In a remarkable career that has stretched over 60 years, Cher has been many things: a singer, a TV star, an Oscar-winning actress and a fashion icon. But her sheer and often outrageous clothing has almost all been designed by Bob Mackie.
A new Broadway musical, “The Cher Show,” features 600 costumes by the designer. And in true metatheatrical fashion, Mackie is also a character onstage.
“The Cher Show” turns back time in a kind of three-dimensional, “Behind the Music” way. It tracks the entertainer’s triumphs and setbacks in a jam-packed 2 1/2 hours.
It’s such a big story that it takes three actresses to play Cher. But if anything gives the show authenticity, it’s the beaded, spangled, sometimes scanty costumes, many of which are recreations of Cher’s most famous looks.
“You either love them, or you think they’re disgusting, or, ‘That’s not fashion,’ ” Mackie says.
He says he is well aware that his outfits for Cher, which expose a lot of flesh, often made lists of the “10 Worst-Dressed Women.” And he doesn't care.
“No, it’s not fashion. These are all costumes,” Mackie says. “Some people get upset when she goes to where it should be fashion, and she’s dressed up funny, but everybody loves to look, and it gets printed in every paper.”
The two artists met in 1967, when Cher and her husband Sonny made a guest appearance on “The Carol Burnett Show,” for which Mackie designed the costumes.
“I was expecting this kind of hulking, kind of angry, gothy kind of a girl at the time, and she walked in, and she looked like Audrey Hepburn’s little sister,” Mackie says. “She was so adorable and so beautiful.”
A lifelong collaboration and friendship started. Mackie gave Cher a new look.
“She was never intimidated by anything,” he says. “It just never occurred to her that it was vulgar. And it never was vulgar on Cher. You could show quite a lot of body, and [that’s] because it was so toned and so perfect. Well, who has that? Nobody has that. But she did."
Actress Teal Wicks, who plays Cher in the musical during the 1970s, has gotten used to wearing Mackie’s skimpy, but carefully constructed, outfits.
“I actually love them,” she says. “It’s so essential to Cher, so it’s very freeing and liberating and empowering to wear these beautiful things that show a lot of yourself on stage. And I do work really hard to stay in shape, so you know, might as well flaunt it!”
Stephanie J. Block plays Cher from the 1980s on, and she says Bob Mackie made her immediately feel comfortable at their first costume fitting.
“I said, ‘You know, I don’t have the same body type as Cher,’ and he said, ‘Who does?’ ” Block recalls.
“He works on the person, not on a mannequin or a form,” she adds. “And he draws on your body, and he lifts what needs to be lifts, and he hides what needs to be hidden.”
Block wears 30 costumes over the course of the evening, including one of the most famous looks Mackie ever created. It’s the sheer, midriff-bearing outfit, with an enormous wig twice the size of her head that Cher wore as a presenter at the Oscars.
“I’m lifted through the stage in what they call the trap, and as soon as the audience just sees the tip of the headpiece, and it’s all this kind of black horse hair, they know what’s coming,” Block says. “And it’s an entrance where truly all I have to do is stand there, and it gets applause.”
NPR reached out to Cher for this story, but she was unavailable. She has been in the audience at several previews of “The Cher Show,” which she co-produced. If that seems meta, imagine playing Mackie, in front of Bob Mackie, which is what Michael Berresse does.
“So, I’m in a fitting with the real Bob Mackie, designing clothes for me to wear as Bob Mackie in a fitting with Cher. And what could have been incredibly sort of odd and awkward was hilarious and funny,” Berresse says. “The first thing he said to me is, ‘Just so you know, I would never wear anything I’m giving you to wear.’ And I thought, ‘Well, of course you wouldn’t,’ because he’s such a humble person.”
For his part, Mackie says it was initially jarring to see himself singing and dancing onstage in “The Cher Show,” but he’s gotten used to it.
“Well, I know that it’s not me up there,” he says. “I mean, I know he knows that. I know that it’s not me, but he has to play the part.”