Cher: The Queen of Burlesque
As I was heading into the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, to attend the premiere of the musical ‘Burlesque’, I heard an eruption of cheers, emanating from the crowds, lined up behind police fencing along the sides of Hollywood Boulevard. Turning around, I caught a sight of a woman, with long dark hair and dressed in black, stepping out of a limousine and hurrying towards the theatre, escorted by an army of bodyguards and assistants, and showered by a torrent of camera flashes. This was unmistakably the star of the movie, the legendary Cher!
Cher’s one-of-a-kind persona made her an inspiration for the working-class woman and a gay icon, frequently imitated on the drag runway. Endued with boundless energy, inestimable talent and unstoppable drive, during her 45-year career, Cher has contributed to music, television, stage and film, winning the most prestigious accolades in the entertainment industry, including an Emmy, a Grammy, a Golden Globe and an Oscar.
From her beginnings in pop music, as one of the top-selling female artists of all time, exotic-looking Cher was known for outrageous costumes and her aching, powerful contralto. But her eventual acting success in films including ‘Silkwood’ (1983), ‘Mask’ (1985), ‘Moonstruck’ (1987) and ‘Mermaids’ (1990) revealed a strong connection to the emotional lives of unstable, overwhelmed, reluctant adults.
The makers of ‘Burlesque’ pursued Cher tirelessly before the megastar agreed to end a seven-year hiatus and return to the big screen. “The main reason I did this is because I really wanted to sing,” Cher tells me at Hard Rock CafÃ© in Hollywood, following the premiere of the film.
“I had missed an opportunity to do ‘Mamma Mia’ because I was on the road and so I thought I’d better take this and try to do something as good as I can with it because there aren’t that many musicals made,” she adds.
Indeed, although Burlesque is short on emotional drama and compelling acting, it’s imbued with exhilarating music, performed by Cher and Christina Aguilera, dazzling dancing scenes, and extravagant costumes.
‘Burlesque’ is centred on a small-town girl, Ali (Christina Aguilera) who arrives in Hollywood, determined to succeed. She stumbles upon The Burlesque Lounge, a majestic yet ailing theatre, owned by Tess (Cher). Initially she gets a job at the bar and wins the affection of bartender Jack, who lets her sleep on his couch. Soon, Ali’s tenacious personality, dancing talent and spectacular voice convince Tess that she is the one to lead The Burlesque out of its troubles. Eventually, Ali restores the lounge to its former glory, becomes a superstar and finds love with Jack.
Ali’s story conjures up Cher’s own early days; at the age of 16, she quit her local school in California’s Central Valley and headed to Hollywood, determined to become a singing and dancing animal. She worked odd jobs and immersed herself in the music scene of the Sunset Strip, until she met Sonny, who offered her a spare bed in his apartment and landed her singing jobs. Two years later, the couple married, formed their own brand of music, and embarked on a dazzling career in music and Television.
“Sonny and I started a part of rock and roll, a part of music that hadn’t really been tapped before. We didn’t look like anybody else. We looked so strange, friends said to go to England where we were famous.”
In fact, they looked so strange that even when landed in London, they were thrown out of their hotel. But on the following day, they became an instant music phenomenon, appearing on every radio and TV program in England, including Ready Steady Go and Top of the Pops. Sonny wrote and produced the songs, and Cher sang them.
“Any girl artist that wants to be a star is going to parallel another artist,” she stresses. “You have these dreams, you want to have them happen, you have to pursue them. Everyone tells you to get a real job and you just keep going and if you’re lucky enough you make it someplace.”
Cher admits that luck was on her side. In 1971, Cher and Sonny followed their success in music with success on television, turning their CBS’s ‘The Sonny and Cher Comedy Show’ into a smash hit. However, the synergy of family and work pressures eventually lead to an acrimonious rapture between the two performers, resulting in the cancellation of their TV show.
After leaving the man who catapulted her to stardom, Cher bounced from one relationship to another, but failed to form a meaningful one. She also suffered setbacks in her professional life. But eventually she rebounded, developing an acting career in film and theatre, while continuing to blossom in music and television, winning accolades from the industry and adoration from generations of fans.
“If you’re going to stay in this business for any amount of time, you’ve got to be able to have that drive, and that I am not going to give up because there are so many times where you feel like it. So many times you feel like giving up and you just go, you know, ‘I don’t know what am I doing this for.'”, she says.
In addition to her phenomenal success in film and music, Cher’s youthful appearance and relationships with younger guys made frequent headlines in the tabloid press, suggesting that her plumped lips and gravity-defying skin are the result of extensive plastic surgery. Cher admits to having had some work done on her look, but also said that it takes a team of a five dozen people two hours to make her look as beautiful as she does.
“It’s not the beauty of the skin or the make-up,” she says. “Not those things, but I noticed that when women feel they look good, no matter what it is, they exude kind of a confidence and it makes them much more beautiful, because they feel better about themselves, and confidence is something that attracts people.”
At age of 60, retirement is not on the horizon for the timeless icon. She is about to wrap a live show in Las Vegas’s Caesar Palace, where she performed 200 times over the past 3 years. And currently she is working on a new album. “Your voice is a muscle and the more you use it, the stronger it gets,” she concludes.