Athena's Head

On Writing, Parenting, and Pop-Mom Culture

Martha Nichols

Martha Nichols
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
March 18
Editor in Chief
Talking Writing
I am Editor in Chief of Talking Writing, an online literary magazine. I'm also a contributing editor at the Women's Review of Books and a freelance journalist in the Boston area. Martha on Twitter: (I cross-post most OS entries on my website Athena's Head. I am not paid a cent for any reviews or product references—these opinions are mine alone.)


Editor’s Pick
NOVEMBER 8, 2010 9:32AM

Lady Cher: My Favorite Tramp and Po-Mo Thief

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On a recent morning at Logan Airport, I saw Cher, in a black leotard and fishnet stockings, gracing the cover of Vanity Fair.

Vanity Fair, December 2010 coverOf course I bought the issue. Of course I inhaled the profile by Krista Smith, although it wasn’t transcendent journalism, just the usual celebrity applause. It was Vanity Fair, after all, its “December 2010” issue on the newsstands in early November,
one of many time-defying acts of postmodernism.

Cher is the time thief of them all, and I love her for it.

These cross-country trips to see my ailing parents bring out the ’70s girl in me. There’s a whiff of the elegiac now, the echoing soundtrack of my youth, my parents still young and wearing the most awful fashions (Mom in a halter sundress with big orange flowers; Dad with hideous sideburns and napkin-wide ties). Maybe our parents’ young lives can never seem anything but ridiculous, while our own have the aura of earnest sweetness.

Yet at 64, Cher is still here, in all her un-earnest glory, and she crosses the generations. I watched The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour with my parents. My mother and I both got a vicarious kick out of Cher’s slinky outfits, her exposed navel, that waterfall of black hair she was always flicking aside. I went on to more outré icons—David Bowie, Patti Smith—but Cher came first.

I’m a creature of my cultural moment. For me the subversive gender bending of Bowie mattered far more as I entered high school, the kitsch of “Half-Breed” forgotten like a childhood love of Neccos.

The funny thing is, Cher seems to have seized the current moment far more than Bowie or David Bryne or other hipsters of my youth. She was the one introducing Lady Gaga at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards. According to the VF profile, she was the one who held Lady G’s “meat purse”—“this is a steak!”, Cher later joked during her own Vegas show. “I thought, I’ve seen weirder things than that in my life.”

Would Lady Gaga be here without Cher? We literary and academic types like to think we have a grip on “culture,” but sometimes the oddest stories—16-year-old lover of Warren Beatty from bohemian So Cal household marries a future Republican congressman who looks like a goofball so they sing “I Got You Babe” and he rips her off but she rises from the ashes and here she is in yet another incarnation—or maybe the same incarnation—and if that’s not up-to-the-second po-mo time thievery, I don’t know what is.

 “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves” imprinted me, so much so that I riffed on it in a recent paean to blogging and the current dilemma online writers face: how we dance for "the money they throw," or just dance for no money at all, but we're still dancing with our words, still creating Gothic cathedrals or rococo Vegas shows—of words, of Bob Mackie sequins, of whatever trash life hurls.

It was risky, that song, but already as old-fashioned as Rosamond Du Jardin’s Class Ring in 1971. It allowed middle-school me to dump my fears about sex and teen pregnancy into goofy orchestration, to laugh and worry and fantasize. The fake burning log in the music video says it all. Or at least it evokes my personal “Golden Years” mix of family Christmases and suburban strip malls and “uppers” and “downers” and rides to Berkeley on BART all by myself.

The key to my love of Cher is not her talent; it’s that she has always managed to conjure something out of nothing. The flip side of American postmodernism, of course, is the Horatio Alger story, and Cher is like the Horatia Alger of identity bootstrapping.

There’s at least one unintentionally laughable line in the VF profile. Smith writes: “Cher has never exercised the benefit of spin; she prefers to be honest and direct.”

Maybe if your comparison group is Gaga, Madonna, and Angelina Jolie. Or maybe this is just Vanity Fair’s credo—in order to rivet readers with our reporting prowess, celebrities must claim they’re being honest —especially without the benefit of cosmetics—and under the eagle eyes of publicists.

Snide aside: It might be fun to run a list of celebrity descriptions in VF profiles, all those who are said to look like “anybody else” at home when they wear no socks or sandals or lipstick. Here’s Smith’s take on Cher: “Seeing her in daylight with very little makeup on, I’m amazed at how normal she looks.”

But anyone who still dons a full-feathered Indian headdress and a halter top while performing "Half-Breed" is spinning—at the very least, she's spinning away the decades. Revealing the normal person under the mask is a hallowed trope in celebrity profiles, but for me, it misses the point. Authenticity was never what I looked for in Cher or Bowie or (talk about guilty pleasures) Boy George and the Thompson Twins.

What I like is a bit of inferred internal monologue for Cher about Lady Gaga’s “steak” purse: “Remember, bitches, I was the original diva.” I like the “bubble-gum-pink” nail polish Smith describes her as wearing on her toes, the fact that Cher responds by saying her “mean bitch” of a grandmother had “the most beautiful feet." At 96, on her deathbed, Cher says, those pedicured toes still looked good. (And so what if they really didn’t?)

What I care about is changing the terms of the identity equation, of making it up as I go along, not maintaining everybody else’s version of the authentic me. I don't want my past to define me, anymore than Cher allows hers to.

I’ve never liked her more—or needed Cher more—than when I read this quote: “But I’m not stopping. I think maybe that’s my best quality. I just don’t stop.”

I got you, babe.

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vanity fair, cher, music, movies

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Wow did this bring back memories. Planted in front of the tv for the Sonny & Cher show, ironing my curly hair trying to make it stick straight like hers, piling on makeup, standing in front of the mirror singing her songs. Thanks for the time warp this morning!
Even my hopelessly uncool parents watched Sonny and Cher. I loved it and thought she was so glamorous! She's also a very good actress, though she hasn't done a lot of that lately.
l'sch -- Yes, the hair. It was always about the hair. I wanted Cher's hair.

Blue: She is a good actress, and the reason for the VF profile is she's about to star in a new movie called Burlesque. So perfect.
What a fun and thoughtful flashback. As a little girl in the 70s, I always gravitated toward the lone brunette in a sea of Farrahs and Cheryls. Unlike many celebrities who re-invent themselves with every album, with Cher, the more things change, the more things stay the same.
Martha: You don't have to have been a girl to at least recognize Cher as some kind of pop cultural, generation-spanning phenomenon. I wonder, after reading your post, if women like her served as a sort of mother-daughter cultural glue, the way sports has traditionally served he same purpose for fathers and sons.

She was no role model for me -- any more than the loathsome Sonny was -- but when it comes to re-fashioning (with and without Sonny or Bob Mackie) oneself, I agree, she's the queen of them all.

For one things, those cheesy songs were for the most part great cheesy songs. From the beginning, she's had great pipes. "I Got You Babe" was even a bit of a breakthrough, what with Sonny's "long" hair and Cher's svelte Cheshire cat persona. The song has since achieved hilariously iconic status thanks to its indestrucability in "Groundhog Day."

But here's some other stuff: she crossed over to acting early and proved her mettle. Her turn as a lesbian in "Silkwood," also her big-screen debut, (after "Chastity") pretty much nailed that aspect of her career.

But then there were the infomercials, that weird disco tune where she sounds like she's swallowed an air horn, which, even more weirdly, I love. And now a film (I've seen the trailer) about a wrinkle-free burlesque queen and the would-be sassy, never-say-die inheritor of her -- what? -- g-string?

Only a long plane ride could tempt me to read the VF profile or watch the movie. But I enjoyed your publicist-free take on a woman until now I've never given much thought or credit to.
Fame doesn't necessarily indicate relevance. Frankly, after the 70s, I can't say she's done one worthwhile thing. Would Lady Gaga be her without Cher? Of course, Elton John hasn't gone anywhere, has he?
Thank you for this! We must be the same age.... and we certainly cut our teeth on the same music. I have wanted to express this and hadn't put the words together so I thank you very much for writing this. Cher is part of my heart & the development of my self. Always was. Always will be.
So I'm on my way to get a copy of this issue.
I love Cher, I always have. She is truly the great reinventor with an enormous talent and sense of who she is.
Sitting in awe in front of Cher on the TV, adoring her despite the stupid clothes, beginning to dislike my parents when they dismissed them as "a couple of fruits," wondering how Sonny could dominate her when she was just so much more than he. I am happy to suspend analysis for Cher but I preferred her look pre-surgery.
Here's the one I'm crazy about
Great commentary, but I don't think she's all that stellar as an actress. That said, she's a better actress than she is a singer, and has a certain "everywoman" appeal that can't be denied. I loved her look when she was part of Sonny & Cher, but lately, it's just plain scary.
Thanks for this article. Love the walk down memory lane. I'm a little younger, but not by much. As a latina, I remember seeing that Cher doll in the toy store with her long dark hair (as opposed to all those blonde Barbies) and saying "Mine!" She had way cooler clothes to play with too.

Cher is great for all the things she isn't. She's not the ideal beauty, doesn't have the perfect voice, she's no longer young and she's still in every way fabulous!
You got it Rosemary.

Cher is Dietrich-from-the-block. She may dress like a Bird of paradies but underneath it all she's as common as all get-out. And she never so much as THINKS of trying to hide that fact. It's her pride and joy. As a a result she's one of the few "celebrities" any of us could imagine having a perfectly ordinary conversation with.
Cher earned my respect as an actress. I do wish she would wear more clothes. I don't care how toned, I don't want to see her sixty-four year old whatnots in fishnets. Lucille Ball also liked to show off her aged gams and it was scary. Madonna--take heed.
We may never be able to say, "Cher today, gone tomorrow," if medical science continues to progress in the area of cosmetic surgery.

My favorite Cher movie role so far was definitely as the doped-up mom in "Mask."

It looks like Vanity Fair missed the boat by not hiring you to do the profile....
I really enjoyed all these comments. Jeremiah, yes, "I Got You Babe" was inspired as the choice in "Groundhog Day"--its a weird combo of pop wonderfulness and tediousness.

D Art: Gaga has many sources, of course, to which I'd add Bowie, George Clinton, all the strung-out folks at The Factory, and Michael Jackson as well as Elton John and Cher. But Lady G herself seemed in awe of Cher, at least as conveyed by this profile.

J.P.: Vanity Fair is always missing the boat--and thanks for your vote of confidence. VF is a guilty pleasure for me, definitely something I only imbibe on airplanes, but this particular issue was pretty good. It included another of Christopher Hitchens's amazing cancer columns (or letters from "Tumortown"). It even had crusty James Wolcott admitting that NPR's female-centric reporting staff probably matters to the political discourse (although he had to preface the whole thing with way too many column inches about why his books have never gotten coverage on Fresh Air).
we pretended to be sonny and cher back in the day--the dress, the attitude, the fun. i still smile when i remember how much i loved that duo. and god bless cher. you rock still.
I too enjoyed the article in VF, but enjoyed your commentary even more. Always love a blast from the past and a catchy metaphor "forgotten like a childhood love of Neccos".
Most people don't know that Cher started her career as an actress, and I think that she's damned good. I look forward to seeing the movie......thanks for the trip down memory lane!
I got her too. She's fierce and timeless--just seems so sure of herself. I've always admired that in celebrity women. She doesn't try too hard. As you mentioned, I too like the fact that she managed to "conjure something out of nothing."