school, college, graduate school, marriages, births, deaths… Cher is somehow still there. Waiting in the wings and then emerging in glory just when we need her to re-awaken us to the triumph of the human spirit. The future for Cher is anyone’s guess, the only absolute is that she has the uncanny ability to come back over and over again to steal the show, and our hearts.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Your public persona of, ‘Love me or Hate me, I’m not going to change for anyone,’ is a statement that many people connect with—not only because it encourages us to be ourselves, it also counters the notion that somehow celebrity transcends imperfection. It also suggests that you will, in turn, love us for who we choose to be…Your love for others is something that stands out. From your bittersweet honesty about parenting to your unforgettably moving tribute to Sonny Bono, you exemplify unequivocal, unconditional love.
CHER: Well, I think you might be going a little bit too far because, well, I’m so far away from that…I’m working on it. I always tell my Rinpoche from Kathmandu that I am the worst Buddhist in the world and he always says, “Cher, you’re fabulous. You just have to keep working on it.” It’s a daily thing. It does come semi-naturally to me, this loving devotion, and yet I can be so mean…It amazes me that I have this double-edged sword—I can just cut people so bad… If you’ve seen me rant on Twitter…but I also really love people and I want to help them. I take on so many things just because I can’t, kind of, say no when something is in my face. I’m only halfway as a developing person. I’m only halfway. I don’t want to burst your bubble about me!
CHRISTINA LESSA: You couldn’t burst my bubble. You are describing a strong woman to me, an intelligent woman who puts forth her opinion, and that’s important. Opinions matter. They create a focus. The focus of FLATT’s work has been arts support. We are dedicated to combating the fact that arts education has been cut from our public schools, and support for art in general is almost nonexistent.
Young artists not only need the opportunity to explore their own creativity and develop their talents, they need to learn about their cultural heritage. We are in a crisis as far as public arts funding is concerned.
CHER: Ya think?! What happened there? We didn’t even feel it…We got screwed and we didn’t even know it. Well that’s amazing that you are doing this. That’s wonderful, because there is no money for doing that in our system and there are so many worthy things people aren’t even aware of…
You know, what people don’t realize is that you can do all the fundamentals in school, you can do all the fundamentals, but it’s art that makes you soar. Art gives you a way to express yourself that’s visceral and has no limitations, and not that English isn’t important, but art is equally important.
In school I was so dyslexic that if it hadn’t been for singing and art classes…My one teacher was an art teacher and we only spent time on making things. It was the only thing that kept me going, and my mother saying, “You’re so smart your dyslexia doesn’t make a difference.” But it was horrible. School was a horrible experience for me. If it hadn’t been for singing and putting on little plays for my mom… she laughed hysterically. She and I sang constantly together. My mother and I would sing. My grandfather would play guitar. My uncle would play guitar, and we just sang. That was just something that we did. But there was nothing about me that was special, except… my mother saw it. Things that really open you up and make you think you can fly. That’s what art is, I think – it’s flying.
CHRISTINA LESSA: You as an artist embody this incredible comfort zone. You’re a natural. You never look as though you’re trying, yet you’ve also been a groundbreaking innovator through six different generations of style, politics, and creative awareness. You gave female artists a path to follow and managed to stay on top of the political changes taking place, all the while acting as a champion for democratic policies…and you’re still doing it all – it’s timeless. What path do you think that you and other artists follow as a continuum throughout history?
CHER: Well, one thing that comes to mind immediately that is as relevant and as important as it always has been is that artists are the least prejudiced towards others. If you look at artists from the beginning of time, they were the most inclusive. You’ll see that they had the least amount of rules to follow. They welcomed people faster than others. Frankie and Sammy, and myself, we only cared if you were a good artist – we didn’t care about those other things that aren’t important. I always think about how wonderful it is that we are in the forefront of accepting people and new ideas; we promote the future and always have. So I think the artist’s role now as always is to show people another way to live because no one else is doing that with the same kind of freedom. No one else. Artists are so dedicated because they’re so driven to find the alternate route, to push the boundaries of what’s possible. This is how we evolve as a society.
CHRISTINA LESSA: So now you’re a parent to two artists. I’ve read that your son Elijah is a visual artist and has other creative work, and that Chaz is performing…
CHER: I was surprised by that, actually. I did not expect for that to come out of Chaz. I was amazed because I’m a mother, but I don’t give my children things that they don’t deserve. If you’re a bad artist, you’re a bad artist no matter whose child you are, and I was surprised because Chaz did the speech that Bill Pullman did from Independence Day and it was amazing amazing amazing. I couldn’t have done it as good because I can’t remember long things, but it was genius…Elijah is a great artist and a great producer.
CHRISTINA LESSA: You left home at sixteen to make it on your own, with your mother’s blessing. She told you that you didn’t need to make a lot of money to be a success. You could be an artist, a success in your own right, without measuring it by a bank balance. What are your thoughts about finding your own happiness in life and your ideas about success?
CHER: I think that my children are very talented, which makes me happy…it makes me really happy. I just wanted them to grow up and have a happy life, but I’m happy that they’re good at what they do…it makes me really excited. I have to tell you something, and this is so superficial I almost can’t say it, but I’ve been with men who have been artists, and if they’re not good, I have to rethink it…and it’s not that I WON’T go out with them, but if you’re an artist, you have to have some legitimate talent or it’s hard for me. It’s an awful thing to say…
CHRISTINA LESSA: Well, I understand completely. There is such a thing as a true visionary and those are the people that can’t help it. They have to wake up every day and create something. There is a discerning line. It’s not an issue of snobbery, it’s a real thing. Absolutely, I totally get it.
CHER: I mean, I’m not the least bit of a snob. My most favorite man that I’ve ever been with was hauling flour to make bagels. I don’t care about that. When I see Val—he’s doing Mark Twain, he’s a really fine actor—I love to be taken away, transported, because if I’m not I will start to pick away at what’s going on. Years ago in the beginning of it, Robert and I went to go see the play Phantom of the Opera and I don’t think my mouth closed the entire time – I was out of my mind with it. Out of my mind. And when I went to see Mama Mia, which is a completely different thing, I was dancing in the aisles because it was so much fun.
CHRISTINA LESSA: There is such an expanse of genres now on Broadway – it’s very exciting. I know it’s been a while for you, but even when you have a lull you seem to come back bigger and better… would you do Broadway again?
CHER: When I was on Broadway I had such a great time. It was such an experience for me because I didn’t have to look at the audience and they could just look at me and appreciate what I was doing. I didn’t have to think how I was doing or stare into the audience, always looking for approval. It’s a harder thing I think to look at people when you have a solo show and think, “How am I doing?”…Also, when I was on stage I had all of these fabulous women that I could interact with like Kathy Bates and Sandy Dennis – all of these great women working together. I really loved it. It’s a freedom that you really don’t have anywhere else. You don’t have the burden of carrying the whole thing and the whole thing doesn’t just rest on whether or not they like you specifically or not. I would love to do it again.
CHRISTINA LESSA: In many ways you have become this outspoken symbol of creative freedom, which we all love so much. Your opinion is understated in most cases, but you also have such bold political courage. What’s at the forefront of your mind right now politically, socially?
CHER: Well, I just think so much is wrong that it’s like a flower growing out of cement. Hope is like a flower growing out of cement. That flower really wants to get there, it wants to so badly, it won’t stop trying, but things are so bad right now that it’s going to take a miracle – and there are some small ones around. I think that’s what happened with art. There’s no money and no opportunity. They don’t have art classes anymore or drama classes unless you find someone who’s really dedicated themselves to it. Chaz belongs to Thirty Minute Musicals and it’s just an incredible thing every time. These people are the most talented people, and they don’t have a penny, and yet you are enthralled the entire time. I love to go, and it makes me wonder when I go backstage. I think, ‘There are such talented people in the world and they aren’t on television…or somewhere.’ Where is the opportunity for the talented and dedicated? I think one thing I absolutely loathe, because I feel it’s ruining a place where actors can learn their craft and be great and be funny, grow and move on, is reality shows. They’re just shit. They’re just horrible horrible horrible and depressing, and it also paints the worst picture for kids growing up because they think that that’s somehow reality. I am shocked at it, truthfully. I tried to watch a couple of them, and the only one I can sometimes watch is Long Island Medium. They are so Italian on that show and it reminds me of Sonny’s family and every Italian family that I know. It revolves around the kitchen, even though she doesn’t cook, and she’s brilliant, and real, and amazing. I love her so much. She’s so funny. I came across a few other shows though and I just don’t understand the attraction. I was just talking to ‘Lijah the other night on our way to the movies and he mentioned a few shows that he had seen, and I said, “Elijah, how can you watch this garbage?” And he said, “Mom, its funny”…and this and that, but for me, paparazzi and reality shows are in the same category.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Long Island Medium sounds really funny…being Italian I’ll have to tune in. I was actually pleased that Obama came out and made somewhat of a deprecating statement about reality shows. He was saying integrity and good character can’t take a backseat to…
CHER: …materialism! It’s what we pride over almost anything else these days. We MUST move away from that as a society. I remember in grade school we had this janitor, I can’t remember his name, and we called him “Mr.” And we had great respect for him and he didn’t make any money. He was a janitor. But he was a great janitor.
I was once in the Roxy and I saw the most amazing busboy I have ever seen… but people don’t value anything now but success and money, and money goes with success, but it’s more about the money now. I have nothing against money – I’m a Taurus. I’m certainly materialistic, but that’s not my first priority. As far as Obama, I think it’s horrible when you can’t get anything passed – he can’t get anything done because there’s no cooperation. These Tea Party people…I’m not sure even how much Hillary could have gotten done – I love her, I would have voted for her – but I honestly think that these people are going to be the end of us. Especially for women. I’ve never seen anything like it. I never thought we’d go backwards to Roe Vs. Wade again.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Isn’t it insane that it’s still on the table? It’s unfathomable.
CHER: Still on the table? I mean thirty states, almost every clinic, even a health clinic, not just abortion clinics, where women are getting other services….these people are fanatics. I have no love for them.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Do you think that there is some positivity in there with younger politicians taking hold…that people can come to an equal balance somehow…? We are seeing barriers being broken more and more, yet walls are rising at the same time…
CHER: I don’t think equal, but I think…I think that there are great people trying to break through…that’s one thing, but, I don’t know, other people are so powerful (politicians). We were talking about moderates and liberals, and I think that the reason that many times fanatic people will win is because they’re fanatics, and moderates and liberals just go: “I don’t agree with you, but you have your right to have an opinion.” And then they move on. Liberals don’t have drive to force other people to bend to their opinions and their morals and their values… fanatics do…and that’s why they even exist in high places. They are controlling and determined. We must pay attention to that.
CHRISTINA LESSA: I read somewhere that you were at Jimmy Carter’s first White House dinner, is that true?
CHRISTINA LESSA: That’s amazing.
CHER: I actually took a felon there. My friend was a felon, I didn’t know it…and the funny thing was that that night I found out that Jimmy’s nanny was also a felon. It was incredible, and he is incredible…I don’t care what anyone thinks about his presidency. He would say, “I want to do the peoples work.”…And of course that didn’t work because politics is a game that puts the people second. But that evening was unforgettable.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Do you still keep in touch with the Carters?
CHER: I actually haven’t been in touch with them in forever. I could pick up the telephone and talk to them, I’m sure…we had so much fun. We had fried chicken and great simple food, and I was thinking, ‘Well if this is the evening, if this is what we have to do, it will be easy peasy.’ We didn’t eat in the main dining room. We ate in some other room, and his Mom was there and she was hysterical. We ended up sitting on the bed in the Lincoln bedroom chatting. It was great, and he’s a fabulous man. I don’t care what people say about him – the reason he couldn’t be a good president is because he’s too honest. He talked about what he wanted to do for the people, but you can’t do that because politicians don’t want to talk about what’s good for the people. They want to do things for the rich people and they want to get donations; they just want to get money. That’s what they want. They’re running for office constantly.
The best politician I know is Joe Biden – I love him. I had a meeting with him years ago and he told me something that you just shouldn’t tell a stranger, and I didn’t ever tell anybody, but it was such a human thing and it was so honest and I loved him from the meeting and I don’t care about which foot he puts in his mouth. I don’t care what he does and how he does it because he’s really a good person.
He told me things, and I was thinking,
“Stop! Don’t tell me this! You have no idea that I won’t tell people this.” But somehow we established a trust, and he said, “I don’t do this with everybody.” Afterwards, I sent him a photograph and he sent me back a note, so that was wonderful.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Living with your personal life as a public mirror is a monumental challenge, yet you have demonstrated throughout your career that you can build a path of integrity…You could have easily broken down under the pressure and become egomaniacal or drawn into chemical addictions, but you didn’t. You stuck to your guns despite ridicule. Many younger artists in their pursuit of success have held you up as a role model for maintaining their honest voice and self respect in the face of adversity…What would you say to them?
CHER: Oh, it’s very difficult because, first of all, they say it’s easier to put a camel through…I don’t remember… but…I think that it’s easier to put an artist through an eye of a needle than have them be successful. It’s so difficult, and I really think shows like, “The Voice”, are good because they give artists a chance to be seen. Before, when I was younger, there were venues where you could do what it was that you do and have some sort of a chance to be seen, and so this is a new chance to be seen. I think it’s so much more difficult and record companies don’t have any money…they used to take chances on artists and that’s what they did they gave artists time to develop, and if they didn’t, they dropped them. The people in the music business were people in the music business, not lawyers that rose to the top who have no idea what music is. I think that it’s more difficult, but I also think this: if that’s what you want to be, no one can talk you out of it. No one could talk me out of who I wanted to be – well, at first I wanted to be Dumbo – but that soon passed. Then I wanted to be Cinderella, but my mother explained to me that you couldn’t do that.
Then I wanted to be famous, and then I wanted to be a singer. And then she pointed at me and said, “You can achieve this.” That was the thing about Sonny: he was older, he had a family, and he was a smart man. His age was a bother at first to my mother…you know all the things that mothers tell you…but then she was really supportive of us. I wasn’t going to be flighty or busting up any hotel rooms with Sonny around. I had talent, but he had vision, and we just happened to fit at the right time –we didn’t last that long – and then we had to make our comeback.
But I marvel at how difficult it is to get your art seen, and yet people do, and all I can say is that if that’s what you want to be then you’re gonna do it until you realize you can’t…I didn’t want to be anything else. It was my dream. I have a saying: “If not now, when? Now is the only time to live your dream.” I might have borrowed this first part from something, but I’m taking the second part…that’s mine.
My friend is a mountain climber. He had already climbed Everest and he had this job, and it was even something he kind of liked, but he wanted to climb the other mountains, and I said, “Dude, go for it because now is the time.” And now he takes veterans who were wounded up mountains – he just took someone up Kilimanjaro. We started the
“Heroes” project together, and then he took it over, so he’s having the best time. He’s happy and he does so much good for people. He was part of Hell’s Angels and got thrown out for noncompliance – he kills me. He just won’t follow the rules. (laughs) He’s so amazing, but to be thrown out of the Hell’s Angels because you couldn’t follow the rules is just perfect. He does such wonderful work with these boys and he’s so compelled. Nothing is going to stop him now, and it took me writing him this note and saying, “Just do it.” If you really want something, you can figure out how to make it happen.
CHRISTINA LESSA: It’s really important to mentor in that way, to share your voice to guide others…Do you have any favorite intellectual / creative voices right now?
CHER: I don’t know if this falls under that category, but there is this woman who is the head of a Monastery, Pema Chödrön, and I feel that her insight and the way that she expresses herself is so amazing and so smart and really intellectual. She teaches the idea that by working on ourselves we help others, but that by helping others we are also working on ourselves…finding peace through the courage to be honest and present…She really appeals to me in a way that is so significant.
on Stewart is amazing. I think that Rachel Maddow is amazing and is a true voice to what the culture should be, and she’s totally interested…I think that I’m pretty much a political animal, and these people are really intelligent and it’s not just the news they give you…they give you many things that are of human interest and truly important. I had to stop watching the news for awhile because it was kind of poisoning me. I got so upset about the Trayvon Martin case…it really was just upsetting and it really made me sick. I think that even though I like to know what’s going on, it’s very negative. But I am opinionated. I believe in the power of free speech. Words can heal and words can wound.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Our mission at FLATT is philanthropy-based. We want to turn the spotlight on giving, whether through finance or action, so that people will be inspired to give and discuss it openly…Your philanthropic life is very humble…would you tell me more about that?
CHER: You know, I really don’t love talking about it. I’ve done a lot…I have done and do a lot. I have spoken about some things – I spoke about buying helmet nserts for the troops and I’m proud of that, and another thing my sister brought up…if you have a concussive moment and you’re too near to an explosion, instead of having your helmet protect you, your head is like a hammer in a bell – it just bangs it to death. So, if you have a helmet insert – one is like $99.00, and the other one is like $100.00, or something – it keeps it tight and your helmet doesn’t do that. I mean, we went to testify in front of congress and I was shocked because one of the congressmen said to a general, “If we gave you 2 million dollars right now, would you take it and buy inserts?” And he said “No.” He said, “We’re conducting our own investigation.” And we said, “We’ll give you our data.” And he said “No, we want to conduct our own.” I almost jumped up and choked him to death.
And there was one man…he came there as an advocate for the soldiers, and he told a soldier to drop to the floor like he would in an emergency, and his helmet fell right over his face. I just thought, this is insane and these men are crazy, and I can’t even come up with the words. There was this one time when we were packing Christmas packages because soldiers have to pay for things like toothpaste, shaving gear, wipes, socks – things that you would not believe that the government would not simply provide! And also, if you got killed, you had to pay to bring your belongings back! It’s mind-boggling.
CHRISTINA LESSA: I love that you do this because I really feel that it’s such a forgotten component. Veterans tend to be forgotten by liberals or abandoned as having made a poor lifestyle choice rather than recognized as heroes who protect our liberties…And also the liberals that should be talking about it are almost embarrassed by it…it feels like they shelve it …
CHER: Well, Americans don’t like wars we don’t win and they shelve it because they aren’t doing anything to help. You have to be embarrassed because we aren’t doing anything. These people, these kids, they come home and some people don’t live near things that are important for their health. I had to do a public service announcement to beg soldiers not to commit suicide, saying, “Your parents, your wife, your family needs you – please call. There will be a Vet on the other side who knows what you’re talking about, and you’ve gone so far, you’ve been through so much, you have to give yourself a chance.” Sometimes you just can’t come back. They saw so many tours of duty…never have so many people been given that many tours of duty. They saw horrible, horrible things. The weapons were stronger and people were kept alive that could have never been kept alive before, with injuries that are unspeakable to live with. When I went over, I had to do a special thing because the doctors, they were so depressed, they never saw anyone get well they just patched them up and sent them back to America. I only saw one boy get well and he had gotten an infection. They couldn’t do anything, so they sent him to the German hospital because they had a new treatment, and this boy got well and it was like a parade! They were so excited! They couldn’t believe that someone was leaving there well!
I have a million patches from all the places I’ve gone. So many soldiers and generals give me their patches and I have them and I love them.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Have you had any favorites in the history of your work? Any particular projects that you’ve worked on that you liked more than others?
CHER: Well, I think that Moonstruck was the most fun film for me ever because it didn’t feel like work. Also, at the end, no one knew that it was going to be anything because it was a little movie about nothing. It cost 7 million dollars and MGM said it had no audience…but it was so lovely and the people were so lovely…it was unlike anything I’ve ever done. It wasn’t an easy film to do, but I loved the people I was working with and that made it really a joy. I have particular songs that I’ve loved but haven’t been hits…like I have a song called, “Song For the Lonely,” and I adore it, and I have another song that is, “Heart of Stone,” which I love. I had an album called Not Commercial, and I had it called that because it wasn’t. I really still enjoy singing, “Believe,” but I’m not a huge Cher fan so it’s hard to think of things that I love. I really am fond of “Woman’s World.” I like what it says. When women are having a lot of their power and rights taken away, I like what that has to say. Women are the real architects of society. Women have to harness their power – it’s absolutely true. It’s just learning not to take the first ‘no.’ And if you can’t go straight ahead, you go around the corner.
CHRISTINA LESSA: I interviewed Cyndi Lauper in the last FLATT issue. She is another archetypal female artist, now a Tony winner, and a big fan of yours…
CHER: She opened for me for a long time and we had such a good time! I love her! There is nobody like her, and her voice is beautiful.
CHRISTINA LESSA: So Cyndi was talking about being denied Rock and Roll Hall of Fame status…after I read your Vanity Fair piece I was shocked to learn that despite being the epitome of rebellion and setting the female rock star standard for appearances and attitude for so many that you had been snubbed as well!
CHER: No. Neither one of us (Sonny) are there. We were weird hippies before there was a name for it, when the Beatles were wearing sweet little haircuts and round-collared suits…We influenced a generation, and it’s like: “What more do you want?” I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t need to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – I don’t care anymore. I think it’s so insulting to Sonny, and Sonny and Cher, and they have people who didn’t make as much of an impact as we did, and that’s sad. Just because they didn’t like what we were doing doesn’t mean anything truthfully. We were in the business, we were a big influence, and we started something new, and they’re snobs and fuck ‘em. (laughs)
CHRISTINA LESSA: What’s your opinion now on the artist’s current role in society?
CHER: (sighs) I think it’s been so diminished by the fact that you have to fight hard to be seen. Oh my god, I saw this boy the other day; he was doing a kind of rap-poem on an iPhone, iPad, i-everything, and it was so amazing. It was art in the truest sense of the word. I was so affected. It was the epitome of art. And it was also the change, you know, how art manifests and keeps changing, and you have to see it and like it and understand how art makes changes with society, as its reflection, and also how to appreciate other types of art. It’s about acceptance…My friend Gianni Versace had all these paintings in the house in New York and it took me a long time to really embrace them in an honest way because it wasn’t what my eye thought I liked. But after awhile I started to have a feeling for it, ya know. I think sometimes, I think for older artists especially, you stop really seeing at a specific point in time, and then you don’t see with fresh eyes…and you have to work on that – I have to work on that…because it’s so much safer to go where you’ve been, and know what you know, and feel safe with what you know and like. Having that openness, that willingness to live in the present is so so important. That poet boy and his iPad…that was just so amazing. We just stopped in our tracks. Ah, that’s the beauty in life, isn’t it? Art is the thing that makes life worth living, plus it is something that doesn’t have to go to your brain; it goes right to your insides. You don’t think art…You hear a song… It’s either I love that or I don’t like that. You see a painting and it doesn’t go to your brain, it goes somewhere else. It bypasses the brain and hits this place that is the honest place, and I’m not sure where that is, but I know that…it’s real.