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Cher (born May 20, 1946 as Cherilyn Sarkisian) is an American singer, actress, and fashion icon. Described as embodying female autonomy in a male-dominated industry, she is known for her distinctive contralto singing voice and for having worked in numerous areas of entertainment, as well as adopting a variety of styles and appearances during her five-decades-long career, which has led to her being nicknamed the Goddess of Pop.
Cher gained popularity in 1965 as one-half of the folk rock husband–wife duo Sonny & Cher after the release of their song “I Got You Babe“. She began her solo career simultaneously, releasing in 1966 her first million-seller song, “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)“. Goldmine magazine’s Phill Marder described her as the leader of an effort in the 1960s to “advance feminine rebellion in the rock world [and] the prototype of the female rock star, setting the standard for appearance [and] attitude”. After the duo had lost its young audience owing to their monogamous, anti-drug lifestyle during the period of the sexual revolution and the rise of the drug culture, she returned to stardom in the 1970s as a television personality with her shows The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, watched by over 30 million viewers weekly during its three-year run, and Cher. She became a fashion trendsetter by wearing elaborate outfits on her television shows. While working on television, she established herself as a solo artist with the number-one singles “Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves“, “Half-Breed“, and “Dark Lady“. After her divorce from Sonny Bono in 1975, Cher’s much-publicized personal life led to a decline in her career, although she launched a minor comeback in 1979 with the disco-oriented album Take Me Home and earned $300,000 a week for her 1980–1982 residency show in Las Vegas.
In the early 1980s, Cher made her Broadway debut, and then starred in the film Silkwood, which earned her a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1983. In the ensuing years, she starred in films such as Mask, The Witches of Eastwick, and Moonstruck, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1988. She made her directorial debut in the 1996 film If These Walls Could Talk. At the same time, she established herself as a rock singer by releasing platinum albums such as Heart of Stone (1989) and top-ten singles such as “I Found Someone” and “If I Could Turn Back Time“. She reached a new commercial peak in 1998 with the song “Believe“, which features the pioneering use of Auto-Tune, also known as the “Cher effect”. Her 2002–2005 Living Proof: The Farewell Tour ended up as the highest-grossing music tour by a female artist then. In 2008, she signed a $180 million deal to headline the Colosseum at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for three years. After seven years of absence, she returned to film in the 2010 musical Burlesque. Cher’s first studio album in 12 years, Closer to the Truth (2013), became her highest-charting solo album in the U.S. to date.
Biographer Mark Bego wrote, “No one in the history of show business has had a career of the magnitude and scope of Cher’s.” She has won an Academy Award, a Grammy Award, an Emmy Award, a special CFDA Fashion Award, three Golden Globe Awards, and a Cannes Film Festival award, among several other honors. She has sold 100 million records worldwide, making her one of the best-selling music artists of all time. She is the only artist to date to have a number-one single on a Billboard chart in each of the past six decades. Outside of her music and acting, she is noted for her political views, philanthropic endeavors and activism for LGBT rights.
1960s: Sonny and Cher’s rise and fall from pop stardom
At age 16, Cher dropped out of school, left her mother’s house, and moved with a friend into Los Angeles, where she took acting classes and worked to support herself. She danced in small clubs along Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, introducing herself to performers, managers, and agents. According to biographer Connie Berman, “[Cher] did not hesitate to approach anyone she thought could help her get a break, make a new contact, or get an audition.” Cher met performer Sonny Bono, 11 years her senior, in November 1962 when he was working for record producer Phil Spector. Cher’s friend moved out, and Cher accepted Sonny’s offer to be his housekeeper. Sonny introduced Cher to Spector, who used her as a backup singer on many recordings, including the Ronettes‘ “Be My Baby” and the Righteous Brothers‘ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’“. Spector produced her first single, the unsuccessful “Ringo, I Love You“, issued under the name Bonnie Jo Mason. Cher and Sonny became close friends, eventual lovers, and performed their own wedding ceremony in a hotel room in Tijuana, Mexico, in October 1964. Although Sonny had wanted to launch Cher as a solo artist, she encouraged him to perform with her because she suffered from stage fright, and so he began joining her onstage, singing the harmonies. Cher disguised her nervousness by looking at Sonny; she later commented that she sang to the people through him. In late 1964, they emerged as a duo called Caesar & Cleo, releasing the poorly received singles “Do You Wanna Dance?“, “Love Is Strange” and “Let the Good Times Roll“.
Cher signed with Liberty Records‘ Imperial imprint in the end of 1964, and Sonny came along as her producer. The single “Dream Baby”, released under the name “Cherilyn”, received airplay in Los Angeles. Encouraged by Imperial, Cher worked with Sonny on her second solo single on the label, a cover version of Bob Dylan‘s “All I Really Want to Do“, which peaked at number 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1965. Meanwhile, the Byrds had released their own version of the same song. When competition on the singles charts started between Cher and the Byrds, the group’s record label began to promote the B-side of the Byrds’ single. Roger McGuinn of the Byrds commented, “We loved the Cher version … We didn’t want to hassle. So we just turned our record over.” The namesake album, later described by AllMusic‘s Tim Sendra as “one of the stronger folk-pop records of the era”, reached the Billboard 200 top 20, remaining on the chart for six months.
In early 1965, Caesar and Cleo began calling themselves Sonny & Cher. Following the recording of “I Got You Babe“, they traveled to England in July 1965 at the Rolling Stones‘ advice; Cher recalled, “[they] had told us … that Americans just didn’t get us and that if we were going to make it big, we were going to have to go to England.” According to writer Cintra Wilson, “English newspaper photographers showed up when S&C were thrown out of the London Hilton [because of their outfits] the night they arrived—literally overnight, they were stars. London went gaga for the heretofore-unseen S&C look, which was neither mod nor rocker.” “I Got You Babe” topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart and became, according to Allmusic’s Bruce Eder, “one of the biggest-selling and most beloved pop/rock hits of the mid-’60s”. As the song knocked the Beatles off the top of the British charts, English teenagers began to emulate Sonny and Cher’s fashion style, such as bell-bottoms, striped pants, ruffled shirts, industrial zippers and fur vests. Upon their return to the U.S., the duo made several appearances on the teen-pop showcases Hullabaloo and Shindig! and completed a tour of some of the largest arenas in the U.S. Their shows attracted Cher look-alikes—”girls who were ironing their hair straight and dyeing it black, to go with their vests and bell-bottoms”. Cher expanded her creative range by designing a clothing line.
Sonny and Cher’s first album, Look at Us (1965), released for the Atco Records division of Atlantic Records, spent eight consecutive weeks at number two on the Billboard 200 behind the Beatles’ Help!. Their smooth sound and warm harmonies became popular, and the duo successfully competed with the dominant British Invasion and Motown sounds of the era. Several mid-level hits followed, before “The Beat Goes On” returned the duo to the U.S. top ten in 1967. Sonny and Cher charted 11 Billboard top 40 singles between 1965 and 1972, including six top-ten hits. At one point, they had five songs in the top 20, a feat equaled only by Elvis Presley and the Beatles. By the end of 1967, they had sold 40 million records worldwide and had become, according to Time magazine’s Ginia Bellafante, rock’s “it” couple.
Cher’s following releases kept her solo career fully competitive with her work with Sonny. The Sonny Side of Chér (1966) features “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)“, a song with exotic-sounding Gypsy violins and a dramatic vocal delivery, which reached number two in America and became her first solo million-seller. Chér, also released in 1966, contains the Burt Bacharach and Hal David composition “Alfie“, which was added to the credits of the American version of the 1966 film of the same name and became the first stateside version of the popular song. With Love, Chér (1968) includes songs described by biographer Mark Bego as “little soap-opera stories set to rock music” such as the U.S. top-ten hit “You Better Sit Down Kids“.
By the end of the 1960s, Sonny and Cher’s music had ceased to chart. According to biographer Connie Berman, “the heavy, loud sound of groups like Jefferson Airplane and Cream made the folk-rock music of Sonny and Cher seem too bland.” Cher later commented, “I loved the new sound of Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, the electric-guitar oriented bands. Left to myself, I would have changed with the times because the music really turned me on. But Son[ny] didn’t like it—and that was that.” Their monogamous, anti-drug lifestyle had lost its popular appeal among American youths during the period of the sexual revolution and the rise of the drug culture. According to biographer Mark Bego, “in spite of their revolutionary unisex clothes, Sonny and Cher were quite ‘square’ when it came to sex and drugs.” To recapture their young audience, the duo produced and starred in the film Good Times (1967), in which they are featured in childish skits. The movie was unsuccessful.
Cher’s next album, Backstage (1968), in which she runs in diverse musical directions, including Brazilian jazz and anti-war protest settings, was not a success. In 1969, she was dropped from Imperial Records. Sonny and Cher had been dropped from Atco; however, the label wanted to sign Cher for a solo album. 3614 Jackson Highway (1969) was recorded without the guidance of Sonny and incorporates experiments in blue-eyed soul; Allmusic’s Mark Deming proclaimed it “the finest album of her career”. Displeased with the 3614 Jackson Highway album, Sonny prevented Cher from releasing more recordings for Atco.
Meanwhile, Sonny repeatedly cheated on Cher, and by the end of the 1960s their relationship had begun to unravel. According to People magazine, “[Sonny] tried desperately to win her back, telling her he wanted to marry and start a family.” They married after she gave birth to Chastity Bono (who years later became Chaz Bono) on March 4, 1969. That year, the duo spent $500,000 and mortgaged their home to make the film Chastity. Written and directed by Sonny, who did not appear in the movie, it tells the story of a young woman, played by Cher, searching for the meaning of life. The art film failed, putting the couple $190,000 in debt with back taxes. However, some critics noted that Cher showed signs of acting potential. At the lowest point of their career, the duo put together a nightclub routine that relied on a more adult approach to sound and style. According to writer Cintra Wilson, “Their lounge act was so depressing, people started heckling them. Then Cher started heckling back. Sonny … reprimanded her; then she’d heckle Sonny”. The heckling became a highlight of the act and made it a success. Television executives took note, and the couple began making guest appearances on prime-time shows, in which they presented a “new, sophisticated, and mature” image. Cher adopted alluring, low-cut gowns that became her signature outfits.
1970s: Television and musical success, solo career
CBS head of programming Fred Silverman offered Sonny and Cher their own television program after he noticed them as guest-hosts on The Merv Griffin Show in 1971. The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour premiered as a summer replacement series on August 1, 1971, and had six episodes. Because it was a ratings success, the couple returned that December with a full-time show.
Watched by more than 30 million viewers weekly during its three-year run, The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour received 12 Emmy Award nominations. Praised for their comedic timing, deadpan Cher mocked Sonny about his looks and short stature. According to biographer Connie Berman, they “exuded an aura of warmth, playfulness, and caring that only enhanced their appeal. Viewers were further enchanted when a young Chastity also appeared on the show. They seemed like a perfect family.” Cher honed her acting skills in sketch comedy roles such as the brash housewife Laverne, the sardonic waitress Rosa, and historical vamps, including Cleopatra and Miss Sadie Thompson. The designer clothing Cher wore were part of the show’s attraction, and her style influenced the fashion trends of the 1970s.
In 1971, Sonny and Cher signed with the Kapp Records division of MCA, and the latter singer released the single “Classified 1A”, in which she sings from the point of view of a soldier who bleeds to death in Vietnam. Written by Sonny, who felt that her first solo single on the label had to be poignant and topical, radio station programmers quickly rejected the song as uncommercial. Since Sonny’s first attempts at reviving their recording career as a duo had also been unsuccessful, Kapp Records recruited Snuff Garrett to work with them. He produced Cher’s first solo number-one single, “Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves“, which “proved that … Garrett knew more about Cher’s voice and her persona as a singer than Sonny did”, writes Cher biographer Mark Bego. It became the biggest-selling single in the history of MCA Records then and was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. Released in September 1971, the Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves album features cover versions of contemporary hits such as “The Way of Love“, a U.S. top-ten single that established Cher’s more confident image as a recording artist. In 1972, Cher released the all-ballad set Foxy Lady, demonstrating the evolution of her vocal abilities. That year, Garrett quit as producer after disagreeing with Sonny about the kind of material Cher should record.
At Sonny’s insistence, in 1973 Cher released an album of standards called Bittersweet White Light, which was unsuccessful. That year, lyricist Mary Dean brought Garrett “Half-Breed“, a song about the daughter of a Cherokee mother and a white father, that she had written especially for Cher. Although Garrett did not have Cher as a client at the time, he was convinced that “it’s a smash for Cher and for nobody else”, so he held the song for months until he got Cher back. “Half-Breed” was featured on the album of the same name and became Cher’s second number-one single. Both the album and the single were certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Cher’s third number-one single was “Dark Lady“, in 1974, from the namesake album. Later that year, she released a Greatest Hits album that, according to Billboard magazine, proved her to be “one of the most consistent hitmakers of the past five years”, as well as a “proven superstar who always sells records”. Between 1971 and 1974, Sonny and Cher’s career was revived with four albums released under Kapp Records and MCA Records, including the top-ten charting singles “All I Ever Need Is You” and “A Cowboy’s Work Is Never Done“. Cher commented on her hectic schedule during this period: “I could do a whole album … in three days … We were on the road … and we were doing the Sonny & Cher Show”.
By late 1972, Cher’s marriage with Sonny was over, but appearances were maintained until 1974. “The public still thinks we are married,” Sonny wrote in his diary at the time, “[and] that’s the way it has to be.” In February 1974, Sonny filed for a separation, citing “irreconcilable differences”. A week later, Cher countered with a divorce suit and charged Sonny with “involuntary servitude”, claiming that he withheld money from her and deprived her of her rightful share of their earnings. The couple battled in court over finances and the custody of Chastity, which was eventually granted to Cher. Their divorce was finalized on June 26, 1975.
During the divorce proceedings, Cher had a two-year romantic relationship with record executive David Geffen, who freed her from her business arrangement with Sonny, under which she was required to work exclusively for Cher Enterprises, the company he ran. Geffen secured a $2.5 million deal for Cher with Warner Bros. Records and reunited her with Spector to record and release a test single to launch Warner-Spector Records, Spector’s Warner specialty label. The resulting 1974 single, “A Woman’s Story”, and a follow-up duet with Harry Nilsson, “A Love Like Yours“, were commercial failures. Both singles received late recognition; DMA magazine described the latter as having “one of the catchiest choral hooks ever recorded”.
In 1974, Cher won the Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series – Comedy or Musical for The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. Sonny went on without Cher and renamed the show The Sonny Comedy Revue. It was canceled after six weeks.
Cher returned to television with a solo show on February 16, 1975. Entitled Cher, it began as a highly rated special with guests Flip Wilson, Elton John, and Bette Midler. Cloris Leachman and Jack Albertson won Emmy Awards for their guest appearances, and the show received nine more Emmy Award nominations that year. The show was produced by David Geffen and centered on Cher’s songs, monologues, comedy performance, and her variation of clothing, which was the largest for a weekly TV show. Early critical reception was favorable; Los Angeles Times exclaimed that “Sonny without Cher was a disaster. Cher without Sonny, on the other hand, could be the best thing that’s happened to weekly television this season.”
Cher lasted for less than a year, replaced by a Sonny and Cher show; she said, “doing a show alone was more than I could handle.” On June 30, 1975, four days after finalizing her divorce from Sonny, Cher married rock musician Gregg Allman, co-founder of The Allman Brothers Band. She filed for divorce nine days later, citing his heroin and liquor problems, but they reconciled and remained married until 1979. They had one son, Elijah Blue, on July 10, 1976. Under the rubric “Allman and Woman”, they released the 1977 duet album Two the Hard Way, later regarded by History as “the worst of either artist’s respective career”. Sonny and Cher’s TV reunion, The Sonny and Cher Show, lasted from February 1976 to mid-1977. Although the show was a ratings success on its premiere, Cher’s reportedly extravagant lifestyle, her troubled relationship with Allman, and Sonny and Cher’s insult humour about their divorce caused a public backlash that eventually contributed to its failure.
Encouraged by Geffen, Cher began work on her first album for Warner in 1975. According to biographer Mark Bego, “it was their intention that [this album] was going to make millions of fans around the world take her seriously as a rock star, and not just a pop singer.” Despite Cher’s efforts to develop her musical range by listening to artists such as Stevie Wonder, Elton John, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan, the resulting album, Stars, received negative reviews. Janet Maslin of The Village Voice wrote, “Cher is just no rock and roller … Image, not music, is Cher Bono’s main ingredient for both records and TV.” The album has since become a cult classic and is generally considered among her best work. Her next albums, I’d Rather Believe in You (1976) and Cherished (1977), the latter a return to her pop style at Warner’s producers insistence, were also unsuccessful. She returned to prime time television with the specials Cher… Special (1978), nominated for three Emmy Awards, and Cher and Other Fantasies (1979). In 1978, she legally changed her name from Cherilyn Sarkisian La Piere Bono Allman to Cher, to eliminate the use of four surnames.
A single mother with two children, Cher realized that she had to make a choice about the direction of her singing career. Deciding to temporarily abandon her desire to be a rock singer, she signed with Casablanca Records and launched a comeback with the single “Take Me Home” and the album of the same name, both of which capitalized on the disco craze. They became instant hits, remained bestsellers for more than half of 1979, and were certified gold by the RIAA. Sales of the album may have been boosted by the image of a scantily clad Cher in a Viking outfit on its cover. Despite her initial lack of enthusiasm with disco music, she changed her mind after the success, commenting, “I never thought I would want to do disco … [but] it’s terrific! It’s great music to dance to. I think that danceable music is what everybody wants.” Encouraged by the popularity of Take Me Home, Cher planned to return to rock music in her next album, Prisoner (1979). The album’s cover features Cher draped in chains as a “prisoner of the press”, which caused controversy among feminist groups for her perceived portrayal of a sex slave. Cher included rock songs, which made the disco release seem unfocused and thus a commercial failure. Prisoner produced the single “Hell on Wheels“, featured on the soundtrack of the film Roller Boogie. The song exploits the late 1970s roller-skating fad and contributed to its popularity.
1980s: Hit and misses, film success and return to musical stardom
In 1980, alongside Italian record producer Giorgio Moroder, Cher wrote her last Casablanca disco recording, “Bad Love”, for the film Foxes. She formed the rock band Black Rose that year with her then-lover, guitarist Les Dudek. Although Cher was the lead singer, she did not receive top billing because she wanted to create the impression that all band members were equal. Since she was easily recognized when she performed with the band, she developed a punk look by cutting her hair and dyeing it bright yellow, green, and pink. Despite appearances on television, the band failed to earn concert dates. Their album Black Rose received unfavorable reviews; Cher told Rolling Stone magazine, “The critics panned us, and they didn’t attack the record. They attacked me. It was like, ‘How dare Cher sing rock & roll?'” During the band’s active period, Cher was also doing a residency show in Las Vegas, earning $300,000 a week. Black Rose later broke up in 1981. That year, she released the UK top-five hit “Dead Ringer for Love“, a duet with musician Meat Loaf, later described by Allmusic’s Donald A. Guarisco as “one of the more inspired rock duets of 1980s”. In 1982, Columbia Records released the album I Paralyze, later deemed by biographer Mark Bego as Cher’s “strongest and most consistent solo album in years” despite its disappointing sales.
With decreasing album sales and a lack of successful singles, Cher decided to further develop her acting career. Her earliest entertainment ambitions had been in film, as opposed to music; but she had no films to her credit except the poorly received Good Times and Chastity, and the Hollywood establishment did not take her seriously as an actor. She moved to New York in 1982 to take acting lessons with Lee Strasberg, founder of the Actors Studio, but never enrolled after her plans changed. She auditioned for and was signed by director Robert Altman for the Broadway stage production Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, playing a member of a James Dean fan club holding a 20-year reunion. That year, Altman cast her again in the film adaptation of the same title, which earned her a Golden Globe Award nomination. Cher credits Altman for launching her acting career: “Without Bob [Robert Altman] I would have never had a film career. Everyone told him not to cast me … I am convinced that Bob was the only one who was brave enough to do it.”
Director Mike Nichols, who had seen Cher onstage in Jimmy Dean, offered her the part of Dolly Pelliker, a plant co-worker and Meryl Streep‘s lesbian roommate in the controversial film Silkwood. When it premiered in 1983, audiences questioned Cher’s ability as an actress. She recalls attending a film preview during which the audience laughed when they saw her name in the credits. For her engaging and nearly flawless performance, Cher was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and won a Golden Globe Award.
In 1985, Cher formed the film production company Isis. Her next film, Mask (1985), reached number two at the box office and was Cher’s first critical and commercial success as a leading actress. For her role as a drug addict biker with a teenage son who has a severe physical deformity, she won the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival. During the making of the film, however, she clashed with director Peter Bogdanovich. She attended the 58th Academy Awards in a tarantula-like costume “to show her scorn for the ‘system'”, according to authors James Parish and Michael Pitts. The incident garnered her much publicity.
In May 1986, Cher made her first guest appearance on the Late Night with David Letterman show. When asked by Letterman why she had been reluctant to be a guest on his program, she replied that she thought he was an “asshole”. In 1987, she returned to the show with Sonny to sing “I Got You Babe” for the first time in ten years.
By 1987, Cher was receiving attention for her Jack LaLanne Health Clubs commercials and controversial lifestyle, including her tattoos, plastic surgeries, exhibitionist fashion sense, and affairs with younger men. She dated actors Val Kilmer, Eric Stoltz, and Tom Cruise, hockey player Ron Duguay, film producer Josh Donen, Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora, and Rob Camilletti, an 18-years-younger bagel baker she met in 1986. Dubbed “Bagel Boy” by the press, Camilletti made headlines after he was charged with assault in 1988 for ramming Cher’s Ferrari into a paparazzo’s car. The couple broke up the next year.
Cher starred in three films in 1987. In Suspect, she played a public defender who is both helped and romanced by one of the jurors in the homicide case she is handling. Along with Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer, she starred as one of three divorcees involved with a mysterious and wealthy visitor from hell who comes to a small New England town in the comedy horror The Witches of Eastwick. The film grossed $31.8 million in domestic film rentals. Cher accepted a lead role in Norman Jewison‘s romantic comedy Moonstruck, which grossed $34.3 million in domestic film rentals. For her performance as an Italian widow in love with her fiancée’s younger brother, Cher won the Academy Award for Best Actress and the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy. Received with a standing ovation during her Oscar acceptance, she said, “I don’t think that this award means that I’m somebody, but maybe I’m on my way.” By 1988, Cher had become one of the most acclaimed and bankable actresses of the decade, commanding $1 million per film. That year, she released the fragrance Uninhibited, which earned about $15 million in its first year sales, and the exercise book Forever Fit, which sold about 100,000 copies in 1988.
In 1987, Cher signed with Geffen Records and revived her musical career with what DMA magazine describes as “her most impressive string of hits to date”, establishing her as a “serious rock and roller … a crown that she’d worked long and hard to capture”. Michael Bolton, Jon Bon Jovi, Desmond Child, and Richie Sambora produced her first Geffen album, the RIAA-certified platinum Cher. It features the rock ballad “I Found Someone“, her first top-ten hit in more than eight years.
Certified triple platinum by the RIAA, Cher’s 19th studio album Heart of Stone (1989) has sold 11 million copies worldwide. The music video for the album’s first single, “If I Could Turn Back Time“, caused controversy due to Cher’s performance on a Navy warship, straddling a cannon, and wearing a see-through bodystocking that revealed her tattooed buttocks. Responding to pressure from older viewers, MTV agreed to show the video from 9 pm to 6 am. The song was an international number-one hit and quickly became one of Cher’s most successful singles. In 1989, Cher launched the Heart of Stone Tour (also known as The Cher Extravaganza), which continued until 1990. Most critics liked the tour’s nostalgic nature and admired Cher’s showmanship. Its parent television special Cher at the Mirage was filmed during a concert in Las Vegas.
1990s: Multimedia success, health and professional struggles, high-profile comeback
In her first film in three years, Mermaids (1990), Cher paid tribute to her own mother in this story about a woman who moves her two daughters from town to town at the end of a love affair. She conflicted with the film’s first two directors, Lasse Hallström and Frank Oz, who were replaced by Richard Benjamin. Believing Cher would be the star attraction, the producers allowed her creative control for the film. One of the two songs Cher recorded for the film’s soundtrack, “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss)“, topped the UK charts for five weeks and reached the top five in most European countries. Cher’s final studio album for Geffen Records, Love Hurts (1991), stayed at number one in the UK for six weeks and produced four hit singles, including the UK top-ten hit “Love and Understanding“.
In later years, Cher commented that her Geffen label “hit years” had been especially significant to her, “because I was getting to do songs that I really loved … songs that really represented me, and they were popular!” In 1992, Madame Tussauds wax museum honored her as one of the five most beautiful women of history by creating a life-size statue. That year, she embarked on the Love Hurts Tour and released two fitness videos, CherFitness: A New Attitude and CherFitness: Body Confidence, which became big sellers in the genre. The compilation album Cher’s Greatest Hits: 1965–1992, released in Europe, peaked at number one in the UK for seven weeks. It featured three new songs.
Partially due to her experiences filming Mermaids, Cher turned down leading roles in such films as The War of the Roses and Thelma & Louise. According to Berman, “After the success of Moonstruck, she was so worried about her next career move that she was overly cautious.” In the early 1990s, she contracted the Epstein–Barr virus and developed chronic fatigue syndrome, which left her too exhausted to sustain her music and film careers. Because she needed to earn money and was not healthy enough to work on other projects, she starred in infomercials launching health, beauty, and diet products, which earned her close to $10 million in fees. The skits were parodied on David Letterman’s show and Saturday Night Live and critics considered a sellout, many suggesting her film career was over. She told Ladies’ Home Journal, “Suddenly I became the Infomercial Queen and it didn’t occur to me that people would focus on that and strip me of all my other things.”
Cher made cameo appearances in the Robert Altman films The Player (1992) and Prêt-à-Porter (1994). In late 1994, she started a mail-order catalogue business, Sanctuary, selling Gothic-themed products. She contributed a rock version of “I Got You Babe” to MTV’s animated series Beavis and Butt-head. Alongside Chrissie Hynde, Neneh Cherry, and Eric Clapton, she topped the UK charts in 1995 with the charity single “Love Can Build a Bridge“. Later that year, she signed with Warner Music UK’s label WEA and recorded an album titled It’s a Man’s World, which came out of her conceit of covering men’s songs from a woman’s point of view. In general, critics favored the album and its R&B influences, some saying her voice had improved. Released in Europe at the end of 1995 and in North America, under Reprise Records, in the summer of 1996, It’s a Man’s World spawned the UK top-ten singles “Walking in Memphis” and “One by One“.
In 1996, Cher played the wife of a businessman who hires a hitman to murder her in the Chazz Palminteri-scripted dark comedy film Faithful, which was poorly received by critics. Despite being praised for her role, she refused to promote the film, claiming it was “horrible”. Cher achieved a comeback when she starred in and made her directing debut with a segment in the abortion-themed anthology If These Walls Could Talk (1996), which drew the highest ratings for an original HBO movie to date. For her role as a doctor murdered by an anti-abortion fanatic, she was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Series, Miniseries or Television Film. Cher’s music played a large role in the American TV series The X-Files episode “The Post-Modern Prometheus“, which aired in November 1997. Written for her, it tells the story of a scientist’s grotesque creature who adores Cher because of her role in Mask, in which her character cares for her disfigured son.
Following Sonny Bono’s death in a skiing accident in 1998, Cher delivered a moving eulogy at his funeral, calling him “the most unforgettable character” she had met. She paid tribute to him by hosting the affectionate CBS special Sonny & Me: Cher Remembers, which aired on May 20, 1998. That month, Sonny and Cher received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Television. Later that year, Cher published the book The First Time, a collection of autobiographical essays of “first-time” events in her life, which critics praised for revealing the singer to be down to earth and genuine. Although the manuscript was almost finished when Sonny died, she could not decide whether to include his death in the book; she feared being criticized for capitalizing on the event. Cher later told Rolling Stone, “I couldn’t ignore it, could I? I might have if I cared more about what people think than what I know is right for me.”
Cher’s 22nd studio album Believe (1998) marked a musical departure for her, as it comprises dance-pop songs, many of which capture the “disco-era essence”; Cher said, ‘It’s not that I think this is a ’70s album … but there’s a thread, a consistency running through it that I love.'” Believe was certified quadruple platinum by the RIAA and went on to be certified gold or platinum in 39 countries. The album’s title track reached number one in more than 25 countries and sold over 11 million copies worldwide. It became the best-selling recording of 1998 and 1999, and Cher’s biggest hit to date. “Believe” topped the UK charts for seven weeks and became the biggest-selling single of all time by a female artist in the UK. The song won the Grammy Award for Best Dance Recording.
In January 1999, Cher performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl XXXIII. She sang on the television special VH1 Divas Live 2, which aired in March 1999. According to VH1, it was the most popular, and most watched program in the television network’s history, as Cher’s presence was “a huge part of making it exactly that.” The Do You Believe? tour ran from 1999 to 2000 and was sold-out in every American city it was booked in, amassing a global audience of more than 1.5 million. Its companion television special, Cher: Live in Concert – From the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, was the highest rated original HBO program in 1998–99, receiving seven Emmy Award nominations. Later in 1999, Cher released the compilation album The Greatest Hits, reaching the top ten in most European countries. Geffen Records compiled its own If I Could Turn Back Time: Cher’s Greatest Hits, certified gold by the RIAA.
Cher’s next film was Franco Zeffirelli‘s Tea with Mussolini (1999). Although it got mixed reviews, she received critical accolades for her performance as a rich, flamboyant American socialite whose visit to Italy is not welcome among the Englishwomen; one reviewer from Film Comment wrote, “It is only after she appears that you realize how sorely she’s been missed from movie screens! For Cher is a star. That is, she manages the movie star trick of being at once a character and at the same time never allowing you to forget: that’s Cher.”
2000s: Dance charts, touring success and Vegas residency
Not.com.mercial (2000) was written mostly by Cher after she had attended a songwriters’ conference in 1994; it marked her first attempt at writing most of the tracks for an album. As the album was rejected by her record label for being uncommercial, she chose to sell it only on her website. In the song “Sisters of Mercy”, she calls the Catholic nuns who cared for her when she was a child “cruel, heartless and wicked” for keeping her in their orphanage long after her mother attempted to retrieve her; church leaders quickly issued denouncements.
Cher’s highly anticipated dance-oriented follow-up to Believe, Living Proof (2001), entered the Billboard 200 at number nine, her highest-charting album debut in the U.S. to date. Tracks from Living Proof became club hits. The album’s first American single, “Song for the Lonely“, was dedicated to “the courageous people of New York” following the September 11 attacks. The song “Love One Another” was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Dance Recording. Cher performed during the benefit concert VH1 Divas Las Vegas in May 2002. In December, she won the Dance/Club Play Artist of the Year Award at the Billboard Music Awards. Her wealth in 2002 was estimated at $600 million.
In June 2002, Cher embarked on the Living Proof: The Farewell Tour, announced as the final live concert tour of her career, although she vowed to continue making records and films. The show highlighted her successes in music, television, and film, featuring video clips from the 1960s onwards and an elaborate backdrop and stage set-up. Initially scheduled for 49 shows, the worldwide tour was extended several times. A collection of live tracks taken from the tour was released in 2003 as the album Live! The Farewell Tour. The NBC special Cher – The Farewell Tour (2003) attracted 17 million viewers. It was the highest rated network-TV concert special of 2003 and won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Variety, Music, or Comedy Special.
After leaving Warner UK in 2002, Cher signed a worldwide deal with the U.S. division of Warner Bros. Records in September 2003. The Very Best of Cher (2003), a greatest-hits collection that surveys her entire career, peaked at number four on the Billboard 200 and was certified double platinum by the RIAA. Cher played herself in the Farrelly brothers comedy Stuck on You (2003), mocking her public image as she appears in bed with a much younger boyfriend. Her 325-date Farewell Tour ended in April 2005 as the highest-grossing music tour by a female artist then. In 2008, the singer began a three-year, 200-performance residency at the Colosseum in Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, for which she earned a reported $60 million per year. Cher at the Colosseum featured 16 dancers and aerialists, state-of-the-art video, special effects, and elaborate set designs.
2010s: Return to film, music, and touring
Cher returned to film in the 2010 musical Burlesque, playing a nightclub impresario whom a young Hollywood hopeful is looking to impress. One of the two songs she recorded for the film’s soundtrack, the Diane Warren-penned power ballad “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me“, won the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song. In November 2010, Cher received the honor of placing her handprints and footprints in cement in the courtyard in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. She lent her voice to an animated character in the comedy Zookeeper in 2011. Cher produced a documentary about her mother, Georgia Holt, called Dear Mom, Love Cher, which aired on Lifetime in May 2013.
Closer to the Truth, her 25th studio album and the first since 2001’s Living Proof, entered the Billboard 200 at number three in September 2013, marking her highest position on that chart to date. In the UK, Closer to the Truth debuted at number four, being her highest-charting studio album there since 1991’s number-one Love Hurts. Michael Andor Brodeur from The Boston Globe commented that “Cher’s ‘Goddess of Pop’ sash remains in little danger of undue snatching; at 67, she sounds more convincing than J-Lo or Madonna reporting from ‘the club'”.
She premiered the lead single “Woman’s World” on the season four finale of the talent show The Voice, her first live TV performance in over a decade. She later joined the show’s season five as judge Blake Shelton‘s team adviser. On June 30, 2013, she headlined the annual Dance on the Pier benefit, celebrating Gay Pride day. It became the event’s first sellout in five years. In November 2013, she appeared as a guest performer and judge on the seventeenth season of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, during its eighth week, which was dedicated to her. She embarked on her highly successful Dressed to Kill Tour in March 2014.
On May 7, 2014, one of Cher’s representatives confirmed that Cher collaborated with American hip hop group Wu-Tang Clan on two songs of a musical project, titled Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. Being credited as Bonnie Jo Mason, she uses an alias of hers originated in 1964. However, being dubbed a “secret album” with no more than one existing copy, it is unlikely to ever be released to a broader audience.
After appearing as Marc Jacobs‘ surprise guest at the 2015 Met Gala, it was announced on May 27 that Cher would be the face of the brand’s fall/winter advertising campaign. The fashion designer was cited, saying “This has been a dream of mine for a very, very long time.”
In June 2012, Cher revealed that a Broadway musical based on her life and music was currently in development. She said that she may play herself in the show. In April 2014, Cher confirmed that the musical was still in development, stating “I’m reading the new script of it now.” As of June, 2014, the plan is that Cher will star in the show with two other actresses in the title role: A young performer will portray the singer during the Sonny and Cher era, the next will follow her solo career from 1977 through 1999, and Cher herself will play an older but “wiser” character looking back through the years and giving advice.
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