The Cher Appeal
Examining the attraction between gay men and Cher.
Why do gay men love Cher? Is it her look? Her talent? Her outspokenness? Or is there something else, something unexplainable that draws us to this woman who’s been in our consciousness for nearly 45 years—sometimes before we even realized we were gay?
These are the questions we put to some of our favorite pop culture commentators, most of whom chose to begin at the very beginning.
Because, as any analyst will tell you, everything dates back to childhood.
“I went by Sonny when I was a kid because most people in Missouri couldn’t pronounce Santino,” says fashion designer and RuPaul’s Drag Race judge Santino Rice. “Even when I was two or three, people would say, ‘Hey Sonny, where’s Cher?’ I think my first memory was, ‘Who is this Cher?’ I wanted to figure out what the joke was about.”
“My earliest memories of television are watching The Sonny & Cher Show and then Cher’s solo show, and being obsessed with her,” says drag performer Sherry Vine. But why? Why do gays fixate on Cher and not, say, Isabel Sanford from The Jeffersons?
“Why wouldn’t we love Cher?” asks Alonso Duralde, author of Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas. “She’s endlessly dazzling, she’s a master at reinvention, and she endures—and those are things to which we all aspire. When people talk about her film roles, they naturally dwell on her triumphs in movies like Silkwood and Moonstruck, but I remember being blown away by her in Robert Altman’s Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, where she totally held her own opposite the likes of Karen Black and Sandy Dennis—not to mention a young Kathy Bates. As the small-town sexpot with a dark secret, Cher gave a funny, vulnerable and altogether terrific performance—and mind you, this was in 1982, when she was still something of a pop culture joke and hadn't been taken seriously as an actress.”
DJ, writer and radio personality Paul V. also suggests that the answer lies somewhere in Cher’s underdog qualities. “I think gays related to her from the very beginning because her unconventional beauty made her seem an ugly duckling to some—but when she sang, it was clear that she was a swan. She got all the best and bitchiest zingers with Sonny, then did that very gay finger-lick. Visually, she loved to play wild and flashy dress-up. Watching her on TV in the ’70s was like a kaleidoscope of sequins, fabulous music, and glitzy kitsch.”
Video repurposer/montage artist Dan Rucks (a.k.a Dan-O-Rama), who has directed video projections for Cher’s Believe and Farewell tours, concurs about the clothes. “Seeing all the costume changes and the different looks she had was pretty appealing. Everyone wants to play dress up when you’re little—especially when you’re gay.”
But the outlandish wardrobe is only half the story; it’s also about how you work it. “I recall one Vegas special,” says entertainer Lady Bunny, “where she made an entrance sliding through a massive high heel shoe and then proceeded to snatch off the side ponytails from her headpiece. A hair change, mid-number? Now that’s show biz magic! It’s exactly the kind of excess gays love.”
But these same fans who drooled over the clothes also sensed something more substantial—something from the heart. According to Rice, “Cher has always done things her way. She pushed boundaries and limits. She did something that people were ready for, but then gave them more and did it in such a genuine, authentic way. Because it comes from inside of her.”
That authentic spirit seems to be key to gay men’s interest in Cher; after all, from Charo to Kathy Griffin there are plenty of female figures that gay men are fascinated with, and yet few hold the type of familial passion gay men hold toward Cher. Indeed, when Sonny and Cher divorced, Sherry Vine recalls, “I was 2 years old and I burst into tears. My mom was like, ‘What is wrong with you? You don’t even know them!’”
“I think true art comes out of pain,” Rucks says. “And every time Cher takes a dip in her personal life—every time people want to count her out—she reemerges better than ever.” In a 2003 essay published in The Advocate, actor Alec Mapa seconded this emotion: “If Cher can get her ass kicked over and over again and still bounce back with a number 1 hit, then doesn’t your life seem a little more manageable?”
Oh yes, the music. “She’s always managed to create solid pop music,” says Lady Bunny, “changing with the times but maintaining the quality of her sound. The dance-loving gays were thrilled with her dance album Believe, but earlier hits contained lyrics with which we could identify, whether it’s her mixed race persona struggling to overcome negative stereotypes as in ‘Half-Breed’ or ‘Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.’ Her disco-era ode to promiscuity, “Take Me Home,” earned her gay fans as well.”
But regardless of what Cher’s projecting in a given moment, some might argue that at the heart of it all is a tough female rocker who loves to play characters.
Writer Dennis Hensley agrees and takes it a step further: “Her fabulousness is all self-invention and she doesn’t seem to give a f*** what people think of her. And, unlike Madonna, it seems like if you were lucky enough to meet her, she would be nice to you.” Adds Paul V.: “And she loves her transgendered kid unconditionally. Oh dark lady, j’adore!”
“She’s over-the-top, ballsy, glamorous and a freak—in the best sense of the word,” says Sherry Vine. “She has been through it all and always manages to end up on top. She has had to struggle to be taken seriously as an actress, singer and mom and yet has proven herself over and over.”
And just how does Cher manage such amazing feats again and again? According to Mapa, she “embodies an unapologetic freedom and fearlessness that some of us can only aspire to.”
And she does it with a sense of humor. “I was at a press conference when she was announcing another leg of the Farewell Tour,” says Rucks. “And of course the Farewell Tour went on for almost three years, and they were announcing that the Australian leg was going to be the final one, and someone from the audience raised their hand and said, ‘Cher, you’re really milking this tour for all it’s worth.’ Without missing a beat, she looked at them and answered with a flip of the hair, 'I said farewell—not brief.”
So Cher, it seems, can do everything. “She’s conquered every medium,” says Jeremy Kinser, Arts & Entertainment Editor for The Advocate. “She’s strong, opinionated, self-deprecating, outspoken, she refuses to censor herself—and at 64, girlfriend still has the balls to rock that barely-there ‘If I Could Turn Back Time’ costume.”
And after all these years, she’s still doing it. “Personally, I don’t think she’s done,” says Rucks. “I think she’s got another number one hit and another Oscar in her.”
But does that explain her gay appeal?
“Every gay icon possesses qualities through which we live vicariously,” wrote Mapa, “and with Cher you get more bang for your buck. It’s wish fulfillment on a grand scale... While the rest of us were sleeping, Cher’s been out there for the last four decades living out every single one of our childhood fantasies.”
Rice, on the other hand, thinks the key to her appeal is simply that she’s “a woman like no other. That’s basically the front of the line for gay men. And it’s awesome to see how she keeps pushing and evolving. Cher is really the definition of what reinvention is all about. She does it with each turn she takes, bringing with her this whole legacy of the work she’s done. When she first became popular with The Sonny & Cher Show, they were like happy hippies. From there, she kept cultivating her image. She left Sonny, she kept moving and changing, and perfecting what she wanted to be. I think that’s super powerful and glamorous.”