My Life With Cher: A Half-Century-Plus Appreciation of a Glittery Icon

Also: This '90s sitcom star lost it all due to a shopping addiction.

I’ve spent 53 wonderful years with Cher—and I even met her once. Now that she’s back in the movies (as Meryl Streep’s mother in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again), let me recount some of the marvelous memories we’ve shared.

When Sonny and Cher hit the charts with their touchingly direct duet “I Got You, Babe” way back in 1965, I was a 9-year-old instantly in love—not with Sonny, mind you, but with Cher and her hippie-dippy fashion, her throaty voice, and her all-around fabulous demeanor. As a future-gay, I was already imitating her blasé tongue darts and hair flicking habits in the mirror, though I was grateful my parents never noticed any of that.

At this point, Cher wasn’t all that experienced—I once read that she originally thought Mount Rushmore had been carved by the wind—but she exuded charisma for days, and I, like everyone else, desperately wanted to be her. Interestingly, on The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour (1971-74), she was made out to be the controlling one, belittling Sonny with putdowns, while expanding her own career by putting out an array of irresistibly kitschy solo singles on the side, like the tambourine-banging “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” in ’71.

After she split from Sonny, her Cher show (’75-6) had her in eye-popping outfits and singing alongside dazzling guests, one time memorably medley-ing with Elton John, Bette Midler, and Flip Wilson, all in spangly outfits and surrounded by large balloons. (And they say gay TV started in the 90s!) Cher also got to hone her comedic chops on the show—and in a 1978 TV special, she got to explore her dramatic ones too. She played all the parts in a West Side Story medley, including the male ones, recreating a shtick she used to do alone as a young girl, and the result is riveting.

In the late ‘70s, I got a job at a trashy fan magazine that Cher sold more copies of than anyone (except maybe Farrah Fawcett), so I was constantly writing reams about her marriage to rocker Gregg Allman, along with her other exploits, both personal and business-related. And when she had a surprising career lull in 1980—when she was the lead singer of a meh rock band called Black Rose—I actually got to meet the woman and almost plotzed from the excitement.

I flew out to Aspen to interview her at her house there and she turned out to be relaxed and enjoyable, though at one point I noticed she had mysteriously vanished. I searched around and found her making out with Black Rose guitarist Les Dudek—her boyfriend at the time—while laying down together on the bed in the boudoir. Rather than be alarmed by my discovery, Cher calmly came right back to the interview without any self-consciousness at all, and I was even more in love.

John Roca/NY Daily News Archive via Getty
Cher and Les Dudek in 1981.

And there’s more: I was terrified to take the small plane back to Denver and then head home—besides, I never wanted to leave Cher’s side ever again—but Cher said she did that flight all the time and it was nothing to worry about. She even drove me to the airport in her open-air jeep, comforting me the whole time! This was way before cell phones, so I have no evidence that this happened, but you’ll have to believe me on it—and I still have the marks from me frantically pinching myself to prove it.

After that, Cher kept evolving as a performer, with varying results. In 1982, she tried Broadway acting in Come Back To The 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, a not exactly electrifying play about a reunion of James Dean loving BFFs in Texas, which ran only 56 performances. (The movie version, also directed by Robert Altman, has become a sort of cult item.) Altman wanted Cher to play the transgender character Joanne, but she read terribly in that part and it went to Karen Black, with Cher playing the cis Sissy.

She fared better by going LGBTQ as a lesbian in the true-story radiation drama Silkwood (1983), earning an Oscar nomination while starting the unbeatable Meryl-Cher team that has now reunited to ABBA tunes (though—SPOILER ALERT—they don’t really appear together in Mamma Mia 2). Meanwhile, Cher’s personal life kept grabbing headlines, especially when she fell for 22-year-old “bagel boy” Rob Camilletti on her 40th birthday in 1986. The wiry Rob was hot—and so was she—but the constant media derision about this pairing made it hard for them to stay together, and they didn’t, the bagels ultimately going stale.

Ron Galella/WireImage
Cher and Rob Camilletti at the Moonstruck premiere in New York City, 1987.

Of course, Cher snapped out of it when she won an Oscar for Moonstruck, the 1987 romantic comedy with our star as a widow who prepares to marry a guy, only to become smitten by his younger brother. (This cougar thing was starting to become a routine, I guess.) After having been ridiculed for wearing what looked like a half-naked dress and a dead cockatoo on her head at the Oscars, this time Cher was triumphant, the awards honoring not only her performance, but her career trajectory and genuine talent. And she dressed to the nines!

In 1988, Cher launched her own line of perfume, and I went to the gala party, where a homeless man had blatantly crashed and was wandering around. The guy was ushered right out the door by security, but Cher had her people go out and grab him right back in! That’s how special this diva can be.

Her rock phase helped the video era stay ignited—1989’s “If I Could Turn Back Time” was a highlight—and she already was turning back time via all kinds of surgeries that were as amusing as they were controversial. (And In 1995, Chaz Bono, Cher and Sonny’s child, came out as a lesbian, which Cher admitted wasn’t easy for her to handle at first. One thing I always liked about the star is that she’s made her life an open book, never sugarcoating her feelings or being hateful about things either. After all, this was the gal who practically shtupped her boyfriend right in front of a reporter. And she learned and grew with time, and shared those feelings with the public as well, so they could develop with her.) Years later, Chaz came out as a transgender man, and Cher had to deal with troubling feelings all over again. She initially felt she was losing a daughter, but I think she got over herself and became more accepting, again helping the public to expand their minds along with hers.

In 1998, “Believe” was a surprise hit for the then-52-year-old, proving she still could sound current and knock out chart hits, despite radio’s resistance to play mature women. I saw her in concert in 2002 at a gala reopening of the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut. (The glittery gambling palace is set on a reservation, a perfect site for the part-Native-American who scored with “Half Breed.”) Cher gave her all in concert, not just trotting out her hits, but poignantly singing U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and also making an entrance on a gigantic papier-mache elephant. The staggering combination of the heartfelt and the glitzy was uniquely Cher.

Similarly, Cher today is always willing to show her different tones—whether she’s helping a creative team prepare a show about her for Broadway (and speaking out about how it needs work) or tweeting furiously against Trump and his hideous antics. The woman is 72 years young, and when she finally appears via helicopter towards the end of the dopily entertaining Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, the audience cheers the warmth, familiarity, and glamour.

I loved her opening line (“Mes enfants, je suis arrivée. Let the party commence!”) and adored the fact that an old flame of hers happened to be named Fernando just so she could launch into the ABBA song of that title. And it made extra sense since she looks like Lady Gaga’s older sister—not Amanda Seyfried’s grandma at all—and “Alejandro” always seemed a bit of a homage to “Fernando” to me. During the song, Cher and Andy Garcia (as Fernando) dance the world’s slowest tango, as if the director was terrified they might fall and break something. But then she also gets to sing some of “Super Trouper” over the closing credits while dressed in a crazy wig and outfit and moving around more!

Let’s not address Burlesque, which wasn’t even bad enough to be all that fun. But let’s keep celebrating our one-named, many-lived diva. Keep sharing, Cher!

Tidbits From the Edge

Harry Langdon/Getty
Kim Coles in 1997.

Kim Coles (best known as Synclaire from the ‘90s sitcom Living Single) was the guest of honor at a Tuscany Steakhouse dinner for her one-woman show Fabulous Fifty and Funny last Wednesday. Fortunately, she’s also solvent! Kim explained to me that a shopping addiction had financially wiped her out before she recovered. In 2007, she was getting intimidating calls from Master Card, so she summoned the nerve to call them back, hanging up every time she thought there was a black person on the phone. (She figured a fellow African-American would know who she was, and she wasn’t ready to go public with her problem.)

She finally got a woman named Jackie, who she thought she was white, and opened up to her. And then realized she was black—and loved her in Living Single! Kim started crying, and Jackie calmed her by saying, “Don’t be ashamed. I talk to people more famouser than you.” Kim loved the woman—despite her grammar—and she now makes great money telling stories like that.

Another sitcom lady, Lucie Arnaz (who was on mom Lucille Ball’s Here’s Lucy series for six years), did a great show last week called “I Got The Job!”: Songs From My Musical Past. This was at Birdland Theater, a fab new venue downstairs from Birdland on 44th Street (which is why the place is being dubbed 44 Below).

Lucie was striking and personable as she performed numbers from shows like Seesaw and They’re Playing Our Song, along with telling funny anecdotes. Lucie admitted that she’s often been cast as either girls who can’t keep their legs together (“Girls who’ll be buried in a Y-shaped coffin,” as her grandma would say) or self-deprecating Jewish gals who are sympathetic despite their neuroses. She was in a tour of Mack and Mabel and said, “I guess Keystone cops meets crack cocaine is not your best formula for musical comedy,” but they gave it their all. As for the musical version of The Witches of Eastwick in London in ’99, it was “a magical and wicked experience. Wait for my book.” I will dutifully do so. Yes, I love Lucie.

Art Zelin/Getty
Lucie Arnaz in New York City, 1970.

More sitcom talk: I ran into Sandra Bernhard at an event and asked her if she’s been tweeting about Roseanne’s debacle (since she was on the original Roseanne). “No,” she replied. “That would be in bad taste. But I talk about it on my radio show.” Sandra said that if the revamped, Roseanne-less The Connors called her, she’d do it. They really should pick up the phone!

But there’s much more poignant news in the world of casting. Jeff Loeffelholz, the longtime standby for the drag character Mary Sunshine in Broadway’s Chicago, was humiliated after an excruciating rehearsal and ended up killing himself, as you may have read. A cast member just told me, “Jeff was very well loved at the Ambassador Theater. All who knew him call him generous and sweet. Cast, musicians, stage crew, and house crew are all so sad. He was the final original cast member after almost 22 years!” And all that jazz.

Michael Musto is the long running, award-winning entertainment journalist and TV commentator.