Interview by Benjamin Svetkey
In the spring of 1999, Benjamin interviewed Cher in the bedroom of her home in Malibu. “She had a leopard skin bedspread,” he recalls. Cher drank hot chocolate during the lengthy interview. Svetkey’s profile of Cher ran in Entertainment Weekly.
The Animated Transcript
Benjamin Svetkey is a longtime magazine writer and the author of the novel, Leading Man. He is currently an editor for The Hollywood Reporter.
When did you become “Cher”-Cher? Are you legally “Cher,” one word? You sign your checks “Cher” and stuff like that?
Oh, yeah. I’ve been “Cher” for a long time. Yeah, all my papers, my passport, my driver’s license. I never really felt my maiden name. I never really felt any last name ever in my life. I was always just “Cher,” so I just went and petitioned the court. What you have to prove is that you are absolutely recognizable to everyone by that one name.
I want to ask you a little bit about diva concert here. First of all are you comfortable with the phrase diva as applied to you? You think it’s right?
I don’t think it’s anything. I think it’s something that is a commercial word that people…
The old meaning has sort of connotations of temperamental and difficult and egotistical and stuff like that.
Well one out of three.
Which one is wrong?
The first two.
Okay. So egotistical?
Absolutely because I spend so much time having to think about myself and so I’m really self-centered which doesn’t make me completely oblivious to things that are happening around me. It just makes me more conscious of myself than is healthy and that I would like to be. That’s just the way it is.
I don’t read music, I just hear it, but I’m better with lyrics and I have kind of a photographic memory because of it. I can read something and pretty much get the feeling of it the first time. It just takes me a little bit longer. I’m pretty intelligent but I’m really dyslexic and so school was almost an impossibility for me.
You have such a icon status in the public mind. People don’t think of Cher as a mom, generally. What kind of mom are you, were you?
A working mom at best is not very good. I love my kids, but I could’ve been a lot better mom. I think I was kind of strict and dragged them with me and had great times and bad times. I’m a cookie-decorating mom. I don’t bake them. I decorate them. It’s not necessary to smash your children’s personalities. They’re respectful, they know what’s right and wrong. How they live after that is their choice, and I don’t have a lot of vested interest in making them kowtow to some strange whims that I have.
You’re very popular apparently in gay circles, and, I guess, I don’t know if there’s a camp element to it or not.
I don’t believe it is. I think that my gay following is really respectful and if it verges into being camp, camp is a very specifically gay thing. That doesn’t bother me at all, because I know that my gay fans or followers really care about me, really love me, have loved me through thick and thin, and a lot of times have loved me more through thin because that’s the way gay men are. They understand not being part of the whole.
It’s a strange thing with your career. It sort of goes all over the place. One minute you’re incredibly cool, then you’re not so cool and then you’re not so cool that you’re cool again. Do you just ride this wave?
I don’t know how to do it. I just ride it.
Does it get to you?
Yeah. It’s fun when it’s happening and yet it’s not that I don’t take it seriously, it’s just that I know what it is. It doesn’t mean because it’s happening now that it’s going to happen forever. It doesn’t mean that it’s not either, so I don’t predict this kind of shit you know. I could walk out of here tomorrow and get hit by a truck. It’s just been my life, it’s always been my life. I don’t know that this life makes me happy but it’s the life that I love.
Can you imagine what’s the alternate universe would have been if you had not gone this way, if you had not met Sonny in that coffee shop and not become famous. What would that reality be like for you?
Yeah I know but you know what we were walking towards that coffee shop since the day we were both born.
Do you believe in destiny?
Yeah, I believe in everything.
Would you have been happy if you had not been famous?
Introducing Cherilyn Sarkisian
Cher was born Cherilyn Sarkisian in southern California in 1946. She performed as a solo artist under the names “Bonnie Jo Mason” and “Cherilyn,” then as part of the duo “Caesar and Cleo” with Sonny Bono. They twosome finally settled on the name “Sonny and Cher,” and the rest is history…
A teenaged Cher was picked up for stealing a car when she was thirteen. Here’s Cher’s mom Georgia Holt on her daughter’s youthful exploits:
Breaking Up with Sonny
“We had the just strangest relationship…He had me in court trying to prove I was an unfit mother, and on the day he lost the case because it was really ridiculous, we walked out and he grabbed me and kissed me on the lips, and I was really angry with him, you know?”
“We were so much like kids. You know how kids just don’t … kids are not like adults, they can let things go. I was really angry, and then he kissed me on the lips really hard, I think there’s actually a picture of it some place, and then we ended up being hysterical laughing. We’d spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, but it was like a joke, it was always like a game with us. It was always like a game.”
“He was crushed because he wasn’t going to be Sonny of Sonny and Cher anymore. That’s what hurt him. That’s what really hurt him, and that was sad because he loved it more than I did, really, but he wouldn’t give me my freedom.”
I’d like to say sorry to… my children because they had a mother who was totally engrossed in her career, plus they had people talking about them, trying to take their pictures and invading their space. It was a difficult life.
– Cher in a 2013 interview with The Express
Cher has two children: eldest Chaz (born Chastity) Bono, whom she shared with first husband Sonny, and Elijah Blue, her son with second husband Gregg Allman.
On her tumultuous relationship with Chaz over the years:
“That was an emotional thing that I felt so responsible in some way. I felt that I had done such a bad job that that was the reason she was gay, so it was more about me than it was about her.”
“He and I are an awful lot alike. Actually, all three of us are a lot alike…He’s real smart and real talented and a very strange person, marches to his own drummer, so much more than any person I’ve ever met in my life. Maybe like Sonny, maybe Sonny might be the only other person that I would know that would have had his own vision and not cared so much what other people thought.”
Cher on Film
“I loved Mask, that is my favorite film, and, you know, he [director Peter Bogdanovich] made it difficult. I was so frightened and I really could have used his help and the truth was I thought all directors were going to be like Mike Nichols and Robert Altman, so I was really surprised that he wasn’t friendly, and he wasn’t helpful.”
“It was just so fabulous. Meryl was unbelievable and Kurt, he was … It was kind of like being in the womb. I didn’t know anything about making movies really. I was in this kind of warm water place where no matter what I did everybody thought it was great, and my part was so teeny they just kept adding things and I never actually felt like I was working.”
“It was a movie really so close to my own life and my mother. My character I based completely on my mother, so it was really fun.”
Witches of Eastwick (1987)
“I loved working with the girls, and I loved working with Jack [Nicholson]. They kind of considered us furniture, the producers and the director. They didn’t care too much about us, but it was okay because we were having a great time.”
Divas, You Say?
For some real diva action, here’s Cher onstage with Tina Turner and Elton John in 1999.
“Candy Rain” Jan Jozef Cyrka, Toby Bricheno
“You Set Me Free” Vasco
“Diamond Eyes” Richard Myhill
“Purple Mist” Edward John Lawrie Blakeway
“Flower Power” Warren Bennett