From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
As twilight fades through the slatted blinds dividing up her Malibu bedroom view of the Pacific Ocean, Cher picks at a mug of Goldfish crackers—her dinner this evening. In the glow of scented candles, talk turns to Sonny Bono, her former mentor, performing partner, husband and tormentor, who was killed in a skiing accident last January. "I know it sounds weird," Cher says softly, "but how bad, how hard can dying be? I figure it's all right because he's done it, and if he can do it, I can do it. I just feel a little less anxious, a bit more comforted about being dead."

Peculiar talk for a woman who spent many years feuding with and, occasionally, vilifying Bono, whom she divorced in 1975 and hadn't spoken to in almost two years. The banter that drove their kitschy '70s comedy act as spouses turned ugly as exes. "We both said some nasty things," Cher says. "We were flippant, full of ourselves, wanting to come off smart. I was pissed off and didn't pull punches. We made great copy." But since the pop star-turned-California congressman's death at age 62, she has bonded with him in profound—and profoundly strange—ways. Last March, Cher contacted bestselling (Talking to Heaven: A Medium's Message of Life After Death) psychic James Van Praagh, who assured her that Sonny told him from beyond "how much he loved her." For her part, Cher still experiences sobbing fits over Bono's absence. "Even in death," she says, "I don't feel separated from him yet."

And on May 20—by coincidence her 52nd birthday—Cher will host CBS's Sonny & Me: Cher Remembers, a one-hour tribute to Bono, packed with reminiscences, video clips and old photographs. Having struggled to reinvent herself as a singer and actress post-Sonny, Cher now finds herself commingled with the man she was once desperate to leave. "I couldn't wait to not be Sonny and Cher," she says. "But I don't mind going back. It's my choice now." While taping the special last month, Cher experienced some heart-tugging time warps. "Son saved everything," she says. "I saw his old bobcat vest. I remember the day we found it, what car we were in, how the breeze was blowing. It's so long ago it's like another solar system." Are there dark secrets now forever sealed? "Yes," she says, offering none. "Look, I never thought it would be like this. As long as he was here I could bitch at him, be angry. That was in this compartment, this was in that compartment, everything's tidy. But if people believe things are tidy, they're insane."

Cher was asleep in a London hotel the night of Jan. 5 when Bono died after skiing into a tree on a Lake Tahoe mountain slope. She was awakened by a telephone call from their only child, Chastity, 29. " 'Mom,' " Cher recalls Chastity saying, " 'Dad's dead.' I got completely hysterical. I just started sobbing and collapsed to my knees." Cher's reaction stunned her daughter. "I'd never seen my mother in that shape," Chastity says. "She's not a big crier."

Cher returned immediately to California. She, Chastity and Elijah, 21, her son with her second husband, southern rocker Gregg Allman, spent the week in a guest house at the Palm Springs compound Bono shared with fourth wife Mary (who recently won Bono's congressional seat in an election) and their children Chesare, 10, and Chianna, 6. A longtime friend of Cher and Sonny's asked her to deliver his eulogy, which she quickly set about writing—draft after draft—in longhand on legal pads. "I didn't want to blow it," she says. "I felt I had to repair all the damage and misconceptions about Sonny."

Giving the eulogy ("I know he's somewhere, loving this," she quipped) on Jan. 9 at a Palm Springs church, she says, was her toughest performance ever. "I had no control. My face was making all kinds of movements, I had to lock my legs and grit my teeth. I was terrified."

Two days earlier, she promised herself she would not look at her ex-husband in his open casket at the private family wake. But she couldn't help glancing at his hands. "He had these really cool hands," she says, choking back tears, "and I looked away and went, 'Oh, f—k it. I'll just look at him.' So I thought, 'I don't want this to be the last thing I see.' He looks like such a Republican, and I'm going to really hate that."

The line recalls the couple's best repartee—and perhaps signifies a step toward catharsis. But even before Sonny's death, Cher's life had changed significantly as she first neared, then passed, her big five-oh milestone. "I hate my fifties," she says. "They suck. I never felt older until I hit 50. And the way I first noticed was through my work. When I was 40, I was playing opposite somebody who was 21, and nobody noticed. But at 45, as you start to look older, all you can do is look good for your age. There's a certain span of time—and I'm very much there—when you have to wait till you can play the Shirley MacLaine/Anne Bancroft roles. So what am I supposed to do? Like, go camping for 10 years?"

Perhaps the idea might hold greater appeal if she had someone with whom to share her tent and flashlight. Cher hasn't been in a serious relationship for six years (with Richie Sambora, now Heather Locklear's husband). Love, she says, is "harder to find when you're older. I live in Los Angeles, where newer is better and older is useless. But I guess if grass can grow through cement, love can find you at every time in your life."

Which is not to say that Cher, who has dated actor Val Kilmer, mogul David Geffen (who has since embraced a gay lifestyle), Tom Cruise and L.A. actor-bartender Rob Camilletti, is any less discriminating these days. "I'm not the love-the-one-you're-with type," she says. "[Being alone] is definitely a deficit, but I certainly don't have the time or energy to share my privacy with some a—h—e I'm not crazy about. I'm just looking for someone with a great sense of humor who's really creative, fun, sensitive and sweet."

Georganne La Piere, 47, an actress and Cher's half sister, says, "Cher hasn't been out enough in recent years. You don't meet people in your living room. You have to go out, and she's been a bit reclusive." Then, too, says Chastity, men are "intimidated by the false rep—how she's out there, wild, with young guys. She's actually dedicated to her work, a homebody. She values what we all value—friends, family, hanging out, playing board games at home."

Adding to the commotion in Cher's home is Elijah, who is about to go on tour with his rock band Deadsy, for which he sings and plays guitar. He and his mom have grown much closer of late. "She had to be a lot stricter with him," says Chastity, who publicly acknowledged being a lesbian four years ago and is now entertainment and media director for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation in West Hollywood, where she lives. "He was more of a rebel than I was. She has a rebellious side too, and gets a kick out of [him]. Lij still has some growing to do, but he's a good kid."

Rebellion is in the blood. Cherilyn Sarkisian was born in 1946 in El Centro, Calif. Her part-Cherokee mother, Jackie Jean Crouch (now Georgia Holt), was 18 when she gave birth to Cher. Jackie left her husband, John Sarkisian, a handsome Armenian truck driver who gambled and battled drug addiction, when Cher was just a few months old. (It was a stormy affair: She was married to him twice and lived with him a third time.)

Struggling to stay afloat, Holt briefly placed Cher, barely a toddler, in a Catholic home run by nuns—visiting her daughter daily. When she had trouble having Cher released, "Mom freaked out," says Georganne. "She remembers it as the most traumatic thing in her life."

Holt, who had Georganne in 1951 with John Southall, an actor (they divorced five years later), worked as a model, movie extra and waitress, says Georganne, whom Cher helped raise. "Mom sweated bullets every year figuring out how to get us new shoes for school," says Georganne. "We came from no money."

That changed about the time Cher hit adolescence and Holt married bank vice president Gilbert La Piere in 1961. He adopted both girls and gave them an upper-middle-class lifestyle in Encino. By then, Cher, whose long, coal-black hair was already her most striking feature, was both rebel and loner. "Cher felt set apart, the odd man out," her sister says. "Mom once told her, 'Someday you'll be really glad you look different and are different. You're going to have your time.' "

It wouldn't be long in coming. At 16, the precocious acting student who had delighted in practicing her autograph dropped out of high school and moved into a Hollywood flat with a girlfriend. Then, on a fateful day in 1963, in a coffee shop frequented by music-biz types, she met Sonny Bono, then a 27-year-old backup singer and aspiring songwriter who worked as promoter for rock producer Phil Spector.

They hit it off and were soon living together. "It was platonic for a long while," recalls Cher. Indeed, Sonny once told her, "I don't find you particularly attractive." Nevertheless, Cher was smitten. "I was more an annoyance to him, a silly kid, but I had a crush on him," she says. Part of the allure was his role as mentor. "I was the young student, always listening, watching how he dealt with stuff. I took every opinion he had and made it my own." Bono even arranged for his untested ingenue to sing backup with the Ronettes in 1964, and their future was sealed.

That year, calling themselves Caesar and Cleo, they released their first record, which failed to chart. Changing their name to Sonny and Cher, they adopted the beads-and-bells look and, in July 1965, cut a song Sonny had written called "I Got You Babe." It rose to No. 1 and became a '60s rock classic. The duo never looked back. They cut six albums and even made two forgettable movies (1967's Good Times and '69's Chastity) before CBS tapped the couple (who married in 1969) to host a weekly variety show. The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour was an instant hit and aired for three seasons, until Cher filed for divorce in 1974, charging that Sonny had held her in "involuntary servitude."

In June 1975, Cher married drug-addled Gregg Allman, whom she left after only nine days, calling it "a mistake." Their stormy relationship lasted another two years and produced Elijah. As for Allman, "he thought women had two purposes," Cher told Maclean's magazine in 1989, "to make the bed and to make it in the bed."

She returned to Sonny—for work, not love—in 1976, after both had failed with solo TV shows. But their reunion series fizzled after one season. Cher then forged ahead with a rock career, punctuated by sold-out gigs in Las Vegas, before moving to New York City to try acting. Her role in the 1981 play Come Back to the Five & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean earned her strong reviews, but it was her turn as a lesbian in Silk-wood that earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination and serious acclaim. And for her engaging performance in 1987's romantic comedy Moonstruck, Cher, in an outrageously provocative dress, finally won a Best Actress statuette, which today serves as her bedroom doorstop.

But as the '80s ended, a decade which produced four Top 10 hits for her, including "If I Could Turn Back Time," Cher began battling the debilitating effects of chronic fatigue syndrome. Subsequently she turned down starring roles in Thelma & Louise and The War of the Roses. Worse, after the disappointing Mermaids in 1990, Cher taped a series of misguided cosmetics infomercials, which she regretted soon after. And who could forget Sanctuary, her mail-order catalog of Gothic tchotchkes?

"I became a joke on Letterman and Saturday Night Live," she says. "My career took a huge nosedive, went right in the toilet. I couldn't have been dumber. It was just a huge, devastating misjudgment of what people would accept from me." She says she did the pitches because she needed money and was often too weak to work full-time. "I was constantly sick and had no energy," says Cher. "I was someone who went full-tilt boogie when others were dropping like flies. But I should have figured out another way."

Which is just what she's doing now. Cher directed a segment of HBO's critically praised trilogy If These Walls Could Talk in 1996. Having switched agents and parted from her longtime manager, she now plans to direct a feature next year. "There's a place for me to make my talent visible," she says. "I don't know if it's in front or behind the camera, but I know I can contribute." This year she'll appear in two films—one directed by Franco Zeffirelli, the other costarring Cameron Diaz. She is also producing a TV movie and has an album due in late summer.

Her good health has returned, thanks, she says, to the homeopathic remedies on which she is "totally hooked," and she's having monthly laser treatments to remove her once-notorious tattoos. "When I got them, no one else had them," says Cher. "Now everyone has them. They're not so fabulous anymore."

The new, over-50 Cher is also "not as into fashion, the quantity of it, as I used to be. I don't have to be." Less shopping leaves more time for daily morning workouts and for designing a new 14,000-square-foot, seven-bedroom house overlooking the ocean in Malibu. There she'll no doubt have room for a grandchild or two, a subject she has not-so-subtly broached with her daughter. "She'd love to be a grandmother," says Chastity. "She loves playing with her assistant's nephew and going off to the toy store for friends' kids. But she's never pressured me, and I don't feel ready to make that kind of commitment."

In the meantime, Cher isn't waiting as she reinvents herself yet again. "When you turn this age, possibilities have become probabilities, certainties," she says. "You've been there, done that: bought the T-shirt, got the poster, been the poster. You have to figure out new, creative ways to stay vital, interested, have new dreams. Maybe I'll come back as a cowboy. Maybe next time I'll do better."