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The Evolution of Cher

I have been late to many things: most dinners, my high school graduation, almost every appointment I've ever had. And while I hate to admit it, I will here: I have been late to Cher.
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I have been late to many things: most dinners, my high school graduation, almost every appointment I've ever had. And while I hate to admit it, I will here: I have been late to Cher.

I would like to clarify: I've never disliked Cher or thought of her as anything other than a dynamic and talented performer. But I have long taken Cher for granted. I simply assumed that many artists have had multiple hits in multiple decades, won Oscars and Grammys and been cultural icons clad in Bob Mackie for over 40 years. Cher was just one person of note on a short but powerful list.

But the truth is that there is no list. There is only Cher.

What turned me finally -- and I know this may sound strange -- was the movie Burlesque. My friends and I went on opening night hoping for a mixture of Showgirls and Valley of the Dolls, a new camp fantasy we'd been waiting to reenact and quote for the rest of our lives.

What happened was... not that.

Burlesque was OK, not the greatest movie ever made, but certainly not the worst. It was midland, average. There wasn't enough bad to be a disaster, and there wasn't enough good to be sublime. My friend, the very funny Frank DeCaro, has said, "Burlesque would have been better if it were worse." And I have to agree. Christina Aguilera was a very capable actress who looked wonderful and sang beautifully. The songs were mostly fun. Even Kristen Bell was sort of great as the raven-haired vixen/villain. The boys were cute, the lines weren't terrible (most of them even made sense), and the plot was pretty clear. Everything was capable.

But then there was Cher.

When Cher came onscreen, I gasped. Audibly. My friend sitting next to me whispered, "Relax, queen," thinking that I was having a diva moment. For those of you who don't know, a "diva moment" is a sort of low-grade seizure (the science is still pending) followed by vocal encouragement ("yeaaaaah!"), and occasionally accompanied by snapping or palm pumps to the sky, when the subject, in a state of excited agitation, comes in contact with someone or something they hold dear. It has been known to afflict mostly gay men and evangelicals, but for very different reasons. My friend took my gasp as just the beginning of an oncoming "fit" and was trying to nip it in the bud before further embarrassment.

But I stopped and whispered, "Look how good she looks."

Because Cher looks fantastic. (This assertion has been scientifically confirmed.) The truth of the moment was that sitting there in a movie theater on 23rd Street, I was blown away by the immediate sense of presence. Even on film, this woman was the real thing, the genuine article, poised, gorgeous, talented, brilliant -- all things that mean Cher.

As the movie clicked along and my camp dreams were dashed, Cher continued to be brilliant. The scenes with Stanley Tucci, who plays just the sort of gay men I like, were all funny and touching. The relationship between two friends who are deeply committed to each other, slightly in love, trying to keep a part of the world for themselves, was so genuine that my friend choked up. For the rest of the movie, Cher became a life preserver. I relaxed when she was onscreen, knowing full well that I would no longer drown in a sea of the average. It wasn't camp, but it was good.

Camp needs more of a threat. It's always about the push and the pull; it has the frenetic energy of failure mixed with the knowing achievement of beautiful destruction. In a way, Cher can't do camp. That may be a strange thing to say, seeing how much camp is inspired by her, but I think it's true. There is such a sense of authority in her performing (she's Cher, dammit!), but there is also her undeniable sense of truth. In Burlesque, the song may be outlandish, the setting bizarre, but she somehow comes off present and honest in the eye of this glittery storm. Nowhere is this more evident than in her 11 o'clock number, "You Haven't Heard the Last of Me." You'd think this number would be so over-the-top. There's the streaks of sinister lighting, Cher moving a Sally Bowles chair to center stage in shadow, the casualness of the booth operator asking, "You just going to run this?"

"Yes, thanks," says Cher.

And then the number begins. Blue lighting. Glitter in her hair. What started off as a late-night run-through has turned into a lonely tour de force at the Blue Angel. But it's Cher. Things that would appear garish or over-the-top on a host of other divas seem absolutely appropriate on Cher, even demanded. Cher deserves lighting. And glitter. This is how her world should be. And there in that dream, Cher sits down and sings to you about the joys and sorrows of life that you both share. She's just like you, even with all that surrounds her. And you believe it, because Cher is something real.

Now, of course, there will be some who say that this is not an accurate assessment of Cher: How can you call someone "real" who has had that amount of plastic surgery, or used auto-tuning as she's done? To that I would reply, "Who told you about those things? Cher did." Cher has never denied having plastic surgery. She's been upfront and honest about her "work." She's also been forthcoming about a desire to look good. And we love her for it, so why should we be upset when she does things to make herself look and feel great? As for the auto-tuning, she used it as an effect, not as a crutch. It was a sound, a look, almost, that turned "Believe" into a huge hit. The pipes are still there, trust.

But these are just distractions when you look at the lady herself. For decades, Cher has been an ally to the LGBT community, even though she had trouble when her daughter Chastity came out as a lesbian. Some would see this as a temporary failing, something to be forgiven or overlooked, but they would again miss the point: She never stopped loving Chastity, now Chaz, a transgender man. She has openly said that her struggles with Chaz's identity were really just about her own feelings about her role as a mother, never about the love she has for her child. And not only did she evolve on this issue, but she doubled down in her support and love for her child and the larger LGBT community. She has shown up for Chaz, talked about her pride in him, commended his bravery, and fought back against anyone who would disparage or deride her child. It's not posturing for the cameras. It's not using the right words to sound important or thoughtful. It's actually being thoughtful. Progressive views do just that: They progress. It's the constant reevaluation of understandings as they move forward, expanding to include more people and cultures. Sometimes it takes time. Most times it takes time, if we are honest, but the time is not a defeat; it's depth. When Chaz began transitioning, so did Cher. She stumbled on pronouns, she worried about how the world would react, because she is a mom, and it took time. But with her mother's love she has quickly become a vocal advocate for trans people all over the world.

Cher is always evolving, but she remains true to her origins. She's a kind, outspoken, generous, occasionally goofy woman of substance and truth who happens to be a legend. The force of this woman and her career is her evolution, changing, deepening, and ever-expanding. I look forward to the next step. I'm just glad I got in line when I did. Better late than never.