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There is something appropriate about this pubescent ardor for Cher. At 28 she is herself not far removed from the true-believer status of her fans. Indeed, her saving, authentic grace may lie in her ability to admit that the only definition of success she has ever held is stardom. She is a creature totally formed by show business—first by her fantasies about it, then by her precocious immersion in it. She married Sonny, then a record promoter, when she was 17.

Her liberation from Sonny is a personal triumph, but it carries no ideological example for the rest of womankind, so far as Cher can see. As for being a sex symbol for males, that too is mostly in the eye of the beholder. It is true that after leaving Sonny she involved herself for more than 15 months in a much-publicized romance with David Geffen, 31, innovative president of Elektra/Asylum/Nonesuch Records. "Look, I've traded one short, ugly man for another," she zinged—typically —when she and Geffen ran into Singer-Songwriter Paul Simon. Then, a few months ago, she took up with Gregg Allman, lead vocalist in the rock band that bears his name. But these have not been casual affairs. "I'm a one-man-at-a-time woman," she says. "To put it in the vernacular, I'm not an easy lay. What counts is the quality of the relationship."

Nearly everyone who has been part of her life agrees with that self-assessment. "Conservative, even prudish," is her mother's phrase for her. An uncle has another explanation for her fastidiousness: "Cher had seen it all and done it all by the time she was 15." But they both add that the quality of her career is far more important to her than the quality of any human tie. Says Geffen: "I have to have a private life, but I don't think Cher understands the concept of private life. Cher enjoys the hoopla." Says Sonny Bono: "Cher is now living the adolescence she never had."

And, he might have added, the childhood as well. "I was a shy, ugly kid who led a big fantasy life," Cher, who was christened Cherlin, recalls. "I thought I was an angel from heaven sent to cure polio. When Dr. Salk did it, I was really pissed off." Even before that she was trying to woo the world through performance. "From the time I could talk, I began to sing. Singing just came from the inside—something I'd do without thinking whenever I felt good or was really blue. Dancing? Well, it released my tensions."

There were plenty of those. Cher's mother, Georgia Holt, was a show-business small-timer in Los Angeles, a sometime model and actress in commercials. Her biggest chance was being cast for a part in The Asphalt Jungle for a couple of weeks before another fringe performer named Marilyn Monroe took it away from her. Three times Holt married and divorced John Sarkesian, Cher's father, a compulsive gambler and later a heroin addict, although Cher did not meet him until she was eleven ("I hated him"). Between and after these marriages there were five others. Poverty, constant changes of address, a short stay in a Catholic nursing home for the needy were all part of Cher's childhood. Even a three-year burst of prosperity, when her mother wed a banking executive, seemed like just another form of instability.

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