May 20 marks the 70th birthday of Cher, who has enjoyed nearly a dozen showbiz careers in 50-plus years — and managed to maintain a sense of humor about herself despite all those changes and all the media attention.
She was born Cherilyn Sarkisian on May 20, 1946, in El Centro, Calif., and began her career 20 feet from stardom, as a backup singer for studio recordings while still a teenager. Her career moved into high gear when she met Sonny Bono. They had minimal success performing as Caesar & Cleo, but Variety first reported on them in 1965 when they were using their real names. On Aug. 25, 1965, Herm Schoenfeld wrote: “In oblivion a year ago, Sonny & Cher are now hot artists.”
They were recording, together and individually, for Atlantic, Reprise and Imperial records — the industry was very different in those days — and sang on the primetime network music shows like NBC’s “Hullabaloo,” and ABC’s “Shindig!” and “Hollywood Palace.”
Sonny was “the creative sparkplug of this duo, and a songwriter,” wrote Schoenfeld. Bono couldn’t explain their popularity except to say, “Maybe it’s because we’re honest and real.” Cher was 19, he was 30.
A few years later, they debuted as hosts of “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour,” which ran 1971-74. On Feb. 29, 1972, Cleveland Amory in TV Guide gushed, “Is there anything she can’t do? She can sing any song, do any skit, wear any clothes and frankly, we’d tune in if all she did was to sing that ‘V-A-M-P’ song every week.”
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The series showcased guests — on the second-season premiere on Sept. 15, 1972, the lineup included the unlikely combo of Gov. Ronald Reagan and the Jackson Five — and the show did well until the duo got a divorce.
They each got custody of their own series. He starred in “Sonny Comedy Revue,” and she toplined “Cher” for 26 episodes in 1975-76. Guests included David Bowie, Ray Charles, Elton John, Lily Tomlin and Tina Turner, but Cher (in her Bob Mackie costumes) was clearly the drawing card.
Individually, their shows were not as successful as the original, so they reunited, just on a professional basis for “The Sonny and Cher Show.” It was the first case of a divorced couple starring in a TV series. “Sonny and Cher pick up their banter and putdowns as if nothing really happened,” Tony Scott wrote in a Feb. 2, 1976, review for Variety.
She continued to have career ups and downs, but her next significant career boost came in 1982, when she appeared in the Broadway and film versions of Ed Graczyk’s play “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean,” both directed by Robert Altman. The following year, she was Oscar-nominated for the Mike Nichols-directed “Silkwood.”
Reviewing the 1985 “Mask,” Julie Salamon of the Wall Street Journal said, “Cher is one of the most startling, vivid screen actresses in the movies today.” Many predicted a best-actress Oscar nomination, but it didn’t happen. However, she was invited to be a presenter and her Mackie-designed outfit of flesh, beads and feathers made the biggest impact of all the fashion that year, Variety wrote at the time.
One pundit said she looked like she was attending a Martian funeral, and some thought she was sending a defiant message to Academy voters. In 2015, Jessica Iredale wrote in Variety that it “still ranks atop the list of fondest Oscar fashion moments” and perhaps it is unreasonable “to expect the average nominee to rise to her level of fashion audacity.”
And that’s Cher. By the time she was 40, she had been a pop star, variety-show host, Oscar-winning actress, fashion icon and inspiration to countless drag performers. Over the years, she has also become a director (music videos and a segment of HBO’s “If These Walls Could Talk”), an infomercial queen, political pundit, philanthropist, advocate and tabloid fave, from her headline-grabbing marriage to Gregg Allman and her romances with David Geffen, Gene Simmons and Rob Camilletti (who was constantly beat up by the press, since he was 22 when Cher was 40).
In May 4, 1999, Variety‘s Adam Sandler wrote that she was “riding a tsunami-sized comeback with her Warner Bros. disc,” the global dance hit “Believe.” Sandler pointed out that she had enjoyed a top-selling album in each of the past four decades.
Cher increased her activism for LGBT rights when offspring Chaz Bono (born Chastity) came out as gay in the 1980s then as a transgender individual in 2009 (long before Caitlyn Jenner appeared). She has also been critical of George W. Bush, the Republican party and many government policies. In 2016, when most politicians were simply giving lip service to the Flint Michigan water crisis, Cher partnered with Icelandic Glacial to send more than 180,000 bottles of water to the residents.
She’s had such a long career with so many plot twists that at some point, nearly everyone in the universe has been upset by her, confounded by her and admired her. Amid all of this, she seems to consistently follow her personal mantra that what you see is what you get.
A fan in 2013 tweeted out the much-repeated one-liner that the only survivors of a nuclear war were going to be cockroaches and Cher. She tweeted a reply, “And they’re not positive about the cockroaches!”
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