"Can we do it in bed?" Cher asks, smiling slyly as she emerges from a knot of corridors in her sprawling hotel suite in midtown Manhattan at about 9pm on a sultry August night. Who would say no?
“I’m freezing in here!” she says. The rooms are meat-locker cold. So I trail her back to the much warmer bedroom, where she reclines on a king-size bed in all her Cherness: a trim black sweatshirt and jeans set off by the biggest, most sparkling belt ever worn outside a prizefighting ring. Waves of dark hair spill around her shoulders; a printed bandanna is tied over the crown of her head. Her feet are bare.
She has spent the last several hours in a recording studio, putting the final touches to Dancing Queen, her new album of Abba covers, which will be released on September 28th. It was inspired by her return to the big screen in the movie musical Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again this summer, and precedes the debut of The Cher Show, the Broadway musical about her life, which begins on November 1st.
Suddenly, a wave of uncertainty crashes over me: am I supposed to get on the bed, too?
"Where's your drink?" she asks, as I worry. Cher, who is 72, has ordered us frozen hot chocolates from Serendipity 3 – "the most magical place in New York," she says. ("I wish I'd bought it when it was for sale.") I pick up my cup from the bedside table. "Good. Sit there," she says, pointing to the chair beside the bed.
For the next 90 minutes she talks about the sweep of her life and multihyphenate career. From variety-show TV star to pop diva. From flamboyant concert headliner to Oscar-winning actor. And, now, activist and legend: her Twitter feed, with almost 3.5 million followers, is often politically bracing. She will be awarded a Kennedy Center Honor in Washington, DC, on December 2nd, the night before The Cher Show, which she is coproducing, officially opens on Broadway. And, in a reflective mood, Cher offers a clear-eyed assessment of how her ultrasplashy public persona has coexisted with her naturally quiet self for more than 50 years. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
When you left home, at 16, was it to become a singer or actor, or did you just not want to be at home any more?
I didn't want to be bossed any more. Little did I know I was going to get bossed a lot more. But that's the way Sonny [Bono, her ex-husband] was. He was a Sicilian man of his generation.
It's weird to hear you say that. You were such a boss on 'The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour'.
Well, I really was confident before I met Sonny. I was this teenage ball of fire with unbelievable energy but no focus. And Sonny was all focus. He was, like, "Okay, you're going to go this way; you're going to go that way." And I was thrilled, because I had no way. I was just bouncing off walls.
But singing wasn't the goal?
No, that's not what I started out to do. But I'd always sung. My mother, my uncle, my grandfather – there was always singing and guitars. My favourite thing in the world is to rehearse. I can pick any song and just stand there and sing it. No one in the audience to judge me. And I love the way singing feels in my body – because it's so big, and I'm not. But the music comes out in the biggest way.
So, if you could do anything in the world, it would still be singing?
I was talking to Barbra Streisand one day, and she asked, "Why do you still sing?" And I said, "Because there's going to come a day when I can't." No one will want to come and see me, and I won't be able to sing the way I'm singing now. I have unbelievable pipes! My doctor says I'm a freak. But if I couldn't sing, I'd be miserable.
And all the other things you do – the acting, the concert spectaculars, the tweeting – those are lesser...
I don't account for things that way. I just do them. I've never planned a single thing in my entire life. It's like this Abba album. I did the film. I didn't ask to do it. My friend Ronnie Meyer called and said, "You're doing Mamma Mia," and hung up.
But you didn't say no.
Ronnie used to be my agent. He ran Universal, and he's my dear friend. So when he hung up I thought, Damn! Then I thought, Well, it's going to take five minutes, and no one will even know I'm there."
I hate to tell you, but you stole that movie.
I haven't seen it. But can I tell you, I don't remember doing anything memorable, except singing Fernando. Afterward, when Jen [her assistant] and I were packing to go home, I said, "You know what might be fun?" This is how I get myself into all kinds of trouble. "It might be fun to do an Abba album." The songs are easy to sing, but they're complicated, too. Some of them are hard as hell, which is why I was in the studio again tonight.
Had you ever considered an album of covers before?
Never. But everyone loved the idea when I suggested it – like I'd been planning it for a million years. "You're a genius!" But I just thought it might be fun.
How are your versions of the songs different from the originals?
I wasn't a big fan of Abba in the 1970s. Benny [Andersson] took the girls and used them like instruments. Sonny used to do that to me. He would carve out a place for them in the songs, and they would fit in that little place. But he didn't give them space to sing the way they might have wanted to.
And your versions?
Mine are a lot freer. And it was a great time to do it. I'm a news junkie, and these are rough times. But when I was recording I got swept up in the fun of it. The songs are silly and crazy, and for the album I chose the ones that are saddest and the most fun.
When did you start feeling confident as a singer?
I never feel confident. Off and on, I've felt good about my singing. But I've never been a huge Cher fan. I like doing it more than hearing it. So except for a couple of albums...
What's your favourite?
It's probably between Believe and a highly underrated album called Closer to the Truth. There's not a bad cut on either one of them. I've made millions of albums, and most of them are absolutely no good. But some of them aren't bad.
Let's talk about acting. When your TV variety show went away, and your pop career stalled for a minute, you moved effortlessly, it seemed, to acting. You said you didn't set out to sing. Did you set out to act?
I set out to be famous! I set out to be Cinderella. I saw two movies when I was a kid: Dumbo and Cinderella. And on the way home I started singing the songs in the car. My mother punched my dad and said: "Listen! She's singing songs from the movie." I'd never heard them before. I didn't understand the reality. I just knew I wanted to be on that screen.
Was it hard to get into rooms with directors like Robert Altman and Mike Nichols?
I knew all these famous people, but none of them would give me the time of day. I went to Mike Nichols one day for a part in a movie called The Fortune, and he said: "No. You're wrong." I just looked at him and said: "You know what? I'm very talented, and one day you're going to be sorry." I have no idea why I said that.
And when I was doing 5 & Dime [Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean] on Broadway, Mike came to see me backstage, and he said: "You're very talented. And I'm sorry." Then he asked if I wanted to do a film with him and Meryl Streep. I said sure. I was actually more interested in something else that day, but I thought, This could be fun.
Did you like the script?
When we started filming Silkwood I had no part whatsoever. It was tiny. And then Mike would say, "Cher, I want you in this scene." Or: "Cher, I want you to say that." I had no idea I was even working – or acting. "Sit on the couch and eat popcorn, and when the kids come in, say this." That's what it was like. I just knew that everyone was my friend, and Mike was like my dad. I even called him Dad. It was like playing.
For many people, acting is extremely hard work.
It didn't feel that way to me. Also, I didn't have to look at an audience. My whole life I had to look out at the audience and go: "How am I doing? Do you like this?" But when you act you only have to look at the other actors. You just have to trust them and find a way to become this other thing.
Were the people in your life surprised you were good at it?
When Silkwood came out Mike called and told me that the trailer was playing at this theatre in Westwood [in Los Angeles]. He said: "You've got to see it. It's great." So I went. They showed scenes from the movie, but I didn't really look like Cher. And the announcer said, "Starring Meryl Streep." Lots of applause. "And Kurt Russell". More applause. "And Cher." And everyone in the theatre started laughing. I was really hurt, but I kept thinking, No, this is their honest reaction. So I called Mike and said, "Dad, they all laughed." And he said, "They might be laughing before the movie, but they won't be laughing after the movie."
In fairness, the big feat of your acting career is that you're able to submerge your gigantic public persona into these human-size roles.
Listen, people have all kinds of ideas about me. There's the sparkly me and the quiet me. But the quiet me comes more naturally. If I could do Silkwood for the rest of my life I'd be very happy.
You made a spate of good films: 'Mask,' 'The Witches of Eastwick', 'Moonstruck' – your Oscar. But then they stopped. Did you start saying no, or did the offers dry up?
No, I got really sick [with the Epstein-Barr virus]. For two years I couldn't work. It was terrible. I ended the second year with pneumonia. All these movie offers were coming in, but I had to turn them all down. I was really, really upset about it. And when I came back I had to work my way back up from the beginning, doing concerts and stuff like that.
Was there ever a partner in your life – Sonny, Gregg Allman, David Geffen – or a good friend who was a great adviser to you? Or have you always relied on your own instincts?
Before I met Sonny I was very much a person who relied on her own instincts. But I was very young and just handed that over to Sonny. Then, when I left him, I was real happy. But I started to make huge mistakes in front of everyone, because I was still 16 inside. I hadn't grown.
What kind of mistakes?
Like marrying Gregory [Allman] and getting divorced so fast. But I had to make my mistakes in front of everyone.
Because you were so famous?
Yeah. And then I went to Las Vegas, and people thought I was an idiot because I had this big show with all these costumes. I was so bored. The last thing I wanted to do was just stand there and sing. And then I wanted to be an actress. I remember Francis [Ford Coppola] came backstage after a show. He looked at me and said, "Why aren't you doing movies?" I just broke down sobbing. And that's how I got myself, in a roundabout way, hooked up with Robert Altman and 5 & Dime in New York.
Let's talk about 'The Cher Show', the Broadway musical of your life that features a host of your hits. The premise is three versions of you – teenage Cher, pop-star Cher and mature Cher – all interacting with one another. Was that your idea?
No, that was the idea Rick Elice [the show's book writer] always had. It was what kept me coming back to him. It took years and years to develop this show. But I think it's a great idea, because I've lived for so long that I really have been distinct personalities.
Right now which version jumps out at you?
The young girl, [called] Babe [played by Micaela Diamond], is so brilliant. She just graduated from high school, and it was either go to college or come do this show. She took a big gamble. And she's so much like me when I was young that she doesn't even have to do anything. But they're all working to find me at different points in my life. That's the great hook.
Your life has been so public. Did you want to use the musical to correct the story of your life or add to it?
We go back and forth on this a lot. You have to know something more about me after the musical. That's important to me. Listen, I didn't have a play about myself before, and I was living very happily. So I want it to be true and fun and like life is: Sometimes you're great, and sometimes you're pathetic. Sometimes you're tired, and sometimes you break down. It should be like that. And nothing should be glossed over.
Can you feel tender toward young Cher now? The mistakes she made?
I try not to think about her much. Everybody has good things happen and bad things happen, and long stretches where nothing happens at all.
How about in reverse? Would young Cher look at you on that bed and say: Well done!
Of course! But look at where she is. She's young; she knows nothing. She only wants to be this. [Cher points at herself.]
But you've always been more than "this" – feather headdresses notwithstanding.
Well, every time I go out and talk to an audience, I try to put that across. "Here's the glitz, and here's who I really am."
You'll be receiving a Kennedy Center Honor this year. Has it annoyed you not to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?
It used to annoy me. But I know it's just a boys' club, and they don't think I'm cool enough. But that's okay. My life is humming along without it. It's humming along even without the Kennedy Center Honor. I was just terrified that Trump would be there.
Do you worry about alienating Donald Trump supporters with your freewheeling, often political Twitter feed?
Trump voters don't like me anyway. And I don't blame them. I say terrible, true things about him. I hate him because he's using his job to make money. But, mostly, I hate him because he's tearing this country down, and it's going to take generations to put it back together, if we even can.
I guess if you held back you wouldn't be Cher.
That's true. I've gotten death threats from his supporters – with pictures of me in the gas chambers. People writing, "The wrong Bono went skiing that day." [Sonny Bono died in a skiing accident.] But I can't hold back. It's about character. My mom would beat me to death if I lied. I'm not starting now. – New York Times