COVER STORY : The Cher Conundrum : The Oscar winner/pop diva/exercise goddess talks about acting, relationships, being fortysomething and other serious stuff

Hilary de Vries is a frequent contributor to Calendar

T he house is rented but the voice is familiar.

"Deb, what's going on?"

The slightly strained baritone floats down the stairs into the living room that is as white and spare as an ashram. Out in the garage, where the cars should be, there is a gym's worth of Nautilus machines and a human-size stack of Louis Vuitton luggage. In the kitchen, assistant Debbie Paull pulls bottles of Perrier from the refrigerator. A yellow legal pad on the counter lists the day's menus--a total of 1,400 calories.

The Cher Factory.

She is in training, working out at least two hours a day, trying to knock off six pounds to get in shape for her new projects: her exercise video, "CherFitness"; the music videos accompanying her latest album, "Love Hurts," and her current Atlantic City show that featured an advertising campaign--"Cher's Back"--of Herb Ritts photographs of the singer's tattooed backside, clad in fishnet stockings and a thong.

Her resume is, if anything, overly familiar. Born Cheryl Sarkisian in 1946, she was famous as Cher by the time she was 18. There was her marriage to singer Sony Bono in 1964--a union that produced several hit singles and a hit television show, "The Sonny and Cher Show." They had a daughter, Chastity. In 1974, they divorced. She had an infamous nine-day marriage to Greg Allman and a son, Elijah Blue. She did solo acts in Las Vegas.

Fearful of becoming "the next Dinah Shore," she went to New York to take a part in Robert Altman's 1981 New York production, "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean." She earned good reviews and caught the eye of director Mike Nichols, who cast her in his 1984 film, "Silkwood." She won an Oscar nomination for her performance as Meryl Streep's lesbian roommate. The singer, who had been known in Las Vegas as "The Cat" for her ability to self-resuscitate, had remade herself into an actress.

The years 1986 and 1987 were exceptionally productive. She revived her solo recording career with a hit album, "I Found Someone," and made a trio of films: "The Witches of Eastwick," "Suspect" and "Moonstruck." Her performance as Loretta Castorini, a latter-day Cinderella, was a role that "Moonstruck" director Norman Jewison had to persuade her to take. It earned her the Oscar. She sent Jewison a photograph of herself framed in silver and engraved with the words, "Norman, you were right." Cher had become a serious actress and she had done it in conjunction with all the off-camera talk--the plastic surgery, the tattoos, the Bob Mackie outfits, the younger boyfriends.

She spent the next three years turning down roles, including "The War of the Roses" and the role played by Charles Grodin in "Midnight Run." She did not get the part she wanted, playing opposite Streep in Susan Seidelman's "She-Devil." (Roseanne Barr got the role.) It wasn't until 1990 that she settled on her post-Oscar film, "Mermaids," a controversy-beset Orion project that chewed through two directors, Lasse Hallstrom and Frank Oz, before Richard Benjamin was brought on board to just wrap the whole thing up.

Since then Cher, whose asking price is about $4 million a picture, has not made a film. She has turned down more roles, including the character of Louise in "Thelma & Louise," played by Susan Sarandon. Her production company, Isis, which has yet to produce a single film, now languishes at cash-starved Orion, after one-year deals at Columbia, Paramount and, most recently, Tri-Star.

Friends say it is a simple question of economics: Cher earns more money as a singer than she does as an actress. And her household is large, a sort of floating sorority house composed of various female assistants and friends, her sister and her son--all of whom Cher supports. Commanding a healthy six figures per live show, Cher is the highest-paid entertainer in Las Vegas. And despite less-than-rave reviews for "Love Hurts," her recording career continues at Geffen Records, where she has a multi-album contract.

"Cher has already earned a considerable amount from this album--a lot more than she would from a film," says David Geffen, president of Geffen Records and Cher's former boyfriend. "Look at how many careers she's had. She is a chameleon. And believe me, nobody tells Cher what to do."

"Deb?" comes the disembodied voice again. Paull, armed with the water bottles, hustles a visitor up the stairs.

Cher stands in the doorway of her bedroom--candles flickering, incense burning on the night tables behind her. She is dressed in the requisitely shredded blue jeans and a white cotton undershirt knotted tightly about her bare waist. Her hair falls freely about her shoulders. In bare feet and without makeup, she looks alarmingly young and short. For all of her skin's fabled translucence (there is an aesthetician's magnifying mirror clamped to one bedside table), her face, picture-perfect on magazine and album covers, in person appears more drastically surgically altered.

This is her sanctuary, she says, a room decorated in soothing beige tones, her favorite color, and numerous crucifixes that she collects. She stays inside a lot. "Why should I go out?" she asks. Her friends, her son, "the best chef in the world" are right here under her roof.

For two hours, she warily answers questions, lying almost motionless on her bed--first on her side, and then half-sitting up, her fingers laced behind her head. As the sun slipped from the window panes and the candles flickered in the dusk, illuminating the silver crucifixes hanging from the walls, Cher seemed to reside not in a refuge but in a temple of her own creating.

Question: Why are you so reluctant to define yourself as a serious actress? You won the Oscar. . . .

Answer: I can't keep doing the same thing over and over. I get bad at it and I don't want to be bad. Why I do I have to be (consistent)? Does it mean I'm reliable? That you are the thing that people think you are? No one has ever been able to answer that for me.

Q: What about your film career? You haven't made a film since "Mermaids," and your production company--Isis--has yet to produce anything.

A: Between "Silkwood" and "Mask," I didn't make a movie for two years and nobody noticed. And between "Mask" and "Witches" I didn't make a movie for however long. I don't make movies for money and I don't care how many I make. I make movies, but I don't think of myself as an actress. . . . I never went from being what I was to being a serious actress. I don't like labels and I don't particularly like that one. I'm not a serious actor and I'm not a serious singer. I'm someone who feels a responsibility to the work that I do--whatever it is.

Q: So you worry about people's expectations of you?

A: I don't know. Everybody wants something different. Some people are real upset that I'm not acting and that I'm singing. Some people think that singers shouldn't act. People's ideas of what's appropriate are so ridiculous. I don't know what I'm doing, you know? If I gave up everything tomorrow and became a Buddhist nun that would be appropriate, because that's what's so cool: You can do anything.

Q: Who is upset that you aren't acting?

A: Well, some people want to know why I didn't go gung-ho into acting and why I started making records again. They can't bring these two things into alignment.

Q: So it's the music. . . .

A: Music is just real easy to do. I don't have to hit a mark and be perfect. It's the difference between having a party at your house or going to someone else's party. Acting is like having the party at your house and singing is like going to someone else's. But if I got a great script tomorrow I'd scrap it all.

Q: What does your agent, Ron Meyer, say?

A: He and I are so beyond that agent-client relationship. He gets angry at me when I don't do certain movies that he wants me to do. But he also knows me really well. . . .

Q: What kind of scripts is he sending you? Are you rejecting a lot of roles? You turned down "Thelma & Louise."

A: If you look at the climate of films right now, there aren't a lot of good films being made. Would I want to be in "Kindergarten Cop"? No. There is one movie I would have liked to have a part in--"Dances With Wolves"--but I wouldn't want to be in most others. "Moonstruck" was kind of a fluke. You don't see many Frank Capra kind of films. If you look at what's been released lately, there are not a lot of great women's roles. Except for "Thelma & Louise," and I turned that down.

Q: Why did you?

A: It was a much rougher script when I got it. It probably would have been a good movie to do. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. I'm glad Susan (Sarandon) did it.

Q: You've said that Hollywood is not about women and by all accounts it doesn't seem to be getting any friendlier.

A: I'm not into that thing about women and films. It's hard for women anywhere. Hollywood is no different. I get paid more money than I could possibly imagine. I'm a woman and I make tons of money. I don't make as much as a man but that's just the way it's set up. That's the reality of the way we live. But we still get paid an unbelievable amount of money to do what we would all do for nothing.

Q: Forget the money for a moment. In terms of roles and opportunities, you complained a lot about the treatment you and Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon received during the filming of "Witches of Eastwick." Has that changed?

A: That was like Jack (Nicholson) was the jewel and we were the prongs of the setting. We all did our job well, but the movie wasn't about us, it was about him.

Q: But didn't winning the Oscar for "Moonstruck" give you more clout in the industry? Didn't it change the way people perceived you--and your perceptions of yourself as an actress?

A: I think I act really great, but I don't think of myself as an actress. I don't do it for a living. I love it when I do it but I can't do it that often. I can't be the kind of person who puts out two films a year. When I made three films in a row, I was a mess. I don't like making movies. I like acting and if I never make another movie I will be proud of the movies--except for "Witches"--that I've made. There are a lot of ways of being creative: I redesign my houses, I build houses, I make albums. So I can wait for a good movie to come along.

Q: You've had some less-than-successful encounters with directors, particularly on "Mermaids."

A: I feel if you're stupid, I'm difficult. Lasse Hallstrom was nuts and Frank Oz is an idiot. Just because director is behind their name doesn't mean that everything that comes out of their mouth is etched in stone. I found "Mermaids" and I loved the 15 pages that I read and I got it made. And it was a really horrible experience. Anytime you get rid of a director, it's rough. It's like getting your teeth drilled. If you get rid of a director in this town, nobody wants to let you get away with that, even if the director is a (jerk). Because then it's not safe for directors and actors should know their place.

Q: Do you think that you now have a reputation for being a difficult actress?

A: I guess that's true, but it's more important to tell the truth than to pretend something is not the way it is.

Q: Has that hurt you professionally?

A: I don't know. I don't think so. Ask some directors, some studio heads. I don't care if it has. I've always worked uphill. I loved working with Mike Nichols ("Silkwood") and Robert Altman ("Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean"). I really loved working with Richard Benjamin. I didn't like Peter Yates ("Suspect") or George Miller ("The Witches of Eastwick")--there was no real connection there. I didn't like Frank Oz, and I didn't like Peter Bogdanovich ("Mask"). So only two directors I disliked intensely, two I had no connection with and three that I really loved. My average is OK. I love collaboration and cooperation and you could talk to a lot of directors who love me. You just have to be as smart as I am. If the director is smart, he is worth his weight in gold--otherwise I want him to leave me alone.

Q: Dick Benjamin was as smart as you?

A: He came on in the middle of the second month of filming with no preparation and I think did an amazing job.

Q: Think? Didn't you see "Mermaids"?

A: No, not yet. I'll see it sometime, I'm just not ready yet.

Q: Why are you waiting?

A: Some films I wait longer than others, that's all. It's doing the work that's the work. Meryl (Streep) is just the opposite. She loves to go to dailies. She thinks that's the reward. I think it's already past. I like the actual acting part. When the project is actually far behind me and I can just look at it as a film and forget it's me, I can like it, but I can't do that right away.

Q: Do you look at your videos?

A: No.

Q: How about your albums?

A: I only listen to them until I know they're right.

Q: Do you like the sound of your voice?

A: Not really. It's OK. It's mildly annoying.

Q: Do you worry about your looks a lot?

A: Yeah, I worry. You get older. My looks are always going to be my looks. In this country people talk about your looks going away. Therefore there is only value to having the look you have when you are young and no value to the look you have when you are older.

Q: Do you consider yourself to be someone who's known for something other than your looks?

A: I'm pretty much happy to be who I am now, like I kind of own all the stuff that I have (accomplished). When I met Sonny I was not directed. It was good to be married to Sonny because I learned a lot. . . . I think I've achieved a lot more now. I was really good on the "Sonny and Cher Show" but anyone can be good on television. It doesn't require a lot of skill. Rock 'n' roll doesn't require a lot of skill. There are a lot of people who are really famous who don't have a lot of skill--they just have their finger on the pulse.

Q: Do you?

A: I don't think I have my finger on the pulse as much as some people. I'm kind of out of it. I'm not a teen-ager anymore. I don't go to clubs.

Q: Are you saying you're getting old?

A: I don't know. I do know that the roughest thing in the world is to be an older woman.

Q: Do you think of yourself that way?

A: It's kind of hard to. In my mind, my mother is an older woman. She's 65 and I'm 45, but I don't think of myself that way. I don't know what I am supposed to base myself on--how I look, how I feel, how many years I have? When do I have to cut my hair and quit wearing jeans and my leather jacket and going on motorcycle rides? When do I have to start wearing a bun and stay home?

Q: You've described yourself as a victim and a perpetuator of the myth that women are objects. Do you still think that?

A: Yeah, I am a victim and a perpetuator (laughing). Women as sex goddesses. But that's life.

Q: Do you like being looked at?

A: Yeah. Yeah. There is no getting around that.

Q: Did you always like that?

A: Yeah, because I was always the jokester, the funny one.

Q: When did you start to think of yourself as attractive?

A: I can't really see myself accurately. If I see Michelle (Pfeiffer), I think she is good-looking and she doesn't think she is. I don't look in the mirror and go, "Oh boy, I'm thrilled with what I see." I see what needs to be corrected in order to do my work. I'm an instrument for my work--stage, screen whatever. It all has to come through this body.

Q: Do you ever get worried that eventually that body will fail you?

A: On the days that I'm really stupid. Sometimes I get in a real weird mood and feel insecure about a lot of different things--like there isn't enough of everything that I need. But then that passes. Whoever thought the Stones would still be touring at 50? I've got problems that are more immediate.

Q: What about money? Do you worry about that?

A: Money has never been a priority and never a problem. Sometimes I have money and sometimes I don't and my life never really changes.

Q: What about your much-publicized relationships with younger men? Do you feel about men the way you do about money--that they will always be there?

A: Yeah, it is sort of like money. I love all the men I've been with but the next one is always better than the last one. But I'm not real social. I don't go out much and I don't go out with someone unless I think I'm going to spend six months with them. I've been alone now for about a year and a half and I like being in a relationship better than not being in one. But I've been real happy so I don't know. Probably Richie (Sambora, guitarist for Bon Jovi) and I will get married or we will never see each other again. Or I'll just hang out until I find somebody that I like.

Q: And where are your kids?

A: Chas lives in the Valley and Elijah is in his room.

Q: What are they doing these days?

A: Elijah plays the guitar and Chas is pretty much working on this album. But she writes music too. She is very driven. It's strange, she writes that kind of retro '60s thing and dresses like how I used to dress. But I don't care what my kids do as long as they enjoy it.

Q: And your relationship with your mother? You didn't talk to her for almost two years?

A: My mother and I have a real weird relationship. She is real strange and so am I. We have to fight it out. If I don't think I'm being treated properly, then I'm mad.

Q: What do you want to do now?

A: I don't know . . . in this town you are only as good as what you did you yesterday so if you don't do anything for five tomorrows, you're not good. I don't have a real burning desire to work with anybody. If somebody came up with a real interesting project . . . but I don't call my agent and say, "Find me a movie." I have been working on something that is more important to me than anything.

Q: What is that?

A: "The Enchanted Cottage"--the old Dorothy McGuire and Robert Young film from the '40s. Jon Peters bought the film for me. It's something I saw when I was 11 and I said, one day I'm going to make this film. But I couldn't get anyone interested in it. I'm working on getting a script now. It's going to be a real different movie, because everything I do is going to be in it--music, acting, dance. All the people who have been writing my albums are going to be working on it and I've got my own money in it so I'll have some co-producing deal with it.

Q: Are you thinking of directing it?

A: I would direct it in a heartbeat, but I don't think that I could direct and act in it. I'm positive I couldn't do both.

Q: Why are we having this conversation in your bedroom?

A: Because I've been doing this for 25 years and I don't feel like going anywhere. If we were in my own house we could be in any room--but in this house, this is the room that I feel most stable and comfortable in. This is my sanctuary.

Q: Judging from these candles and crosses, somebody might think you were a religious person?

A: Yeah, I am but I'm not a Catholic or anything. I don't belong to any group but I believe in God and I'm very close to God so that seems to be religious. . . . I just like the image and the symbol. To me it's really beautiful. (These crosses) are Spanish and Mexican with the silver nailed on. Some I got in Germany and some in England and some in New York and some my friends gave me.

Q: What about those rosaries on the bed posts?

A: I got them in a pawn shop.

Q: What are you going to do when I leave?

A: Well, I already worked out today and I took a shower. I'm going to watch (the TV show) "Cops" because I like it a lot. Probably when you leave I'll watch CNN and I'll bead and I'll read and have something to eat.

Q: Bead?

A: I bead necklaces. I've been doing it since the '60s. I just make them. It takes me about 2 1/2 hours.

Q: Are you as happy now as you've ever been?

A: I was happier a couple of other times in my life.

Q: When?

A: One time I was doing a play in New York ("Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean") and the other time I had just met Robert (Camiletti) and we had started living together and I was doing "Moonstruck" and the kids were there and I was doing an album at the same time and I was living in New York and all the bases were covered and I was completely content.

Q: Do you think your life has been a testament to your will to become famous?

A: Yeah, and I'm not sure I know what I want to be when I grow up.

Q: Does it get harder to change yourself as you get older? Does being Cher get in the way? Does the persona get bigger than the person?

A: That question is not answerable. Because the person and the persona are like Siamese twins, like this (holds up her hands). They can't be separated. There is no persona without the person and the person is an extension of the persona. They are the two sides of the same coin.

A few days later, Cher telephones to talk further, because, she says, "the one thing I didn't talk to you about is how much I love acting." It is not yet 9 a.m. and she is yawning--"I'm having a hard time sleeping now"--and less guarded than she was in person a few days earlier.

"So, Sunday, my mom and I went to 'The Doctor.' I don't know if it's a brilliant movie, but I liked (Bill Hurt) a lot and I liked the way the movie didn't take any cheap shots. I got so much from watching his performance. The one thing that I love about (acting) is that I am able to get the same feeling from acting that I get from watching other actors. It's so exciting and so pure. I think that's why I don't do so many films. It's very hard when you see movies that would not only be entertaining but beneficial to people and they're just swept aside.

Q: So there are artistic opportunities making a film that are not available to you as a singer?

A: Oh, I'm really limited as a singer. I'm a much better actress than a singer. I'm limited by vocal range and control and (things) like that. Acting, I'm limited by certain things, like I'll probably never do Shakespeare. Of course, I say that and that will be what I do next. But there are things that I can do really well (as an actress) and I'm always trying to explore what those are. But I think of my movies as different--I don't think of them as my work. I consider everything else my work, but not acting.

Q: Does that make it easier not to act so often? Isn't that kind of an excuse?

A: It's harder now because people expect a lot from me as an actress. It's like everybody wrote off Whoopi Goldberg, and now she is the Lazarus of actresses. She's talented. There is nothing you can do to stop talented people. I chose to do "Mermaids" against, what the hell was that movie (yawning), you know the one about divorce with Michael Douglas. . . .

Q: "War of the Roses"?

A: Yeah. I knew that was going to be a hit and I thought it was a great script but I just thought it was too mean and I don't have to do movies that I don't believe in. For me it's more about life experiences; making films and my growth in life is real intertwined. I have to be really committed. I have to fall in love with a script. Because I can make money (other ways). If I was an artist, I would just paint what I am. But because I'm an actress, I have to find a character to express who I am and that's not so easy.

Q: If you have to love a role so much, how do you justify committing so much time and effort to an exercise video, or a music video?

A: It's not the same kind of interest. It's not love, but this exercise video is tied up in my own self-image and it's real important to me. I know how difficult it is for women.

Q: Why are we really having this second conversation?

A: I'm real defensive and I don't like people poking around in my life and it's difficult to do (an interview) in one day. You got one side of me that's for sure. But you didn't get everything. It bothers me that people have an idea what I should be doing. It would piss you off. And questions about whether I'm talking to my mother or not. . . .

Q: You've said that you have a very complex relationship with your mother and I was thinking about what you said about her. . . .

A: Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute! My mother and I didn't talk for almost two years because she would not (accept me). So screw it, mother, you have a choice: Either you can accept me for who I am or you don't get to have me around. I just know that I was terrified to talk to her. She thought I was too big for my britches and that it was her job to point out every bad thing that I did.

Q: And this has changed?

A: I had a real bizarre life. But my mother is really trying to accept who I am--that I'm not 10 years old and she can't control me. She has to like me in spite of that. Like I have to like my daughter in spite of the things that I don't like about her. It's a test to see if you can love your children if they don't conform to your expectations. And if you're honest with yourself you won't make the same mistakes with your children that your parents did. My mother used to beat me because her mother beat her, but that just never came up with my kids. You can't beat people into doing what you want them to do. I don't think I am as angry as I used to be. I don't blame her for my life anymore. That's a real big step.

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