Love and Understanding: A Conversation with Cher
Cher is so low-key about being Cher that calling her is like calling your mom. “Hi,” she purrs with signature simplicity when I phone her presidential suite in late August. We are speaking matter-of-factly about gay things, political things, about going to Walgreens. This seems so very…normal?
Certainly, Cher is the most multi of multi-hyphenates—fiery human rights activist, Auto-Tune pioneer, a unicorn, the phoenix—but no, not at all normal. Not from down here, where we’ve basked in the long-reigning diva’s treasure trove of film and music and bedazzled Bob Mackie costumes, and admired her ability to get down, do a five-minute plank (seriously), and somehow get back up again. That motion is the time-tested signature of Cher’s enduring six-decade career. It’s where grit meets guts meets glitter.
She has three Golden Globes, a Best Actress Oscar (Moonstruck), a Grammy (“Believe”), and an Emmy (Cher: The Farewell Tour). And in December, she’ll be the recipient of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor for her indelible contributions to culture. But Cher’s superheroine, Hollywood-royalty sheen isn’t without genuine normal-person realness. In July, she did her gay icon due diligence by helicoptering onto the set of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again to play the role she’d been playing in front of the world, most discernibly to generations of baby-gays and grown-up gays: maternal pillar.
The night we spoke, Cher was laid-back, reflective, and full of hearty chuckles as she talked about that Walgreens detour, kissing Silkwood co-star Meryl Streep, the breadcrumbs of her legacy, and not only her long-standing influence on the LGBTQ community, but our influence on her.
Cher, it’s 2016, you’re at a Walgreens in Flint, Michigan, on Halloween. You were campaigning for Hillary and some shoppers told you they loved your Cher costume.
Yes! Oh my god! Wasn’t that, like, the weirdest experience at the Walgreens?!
Are you frequently mistaken for a Cher impersonator? Because, I mean, how often would the real Cher be at a Walgreens?
Right? And in Flint! Well, probably not often. Ha! But you know, the minute I start talking, they pretty much know it’s me.
When were you first aware that the LGBTQ community identified you as a gay icon?
I don’t think it was when I was with Sonny. I don’t know how that happens. I mean, how does it happen? I have no idea! It’s just like, we made a pact and we’re a group and that’s it.
But you were seeing more of the LGBTQ community come out at some point? There was a switch?
Yeah, there was a change, there was definitely a change. But I always had gay friends. I actually almost got arrested at a party with my best friend at school. He was gay but he couldn’t let anybody know, and he wanted me to go with him to a party and the party got raided. And we jumped out the bathroom window!
Do you recall the moment that galvanized you to stand up as an LGBTQ ally?
I really don’t know if there was a moment…. I just feel that, probably, there was a moment where guys thought I was just one of you. Gay men are very loyal. Look, I had a friend, (makeup artist) Kevyn Aucoin—he’s dead now—but he told me when he was young, he was growing up in some place in Louisiana, and he said how horrible it was to have to hide and be frightened. He said he loved listening to Cher records. I think that’s a dead giveaway! Haha! If you want to hide being gay, do not buy Cher records!
When in your life have you felt like the LGBTQ community was on your side when the rest of the world maybe was not?
Always. I remember when I was doing (the play) Come Back to the Five and Dime (in 1976) and we had standing room only before we got reviewed, and after we got reviewed nobody came except the community—the community, and little grey-haired old women who came to matinees. We managed to stay open until we could build back up the following. Also, the gay community, they just don’t leave you, they stay with you; that’s one thing that always keeps you going.
At the Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again premiere, you and Meryl Streep kissed on the lips. Was that meant to be the Silkwood reunion the internet wanted it to be?
Haha! No! We were just thinking it was stupid! It was so dumb! Meryl came behind me and I didn’t know it, and then we turned to each other, she looked up at me and she said, “You weren’t this tall yesterday!” And we laughed. And we just kissed! I have to tell you something: She is funny. She is wicked funny! And I don’t know that she gets to show that side all that often, but she’s wicked funny and she just will do anything for a lark. She’s got a really great serious side, but she’s got this really hysterical side too.
How do you hope your role as the mother of a trans son, Chaz Bono, has influenced other parents of LGBTQ kids?
Look, I didn’t go through it that easily. Both times. When I found out Chaz was gay, I didn’t go through that easily; when I found out Chaz was (transitioning).... there’s such a fear of losing the child you love, and what will replace that child? I think it’s about the fear, mostly. I felt, who will this new person be? Because I know who the person is now, but who will the new person be and how will it work and will I have lost somebody?
And then I thought of something else: I thought, my god, if I woke up tomorrow and I was a man, I would be gouging my eyes out. And so I know that if that’s what you feel then that must be so painful that it doesn’t make any difference what anyone else feels or what anyone else thinks. Chaz is so happy now and we get along better than ever.
There seems to be a fair amount of homophobes who you end up calling out.
Yeah. I mean, I don’t know what they are. There’s just so much phobia of everybody. You’ve gotta be the same color, you’ve gotta like the same things, you’ve gotta be the same religion. It’s like if you’re not one of them, you’re an enemy.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how we interpret an artist’s legacy, like after Aretha passed, and every time an icon passes on. Do you think about yours?
You know, I don’t really think about it. The only provision I’ve made is: I want all my friends and family to go to Paris and have a big party. Also, what’s really great is there’s music left behind and there’s film left behind, you know? I’m gonna leave a trail. I’ll leave breadcrumbs. ▼
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey, and Beyoncé. Reach him via his website at chris-azzopardi.com and on Twitter @chrisazzopardi.