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Chastity looked up at me the other day and asked, "Mother, you were alive in the '60s, weren't you?"
—Cher Sarkisian Bono Allman

Alive? Get that seventh grader a math tutor, or at least a quickie course in Pop Cultural History. During that hip-hugging decade Mom was no less, than the Pocahontas-hippie princess incarnate, in raven pigtails, love beads, fringed hide and minis, belting out such formative folk-rockers as I Got You Babe and All I Really Want to Do. If young Chastity's understanding of her parents' role in the 70s is more secure, it's probably because she passed publicly through childhood as part of Mom and Dad's kitschy Sonny & Cher variety hour.

This is another decade. Cher has not totally bell-bottomed out, but for a long time now she has gotten further with her Bob Mackie wackiness and splashy love life (Gregg Allman, Gene Simmons, guitarist Les Dudek) than with her music. Cher hasn't done a TV show since 1979; she and the newly remarried Sonny Bono can hardly live off the wages of syndication. By her own admission, Cher's 1980 shot at New Wave, her Black Rose album (and touring band), was a "dismal failure." Her bread and butter is still those $30,000-a-show extravaganzas (usually two each night) at Caesars Palace, for up to 20 weeks a year.

But now, at 35, she has wisely asked herself: Is there life after Flash? Loyal Cher-holders may not have the Vegas idea what she's getting at, but she doesn't care. She is taking what may be her riskiest career move ever to prove the point. Next month Cher will make her Broadway debut in a play directed by film auteur Robert Altman (his Broadway debut as well), Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. Her co-stars are Sandy Dennis and Karen Black. The drama is about six Texas women who reunite 20 years after Dean's Giant was filmed near their small hometown.

"I am an artist, whatever meaning one attaches to that word," Cher says. "I have to express myself. I think I have a lot more depth than most people realize. Theater is much more taxing than TV, yeah, but I want to do it. if it's bad, everyone'll be jumping out with knives and razors." Not to worry, though: She enjoys a media rumble now and then. "I don't think you can be so cautious that you have a guarantee of success before you do something. Otherwise I wouldn't be in this play. I'm really almost insane to try it. Some people think I have a lot of nerve doing this because I literally have no background. Well, I have got a lot of nerve."

And luck. In New York last spring to promote Sonny & Cher TV reruns, she talked with producer Joe Papp about an acting career. His chilly response: "I can't tell what you can do from all that Sonny and Cher stuff." To show him, she audited a few classes with Anna and Lee Strasberg at Actors Studio in October and returned to read I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road for Papp. "He seemed overwhelmed, unless he's a great liar," Cher says proudly. "I was really good."

Enter Altman, whose wife, Kathryn, is an old friend of Cher's mom, Georgia Holt. When Georgia mistakenly called Kathryn, mixing up her number with Cher's actress sister, Georganne La Piere, Altman recalls, "I said to Kathryn, 'Be polite, ask her what Cher is up to.' " When Mom said Cher was hoping to learn acting in New York, Altman says he had "a vague thought." He reached Cher at Papp's office and sent her the Jimmy Dean script. "I told her, 'Don't hold out much hope. You're in fast company.' "

Cher showed him what fast was. Altman cast Cher the day after her audition and now says, "She's as terrific as anyone in the show." Her character, Sissy—a Texas waitress who had a bit part in Giant—could be the ideal showcase for a sassy, endearingly kinetic new Broadway comedienne. Altman, for one, is convinced Cher is up to it. "She will surprise audiences in a positive way," he says.

She has fit in smoothly with her five female co-stars, of whom Dennis and Black are the best known. Sandy finds her "wonderful" at rehearsals, and Black says, "She doesn't have a front, she's very lively and honest." All six women break most days for an hour lunch at nearby Joe Allen's bistro. They go over the play, swap Hollywood and Broadway apocrypha, chat like sorority sisters about men, husbands, lovers, children and mothers—and meticulously divvy up the checks. "Cher understands perfectly," says Altman. "This is strictly an ensemble project. No prima donnas. She's going to have to learn to take subways and hail cabs if she wants to be a New York actress."

Actually, Cher usually does hoof it from the daily 10-hour rehearsals (in an old church on 46th Street) to a recording studio two blocks away where she works until midnight on a new LP, due next month. But unlike other new actresses, for whom a theater gig means escape from waitressing nights and pulling unemployment by day, Cher had to decide whether she could take the Broadway pay cut. She's making only $500 a week during rehearsals. Her paycheck jumps to $4,000 after the Feb. 18 opening, but even that "means about eight minutes in Vegas," Cher says with a wry grin.

For the first time she can remember, she is "on a stringent budget. Every penny I've got is tied up," says Cher, who has put four years and some $4 million into her Egyptian-style mansion in Beverly Hills, and is still building. "Every time I turn around, lumber's gone up $40,000." Another reason she's paring down for the Big Apple: "I'm a clothesaholic. New York's got the most tempting shopping anywhere in the world. It's awful going down the streets, seeing colors flashing out at me from windows and having to walk by. Living rich is more fun than poor, but I'm learning to make choices now. Instead of buying 10 of something and then giving them all away, I buy one or two. I'm scared to death of being poor. It's like a fat girl who loses 500 pounds but is always fat inside. I grew up poor and will always feel poor inside. It's my pet paranoia."

City rents could fuel that fear. "You should see the crap agents are showing me for $7,000 a month," she gripes. She wants to stay near Central Park West in a place large enough for her, Chastity, 12, and Elijah Blue, 5, and sister Georganne. They are scheduled to join her soon. Cher says that Chas, who's sporting braces, is "thrilled and delighted" to move to Manhattan, where Mom will enroll her in private school. Says Cher, "She needs to get out of the vast wasteland of L.A. for the stimulation of the city."

Meantime Cher crashes at the posh apartment she picked and decorated for Gene Simmons of Kiss during their bicoastal romance. (Another Manhattan friend is Diana Ross, who became Simmons' frequent date after Cher introduced them.) "Geney and I have an unusual relationship," Cher says. "I feel comfortable and good with him. He's like a brother to me."

The chumminess fits Cher's pattern: Lovers and ex-husbands become friends for life, with the possible exception of the volatile, recurringly cleaned-up Gregg Allman, whom she divorced four years ago. Now she regrets "not quitting sooner so I coulda moved on to something better." Cher bumped into Gregg New Year's Eve at Regine's while partying with Allman Brothers guitarist Dickie Betts and wife Paulette, Cher's ex-secretary and best friend. "There's no trying to change Gregory," she says ruefully, claiming that he has seen his son, Elijah Blue, only four times since they split. Sonny Bono, however, still lives a block away in Beverly Hills and is "real involved" with both kids, who see him regularly. Only rehearsals kept her from attending his Aspen wedding to Susie Coelho on New Year's Day (PEOPLE, Jan. 18).

The stage has also taken her away from the man in her life for nearly two years, rocker Les Dudek, 29. They met when he was her Black Rose guitarist, and they have been living together for more than a year. "He has his own record to do," she says. "I must say I'm glad I'm not with anybody now because I've been working night and day."

Cher says she and Dudek have a "very strong relationship." She has noticed, though, that the "romantic part" of her involvements fades after about two years. "I guess I just can't make that heavy commitment." Is Dudek's time running out? No, she laughs, the current separation "has just worked out this way."

If she has to put L.A. life with Les on hold—motorcycling together, noshing at sushi bars, dropping into rock clubs—she looks forward to New York's offering of plays, street life, dancing with friends at discos and, of course, shopping. "The most insane I get is from shoes," she says. "I have 100 pairs; I only wear five of them. I have 100 pairs of pants but I only wear Levis 501s—they're cowboy-cut but-ton-ups. I mean, I asked to be their spokesperson, but I guess they thought I was too wild."

It was not because of her vices. "I hardly drink, I've smoked grass but the paranoia isn't worth it, and I have never tried coke," she says. She plans to join a health club to keep her 5'6", 108-pound bod in shape. "I jog and lift weights. Pumping up is wonderful. I love the shape of my fingers and I have a new chrysanthemum tattoo on my ankle. Yes, I had my tits done, not implants, just firmed up after I was pregnant because I got huge from that."

Though Cher often views her famous face as "a tool that has an effect on my work," she hasn't had it cosmetically reengineered. "After 30 or 40 nights on the road I can't even see it anymore. When I'm in love I look the best. Or with certain makeup I can look stark, like everybody's ethnic sister from Mexico or Russia or Italy or Egypt. I mean, it's bizarre, I look like almost everything."

Broadway aside, it is hard to imagine her playing anyone but Cher. Yet under all the glitz and garishness, beneath her coyly ingenuous demeanor, there is a woman of extraordinary drive who believes fervently in her destiny and in her ability to control it. In December she won a $663,234 judgment against the tabloid Star, Forum magazine and its parent, Penthouse magazine, for misappropriation of her name and likeness for commercial purposes. "I always knew I'd be famous, that I was special," she says. "I practiced my autograph when I was 12." She tells a story about a clock with brightly colored concentric wheels that "mesmerized" her last December in an L.A. doctor's office. "I wanted that clock, I loved it. I came to New York and Gene opened a box, a gift from somebody for him, and there it was. Same clock. He says, 'Here, you want this?' Isn't that bizarre? Another time, I'm in Monte Carlo. I see Adnan Khashoggi's yacht one night." She tells herself she'd love to visit that yacht. "Next day I get invited to a party there." Now Broadway. "I decided I was going to be on Broadway, and two days later I was." One recent wintry afternoon she was in a cab going through Central Park, looking up past bare branches into hundreds of other people's homes. "I have this thought, 'Someone should just give me an apartment because I'm so special.' I used to daydream a lot as a kid. I still do. I'm always the heroine of whatever I think about—and everything always turns out really good."