From sequined spectacle to luminous Oscar-winner; TV vamp to Billboard's longest running chart-topper, Cher's success in music, movies, television, and on stage over nearly four decades qualifies her as one of the most enduring entertainers of our time.
In a career defined as much by dramatic missteps as spectacular recoveries, the chief constant is her seemingly limitless determination.
Born in El Centro, California on May 20, 1946, Cherilyn Sarkisian was a poor, fatherless kid whose eight-times-married actress-mother struggled by on occasional singing gigs and bit parts.
At 16 Cher left high-school and home to take acting lessons in Los Angeles, a plan that quickly derailed when she met 28-year-old producer-songwriter Sonny Bono at Aldo's Coffee Shop in 1963.
"It was as if the whole room went to soft focus, like Tony and Maria at the dance," Cher has said often of their chance meeting.
Though Cher was instantly smitten, Sonny wasn't. The two lived platonically at first, sharing an apartment but sleeping in separate twin beds. While he toiled as an apprentice at Phil Spector's hallowed Gold Star Studios, Cher kept house.
It wasn't until her mother discovered the arrangement and tried to separate them, that the pair rebelled and proclaimed their love.
Soon Cher was tagging along to Spector's, harmonizing behind the Ronettes, Darlene Love, Glen Campbell, The Righteous Brothers and any number of up-and-comers.
Recognizing her star potential, Bono hoped to record Cher as a soloist. But Spector didn't see much in the lanky, long-haired teen. She was so nervous during her first recording sessions, that she insisted - to everyone's chagrin - that the vocally-challenged Bono sing alongside her. Surprisingly they sounded good together, and a duo was born.
Performing initially as Caesar and Cleo, the pair played bowling alleys and skating rinks to little effect.
Her first solo recordings, released under the pseudonym Bonnie Jo Mason and as Cherilyn, were also flops.
Their fortunes turned in 1965, when - as Sonny and Cher - they hit gold with the Bono-penned "I Got You Babe," a sweet ode to married hippie life, (though they didn't officially tie the knot until '69). Within weeks their previous songs, the folkish "Baby Don't Go" and "Just You," were re-released and superstardom set in.
But it was their far-out look - wide colorful pants, skimpy tops, shaggy hair, and fur vests - that wowed fans.
Cher was deemed fashion's shock innovator, a role she has continued with, for better or worse, throughout her career.
Meanwhile Bono was replicating Spector's lush "Wall of Sound" production style so expertly, that by the fall of '65 they landed six singles in the Top 40 all at once.
That success, however, was short-lived; the age of psychedelic rock soon dawned and Sonny and Cher's hopeful sound was passe.
They had one more huge hit together, 1967's "The Beat Goes On," and she had a solo smash, "You Better Sit Down Kids," before fans deserted them.
Ever fearless, Bono launched Cher in films, spending his own cash when studio financing dried up.
But their movies, Good Times and Chastity, weren't hits and the duo lost the wealth they earned as pop stars. Now also in deep debt to the IRS, and struggling to support daughter Chastity born in 1969, they hit the lounge circuit.
Spruced up in evening wear, they sang safe middle-of-the-road covers for the parents of their former fans - quite a humiliation after the huge arenas they once filled.
Cher detested all this and wasn't afraid to show her exasperation on stage, unwittingly honing what would become their trademark shtick. Over time the act improved, Vegas called, and so did CBS, taping them for a summer replacement series in 1971.
Purposefully cheesy, imaginatively produced, and packed with those outlandish Bob Mackie costumes, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour was an instant smash.
But it was the sharp, often risqué banter between the hosts that held viewers. They had a magnetic charm, particularly when they'd sing. Hands clasped, eyes intently locked on one another, his strained voice hardly seemed to matter. More importantly, the show also broke ground challenging America's concept of prime-time beauty.
Unlike most TV personalities of the day, Cher wasn't blonde, perky, or primly dressed. Her dark, exotic looks and blunt repartee - on stage and off - proved liberating to many women.
The new exposure landed Cher back on pop radio; her "Gypsys, Tramps, and Thieves" became the first of three Number 1 "story songs" she scored during a run of early-'70s singles.
There were also several albums of starkly varying quality, stoking her reputation as a hit-and-miss songstress.
Meanwhile the happy family portrait presented to America each week, hid turbulence backstage. Chafing under Bono's fatherly autocracy for years, Cher wanted out.
Their 1974 split brought the hit show to a premature end, devastating CBS executives and fans. The first photos of Cher with another man, up-and-coming mogul David Geffen, drew gasps. While friendly at times, the Bonos would fight bitterly and publicly, producing ugly headlines and making Cher a tabloid staple.
For years to come, Sonny and Cher would continue their public sparring via verbal bon mots in the press.
"She's still in love with me," Bono would jest, probably not half-wrong.
In 1975, amid great fanfare and a Time magazine cover, CBS launched Cher in her own variety series, kicking off with blockbuster guests Elton John and Bette Midler.
But by the third week Cher, overwhelmed with new responsibilities, was on the phone to Bono arranging a professional reunion.
Having failed with his own series on ABC, he agreed and after Cher's second season, the new Sonny and Cher Show premiered.
Just one hitch: Cher was now pregnant with the child of her estranged second husband, southern rock great, Gregg Allman, sending network censors into a panic.
Son Elijah Blue Allman was born in July 1976. Intense curiosity sparked huge initial ratings, but it wouldn't last. Though the former Bonos were happy back together, and occasionally mined great comedy from their bizarre situation, awkward moments were inevitable.
In August '77, after two seasons, the show got the ax for good. For some time after, the duo continued performing in concert - dates Cher owed Sonny as part of their legal settlement. Meanwhile Cher endured Allman's addictions to booze and heroin, trying mightily to salvage their off-and-on union.
They recorded a soulful album, Allman and Woman: Two The Hard Way, but it was a tough sell to their opposing fan bases.
By '79, the marriage finally over, Cher was an unemployed 33-year-old single mother, yearning for the impossible: A shot in serious films.
But her camp TV image and tabloid troubles were so ingrained, no one in Hollywood could envision it.
Between romances with rocker Les Dudek and KISS Gene Simmons, she flitted from project to project playing casino showrooms; catching the tail end of disco with Take Me Home (her first chart hit in five years); experimenting with her own rock band Black Rose; and singing with Meat Loaf, among them.
Finally she wiped the slate clean, earning respect on the New York stage in 1982's Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean.
After catching her in a matinee one day, famed director Mike Nichols cast her in Silkwood on the spot.
Though the concept of Cher opposite Meryl Streep drew snickers, critics were stunned when Silkwood premiered, calling Cher a genuine acting marvel. An Oscar nomination followed, as did her triumphant role in Mask.
By 1987 she was in such demand she found herself in three films at once: The Witches of Eastwick, Suspect, and Moonstruck.
She had also begun what was to become an important relationship with the 18-years-younger Rob Camilletti, a liaison that drove the paparazzi to stalk her as never before.
At the same time she was also re-launching her music career. Now signed to long-ago-boyfriend David Geffen's new label, her collaborators included Jon Bon Jovi, Michael Bolton, Diane Warren, and Richie Sambora, who later became her next love interest.
Though American radio was cool to her return, eventually her new sound caught on. Reemerging as a lite-metal rock singer draped in fishnet, leather straps, and not much else, Cher was suddenly everywhere: On the cover of Newsweek, on Saturday Night Live, and most memorably, sharing a tearful, nostalgic reunion with Sonny Bono on Late Night With David Letterman.
Vulnerable on screen in thoughtful, grown-up movies; tough on the concert stage and in the news with her outspoken candor, Cher was now lording over completely separate careers as no one in Hollywood ever had.
The ultimate validation came in April 1988: a best actress Oscar for Moonstruck. At 41 - after twenty five years in show biz - Cher was at last on top, on her own terms.
She churned out eight smash singles during the Geffen era ('87-'92), including "I Found Someone," "If I Could Turn Back Time," "After All," and "Heart of Stone." But the productivity took a heavy toll.
By the time her next movie, Mermaids, was released in 1990, she was exhausted and still faced months of tour commitments. She was near collapse when she left the road in '91.
As a respite from that grueling schedule, she began work that was less taxing. Already a spokesperson for fitness centers, her own fitness videos and Equal sweetener, it was a short leap to infomercials, where the money was great and the short hours suited her fatigue.
Hollywood was aghast at Cher's hair-care ads and disdained her new home furnishings business as well; lampooned by late-night comics and dumped from the A-list, Cher had now squandered the elite status she worked so hard to achieve.
After early-'90s cameos in the Robert Altman films Ready to Wear and The Player, she went back to work full time in 1996, co-starring with Chazz Palminteri in the so-so Faithful; directing Anne Heche and acting in HBO's critically acclaimed If These Walls Could Talk; and singing again on a sultry new album, It's a Man's World, as part of a new record deal with Warner UK.
She had also become an active fundraiser for AIDS charities, gay rights and the Childrens' Craniofacial Association, the cause she embraced while filming Mask, the story of a disfigured teen.
Daughter Chastisty was painfully outed by the press, and has since become a gay activist. When she told her mother she was gay, Cher initially went "ballistic" at the news, but has since become her most loyal champion.
She was in London in January '98 when a call from Chastity brought the shocking news of Sonny Bono's tragic skiing death.
Captured in tears as she fled through Heathrow Airport, the media quickly appointed Cher his widow, though they had been apart 24 years and he was long remarried with a new career as a popular congressman.
Full of remorse during her reconciliatory eulogy at his funeral, Cher praised the man who had been father, partner, friend, and foe, displaying a side of herself the world had never seen.
Yet soon came charges of opportunism. Though hurt by the criticism, Cher continued to mourn openly, paying tribute Bono in a sentimental CBS special and calling her grief "something I never plan to get over."
Newly serene and matured by tragedy, Cher hit the promo trail in the fall of '98 with a new album, Believe, marking yet another upswing in her bumpy career.
A sparkling collection of dance tracks aimed squarely at her immense gay following, the disc quickly became one of Europe's all-time blockbusters, and the best-selling album of her 35-year recording career.
By March '99 she was ruling the American Top 40 as well, holding at No. 1 for four weeks with the album's title track.
She was now the oldest female ever to hit the top spot and owned the longest Billboard chart span between No. 1's ('65 - '99) of any pop recording artist.
In May 1999, Cher added the integrity-restoring Franco Zeffirelli movie Tea With Mussolini to her filmography, starring with acting greats Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Joan Plowright.
At the same time she was also launching a global concert tour, once again in control of completely separate careers in teen pop and serious films.
Fans and critics have long debated what Cher means to music, show biz, and pop culture. A pro at reinvention long before Madonna made it fashionable, Cher has, at the very least, always personified survival and sheer persistence.
The very failures that destroy the toughest souls in Hollywood, have only served to make this pop icon permanently resilient.