19 minute read

The show runs against The Wonderful World of Disney in the 7:30 slot on Sunday night, and there is something wackily inspired about this amusing little coincidence that the CBS programmers have arranged. Just standing there on her runway, half-clad in one of the twelve to 15 costumes Cher Sarkesian Bono wears out every broadcast hour, she inspires more —and infinitely richer—fantasies than all the plastics of Disneyland. Indeed, it is barely possible that Cher in Cher may —with a little help from the many shrewd friends who so elaborately package her each week—redefine that grand old American cant phrase, “family entertainment.” For if her style is at odds with that of the competition, the fact remains that like everyone who aspires to success when all of America is still awake, she must offer a little something for every member of the family. What is different about Cher is that every member of the family may not feel like discussing the message he or she is getting from her with the rest of the household.

For Dad (and the older boys) she appears to be a sex sym: bol, impure and simple as her long, sinuous body—high fashion, but with some meat on her smoothly articulated bones —slithers into closeup, her navel twinkling as invitingly as her sequins. Then, however, a shy smile splits her deadpan. As she speaks a few words of earnest greeting in her curiously flat voice, Pop and the other males see they can afford to relax. Underneath all that finery and a ceramic of makeup there is a rather awkward, imperfectly beautiful girl. She appears no more daunting than the nice new kid in the secretarial pool or your home room when she finally talks to you —someone, perhaps, who could use a little protecting.

As for Mrs. America, she has a choice. If she is into liberation, she can see Cher bravely soloing as a variety-show star after the breakup of the Sonny and Cher partnership (and marriage) as a blow for emancipation. It may even be a vindication of sorts. Sonny, who had the reputation of being Cher’s Svengali, suffered the ignominy of having his solo show canceled in midseason, not long before Cher rose into Nielsen’s top ten. If sexual politics is not Mom’s bag, then she can sit back and relax while enjoying the fashion show and some mildly envious fantasies about the corps of hairdressers and beauticians required to construct such a perfect example of feminine artifice.

Mother is joined by the group that forms the heart of Cher’s fan club—girls who are sub-teen and even younger. For them she is, in the current phrase, “jive.” Cher proves that at least one American dream lives: she gives evidence that show biz can still reach out among the adolescent millions and—with a little luck and a lot of hype—transform a mildly talented young woman into a hot, multimillion-dollar property. And that the chosen one gets to have inch-long fingernails for a trademark, if she wants to.

There is something appropriate about this pubescent ardor for Cher. At 28 she is herself not far removed from the true-believer status of her fans. Indeed, her saving, authentic grace may lie in her ability to admit that the only definition of success she has ever held is stardom. She is a creature totally formed by show business—first by her fantasies about it, then by her precocious immersion in it. She married Sonny, then a record promoter, when she was 17.

Her liberation from Sonny is a personal triumph, but it carries no ideological example for the rest of womankind, so far as Cher can see. As for being a sex symbol for males, that too is mostly in the eye of the beholder. It is true that after leaving Sonny she involved herself for more than 15 months in a much-publicized romance with David Geffen, 31, innovative president of Elektra/Asylum/Nonesuch Records. “Look, I’ve traded one short, ugly man for another,” she zinged—typically —when she and Geffen ran into Singer-Songwriter Paul Simon. Then, a few months ago, she took up with Gregg Allman, lead vocalist in the rock band that bears his name. But these have not been casual affairs. “I’m a one-man-at-a-time woman,” she says. “To put it in the vernacular, I’m not an easy lay. What counts is the quality of the relationship.”

Nearly everyone who has been part of her life agrees with that self-assessment. “Conservative, even prudish,” is her mother’s phrase for her. An uncle has another explanation for her fastidiousness: “Cher had seen it all and done it all by the time she was 15.” But they both add that the quality of her career is far more important to her than the quality of any human tie. Says Geffen: “I have to have a private life, but I don’t think Cher understands the concept of private life. Cher enjoys the hoopla.” Says Sonny Bono: “Cher is now living the adolescence she never had.”

And, he might have added, the childhood as well. “I was a shy, ugly kid who led a big fantasy life,” Cher, who was christened Cherlin, recalls. “I thought I was an angel from heaven sent to cure polio. When Dr. Salk did it, I was really pissed off.” Even before that she was trying to woo the world through performance. “From the time I could talk, I began to sing. Singing just came from the inside—something I’d do without thinking whenever I felt good or was really blue. Dancing? Well, it released my tensions.”

There were plenty of those. Cher’s mother, Georgia Holt, was a show-business small-timer in Los Angeles, a sometime model and actress in commercials. Her biggest chance was being cast for a part in The Asphalt Jungle for a couple of weeks before another fringe performer named Marilyn Monroe took it away from her. Three times Holt married and divorced John Sarkesian, Cher’s father, a compulsive gambler and later a heroin addict, although Cher did not meet him until she was eleven (“I hated him”). Between and after these marriages there were five others. Poverty, constant changes of address, a short stay in a Catholic nursing home for the needy were all part of Cher’s childhood. Even a three-year burst of prosperity, when her mother wed a banking executive, seemed like just another form of instability.

By adolescence, Cher had started perfecting a signature she regarded as suitable for a star to sign in autograph books, and after the tenth grade she quit school forever. Around this time she had a first—and last—experience with a drug, Benzedrine. It left her “deadly opposed to drugs in every form, in every way.” At 16 she left home rather than goon quarreling with her mother about “life-styles.”

She moved in with a girl friend and supported herself with menial jobs. She remembers her social life at the time as an all-singing, all-dancing marathon on the Sunset Strip (“I’d go up there and dance till dawn”). When she was 16, she went out on a double date with her friend Melissa Melcher and met Melissa’s boy next door—27-year-old, newly separated Sonny Bono. Not long after, he made her an offer she could not refuse: “Look, I don’t find you particularly attractive and I have no designs on you. I’d like you to move in with me and keep the house clean and cook. I’ll pay the rent.” Cher said she could not cook, but Sonny took her in anyway. Cher recalls: “We lived together for two months, slept in the same bedroom and he never laid a hand on me.”

She did not tell her mother about her new domestic arrangement. When Georgia was expected, Cher says, “I’d rush around, collect all of Sonny’s clothes and dump them through the window into Melissa’s place right across the way. One day Melissa was sitting at the table with some guests when a shower of Sonny’s belongings descended on everyone. She just said, ‘Oh, Cher’s mother must be on the way.’ ”

When Mom found out about Sonny, she made Cher move into a Hollywood girls’ residence, but absence finally made his heart grow fonder. They took up housekeeping again—nonplatonically. “When I met her she was 16 and a waif,” says Sonny. “On the one hand, she was a very mature kid. She had dealt with life and men on an adult level—she skipped the teen-age stage. But on the other, she was also a very naive little girl.”

He also claims he always knew she would be a star some day: “She would walk around our house and sing her ass off. It drove me crazy. But in the first two weeks I knew her, I told her I felt that she would be a great star. That’s what she wanted.” In this period she and Sonny once briefly split because, he claims, he was afraid he might stand in the way of the great career he was still predicting.

But they both must have known that she needed him.

Her ambition may have been fierce, but like her talent it was vague and undefined. She was also—and ironically—a shy, stage-frightened girl. She needed, as Sonny puts it, “a husband, a father, a brother, a lover, everything. I loved giving it. It was a resurgence for me at 27. It made me a leader, something I never was before.” If, sometimes, he had literally to push his wife onstage, that was all right too.

He got their joint career started around the time of their marriage in 1964. Working for famed Record Producer Phil Specter, Sonny found odd gigs for Cher singing background at recording sessions, and they got a job together at a spot on the Strip called The Purple Onion. After work, she would often ask Sonny to drive her up to Tony Curtis’ 31-room Tudor-style mansion in the Holmby Hills and park outside its great cast-iron gates. Says Sonny: “Cher would pine for that house. She’d say, ‘God, Son, I want to live there.’ ” For the past three years—with Sonny and without him—she has.

The road to it was not easy. Sonny wrote the song that became their first record—Baby Don’t Go—for her alone. “But she was too frightened to perform by herself, so I did the harmony just to be with her.” Baby was a modest hit. In 1965 he wrote the softly rocking I Got You Babe, which turned out to be an immodest hit—some 4 million copies sold—and Sonny and Cher found themselves playing the big rock concerts. It looked as if the mansion was within reach.

But fashion changed. Hard rock, acid rock, were suddenly in, and Sonny and Cher were out. “The whole sound and style of music began to come out of the drug culture,” says Sonny. “We didn’t want to get into that, so it left us.” In fact, the couple came out boldly against drugs, and that was good for nothing but their souls. “The Establishment—which didn’t go to concerts—applauded us,” says Cher. “The kids —who did go to concerts—thought we were stupid.”

Sonny sank all their savings into a movie vehicle for his wife called, like the child they discovered was on the way in the midst of shooting, Chastity. In it, she solemnly searched the South-west for life’s meaning, and it bombed. They found themselves flat broke and owing $180,000 in back taxes. Accompanied by baby and a nanny, they hit the road again, sometimes playing to audiences of 45 in small clubs, developing along the way the kidding-on-the-square comedy style that later became the staple of their TV show. They fought their way back to the big Las Vegas clubs as well as a shot as guest hosts on the Merv Griffin Show, where CBS Programming Chief Fred Silverman saw them. He invited them to do a pilot for a summer replacement show. It led to their booking in 1971 as what appeared to be a permanently successful fixture on the CBS schedule. Within a year they bought the Tony Curtis house for something like a million dollars.

Somewhere in the next couple of years their stories begin to diverge. As Cher tells it, she began to feel “I was going nowhere as a person. I wanted to grow, expand my horizons. I was bogged down.” She is vague about just how her husband was holding her back. She mentions his forbidding her to play tennis because he did not feel like taking up the game, refusing to let her play music in the house or socialize with band musicians—that is all. She is also dim about what his methods of restraint were. “It’s impossible to explain Sonny’s hold on me,” says Cher. “I was afraid of him; yet he never laid a hand on me. His powers of persuasion were enormous—as deep as the ocean. You just didn’t argue with Sonny. We had no friends, went nowhere but to work. It was a very stultifying existence.”

For his part, Sonny bridles at the notion that he was the only ambitious member of the marriage. Early on, he recalls, they bought a house in Encino to which they both took an instant loathing. A little later, when they were down and out, he told her that if things did not start looking up they might have to retreat to that house. “Cher said, ‘I’ll never go back to that house.’ I got the message. She was telling me, ‘Make it for us; I’m not going backward.’ That’s the way it is with Cher. She’s very demanding of the man hi her life.”

According to Sonny, “She expected me to lead the way to success—and I did.” Now, perhaps with some justification, he feels “really down,” as one friend put it. He has just turned 40, discovered that “I can’t do it as a solo,” and that a great fall’s pain is intense. “I lost it all,” he says. “The way the act was constructed—not just the way it came about—Cher was the focal point. I never considered it a disadvantage because the act was a smash. But a straight man is a straight man is a straight man …” A current girl friend, a 19-year-old Cal State psychology student named Ora Renet, adds: “Of course he’s bewildered; someone has stepped on his sand castle.”

His consolation, as he sees it, is that Cher is applying everything he taught her. He insists that her public persona and her sense of how to use it are largely his creations. But Cher takes justifiable pride in the fact that she has so quickly picked up the pieces of a career that many show-business Insiders last summer considered hopeless. To be sure, she had plenty of money—a $25,000-per-week allowance from Sonny, its size based on the fact that most of their $2 million joint earnings were in his control. But it was she who firmly refused his persistent and eccentric suggestion that they continue their show even though they were divorcing. It took some courage: “I really was beginning to wonder if there would be a future for me at all in this business. Sonny had signed with ABC to do a series. I had nothing but a lousy album. There were no offers coming in. Nothing.”

Sonny claims, in a $25 million suit, that ex-Friend Geffen “induced” her to break her contracts with Sonny’s ironically named Cher Corp. Whatever the truth legally, there is no doubt Geffen was helpful to her in a difficult time, carefully orchestrating a schedule of public appearances and signing her—for a very comforting price—to a contract with Warner Bros. Records. (The first album, Stars, produced by Jimmy Webb, will be released next week.)

It was during this period too that Cher, with no help from anyone but a doctor she called, saved a man’s life (TIME, March 3). Last September she attended a party at Millionaire-Weirdo Ken Moss’s with a couple of musician friends, where what they thought was cocaine was free for the snorting. It turned out to be heroin. One man, Robbie Mclntosh, a drummer, died of the stuff. But Cher (as she testified last month before a grand jury that indicted Moss for murder) took Alan Gorrie, a bass player, home with her and kept him walking around to prevent him from lapsing into a coma. It was strong evidence that Cher has things pretty well put together.

So is her grace under the pressure of the seven-day-a-week schedule her TV show requires. To a degree, Designer Robert Mackie’s clothes still make the star, though Cher says. “I wear my clothes; my clothes don’t wear me.” But a career cannot be hung on a set of threads. No longer a silent partner in making decisions about her career, she spends her waking hours in conferences, writing sessions (she pays particular attention to her opening and closing monologues), costume fittings (no small matter when wardrobe is your basic trademark). Finally come the run-throughs and full rehearsals, climaxed by the two twelve-to-14-hour days required to tape the show. Cher is doing what Sonny used to do for both of them, and some new things besides. Says Producer George Schlatter: “She’s stretching, stretching, stretching.”

She has some more stretching to do before she and her show can reach its full potential. Her comic range is still nothing for Lily Tomlin to worry about. The monologues are often monosyllabic, the sketches as thin as her own profile. If there is exuberance in her singing-dancing numbers with such potent guest stars as Raquel Welch and Bette Midler, there is also a feeling that she will not entirely prove herself until she dares front a show that lacks such heavy supporting artillery. She also seems to need the security of incredibly lavish productions. Each program costs $225,000 to $240,000, and the show was $80,000 over budget after just four shows were taped.

In her defense it must be said her early time spot unfairly limits her. In the beginning, at least, CBS worried about her naturally hip jargon, and it has forbidden the least hint of sexual innuendo or topicality in the show’s humor. As usual, the network is underrating the sophistication of today’s kids, if not their parents’ capacity for taking moral offense at everything but the worst sin of all—blandness.

Cher also has a way to go before her private life is a model of common sense. She owns over a thousand gowns and 500 pairs of shoes. Over her massive hearth is a big neon CHER. Her social life strikes many as excessive. “Nobody in this town lives like that anymore,” sniffs an anonymous critic who was not too proud to accept the invitation. “Four hundred guests assembled, and Cher making a sweeping entrance down a spiral staircase—it’s out of the great glamorous ’20s.” New Friend Allman, a down-home type with fairly primitive views on relations between the sexes, may make a more telling comment on the state of Cher’s liberation when he says, “She’s weak just where you want a woman to be weak; she really reaches out for your strength.”

It could be that she is looking for a Sonny in sheep’s clothing. More likely, Allman is beginning to feel the iron will lurking beneath Cher’s inarticulateness. He is said to be breaking up his successful Macon, Ga.-based band in order to stay in Los Angeles with her. Says she: “I laid down the law on drugs, and it’s been wonderful to see Gregg’s eyes clear. He’s really together now.”

So—obviously—is Cher. Or at least she is well on the way. “People ask me if I left Sonny for another man,” she says. “I tell them no, I left him for a woman—me.”

What she means is that underneath the desperate fantasies of a sad childhood and a missed adolescence, an authentic star presence of as yet unpredictable dimensions was actually dormant. Sonny Bono was right when he sensed that quality in the confused little chick he took in a dozen years ago.

“I’m scared, but by God I’m doing it,” says Cher. If her new show really has “legs,” as no less an expert than Sonny Bono thinks it has, if she and he do not strangle in a web of suits and countersuits as they attempt to dissolve their business relationship, then we may be witnessing not just a lively challenge to The Wonderful World of Disney, but the emergence of A Wonderful World of Cher.

At any rate, the dream house of adolescence, the mansion in the hills, is up for sale. Recently Sonny was visiting her and kidding her about it (their personal relationship is now amazingly warm and relaxed). Cher was having a manicure—a three-hour procedure in which an expert executes intricate tricolor designs on the star’s fingernails. “See, Cher, that’s you! You got your dream and now you’re done with it.” Cher shook her head. “You don’t understand. I felt security in this great, strong house. But now, man, I got the house inside here.” And with her free hand she pointed to her guts.

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