What we can learn from Cher

She hit the big time with Sonny in the 1960s before reinventing herself as one of pop’s most flamboyant divas (and dressers) and conquering Hollywood as an Oscar-winning actress. Now, in the wake of the new musical about her life, HADLEY FREEMAN pays tribute to the trailblazing icon that is CHER


When people talk about enduring female icons – which is a fancy way of saying “women who women like” – the usual, much-deserved names always get a shout-out: Madonna, Dolly Parton, Kate Moss. All, as I said, much deserved, no question, but too often a particular person is missing from these lists. She has always been ahead of the game artistically, morally and fashion-wise, and as a result is too often mocked. Yet no one could ever deny her talent: she has won an Oscar, a Grammy and three Golden Globes, and now, at the age of 72, she is one of the funniest political voices around. Who can claim all these accolades? No one but the one, the only, Cher.

Unlike too many of the female icons I have revered, Cher has never calcified into self-parody, nor disappointed her fans with dismaying political opinions (hello, Roseanne Barr). When people think of Cher today, they think of her greatest hits from her past: her songs (I Got You Babe; Believe), her movies (Moonstruck, Mermaids), the loudly derided Bob Mackie outfits. Yet rarely is it noted how modern and ground-breaking all of this was.

When the woman born Cherilyn Sarkisian first appeared as a folk singer in the 1960s alongside her then husband, Sonny Bono, she looked like the exemplification of the hippie era, in her fringed scarves and floppy hats. By the time the 1970s rolled along, she was wearing Mackie gowns on The Sonny & Cher Show, hugely influencing the look of the decade, proving that Cher didn’t just copy the trends of the time, she coined them. Once she was finally free of her various husbands – Bono first, Gregg Allman next – she really began to have fun.

In the decade they worked together – six years of that as a married couple – Sonny and Cher sold over 40 million records
’80s showgirl
All eyes were on Cher – and her beaded Bob Mackie two-piece – at the 1986 Oscars

The extraordinary Mackie outfit she wore to the 1986 Oscars remains – more than 30 years later – the most memorable Oscars outfit of all time. It began when the Academy, apparently a little miffed at the number of women wearing – gasp! – pant suits to the ceremony, allegedly sent out a memo asking the women invitees to dress “appropriately”. In a very Cher-esque move, she then responded by turning up wearing a gigantic Mohican-style head-dress, jewel-encrusted bralet and very low-slung, long bejeweled skirt, meaning a lot more skin than clothing was on show. It seems unlikely that the Academy considered this outfit “appropriate”, yet it certainly remains one of the most influential. Think of Beyoncé at the 2015 Met Gala in what was essentially a Givenchy bodystocking, or Solange and Rihanna at this year’s Met Gala in, respectively, a halo-ed black sculptural dress by Iris van Herpen and crystal-studded Pope’s robes by Galliano for Maison Margiela – all strikingly reminiscent of Cher’s Mackie outfit. Cher taught women how to use fashion and their bodies in a way that overturns stereotypes about female sexiness. Her scarf-as-leotard look from the video for If I Could Turn Back Time – still, for the record, an absolute banger of a tune – was, again, hugely derided, but now looks like the prototype for everything worn since by Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus in their music videos. So you humped a wrecking ball in your video, Cyrus? Well, Cher humped A CANNON in hers before you were born.

When Cher switched to film in the 1980s, encouraged by director Robert Altman, her choices were thrillingly bold and delightfully female-focused. Not for her the roles of pretty bimbos or adoring girlfriends. She played a mother in Mask, the gay best friend of a murdered whistleblower in Silkwood, a cynical widow in Moonstruck and a stressed single mother in Mermaids – all excellent films and, in the case of Moonstruck and Mermaids, strikingly undated ones too, even though they were made about 30 years ago. Cher’s movies have held up remarkably well, thanks in part to her naturalistic acting, and the sense that she is often quietly laughing with the audience, out of the side of her mouth. For example, her deadpan delivery is the saving grace of The Witches of Eastwick, puncturing Jack Nicholson’s posturing, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer’s strangely reticent performances and John Updike’s frequently ludicrous dialogue. Her music has also endured, because of her wisdom in working with producers as forward-thinking as her, such as Phil Spector and Giorgio Moroder. It was Cher’s idea to use a vocoder for Believe – which she released, lest we forget, when she was in her early fifties – thus changing modern pop forever.

Leading lady
The actress has starred in films including Mask, Moonstruck and The Witches of Eastwick

Back in the 1990s, while American politicians were unashamedly describing gay people as “degenerates” with “offensive lifestyles”, and passing homophobic legislation such as the Defense of Marriage Act, Cher talked proudly about her child being gay. When her son, Chaz, came out as transgender in 2009 – the transition was charted in the 2011 TV documentary Becoming Chaz, in which Cher was a supportive participant – transgenderism was still seen by the mainstream as baffling, and the idea of coming out on TV even more so. Now, of course, Cher and Chaz look like veritable pioneers, deserving of the credit that has instead been lapped up by Caitlyn Jenner. It should not be a surprise that Cher, a champion of LGBT rights before most people had even heard of the ‘T’, has always been a proud liberal, and therefore has not been a happy citizen of Trump’s America. Her Twitter fightback against him has been one of the more delightful developments of the new era, in which Cher – in caps-locked and heavily emoji-ed tweets – righteously rages against the Trump administration’s corruption and cruelty.

I love so many things about Cher, but I think my favorite moment happened when she was interviewed in 1996 and was asked about something she once said: “A man is not a necessity; a man is a luxury.” “Did you mean that to sound mean and bitter?” asked interviewer Jane Pauley, apparently unaware it was 1996, not 1896. “Oh not at all! I love men, but you don’t really need them to live. My mom said to me, ‘You know sweetheart, one day you should settle down and marry a rich man.’ I said, ‘Mom, I am a rich man.’” Cher is sui generis, and no one else can be like her. But we could all do with trying.

The Cher Show opens at the Neil Simon Theatre in New York this fall