We’ve Got Her, Babe
Cher talks new Christmas album, anti-LGBTQ+ ‘insanity’ and why she never took credit for co-writing ‘Believe’
After being introduced to Cher on the phone as her “old friend Chris” by Cher’s longtime publicist Liz Rosenberg, there is only one sensible way for me to respond: “Hello, old friend Cher.”
Calling Cher an old friend to Cher feels completely natural — well, almost. There is at least some familiarity in knowing her off the phone too, through a treasure trove of a half-century’s worth of artistic contributions, even if the icon is a higher pop culture power. But then, at the same time, the enduring gay icon has also been like an old friend to those in the LGBTQ+ community, including me.
Just a couple of years after coming out at 18, I saw my first Cher concert with my mom, who brought Cher into my world when I was a young kid, before I felt confident enough to tell her I was gay (weird to think that now even Cher knows I’m gay). The 2002 Michigan show at the Palace of Auburn Hills, part of her not-so-farewell “Farewell Tour,” is one of my earliest memories of finding other gay people outside of male-for-male AOL chat rooms — so many gay Cher fans in one big space, a glittery, strutting pop goddess our master of ceremonies.
From her California home on a recent November day, Cher says this relationship she has with us runs even deeper, though. That particular connection, she notes, began at 9 when she first felt like an outsider herself. Now, at 77, it has only strengthened after six decades spent growing a gay icon status built on music and film, live shows across the globe and the kind of loyal allyship that feels like a mother’s love. “We’re family,” she tells me.
I first interviewed Cher in 2018, just after she released an album of ABBA covers in conjunction with “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,” which also starred the Oscar-winning actress. This time, our conversation was prompted by a different project, one that she surprisingly has never tackled until now: a Christmas album.
Titled simply “Christmas,” Cher does the holidays her own way, with a couple of Christmas party songs — the “Believe”-style club romp “DJ Play That Christmas Song” and the funky hip-hop track “Drop Top Sleigh Ride” with rapper Tyga — along with two collaborations featuring fellow gay icon Cyndi Lauper and a duet with Darlene Love on “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” On the poignant album closer, “This Will Be Our Year,” she, like the best of friends, keeps the light flickering in the dark. “I won’t forget the way you held me up when I was down, and I won’t forget the way you said, ‘Darling, I love you, you gave me faith to go on.’”
An “old friend” can also get away with joking that they’ll punch you if you print something that is said off the record, which Cher did during our wide-ranging interview on everything from the possibility of touring again, anti-trans hostility and being “so stupid” for not taking credit for co-writing “Believe.”
It’s wonderful to talk to you again.
I bet you didn’t think you’d be talking to me again. Is this the third time?
This is the second. Where are you going to be in your career the third time we talk?
I’ll be singin’ in heaven, baby! I think that we could get a long extension cord.
I heard you were just at the gym.
Well, I was doing steps for “DJ,” and I was down in the gym earlier working out. So put some ketchup on me because I’m fried!
I miss you on what was formerly known as Twitter. I just miss the constant witticisms.
Can I tell you something? I miss it. You have no idea how I miss it. When Twitter was real, I did it through Tweetbot, and so when I came on, everybody that was a fan of mine just came there. Now, everybody is scattered. I can’t find people. This is just, please… I don’t know. Don’t fuck with something that’s good, OK? If you buy it, why ruin it?
That sounds like a good career motto.
[Laughs.] It always hasn’t been true, Chris.
This is the weird thing: People always say, “Oh, you keep reinventing yourself.” That’s not exactly true. I’ve probably been like this since I was about 5, but I have valleys that are like, “What is going on here?” And then I do something, and it comes to the public and all of a sudden people go, “Oh my god, she reinvented herself again.” No, I just got a job. Tell me, have I ever been different?
I feel like the essence of Cher has always been Cher.
Even on this album. It’s a Cher album.
There’s no “Silent Night,” right?
No, there’s no “Silent Night.”
What songs were you eager to do and which ones did you say no to?
I just picked all the songs. And I had some friends that gave me songs and I took some of them. Like Rob Dickins gave me “Run Rudolph Run” and then Sarah Hudson, who I’ve known since she was 4, wrote “DJ,” “Drop Top Sleigh” and “Angels in the Snow.”
But I didn’t have anybody in the beginning. I wasn’t planning it either. I called Cyn and I said, “If I did something on my Christmas album and it was good for you, would you want to do something?” And I have no idea why I did it. But it happened really with Stevie [Wonder]. Because I’d done the song [“What Christmas Means to Me”] and there were parts that were just… I couldn’t find them.
So I called Stevie and I was like… well, if I say something, will you not print it?
Off the record between us?
Yeah. I want to say this one word and it won’t sound… you have to swear to God or I will come and punch your lights out!
Can I say that?[Laughs.] All right. Anyway… oh, fuck. I don’t want to say it. I’m afraid it won’t sound good. So anyway, I was really, really frightened and I was saying, “Do you think Stevie will remember that we knew each other?” And so I called him and I was like, “Stevie? Um, this is Cher.” “Hi, Cher.” “Well, Stevie, uh, I did your song but there are parts in it that I can’t do and I need you to do it.” He said, “Is it one of my songs?” And I’m like, “Yeah, of course it’s one of your songs.” And so then he said, as we were hanging up, “Cher, you want me to play harmonica?” And I passed out. And then I ran around my room screaming and jumped on my bed, and I was screaming, “Stevie Wonder’s going to be on my album!” Over and over and over. Until I fell down dead.
I love the idea of Cher being starstruck. It’s like, you are my Stevie Wonder right now.
Yeah, but he’s a genius.
And you mean the world to people like me who are queer.
I know, and I’m so angry. I’m so angry with America for every fucking thing — racism and anti-Semitism and being anti-LGBT. Oh, did you hear about how the Pope came out? I mean, he didn’t come out, but you know what I mean. [Laughs.] He came out with a thing where he’s recognizing the LGBT community. They can be godfathers and they can be whatever. I was so, so happy. Prejudice in this country is… I can’t find the word because I don’t know words bad enough. I mean, it could be an atomic bomb of a word. I just don’t know words bad enough to say how I feel.
I wanted to ask you about how hard this year has been for LGBTQ+ people because the community is so close to your heart.
Do you know why? Do you have any idea why?
I know you and the community go way back .
Way back to 9. But it’s because we’re both outsiders. We’re all outsiders.
You’ve always felt that way about yourself?
Always. And so I gravitated to these two [gay] guys and then I met my first lesbian and she was fabulous. She was a friend of my mom’s, and then as I started to grow up, I came in contact with everybody [in the community]. I said to some guy the other day, “You’re my brother.” We’re brothers and sisters. We’re family. It came out of me, but that’s kind of the way I feel.
In a lot of ways, it feels like I was raised by my mother, but I was also raised by Cher.
Well, it doesn’t get better than that. You have two moms.
But what you’re saying about how hard things have been this year, as a gay person, it has felt particularly harsh this year.
Babe, it’s been since Trump. Can I tell you a little story?
Yes, of course.
I had a friend and he had a friend and she was this little girl who worked in the FBI and she infiltrated a white supremacist group. She was with them, I think, for a couple of years. She was saying they were causing a lot of trouble and she said there were so many groups in the United States. And I said, “Well, then why aren’t they doing bigger things? Why aren’t we aware of something gigantic?” And she said, “Because they hate each other.” And then she said, “It won’t start until someone can come and unite them.” And someone did.
As the mother of a trans child, Chaz Bono, I’m wondering how you process the anti-trans hostility in this country.
You know, how can you process it? I mean, it doesn’t process. It’s not like long division. You can’t do it. You have to just be open and loving and sometimes you don’t get things right away, you know? You can’t understand things right away, but if you stay open, look, I was nervous and I was afraid, and Chaz is my child and I’m Cher and I thought, “This is going to be a major spotlight.” But Chaz is so happy and we have so much fun together. Also, I have to tell you this, and this might not be politically correct, but when you have a trans child, you know the child you had, but you don’t know the new child. There’s a big difference. But the person is the same. But Chaz has different feelings about things, you know? Like, Chaz comes from a guy’s point of view.
What would you tell people who struggle to understand or accept trans people?
I would tell them if I woke up tomorrow and I was a guy, I would just lose my mind. [Laughs.] And that’s what I would tell people: “What if you woke up tomorrow and you were in the wrong body?” Everyone can understand that. It’s like, if you woke up tomorrow and you were a different sex but you had no control, you would just want to kill yourself.
There’s been so many attacks on drag queens in the country, and I’m thinking about all the Cher drag queens when I ask this next question. But what are your thoughts on how conservatives think that drag queens are trying to groom children?
Oh my god, it’s fucking insane, OK? Like, you’re just going to pull that out of you know where? I think Democrats, they’ve got to get some show business. They’ve got to get something that’s not dry, because they don’t really understand how to sell it. I mean, I think Joe’s doing a great job. Not in everything. I don’t agree with him on a few things, but he’s done a lot of good, and the thing is, no matter how bad any other candidate would be, it couldn’t touch the hem of Trump’s garment with how horrible he is. We can’t use that as an idea because that has a religious connotation and I just forgot. I just meant no one is as bad as he is. I can’t fathom what it would be like to be him.
While we’re talking about drag, a few years ago, you teased that you would consider going on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” but you still haven’t been on.
But you know what? I don’t know why, and I love him. He’s the nicest person — really, really nice, and I’m not just saying it. I really don’t know why. I just feel like the bar would be so high that I just don’t know.
What do you mean the bar would be so high?
I mean, I’d have to go on and be I don’t even know what. I’d have to be 10 feet taller than I am.
Do you, though? You just have to be Cher, right?
Yeah, but you know those guys; they’re so tall, so they make you look like a dumpy little thump.
And that’s not what you want to get yourself into?
Is that really why you’re avoiding it?
I’m never going to be that. I exaggerate; it was just the biggest exaggeration I could come up with off the top of my head.
Sounds like you’d still be down for it.
You and Chaz are co-producing a horror film together called “Little Bites.” What can you say about that?
I had my hand over one eye and was just kind of squinting because it was too scary. I don’t really like scary films.
What is it like to work with Chaz?
Chaz is really easygoing. And also, I stay out of it. It’s not my gig. I’m helping.
“Burlesque” is getting the musical treatment, with Christina Aguilera co-producing. Are you involved in that?
They asked me if I would have something to do with it but I don’t know. I really don’t know how I feel about it, you know? I mean, it’s not negative. It’s just questioning.
What about it are you questioning?
I don’t know if I should be involved. Does it make sense? What kind of power do you have? I mean, my experience with my musical [“The Cher Show”] was a nightmare.
“Burlesque” has embedded itself in the queer community in a way you probably didn’t expect it to when that movie was first released.
Are you kidding me? Come on.
Ha! OK, fair point. You knew exactly who you were making that movie for.
Come on, babe, don’t try to pull that old chestnut.
Well, then I should say new generations of queers are discovering what I knew was gay when I first saw it.
It really was a good film; it was just too long. It needed better editing.
Getting back to “Christmas” and your collabs with Cyndi, when did you know that you both stood for the same things when it came to LGBTQ+ rights and equality? Is there a history there? I mean, I know there must be.
Of course there is, but the thing about being close with the community is that you kind of just are close. We could talk about some specific thing, a problem or a good thing or whatever. But we just know who we are, you know? We don’t sit around and talk about it. Because I know who she is, I know how she feels. So no, we didn’t. It just is.
When two of our gay icons come together, the gay fantasy is that you are talking about us all the time.
Of course! I think everyone’s talking about me all the time too! No, I don’t. I really don’t. [Laughs.]
But I don’t know what your interior life is like with Cyndi Lauper.
No, but it’s really good. We’ve had great times and I respect her so much and she’s so funny and she’s so crazy. We’re a good couple.
It’s good to have you two singing together on this album.
Yeah, it was really great. And Darlene, how great is that? That history is crazy. When I was 17, I did background on that song. Now we’re doing it together. And I called her and went, “I’m not going to do this without you. It wouldn’t be right.” And she said, “Oh, I’ll be there.”
“Drop Top Sleigh Ride” could be considered camp, and so could the album’s cover. Do you still enjoy leaning into the campiness of being Cher?
Well, I don’t consider it camp. I consider it a really good song. This is what I feel about the album: I just picked songs, and when they were all done, I thought, “Oh my god, do these guys go together? How is this going to launch?” And then, everybody around me loved it so much but then I thought, “But what if people don’t like it because it’s not what they expect and it goes from one place to another place and I made a wrong decision?” That was worrying me for a while. And then I thought, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it now.” I did what I wanted to do. That’s why I never did a Christmas album, because I wanted to just take it and make it and master it and hand it in.
And that’s what you did here?
Let’s acknowledge the 25th anniversary of “Believe” this year.
Oh, do we have to? [Rosenberg chimes in: “Put a muzzle on her.”] I mean, do you know how fast 25 years has gone? Dude. It’s crazy. Also, I was talking downstairs about this: I wrote a part of that song, and I didn’t take credit for it because I was so stupid. That song was a monster. It was like… I don’t even know what. That song was like Trump in the beginning; it was horrible. What I thought, too, about the song is that a chick can be upset and crazy over her relationship falling apart, but she can only do it for the first verse. So I’m sitting in the bathtub and I got my toe stuck in the faucet, and all of a sudden, what came to my mind was, “I’ve had time to think it through, and maybe I’m too good for you.” And Jennifer [Ruiz, Cher’s longtime personal assistant] said, “Oh my god, that’s perfect.” And then she said, “You will get a writers [credit].” And I went, “No, no, I just want to do it for the home team.” And of course, I was an idiot.
So you’re kicking yourself, as you should, right?
Yeah, but you know why? It was because it was so horrible. It was such an awful time. I was so depressed. I got into a fight, the only fight I’ve ever gotten into with Mark [Taylor, the producer]. And I just felt like such a loser because I couldn’t get it better. That’s why I walked out. I just couldn’t make it better because the verses were not interesting. So then the whole thing happened with the pitch machine.
I didn’t know that you wrote that line in “Believe.” I guess not a lot of people would, because it’s uncredited.
Nobody does except my immediate friends. But I didn’t think I was going to be here this long. I’m upset about it in a girl way, you know? I didn’t want to be 25 years older in a minute. I turn around and I’m 25 years older.
Do you ever consider touring again, or are those days really long gone?
We were just downstairs dancing and talking about it. I would have to change the show somewhat because I just can’t run around constantly and do it. I mean, today we were dancing and it was like, “Whoa, what happened here?” So I couldn’t do the exact same show, so I don’t know how it would be received. I mean, I still can sing. I sing well.
How about something more intimate? Cher in a chair.
Well, that’s what my sister said. She said, “You could just tell stories about your life.” You know, all of the monologues I make up myself. I want to do it. I’m a professional and I want to be really, really, really good, because I think I have been.
I heard you were close to finishing your memoir. What’s the process for you in writing your memoir? Is it hard to go back through some moments in your life?
You know what I have to do? I have to go back. I was thinking about this the other day. Or no, I thought about it months ago. But I was thinking, “You didn’t tell enough. You played this too safe. You’ve got to put your ass more on the line and let the chips fall where they may.” How is that for all the stupid, cliché sayings that I can put into one sentence? [Laughs.]
Is that because you learned that Barbra Streisand’s memoir is over 900 pages long?
[Laughs.] No. But do you know what it’s like? It’s like two of the film scripts couldn’t be done because everyone says you’ve lived too long and done too much. Sorry. [Spoken unapologetically.] But it’s true. It’s hard to get all my life in a book unless I came out with volumes, like the encyclopedia. Not that anyone knows what that is anymore. It is really, really a lot. I’m struggling. I want to do a better job than I did. I want to do a better job. I want to pick up my big girl G-string and just do a better job.
When do you think we’ll have the book?
I don’t know, babe. Don’t ask. Well, you just did, but don’t ask me again.
Chris Azzopardi is the Editorial Director of Pride Source Media Group and Q Syndicate, the national LGBTQ+ wire service. He has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.
Photo courtesy of An Le