01/21/1991 at 01:00 AM EST
Last month, while taping an interview with Oprah
Winfrey in Aspen, Cher was taken aback when she caught sight of a familiar face. "What are you doing in this audience?" she blurted. Then, turning to Oprah
as the tape kept rolling, she explained, "He's a friend of mine. Well, he's not exactly a friend, he's a reporter. Reporters cannot be friends. But he comes very close."
The man in the audience was Jim Jerome, 44, on assignment for this week's cover story (page 78). Jerome, who was a charter member of the PEOPLE editorial staff in 1974 and has been a free-lancer and author of three books since 1986, has written more than 40 cover stories for the magazine over the years, including five on Cher. He has seen her through two husbands and several boyfriends, five movies and numerous changes of persona. "Cher's real wary of journalists," says Jerome. "But while she trusts me to be fair and accurate and not exploit that closeness, the editors trust me to come back with something no one else can get. That's tricky."
Building a working rapport was not always easy. For a 1982 article, Jerome had scheduled a meeting with Cher at the Manhattan apartment of one of her friends. He arrived on time and announced to a doorman that he had come to sec Cher, but was told she had just stepped out. After cooling his heels for an hour, Jerome discovered the doorman thought he was there to see another tenant: Shere Hite, author of the Hite Report on sexuality. "When I finally got up to see Cher, she was not pleased. As I walked in. she looked away and mumbled. 'You're late.' When I told her what had happened, we both thought it was pretty amusing."
For this week's story, Jerome hung out with Cher in Las Vegas, where she was headlining at the Mirage, as well as at her homes in Los Angeles and Aspen. While Jerome was welcomed with easy familiarity normally reserved for a friend, he didn't pull any punches as a reporter. When the unmarried Cher mentioned she could see having another child, for example. Jerome's natural follow-up was to try-to get her to discuss her love life. "Cher is savvy enough to understand that it is my job to ask tough questions," Jerome says, "and that it is her job to decide when she wants to sound off or clam up."
As both a journalist and someone who is "not exactly a friend." Jerome admires Cher's independence. "She is the kind of person who doesn't need to ask for permission to do something," he says. "One thing I've heard her say is, 'This is not a dress rehearsal. This is life.' "
Paris bureau chief Cathy Nolan chronicled a harsher reality when she traveled to Romania for our lead story this week on Dr. Barbara Bascom's crusade on behalf of that country's desperately deprived orphans (page 42), a legacy of the deposed tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu. "It was the most heart-shredding experience I've ever had," says Nolan. "Ceausescu stunted everyone's growth in Romania, and the orphans are the most visible and tragic symbol of what he did."
An American born in France and a member of the PEOPLE staff since 1983, Nolan was unprepared for the sadness she experienced when she watched a 4-year-old child cower in a corner simply because he was unaccustomed to human contact. "These children were considered disposable by the Ceausescu regime and sent to facilities which were virtual extermination centers," she says.
In the midst of such tragic circumstances, Nolan was so impressed by Bascom's work that she considered dropping everything to help out. "I thought about staying on and volunteering to work with the children," she says. "But I realized it is important for me to continue my job and bear witness to the work of people like Dr. Bascom. For her, there is no child who is hopeless."