The incomparable Cher talks to Co.Design columnist Doreen Lorenzo about creativity, Twitter, and the brilliance of emojis.
Doreen Lorenzo: Everybody knows you as a musician, but you’ve done so much more, from acting to design to humanitarian work. What drives you to explore so many different creative pursuits?
Cher: Things present themselves in so many different ways. Sometimes you just keep walking and you don’t pay any attention, and sometimes you just go, “What can I do?” I learned it from my mother, and later from friends like Mitch Schneider. There are so many charities and causes in our world, and you can’t do everything. So I do the things that crossed my path.
How did you find inspiration?
I found great people to work with: Joe Layton, Kenny Ortega, Bob Mackie. They always had great ideas. We would talk, and they would come up with something. With my friend Dori Sanchez, we would make up the whole performance on the floor of my bedroom. We would start everything with, “Wouldn’t it be great if?” We were the first people to use bungee cords and stilts on stage. I’m proud of the things we’ve done.
How do you learn and evolve as an artist?
This is important to me. Work has changed so much, and artists have changed so much, and to keep current and viable, you have to really think hard. As a musician it’s difficult, because you want to do the songs that people want to hear, but you want to be fresh too, and not get bored.
I started out doing what everyone’s doing now—making a big show. And I did that because I didn’t want to be bored and because I was very excited about the idea of doing something spectacular. Of course when I started, people thought it was dumb, and I got all kinds of hell for it. And now everybody’s doing it.
It seems true in any line of work—don’t read the critics. Aside from your spectacular shows, you’re known for your sense of humor on stage. Are you a comedian at heart?
I didn’t start out doing comedy at all. After Sonny and I found success, we owed the government $270,000. So he said, “We’re going to have to go do something you’re not going to like, but if you just give me two years, we’ll be more famous than we ever were before.”
So we started playing at these dive places, just the worst places in the world. And we would have two shows in a night, but no one would show up for the second show. No one. And people didn’t really like us. When we started the second show of the night and we only had 20 people in the audience, we just started trying to make the band laugh. And that’s how the whole Sonny and Cher banter thing happened. It was out of desperation.
How did you keep going?
We floundered until we learned. Some things we tried would get big laughs, and some wouldn’t. So we learned and evolved, and I still do it that way.
You’ve pivoted from your creative work into various humanitarian causes. Talk about the girls’ school in Africa.
It’s a college in Ukunda, Kenya that I rebuilt. Originally it was just corrugated tin with no bathrooms and no food. I put a plan in place. I bought a new piece of property for the school. I helped design it with an architect because I had a concept in mind. For example, I wanted to make sure it got the sun in the morning. The inside has a big quad with covered walkways so you are shaded from the sun. The students can open the windows in the afternoon, to get cross-ventilation and we added fans to help too. The classrooms are nice. They now have bathrooms and a kitchen. Since the beginning the student body has quadrupled and we were able to bring healthy food and medical care. It’s now an accredited school, and it works for the students.
What’s fascinating to me is that you take so much interest. You don’t just write a check. You put yourself out there.
I want to know what’s going on. I want to have my hands in it because I want it to be right.
Talk about your design work with the social enterprise, Vida.
We’ve been working together to produce a fashion line. They were a little surprised when I said if my name’s going to be on the clothing, that I’m going to be designing it, and I don’t want anybody else to do it. I did discover that there is a learning curve. You have no idea how many hours I’ve put into this. But it’s coming along well.
You’re a perfectionist, so that doesn’t surprise me. But there’s something that attracted you to this company too, right? They’re using the profits to fund educational programs for factory workers who make the clothes.
They’re giving people jobs, and that’s a great thing. They are also bringing teachers right into the factories to give the gift of literacy to everyone.
Let’s talk about Twitter. You jumped on Twitter very early on. What drew you to it?
It seems like it’s been so long ago that I have no idea how I could have had the nerve to even go on Twitter. And of course I’m dyslexic, so I can’t spell, and punctuation is just like a way-in-the-distance kind of thing to me. I usually say I throw punctuation up in the air and hope it lands somewhere.
You were also an early adopter of emojis.
I adopted emojis because first of all, I think they’re underrated. They’re the new hieroglyphics. I have too much to say when I want to talk about something. Emojis allow you to either take out a word or punctuate your feelings. I do quite well most of the time, but sometimes, I go off the reservation. [laughs]
But that’s part of why people are attracted to you. It’s that authenticity. You don’t have a third party tweeting for you?
I couldn’t imagine. Why would you want to have Twitter if you didn’t want to do it yourself?
So you did it yourself, and now you have over 3 million people following you. It seems like you’ve formed your own community on the site.
They’re very helpful to me and to each another. Like Kaavan, the elephant in Islamabad who had been chained up for his entire life. Everybody on Twitter started sending me things about Kaavan. I just kept looking at it and it made me upset. Then I remembered meeting this guy named Mark Cowne who had saved all these animals and put them in sanctuaries.
I sent Mark a picture of Kaavan. He started contacting people and got this unbelievable list of people who volunteered to help us. Then he left for Islamabad where he convinced the zoo to unshackle Kaavan, and successfully petitioned the government to allow us to take Kaavan. And now we’ve been waiting for a sanctuary to open up and finally found one for him in Cambodia.
I think I’ve done some good for the community that’s on my site.
This article first appeared in www.fastcodesign.com
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