Calling one's self a Cher fan can put one into a lot of distinctive categories. You might have fond memories of her time with Sonny back in the day. Or you might be more inclined toward her solo singing career. You could have been captivated by the many fine acting performances she's given over the course of 4 decades. Maybe you enjoyed her theatrical performances or live Vegas shows. Perhaps her often radical, trend-setting fashion styles persuaded you to become a fan. On the other hand, it could be her rebellious attitude and unabashed willingness to fly in the face of all convention and authority that impressed you. It's possible you found yourself smitten with her unique beauty and long, slender body. Then again, your love for Cher might have more to do with her long-standing place of honor in the gay community. Whoever you are, whatever you are, Cher has most likely done something you enjoy in her 50+ year career. A true phenomenon for as long as most of us can remember, Cher has gone through several changes in her life and career, yet she somehow always retains the essence of herself, no matter how her circumstances might change.
The woman we know as Cher started out life as Cherilyn Sarkisian in El Centro, Calfornia in 1946. Born to an Armenian truck driver and an Irish/English/German/Cherokee model/actress, she did not have much of a relationship with her birth father, who left the family before her first birthday. Her mother, an aspiring actress, married twice more as she moved the family across the country in search of work. Often poor, she and her family lived in squalor most of the time. She was even forced to live in an orphanage for a short while. While times were tough in those early years, the foundations for the media empire she would one day create were already firmly in place. She showed marked creative abilities as early as 5th grade, when she produced a production of Oklahoma! for her class - even choreographing their dance routines. This was also when she discovered her contralto voice abilities, which she used to perform the leading man roles for lack of any male volunteers from her class.
By 1961, Cher's mother had married again to a bank manager in Los Angeles, who ended up adopting Cher and her half sister Georganne. Shortly thereafter Cher began attending the distinguished Monclair Prep school. Though not the most excelling of students, she did okay, especially in those areas that allowed her her burgeoning creativity to shine. Years later she was diagnosed as dyslexic. Her desire for fame already dominated much of her thinking and plans for the future. Her friends from prep school recalled her ambition for stardom and how she already lived and breathed as a star, even before she was one. An outgoing young girl well ahead of many of her classmates in her physical development, she was turning heads and raising eyebrows by wearing bare midriffs before anyone else and routinely doing impromptu performances at lunch. As she later recalled, "I was never really in school. I was always thinking about when I was grown up and famous."
By 16, Cher had had enough of waiting around to achieve her dreams and decided to pursue them. She moved out of her mother's house and moved to LA with a friend. There she danced in small clubs, took acting classes and worked part-time. She was a common sight in many of the famous bars on the Sunset Strip at this time, making friends with every manager, agent, musician or actor she thought could further her career. It is said 16-year-old Cher had an affair with fellow acting legend Warren Beatty at this time - a man 9 years her senior. Eventually, Cher ran across a young assistant to record producer Phil Spector in 1962. Named Sonny Bono, the two initially started out as employer/employee when Cher agreed to become his housekeeper. It was only after Spector began to use Cher as a back up singer on famous songs like The Ronettes' "Be My Baby" and The Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Loving Feeling," that Bono began to take more of an interest in this young talent. At first Bono was skeptical that he could ever catch the eye of such a beautiful young girl. However, as the two became closer, their relationship became intimate. Within a short time they were married, performing their own ceremony in a Tijuana motel room in 1964.
Following her positive experiences as a back up singer, Cher was signed to her own record contract with Bono coming along as producer. Cher and Sonny had already dabbled with singing as a duo under the name Caesar & Cleo, though nothing much had come from it. They continued to experiment with different songs and names as the 60s rolled on, achieving mild successes here and there. They scored a hit with the album All I Really Want To Do in 1965, reaching the Billboard 200 top 20 and staying on the charts for 6 months. Soon thereafter the duo changed their name one last time, settling on one that came to be their true, lasting monicker - Sonny & Cher. They had their biggest hit yet with "I Got You Babe" that year. Soon after they were invited to England at the advice of The Rolling Stones, who thought British audiences uniquely oriented to their folk-pop musical style. The duo had barely made it off the plane when they started creating havoc in British society. Their "far out" dress caused them to get thrown out of the London Hilton Hotel where they were supposed to be staying, making them overnight sensations. Their bell-bottoms, fur vests and striped pants were a fashion statement, as was Cher's long, straight hair. Soon young people everywhere were emulating their style. Sonny & Cher songs quickly began to rocket up the charts, even knocking The Beatles out of the top of the British charts.
More hit records were to follow, with 11 Billboard top 20 singles between the years 1965 to '72. At one point, they had 5 songs in the top 20, a feat matched only by Elvis and The Beatles. By 1967, the duo had sold over 40 million records and were labelled by Time magazine as rock's "it" couple of the day. While Sonny & Cher dominated the charts, Cher also maintained a healthy solo career, making hits out of songs like "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" and "Alfie." While wildly successful during the middle part of the 1960s, by the end of that decade their wholesome, monogamous, drug free image began to seem dated in the midst of a dominant counterculture movement. Their music no longer charting and their record contracts no longer renewed, they started to grow distant. Sonny began to actively cheat on Cher and they flirted with marital collapse. Eventually Sonny returned and the two married for real in 1969. Soon after their daughter Chastity was born.
No longer viable as musical duo, Sonny & Cher began to experiment with other media enterprises. They produced and helped finance two independent movies, 1967's GOOD TIMES and the 1969 film CHASTITY. Both were failures, putting them in heavy debt. Desperate for ideas, they eventually put together a nightclub act, which was not well received. They routinely faced hecklers, who delighted in provoking Cher to heckle them back from the stage, prompting confrontations between herself and Bono. These exchanges proved so popular that they became a regular feature of their act. This provocative new direction, as well as Cher's new, more mature dress with tight, low cut gowns, drew the eye of TV producers, who began to invite them for guest appearances on prime-time shows.
In 1971, CBS offered Sonny & Cher their own TV show. Called The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, its popular variety show format expanded on the playful insults from their nightclub show while incorporating musical performances, dance numbers and sketch comedy routines. The show ran for 3 seasons and drew over 30 million viewers each week. Around this same time, Bono attempted to revise their musical career with a new single and quickly failed at it. A subsequent Cher solo single, produced without Bono by producer Snuff Garrett, turned that around. This single, "Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves" became the biggest seller in record company MCA's history, earning Cher a Grammy nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. A subsequent album of the same name came out shortly thereafter, as did another album featuring nothing but ballads by Cher, intended to demonstrate her evolving vocal abilities. Neither album featured Bono as producer, though he did attempt to reinsert himself into her musical career with one last album, another failure. Eventually, Cher returned to Garrett, who had written her another #1 hit called "Half-Breed." More hit albums followed, all without any input from Bono, who by this time was mostly estranged from Cher. The two carried on for appearance purposes, but by 1974, both had filed for separation and divorce, with Cher claiming "involuntary servitude" due to Bono's unwillingness to share their earnings with her. Nasty court battles ensued, mostly over the custody of their daughter, which Cher eventually won. By 1975, their 13-year relationship was over.
Following the divorce, both Sonny and Cher endeavored on their own variety shows. Bono's show, The Sonny Bono Comedy Revue was cancelled after six weeks. Cher's self-titled show was much more successful, thanks mostly to her growing popularity as a solo performer as well as a number of high profile celebrity guests. While successful, she was unable to handle such a show on her own and in 1976 she re-teamed with Bono for a new version of their old show, though this only lasted one season. Around this time, Cher began a troubled relationship with rocker Greg Allman, eventually marrying him 3 days after her divorce from Bono was finalized. She quickly filed for a divorce 9 days after, citing issues relating to his heroin and alcohol addictions. They managed to reconcile and stayed together another another 4 years. They had one son together, as well as a disastrous duet album that was universally panned as the worst thing either of them had ever done.
As the 70's wore down, a liberated Cher began to experiment with new genres of music, scoring hits and misses, critical praise and scorn along the way. Working with some of the biggest names in the business, she dabbled in the new disco craze, then aligned herself to the New Wave musical scene with her own band in the early 1980s. Now a fully realized sex symbol, she began to exploit that aspect of her career by painting herself much more provocatively in her public image, releasing scantily-clad album covers and doing racy Las Vegas nightclub shows.
By the early 1980s, with a musical career that seemed in the doldrums, Cher started to investigate her potential as an actress. She enjoyed a successful run on Broadway in the Robert Altman produced play Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, playing a member of the James Dean fan club during a 20-year reunion. She went on to star in the theatrical version of the play, earning herself a Golden Globe nomination. This attracted director Mike Nichols, who cast her in his controversial 1983 film SILKWOOD, playing the lesbian lover to Meryl Streep's character. While audiences initially scoffed at her presence in the film, her perfect performance earned her a Golden Globe that year and her first Oscar nomination. Cher was now reborn as an actress.
In 1985, Cher started her own film production company, Isis. That year she starred in the Peter Bogdanovich film MASK, telling the story of Rocky Dennis, a young boy suffering from the disfiguring disorder Lionitis. Her intense performance as Rocky's mom, Rusty, earned her another Golden Globe nom and the Best Actress Prize at Cannes. Though her performance was good, her repeated clashes with Bogdanovich on set earned her a troublemaker reputation in Hollywood that kept her out of the running for an Oscar that year. This prompted her to show up for that year's Oscar telecast in a provocative, barely there outfit in protest of her treatment. Controversy became the cornerstone of her career for a time in the 1980s. Repeated heated conflicts with industry bigwigs, highly publicized relationships with often much younger men and a general fondness for shocking a still quite conservative society with sexualized public appearances, made her a media darling while also putting a stake in the heart of her wholesome, family entertainment past.
Despite her new salacious reputation, Cher was still landing the coveted movie roles, winning her first Oscar in the process with her performance in the Norman Jewison film MOONSTRUCK. Playing a much more modest person than her larger-than-life self, Cher still managed to excel as a morally conflicted Italian daughter caught up in a romance with her fiance's brother. Cher also managed to revitalize her recording career around this time, scoring hits with her self-titled album Cher in 1987 and her 1989, multi-platinum album Heart of Stone. The hit single from that album, "If I Could Turn Back Time" made more waves with its associated music video, which continued Cher's penchant for controversy by featuring scenes of her in a see thru body suit, revealing her prominent butt tattoos - a very much unheard of thing, especially on a celebrated recording and acting talent in the late 1980s.
More hit music and film roles followed in the 1990s. Her cult movie hit MERMAIDS, a partial tribute to her mother, was not without its troubles behind the scenes, going through multiple directors at Cher's insistence. Bothered by her troubles in that film and suffering from a bout of chronic fatigue sydrome, Cher began to tone down her acting and recording careers for a time. She maintained her income with neumerous infomercials for cosmetics throughout most of the 1990s, earning her millions for her endorsements, but also making her the butt of jokes for her seemingly downgraded career and a noticeable amount of cosmetic surgery she was starting to have done. Smaller roles and more modest recording gigs ensued throughout most of the following years. In 1998, her former husband and US Congressman Sonny Bono was killed in a skiing accident. Her emotional eulogy at his funeral and her mention of him in her autobiographical essay book The First Time painted a fond portrait of their time spent together and a tribute to the esteem she continues to hold for her former husband and performing partner.
That year also saw Cher return to billboard domination with the release of her 23rd studio album, Believe. This represented a new genre shift for her music, taking her into the dance-pop era and granting her another multi-platinum hit with that album's title track, selling over 11 million copies worldwide. This track was one of the first major uses of the now infamous Auto-Tune digital effect, thereafter known as the "Cher Effect" for a time. The 21st century brought even more record sales and a successful "farewell" tour running from 2002 - 2005, which became the highest-grossing female tour in history. In 2005, she started a 3-year run at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, doing an elaborate show, complete with 16 dancers and aerialists, special effects and expansive sets. The show reportedly earned her over $60 million a year.
Decades as a hit in practically every entertainment medium is all the proof anyone needs that she is not only a major talent, but a true phenomenon for generations of people all over the world. Now in her 60s, Cher shows no signs of slowing down. She's still winning awards, still doing movies, still making albums, still doing tours. Her media empire is bigger and more successful than it has ever been, her name more revered and respected than at any other time in her career. Her story is one of the great rags to riches stories. From the young girl holding her shoes together with rubber bands, Cher now helms one of entertainment's biggest empires. She has become everything that ambitious, young school girl from El Centro could have ever hoped for and a true testament to what a determined person can accomplish when they put their mind to it.