Cher Just Doesn't Quit
Story by Justin Moran / Photography by An Le / Styling by Patti Wilson / Hair by Serena Radaelli / Makeup by Francesca TolotOct 26, 2023
The first CD I ever owned was The Very Best of Cher (2003), a gift from my mom after I’d watched the superstar perform “Believe” live on TV as an impressionable middle schooler in the early aughts. Her wig dripped like bejeweled icicles from her head, shining like an alien crash-landed in Antarctica, as she sang the track’s low, robotic vocals that’d come to influence decades of pop music. The album’s artwork is tattooed on my brain to this day, a pristine portrait of Cher with bone-straight platinum hair and sparkly blue eyes that seemed to foreshadow the defining high-gloss imagery of our digital age.
When I tell Cher this piece of personal history, she smirks — not unlike her smile on the CD cover I studied growing up — and asks bluntly, “Well, was it the very best?” as if her compilation album spanning a lifetime of undeniable hits was something to be critiqued or questioned. She’s sitting cross-legged on her Malibu living room couch, hands cradling a warm cup of tea, with more natural-looking brunette hair and a simple pair of track pants. It’s golden hour and the Pacific Ocean frames her face from behind, the horizon lining up exactly with her deep-set eyes. At 77, this Cher sits comfortably in her success but isn’t necessarily quick to claim all — or any — of the accolades that one would assume comes with being a living legend.
Of course, Cher deserves them. It’s Thursday, the afternoon before she drops her new Christmas album — and her 27th studio album to date — yet she’s perfectly at ease with knowing it becomes public in a few hours. Her first project with original material in 10 years, Christmasultimately became a labor of love despite Cher denying her label’s request for holiday music countless times throughout her career. Her current boyfriend Alexander “AE” Edwards, goddaughter hitmaker Sarah Hudson and close industry friends like Stevie Wonder, Cyndi Lauper and Darlene Love all joined the effort to help reinvigorate Cher’s passion for making music again — and it really worked. Indeed, lead single “DJ Play A Christmas Song,” which she premiered at a club during Paris Fashion Week, sounds like Cher... at her Very Best.
Cher: Did [Sarah Hudson] tell you I've known her since she was four years old?
Justin: She did tell me that. Do you know about her old band, Ultraviolet Sound? Have you tracked her music career at all?
Cher: I didn't even know she was a hit writer. And when I saw [her songwriting credit] on “DJ [Play a Christmas Song],” it never occurred to me that this little girl that I knew when she was four was this Sarah Hudson.
Justin: She's amazing and also your goddaughter.
Cher: And then I met the boys and they were a handful.
Justin: Leland, JHart, Jesse Saint John... how did this crew of young, queer songwriters come into your world?
Cher: We had a listening party and [Sarah] brought everybody. She told me, “I got this crew,” and they wrote two other songs. I was specific about “Drop Top Sleigh Ride” — I said, “Sarah, I want something that sounds like it would be a kid thing, but I want you to turn it into an adult thing,” so then they wrote, “Tearin’ up the town on a candy cane-high.”
Justin: Yeah, “Drop Top Sleigh Ride” feels like a different vibe from you.
Cher: It’s a different vibe from me.
Justin: Where did that come from?
Cher: Well, it came from Alexander [Edwards] and then Alexander and T [Tyga] are best friends. I thought Alexander must have twisted his arm, but then I talked to T and he said, “No, I heard it. I want to do it.” Alexander had said to him, “I need another verse,” and T said, “I got it.” And Alexander said he went to the other room and wrote it.
Justin: Were you expecting that?
Cher: It was a surprise, I didn’t know he was on it. Which is weird because you would never expect in the same sentence to hear “Cher and Tyga.”
Justin: It’s the day before releasing this new album, so I'm curious: How do you feel? Because you've had this moment many times throughout your career. Do you get nervous? Do you anticipate people's response?
Cher: I've made so many albums, and some of the ones I thought were as good as I could like an album of mine weren’t hits. And then other ones that I was not that excited about [were]. But my career has been like this [makes an up-and-down motion]. So I like this album. I’m not a Cher fan, but I like doing it. When I listen to it, I think this worked out. It wasn't planned out, but it worked out.
Justin: It’s interesting that you've been saying you’re not a Cher fan. What does that mean?
Cher: I don't know, what do you think it means?
Justin: Do you feel like there's a separation between Cher, the public figure, and who you’ve developed into privately?
Cher: No, no, no, I just never liked my voice that much. If I had my choice, I probably would have another one, but I didn’t get my choice. I got my mother’s voice.
Justin: How would you want your voice to be different?
Cher: I don't know, it's weird. It doesn't sound like a man, it doesn't sound like a woman. I'm somewhere more in-between. I have this strange style. I do what you do when you can't hold a note: I don’t pronounce my Rs. I guess some consonants are hard to sing, so I just gotta leave them open.
Justin: But this is the signature voice, the iconic voice. Do you feel like now that you've had a successful career, you can look at it differently?
Cher: No, I never liked it very much. I mean, people seem to like it and I'm happy as a clam, but I wouldn't have picked it. I liked it on my mother and it's definitely my mom's voice. My mom's is softer, mine is edgier — different, but the same, but I don't think I would have picked it.
Justin: You said you've had a career with highs and lows, but it's obviously lasted so long. Sometimes my favorite work from artists are the songs that are misunderstood or not widely well-received. What, in your mind, is an example of something that was received differently than you anticipated?
Cher: Songs like “Song For the Lonely” or “You Haven't Seen the Last of Me.” When I sing them live, people seem to love them and the audience makes it sound like they were hits, but they weren't. Like, I didn't have the hit on “Walking in Memphis,” but people just clap for the song and I think they kind of assume [it was a hit]. I thought Closer to the Truth  was a really good album, but it just didn't happen. Yeah, there are songs on it that I like, but it doesn't make any difference because it's not what I like, it's what people like.
Justin: Especially in the pop lane. I think about your songs like “The Music's No Good Without You.” That is such a weird, amazing, almost cult-sounding pop song, but it doesn’t have a wide reach.
Cher: No, like “Save Up All Your Tears,” that was one of my favorite songs and I was singing about a boyfriend who had broken up with me. So it had a special feeling for me and I thought it was something that everybody could relate to, but not so much.
Success is like different moments, like pearls, and if you string them on long enough you've got a necklace.
Justin: It’s crazy you say that, because I consider that song to be massive. To me, it was such a big moment in your career.
Cher: I was really pissed off when I was singing it.
Justin: Really? Well, you can hear that. It seems like you have incredible instincts, though. A lot of younger people don't realize how monumental “Believe” was as a foundation for the music we listen to now.
Cher: A lot of people know “Believe,” but they have no idea who's singing it.
Justin: But I mean the use of autotune–
Cher: It wasn’t autotune. I think there was only one brand and it was called a “pitch machine.” My producers said, “I just got this thing and I think I can fix the verses with it.” And we had a fight, actually.
Justin: Like, you didn’t want to use it or—
Cher: No, I’d never heard of it, but he kept saying, “Cher you gotta sing it better,” and he said it so many times that I just said, “If you want it better, get someone else,” and I walked out. I asked him about using a vocoder and he went, “It won't work, but I got this pitch machine and I've been playing around with it. If I have a couple more hours, I can make it work.” But I didn't even know what he was talking about. I know what pitch is, but I had no idea about a machine.
So I went back and he said, “Sit down,” and I thought, No good can come of this. Then he played “Believe,” and I was mesmerized, and it really picked up the verses, because I could never make the verses really work. And all of a sudden, they were so amazing, they just pulled you in. Also, it didn't sound like me, so I was really excited. We high-fived and then had to talk [Warner chairman] Rob Dickins into it, because the first thing he said was, “It doesn't sound like you,” and I said, “I know, it's glorious.”
Justin: There was a time when it was used as a tool to correct something, but now it's become more of an artistic device. You hear a similar effect on “DJ Play a Christmas Song.”
Cher: It's not exactly autotune, it's a little bit different. There's a minute some place where it comes in, but the first sound is something different. I didn't hear it ’til it was finished and [the producers] did a lot of really interesting things if you listen hard.
Justin: I think about the chorus — do you still go out and dance to DJs?
Cher: I did, I have. Oh my god, I was in the clubs dancing all the time. I mean, literally. Michelle Pfeiffer and I, we were in Saint-Tropez once and we used to go early to this place that was a big dance club and we would dance ’til our hair was wet. We were there before everybody got there, really, like a few people. But Studio 54 was like heaven, it was the best place ever.
Justin: Do you have any crazy memories there?
Cher: Not so much crazy, but it was a place I would go by myself. And I never went to any other places, just Café Central and Studio. One of my friends was a major owner, Steve Rubell, and I always felt fine. There were always famous people there, too, and I never sat in that section. I just sat where I sat, and looked up because the DJ was high and there was a little catwalk to it. I always came in the underground and I knew that in the rooms off of the hallway, things were going on that I probably didn't want to know about. I’d walk down the hallway, I wouldn’t go in the rooms. I didn’t do drugs, so...
I just don't quit.
Justin: What does success look like to you now?
Cher: I don't know. Success is a fleeting thing. I want to do good work, and then you hope people will like it and I guess that's success, but I've been doing it too long. I don't like failure, but success is not a thing. Success is like different moments, like pearls, and if you string them on long enough you’ve got a necklace.
Justin: You kind of need the failures to have successes, also.
Cher: Oh, I've had that, I’ve had lots of failures [laughs]. It's like I always thought reinventing myself is such bullshit because it was just that I fell out of grace or I didn't have a job or wasn't doing something and then I did have a job.
Justin: But again, you clearly have this intuition of how to make it happen.
Cher: I don’t, really. I just don’t quit.
Justin: I think about that all the time. The people that I know who are the most successful just have never stopped, because keeping going is really the hardest part.
Cher: Also, it's the only thing I know. So when I couldn't get a record deal, I made movies. I first went on Broadway, which is strange because usually you don't start on Broadway. But it was a freak thing, my mom did it. I went to Joe Papp to do an audition and he said the audition was great, but he didn’t have anything. And I walked out and it was one of those little memo things that said, “Call Robert Altman.” My mom and Catherine Altman were best friends, so my mom knew I was doing the audition. So she called and thought it was my number — I was in New York — but it was Bob and Catherine's. Bob was sleeping and he answered the phone — he was real grouchy, he could be real grouchy — and she was saying, “Is Cher there?” And he went, “No, why would Cher be here?” And then my mom said, “Robert?” And he said, “Georgia? Well, wait a minute, what's Cher doing in New York?” She said, “I want to know how the audition went, Cher wants to be an actress.” So he called me — which was insane for him to call me — he said, “I'm doing a play and I'm going to send a script over. I'm not offering it to you, I just want you to read it.” Then I read it and thought, I don't know how to do this part, but I'd be good in this part. He called me, “Did you read it?” And I went, “Yeah, and I know the part you're gonna want me for and I can't do a good job, but I can do a good job of that.” He said, “Do you have a job?” I went, “No.” He said, “Then just come over and don’t tell me what you can’t do.”
Justin: [Laughs] When was that?
Cher: A thousand years ago? It was Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean.
Bodysuit: Versace, Boots: Bottega Veneta
Justin: It seems like you’re thrown into things and adapt. Like a Christmas album, but it’s done the Cher way.
Cher: The reason I didn't do one was because I couldn't figure out a way to do one. I couldn't feel the way to make a Christmas album come from me, and then Sarah gave me “DJ” and I thought, Okay, I could do this. Even though the songs are not relatives, they live well together. You go from one thing to something completely different to something completely different.
Justin: I noticed it does have range. Was that intentional?
Cher: It wasn't intentional. I didn't think about it beforehand, I just picked out things I liked. Rob Dickens sent me “Run Rudolph Run” and I loved it. I always thought “Santa Baby” was so campy and thought, I could do a good job with this, because I feel it. I did songs that I felt. I remember Stevie [Wonder’s] song, I always loved the harmonica. So I started it, but there were things on it that I couldn't do... Stevie things. That's why I called him. I said, “Stevie, I've done this song and there are parts that I just can’t do. I only hear you and I need you to come do it.”
I just know how to do what I do, and I don't overthink it. I open my mouth and sing or get in front of a camera and act, and that's it.
Justin: Are you interested at all in contemporary pop music?
Cher: Not so much, but I just went to see Usher [in Vegas]. There are things that I really like, but I don't listen to the radio anymore. Alexander is always bringing me things to listen to.
Justin: Do you like the songs he brings you?
Cher: When we were first together, he said, “Why aren't you recording?” And I went, “I don't know.” So he brought me this song called “Fairness,” and it grabbed me so much. And then he brought me a couple of others and I thought, I can go back into the studio on these. And then all of a sudden, the Christmas album came up again. I mean, it'd been coming up my whole life and I'd always been going, “Yeah, no,” and somehow this was different. When I started, I was totally into it. I called Cyndi [Lauper] first and then I called Stevie and then Darlene [Love]. Tyga was a surprise and Michael [Bublé] was kind of a surprise, too, because I have friends that know him.
Justin: Were you excited about the process of making music again?
Cher: No, I was a bit nervous because my voice was so not there and I got my teacher out. My 96-year-old teacher, who’s so hot, so cool, and she whipped it into shape. And it wasn't the first time. After I made movies, I didn't have a voice either, and she whipped it into shape, and I made “I Found Someone.”
Justin: How long have you been working together?
Cher: I have no idea, but it was before “I Found Someone,” so we know how long ago that was . Bernadette Peters said, “I've got a genius teacher,” and she was and she is and she's one of my closest, dearest friends.
The only way people can help is if they get together, and you have to be loud. You have to show your displeasure and you have to show how wrong it is to discount people in a community for just being who they are.
Justin: I’m curious about your perspective on how much easier it is to release music now, versus when you started in the industry and there were fewer players and more barriers to entry.
Cher: The more people in the mix [the better], and different sounds and different voices. I'm especially happy about women, because it wasn't easy [when I started]. It was messy, you didn't have any choices. Your art was much more influenced by other things than just your own expression. And now, it's easier. I mean, it's not easy. I always think women are gonna have to fight for what they want.
Justin: You’re right, it's definitely great that there are more voices in the pot. But now, it's also much easier to make a song and release it on something like TikTok. Do you love that shift?
Cher: It’s so weird, you’re not the first person to ask me that and it's not a question I would have ever thought to ask me. The truth is I'm just happy. One thing doesn't diminish who I am, it just makes me more excited than anything else.
Justin: Now, access is wider, technology has made things easier, information moves faster–
Cher: True, but art is still art and the more it is circulating the better. It's like paintings: there's every style, there's millions of painters, but it doesn't diminish anybody else. Really, good artists are good artists, and I always think of music as art.
Justin: Do you manifest at all?
Cher: I don't know what I do. I just know how to do what I do, and I don't overthink it. I open my mouth and sing or get in front of a camera and act, and that's it. I guess that's my gift.
Justin: When you think about your legacy and what you’ve done with your gift, how do you view it?
Cher: I don't know, I don’t care about legacy.
Justin: Really? At all?
Cher: No, I never even thought about it before you just mentioned it. I've done what I've done and people will do with it what they will.
Justin: That's such a healthy perspective.
Cher: I know, but what else is there? Like Alexander's always not knowing who I talk about and my references. The other day I said, “You probably don't know Clark Gable,” and he went, “No, I know Clark Gable, Cher.” He never calls me Cher, I mean, unless he wants to really piss me off or he’s really angry ‘cause I don't like it. But there are people that I admire, like Etta James, and a lot of times you carry these people from your childhood. My mother introduced me to old movies, there was one channel and that's what they played, so my mother taught me how to appreciate things from a past that I couldn't know. And so I did that with my kids because things are either good or bad. It doesn’t make a difference where they come from, who they come from.
Justin: I first met you at Madison Square Garden in 2019.
Cher: That’s always scary to me.
Justin: Madison Square Garden?
Justin: Why? Because it's so big?
Cher: Because it’s Madison Square Garden.
Justin: What's your fear of what could happen?
Cher: I always want to be really good. Somehow in my mind, you're playing Madison Square Garden, so you'll be judged there differently than in Wisconsin or something. But now it’s all in, um, Brooklyn?
Justin: [Laughs] It’s all in Brooklyn, I live in Brooklyn. Have you been there?
Cher: Of course, that’s where we made Moonstruck. Brooklyn, even when we made it, was an amazing area. So full of substance.
Justin: I want to ask how you're feeling about the state of trans legislation in the U.S. and where things seem to be headed for the LGBTQ+ community, specifically.
Cher: It's insane, okay? It's fucking insane. I don’t understand, this is not my America. It doesn't make sense and it makes me really frightened for people. It's like, you have to be one thing and all of a sudden, all the things that add spice and excitement and beauty, unless you do it in their way, it's no good and they want to get rid of it — like teaching Black history or banning books that are fabulous books. I don't know how we came to this, truthfully, and it's just a terrible, terrible period. I couldn't think of anything worse and the direction that we're going is crazy.
Justin: I think for some, making positive change towards progress can feel like such an ambitious effort. How do you think people can help?
Cher: The only way people can help is if they get together, and you have to be loud. You have to meet fire with fire and I don't mean that in the literal sense. You have to show your displeasure and you have to show how wrong it is to discount people in a community for just being who they are. Look, I met my first gay guys when I was nine and I thought, Why isn't everybody like this?None of the men I know are like this, none of the men are so funny and so vivid and full of life and fun to be around. And that was my introduction.
My mother was so inclusive, she wasn't prejudiced in any way. As a matter of fact, I remember her saying to my grandmother, “My girls don't know these names and if you keep talking like this, I won't let them come around you.” And I didn't know what the names were intellectually, but I felt what they were. I felt my mother's anger, so I knew that it was about other people: the other. If my mother thought it was wrong, it was wrong. I think that's where we get a lot of who we are, right? If we're all together, we make such an interesting tapestry — and that sounds like such bullshit — but we make something more interesting than just one thing. It's like if you had to have potatoes and you’re like, “Oh fuck, is this all there is?”
Justin: That’s what they want: a country with only potatoes.
Cher: I know, that’s all they want. You have to stand up for things that are wrong and it’s wrong, when you want to try and delete people from a country that’s supposed to be welcoming. The more people that you have, the more different experiences that you have, the more you are excited about life. It seems silly. It’s like if I only had one dress, I would die.
Justin: [Laughs] How boring would that be?
Photography: An Le