Cher: The mercy tour: Cher wasn't sure what sent her to stricken Armenia, land of her fathers, to hand out love and toys. But she was looking for a way to change her life, and this seemed a good place to start

 

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'FOR A WHILE, I've been thinking, how do I change my life, how do I change my life? And the only way to change your life is to go ahead and change your life, you know? I'm really bored with my life and it's up to me to change it. I just know that if you start making little baby steps in a different direction, you leave the place that you're in. You know?'

It is midnight in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. In the star suite of the New Armenia Hotel, Cher is sitting on a small nylon sofa, considering the possible motivations for having come on a two-day 'humanitarian mission' to the land of her forefathers. It is 28 April.

Downstairs in the blacked-out foyer, Cher's media entourage is still carrying in crates of mineral water and silver boxes of camera equipment from the coach. A gorgeous smattering of international journalism is here: a film crew for ABC television's magazine news programme, 20/20, a man from Harper's Bazaar, a woman with a hand-held camera from The Big Breakfast, a British crew filming the trip for a Cher documentary, and Susan Cheever, daughter of the American writer, John Cheever, who is reporting for People magazine and also present in her capacity as Cher's authorised biographer.

Men in slightly rancid suits lope through the darkness with torches to greet the parade. 'Hello] Hello]' they call out gaily, in clotted, Armenian accents. 'Hello]' They flick their torches about playfully. 'We,' one of them finally volunteers, tired of waiting to be asked, 'are the secret police]'

In the suite, Cher's meditation, delivered in a throaty brown whisper, drifts on, complacent as a cloud. From time to time, she shifts on the sofa and her big, pale face looms moonily out of the darkness. Except for four or five candles on the coffee table, there is no light in the room. The electricity in the New Armenia Hotel, like the gas and the water, is off.

For Cher, there is a certain novelty to these deprivations, a pleasurable authenticity which the mortified hotel manager - who had been praying that the house would be lit up for her arrival - would never be able to understand. All day, Cher has been shaking her head at camera crews and telling them how like, totally horrible it is in Armenia. This cold, dark hotel is her vindication. Damn right it's horrible in Armenia - she won't even be able to take a bath tonight.

CHER HAS been brought here today on one of the cargo planes carrying medical supplies that are flown in each month by the United Armenian Fund, an umbrella organisation for American Armenian charities. But her journey properly began several months ago, with a mysterious - even mystical - chain of inspirations. For a long time, people had been saying that since her father was Armenian, she ought to consider doing something for the Armenian cause. She'd been unconvinced. 'I thought, 'What can I do?' I was kind of annoyed. And anyway I thought, 'I'm American.' I didn't meet my father till I was 11 and we didn't get

on that great. I thought, 'I feel American, not

Armenian.' '

Then she was struck by an inexplicable impulse. 'They'd been asking me and asking me to go to the Brit Awards and I woke up one morning and I called my manager and I said 'Bumper, when are those awards?' And he said, 'Tomorrow night, doll.' And I said, 'Well, let's go to them.' And then on the way over I said, 'Bumper, you know, I don't think I want to go to England at all - I think I want to go to Armenia. I think I'm on my way to Armenia.' '

When they got to England in February, they presented themselves to the Armenian ambassador to Britain, Armen Sarkissian. 'We just showed up there and I said, 'I want to go to Armenia.' And he was, like, 'What do you mean?' And we talked and then we realised we needed a way over and we were put in touch with the United Armenian Fund.'

Aside from providing the transport, the United Armenian Fund is also paying the hotel and catering bills for Cher and her friends. Harut Sassounian, the executive director of the UAF and the organiser of the trip, says that the expenditure will be handsomely repaid by the international publicity generated.

Cher has brought along her Armenian- American personal assistant, Paulette Betts; her manager, Billy 'Bumper' Sammeth; her toy-boy lover turned 'best friend', Rob Camiletti; her security-man-in-Europe, Danny Francis, and the Armenian woman who does her waxing treatments back home in Malibu, Pauline Ghukassian.

The presence of Ms Ghukassian has caused some amusement in the media corps. But when you are as fastidious as Cher is about superfluous hair, your waxing lady is likely to be an important person in your life. Contrary to certain vulgar jokes going around, Ms Ghukassian will not be doing battle with Cher's bikini line this trip. She is here as a friend.

Cher hasn't made a separate donation to the United Armenian Fund, and her personal humanitarian cargo - a thousand-dollar cache of Barbie dolls, Hot Wheels toy cars and Pick 'n' Mix candy - has all been donated by American companies. Her contribution to the Armenian people is not, we understand, a crude matter of dollars and cents. Cher is giving in a rather more special currency - her love, her time, her presence.

FOR THE past five years Armenia has been at war with Azerbaijan over the disputed mountain region of Nagorny Karabakh. Militarily, it is in the ascendant, having not only secured a corridor to Karabkh, but annexed large tracts of adjacent Azeri territory. Economically, however, it is gasping its last. The Azeris have inflicted an all but total blockade on the country. Turkey supports Azerbaijan in the war, cutting off another of Armenia's land borders, and Georgia, Armenia's only Christian neighbour, is at war with itself, cutting off the railway line to the north.

The gas pipeline from Georgia has exploded twice in recent months, apparently due to acts of sabotage. Electricity and water are also in fitful supply. (On a good day, the electricity comes on for two hours.) There has been no real heating in Yerevan for two years. Inflation is raging and wheat is scarce: citizens each receive a half-pound ration of bread a day.

Last winter, when the temperature was rarely above zero, Armenians took to pulling up their floorboards and hacking down trees for fuel. Now, all across the country, parks and farms have been transformed into wastelands of tree stumps.

This is not a situation, Cher believes, that you can just throw money at. 'I don't know anyone,' she says, 'who has the kind of money that could make a difference in this place, anyway . . . This is part adventure and part quest. I mean, it's not a cure for cancer, but . . . you know, I think that when we were hearing about Somalia, we were hearing about it and, and then when there were pictures, that was something more. And then when Audrey Hepburn went and there were pictures of Audrey Hepburn holding these children that were dying - then all of a sudden there was something even more. I figure that if we get everybody here and we take the pictures and we see what's going on - then I'll know what to do with that afterwards.'

This trip to Armenia is not Cher's first effort at good works. She has been actively involved with the National Craniofacial Foundation in America since 1985, and last year she donated half a million dollars to the charity. She has also recently been involved in community

relations in South-Central Los Angeles -

'trying to bridge the gap between the haves

on my side of town with the have-nots on the other side of town'. Armenia, however, is her first, experimental foray into the international charity scene.

Her references to Audrey Hepburn are telling. Hepburn, who died in January, spent the last five years of her life as a roving ambassador for Unicef. Cher is 47 now and, having slogged away in entertainment ever since she teamed up with Sonny Bono at 16, she is beginning to see the attractions of a beatified, Hepburn- style retirement. She has had her No 1 records. She has won her Oscar (for her lead role in Moonstruck). She has slept with Warren Beatty. And now, with the shrewdness that has allowed her to survive all these years in showbiz, she's thinking about getting out.

She remains in legendarily good shape (being, aside from anything else, the world's most famous and dedicated recipient of plastic surgery) but the time is not so far off when striding about stages in glittering thongs, belting out soft rock ditties, will cease to suit her. 'I don't know whether I want to perform any more,' she says. 'I've been being Cher for a very long time and I think I've done a really good job of it and now I can go on and do something else.'

At the moment, of course, the exact nature of the 'something else' is a little unclear. 'I don't know why I've come here,' she says. 'I just know that I wanted to come. And I'm not sure what's going to happen with the trip or what it's for really, or any of that stuff. I'm doing this like I do everything - ass-backwards - I just figured that something will happen and I'll get it as it goes along . . .'

But she is definitely serious about getting this new compassion thing up and running. Through-out today's exhausting journey from London to Yerevan, a heady sense of righteousness has filled the air. 'I have this feeling the plane we're on is going to crash,' Cher said on the coach from The Lanesborough hotel to Gatwick. 'Still,' she added, with a little catch in her voice, 'if it crashes, at least some more people will get to know about Armenia.'

Later, when a woman at airport customs said that all the luggage on the coach would have to be unloaded and put through the security check, Cher stared angrily at her from the coach. 'Is this woman making trouble?' she asked menacingly. 'Is this woman going to be responsible for us not getting to Armenia?'

Now, up in the New Armenia suite, her

rumination continues. 'I'm in awe,' she

says. 'I'm in awe of the situation.' Rob

falls asleep. The People photographer takes pictures of her by candlelight. 'But it feels

real to me, you know?' she adds, her great eyes

widening, 'It feels a lot more real than being at home in Malibu.'

THE FIRST proper day in Armenia begins early with a breakfast of fresh fruit, yoghurts, cereals, crispbreads and assorted preserves. (A caterer has been flown in from London with supplies so lavish that we had to wait an hour at the airport last night, trying to find a vehicle large enough to carry them.) There has naturally been some speculation about what Cher's humanitarian wardrobe will look like. The hope is that she has done the sensible thing and brought along at least one of her Bob Mackie numbers - preferably something involving spangles, an endangered species and a generous view of her belly-button. Alas, when she appears at breakfast, it is in a slightly remodelled version of yesterday's ensemble: baggy, leather dungarees, long-sleeved T-shirt, customised combat boots. The new addition is a large black velvet, Donny Osmond cap.

The electricity is still off, but as Cher tells us later, she has changed her underwear and washed her 'specific areas' with cold water. After breakfast we go to the airport to see the UAF cargo being unloaded. Cher is photographed posing on the fork-lift truck. 'So you write celebrity biogs, do you?' the man from Harper's Bazaar asks Susan Cheever, while we are standing around on the tarmac. 'No, no.' Cheever says, 'I mean, I'm not writing a biography of Cher as such. It's about Cher, but it's not certain at this point, what form it's going to take.' I look across at the man from Harper's Bazaar. What's it going to be - an epic poem about Cher?

The next stop is an orphanage. Yesterday on the plane, the 20/20 presenter, Lynn Scherr, a woman whose face is a wondrous composite of every craggily sincere TV anchorperson you've ever seen, wanted to know how run-down the orphanage was. The crew need misery footage to dramatise the story back home.

'Are we talking Romanian here?' she asked Harut Sassounian. 'Well it's pretty bad,' he replied. 'And the hospital afterwards,' Scherr continued, 'that should be dire, huh?'

We are greeted at the orphanage by its director, a fantastic crone with blue suede, high-heeled ankle boots, and a gold lurex scarf around her neck. Over her grimy white doctor's coat, she wears a fur-trimmed bolero. Her fire-engine hair is done up in a flossy beehive. 'Boy, she must have all the hairclips in Europe holding that stuff up,' Cher observes.

The 20/20 crew whip through the orphanage. It's not really up to Romanian standards of awfulness. But making the best of a bad job, they film forlorn playpen scenes and some nappy-changing. When Cher is taken to the nursery where the older children are gathered to sing her Armenian folk songs, it transpires that the 20/20 people have done a deal with Cher's manager. They've got an exclusive on the singing tots. Bummer.

Ugly scenes break out as the portly 20/20 producer spreads his bulk across the doorway and refuses to let anyone else in. 'There'll be another orphanage this afternoon,' Bumper tells the journalists being squished out. 'We'll definitely do another orphanage, okay?'

As a print journalist, I am given special dispensation and allowed in to watch while Cher hands out Barbies and Hot Wheels. 'Go on] Open them]' Cher tells the children, who are holding the unopened toys limply in their laps. Lynn Scherr kneels on the floor next to Cher and smiles a crinkly-eyed, sincere-o smile. 'The children obviously get to you in a very special way,' she says to Cher. When one of the children is instructed to come and give Cher a thank-you hug, Lynn gurgles with appreciation: 'Any temptation to take one of them home, Cher?'

After the orphanage is the hospital. Many of the patients here are injured refugees from Nagorny Karabakh. Cher is shown through the children's wards. She has some faltering conversations through an interpreter. She hands out some toys. She does some exclusive poses for the People photographer. A pattern is beginning to emerge.

In one room, a little boy laboriously peels off his sweat-pants and bandages to show us how his left thigh tapers into a neat, pointed little stump. We all stand around aghast,

not knowing how to stop him. Cher gives him a

Hot Wheels.

In another room, a little girl in a sailor

suit is introduced as the hospital's youngest ever amputee. She had her leg cut off when she was one and a half. Cher gives her a Barbie.

'I always thought Barbie was a cunt,' she remarks later on in the trip, 'Like totally American, upper middle-class, plastic perfection. But she's made a lot of little girls here happy, so now she's my new best friend.'

On, on the itinerary goes. After lunch, there is a visit to a stinking housing estate, where a family of eight (mother, father, four sons, one daughter, one mother-in-law) welcome Cher into their decrepit four-room flat in order that she may see how real Armenians live. Some expense has evidently been incurred in preparation for her arrival. A cake has been baked. A bowl of apples has been set out and carnations have been bought. Cher sits in the matchbox living-room and asks slightly dopey questions about Nagorny Karabakh.

On the table, the family's ancient copy of an Australian magazine called New Idea has

been left open at an article about Cher. There are lots of photographs, with captions like, 'Cher unwinds at her Aspen ranch' and 'Cher

decorated the ranch in a three-day decorating binge]'

Lily, an interpreter provided by the Armenian ministry of protocol, becomes agitated when she sees the article. She is a great fan of Cher's and she has never heard of this ranch. 'Where is Aspen?' she wants to know. 'Has Cher moved? Doesn't she still have the house in Malibu?'

Lily's well-informed enthusiasm for Cher's life and work is by no means unique. Cher is hot stuff in Armenia. Everywhere she goes, people swarm around her, smiling broadly, and addressing her, to her puzzled delight, by her proper name, Cherilyn. On Friday, when she visits the students at Yerevan State University, a thousand delirious admirers are gathered in the university hall. They enquire about how to become a Hollywood star and 'the secrets of her beauty', but they also ask buffs' questions about arcane details of her discography.

Cher responds well to all this - flashing her great smile, laughing her rich, croaky laugh. If the success of this trip is to be judged on the number of love and laughter moments it yields, it must be counted very successful indeed. But the auguries for Cher's long-term future as a charity figurehead are not so certain.

There is, to begin with, her somewhat sketchy understanding of the country she has come to. For most of the time, it doesn't matter or even get noticed very much. After all, no one is expecting her to talk geopolitics. But she takes serious chances on the good will of the Armenians when she asks questions like, 'Are you totally free from Russia now?' And she seems to have very little enthusiasm for remedying her ignorance. At one point on the bus, she professes frustration at not understanding the dispute about Nagorny Karabakh. She can't understand why the Armenians are willing to suffer so much for a piece of land.

'I can't find a way to get it,' she says. 'There's something missing for me here.' Harut Sassounian, the UAF director, begins to explain Armenia's age-old fear of Turkic expansionism, but, in moments, she has slumped on her seat and is dozing.

Foxed by troublesome details of politics or history, she attempts to turn not knowing much into a virtue. When I ask her if she considered doing any research for the trip - reading a couple of books, maybe - she replies, 'I think that since I'm not going to go into politics and since I'm not political and since I don't care about knowing about it except just what everyone's point of view is - it would behove me to know as much of the reality of what's going on as I can - but I'm not ever going to be political so I don't, you know - it would be a waste of my time and my effort.'

She takes a similarly dismissive line on meetings with senior personages of any kind. On the day she is due to meet the President of Armenia, she promises to give him a telling- off. 'I'm going to have to slap him around a little. I gotta go in there and tell him, d'ya know what's going on out there? How long since you been out on the street?'

In the end, she blows the President out. She has visited an orphanage for the mentally handicapped and the experience has left her too exhausted and upset for hanging with the Pres. 'Cher,' Billy tells us, 'is just destroyed.'

The next day, she also manages to miss her appointment with the Supreme Patriarch, Vazgen I, head of the Armenian Church.

Paulette, her assistant, says: 'He's like the Pope of Armenia, so it was too bad, but Cher doesn't really hold with pomp and formality. She thinks it's more important to see the families and stuff.'

This would be a more convincing explanation if Cher had actually been out chewing the cud with the common folk, but she missed her appointment with the Supreme Patriarch because she'd been held up doing photo-shoots.

In the courtyard of the Yerevan museum lies a toppled, decapitated statue of Lenin. This, it is decided, is a photo-op too good to miss. Nothing is more inclined to invoke your residual respect for the great founders of the Soviet Union than watching Cher, in gypsy headscarf and leather dungarees, crouch on the groin of Lenin's statue, pouting moodily for the snappers. Whenever she strikes a fresh pose, there is a great clanging of hollow iron as she clambers across Lenin's torso.

At one point, she crawls up his tie and touches his pointing index finger with hers. Is this an intentional allusion to Michelangelo's God giving life to Adam? It doesn't seem a point worth pursuing. All of a sudden she catches my eye. 'Hey Zo' - howya doin'?' she shouts down. 'Oh, fine,' I shout back. Then I can't think of anything else to say. 'So, how does it feel up there?' I ask foolishly. 'Is it embarrassing?'

'No, great,' she replies, spreading her great, frankfurter lips into a dazzling grin. 'It feels great.'

IN THE END, Cher does meet the President. The Armenian ambassador to Britain pleads with her that Levon Ter Petrosian is really a very nice man and, sighingly, she agrees to pay him a courtesy visit on her way out to the airport. Afterwards, she pronounces the President a good guy. 'You know, his mother gave birth to him in a tent. And he told me all these really cool stories. He was so great . . .'

When we board the plane back to London, Cher is in a triumphant mood. She is certain she will be going back to Armenia to do more humanitarian work. Her new philanthropic career is off to a good start. She is full of jokes and reminiscences: 'Hey Bumper, remember that time we got off a plane and found a shop on the runway where we had to pay for the stuff with money called 'scrotum'? Where was that?'

In my final audience with her, I ask her whether she has any worries about becoming just another celebrity with a pet cause. Her reply is adamant.

'I don't give a shit,' she says. 'Who cares? You know stars and their pet causes are really worthwhile things. You can talk about something as a pet cause and you can be negative about it, but if it wasn't for that star it wouldn't be worked on, and if anyone - a star or regular person - helps any other person, that's an important thing to do. So I can't get into belittling it just because stars are rich and self- centred people who have no lives and who feel less guilty about what they have, by helping other people and getting a lot of recognition for it. All of that's true, but hey, they're still doing something.'

Lunch is served. The last humanitarian mission meal is a feast of tuna salad and Snickers bars.

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