CHER (Cherilyn Sarkisian, Cher Bono) (1946– ) Singer, Actress
Throughout her up-and-down career, Cher has continually emerged as one of America’s most durable performers. Born Cherilyn Sarkisian on May 20, 1946, she survived a difficult childhood in El Centro, California. Her mother, Georgia, a part-time fashion model and country singer, was married eight times, including twice to Cher’s father, John Sarkisian. Helping to bring up her half-sister Georgeanne, Cher later remembered being so poor that she “went to school with rubber bands wrapped around my shoes to keep the soles on.” At 16, Cher moved out of her mother’s house and dropped out of high school, intending to pursue an acting career. Her plans changed after meeting 27-year-old record promoter Sonny Bono at a coffee shop. Finding her work as backup singer, Bono became her professional mentor and lover. On October 27, 1964, they were married in Tijuana, Mexico.
Bono developed a nightclub act for himself and Cher, billed first as “Caesar and Cleo,” then as “Sonny and Cher.”After recording two modestly successful singles, they struck gold in June 1965 with their recording of Bono’s song, “I Got You Babe.” A number-one hit, the single eventually sold 4 million copies. Sonny and Cher recorded six albums, although they became as well known for their hippie-style clothing—most memorably bellbottom pants and furry vests—as for their music. Sonny and Cher also tried, with less success, to break into movies. They both appeared as themselves in Good Times (1967), and Cher starred as a runaway in Chastity (1969), which Bono wrote and produced. Their only child, born in 1969, was named after the latter film. As their pop music career began to fade, Bono, against Cher’s wishes, revived their nightclub act.
To help shed their hippie image, Cher wore slinky, low-cut evening gowns and perfected a joking banter with Bono between songs. An appearance on The Merv Griffin Show caught the attention of CBS, which signed them to star in a six-week variety series. Premiering on August 1, 1971, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour was an instant hit, making television stars out of Sonny and Cher overnight. Cher also launched a new career as a solo recording artist. Her singles included “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves” and “Half Breed,” a reference to her part-Cherokee heritage. Sonny and Cher’s series ran for three years. At its height in 1974, Cher shocked their fans by filing for divorce, maintaining that Bono had kept her in “involuntary servitude.” Soon after the divorce was granted, Cher married rock musician Gregg Allman, but she left her new husband after nine days.
Cher and Allman had one son, Elijah Blue. After the failure of their marriage, both Cher and Bono launched unsuccessful solo series before trying to revive their variety show in 1976. For the public, however, their divorce had destroyed the magic of the Sonny and Cher duo. The show was swiftly canceled. With the encouragement of her boyfriend, record executive David Geffen, Cher returned to nightclubs, becoming a Las Vegas headliner. Creatively, however, this bored her and she quickly abandoned her $350,000-a-week paycheck to fulfill her childhood dream of becoming a serious actress.
In New York, she was hired to star in the Broadway production of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean in 1982. The same year, she appeared in the film adaptation, which brought her to the attention of director Mike Nichols. He hired Cher for a supporting role in Silkwood (1983), for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. Now an acclaimed actress, she starred in Mask (1985), Suspect (1987), and Mermaids (1990). The pinnacle of her film career came with her performance as a frumpy widow transformed by love in the romantic comedy Moonstruck (1987). The role won her the Oscar for best actress. In the 1990s, Cher fell victim to Epstein-Barr disease, leaving her too exhausted to sustain her music and film careers. She did, however, appear in a series of cosmetics infomercials, which led many in entertainment industry to declare she was a hasbeen. “I became a joke on Letterman and Saturday Night Live,” she recalled of this period. “It was just a huge, devastating misjudgment of what people would accept from me.”
Even as her work was being dismissed, Cher’s personal life kept her in the public eye. In 1994, her daughter, Chastity, publicly announced that she was a lesbian, detailing for the press Cher’s initial difficulty in coming to terms with the fact.Four years later, Sonny Bono, now a congressman from California, died in a skiing accident. Cher delivered an emotional eulogy, which without her knowledge the major television networks broadcast live. To her fellow mourners, she described her moving tribute to Bono as “the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
The loss of Bono ironically ushered in another career upswing for Cher. In 1999, she released a new album, featuring the surprise hit “Believe.”The dance song became the number-one single in 23 countries, making it her greatest success as a recording artist. Just one in a series of many dramatic comebacks, this rebirth of Cher’s career inspired a joke often repeated in entertainment circles: After a nuclear war, the only creatures sure to survive are roaches and Cher.
Cher, and Jeff Coplon. The First Time. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Taraborrelli, J. Randy. Cher: A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Cher: Live in Concert (1999). HBO Studios, DVD/VHS, 1999.
Moonstruck (1988). MGM/UA Studios, DVD/V, 2000/2001.
Sonny and Cher: Nitty Gritty Hour (1970). View Video, VHS, 1992.
The Way of Love: The Cher Collection. Uni/MCA, CD set, 2000.