January 25, 1988 12:00 PM

“Chastity came running in,” recalls Cher of the tension-filled moments before taping Late Night With David Letterman last November, “and said, ‘Mom, I think they’re gonna try to get you and Dad to sing together.’ And I said, ‘That’s ridiculous. We didn’t practice.’ ”

It was ridiculous. Sure, Cher had arranged to have Sonny join her, to boost her ex-husband’s campaign for mayor of Palm Springs. But she wasn’t there to relive the past. She was there to sing “I Found Someone,” the single off her new LP, the first in five years. She was there to discuss her trio of acclaimed 1987 screen roles—The Witches of Eastwick, Suspect and Moonstruck. It also seemed quite likely that Letterman would ask her about Rob Camilletti, her 23-year-old boyfriend from Queens, N.Y., a muscle-rippling former bartender/doorman/bagel baker with wavy brown hair and sensitive dark eyes.

“And So,” she goes on, “Chas said, ‘Well, David already said something about it,’ and I said, “Well, all right, fine. If he does, I’ll tell him to take down his pants and show me his d—.”

Without having to drop his drawers, Dave did prevail upon Cher and Sonny, with whom all America hoped she’d shtick forever back in the ’70s. They did a joyously nostalgic duet of their 1965 anthem, I Got You Babe, before a teary audience that seemed to be witnessing not just a reunion but an impromptu past-life regression.

After that, Cher never got around to discussing much of her present. And yet, singing her torchy ballad in knee-high boots, open leather jacket and a lacy bodystocking/ G-string that revealed her floral tush tattoos, Cher could hardly help but promote Cher—her exotic ageless sensuality, her playful brashness, her stunning durability, her magnetic indefinability.

She was also flaunting something new: her liberation from film directors, record producers, even husbands and lovers, who would tell her what to do and how to do it. Cher, at 41, has learned to be tough. “I can be a bitch on wheels,” she says. Her motto now is: “Do it your way. Screw ’em.” But don’t, she begs, make her “a bumper sticker for women’s lib.” She insists that her hard-won assertiveness has not compromised her femininity. “I give people respect no matter what they do,” she says. “But there are some who mistake kindness for weakness. Don’t make that mistake with me.”

Ironically, by doing the Letterman show with Sonny and confronting and embracing her past so dramatically, Cher was also emphasizing her new, vigorously independent career. “It was a really nice way to bring it full circle,” she says now. “Sonny got emotional just watching me sing. People could finally see there is no animosity. But Sonny and Cher was the biggest corner I ever painted myself into. How do you get a chance to be an artist?”

She’s certainly making the most of her chances now—as bankable movie star, rock singer, aspiring film producer, video director, nutrition and exercise pitchlady/author and devoted single mother. She is in Morgans Hotel in the east 30s, a temporary Manhattan hideout, while work continues on her loft’s new kitchen and floors, central heating and air conditioning. She is wearing loose gray sweats and no makeup. She casts an earthy, deglamorized and serene glow in the dwindling afternoon light. She’s limber enough to keep her legs folded in against her chest for hours in an armchair. Her cheerfully animated “axe woman”—as Cher calls her—Debby Paull, whose Sisyphean task for several years has been to arrange Cher’s daily schedule, keeps the herbal tea and vitamins coming. Rob, Chas, son Elijah, manager Billy Sammeth, best friend and dazzling look-alike Paulette Betts move in and out through the suite. This is a moment inside the tranquil eye of Hurricane Cher.

“I feel and look like s—,” she says. “I’m pretty fried. I’ve had just a month off in the last 18.” But she is feisty, wiseass and quick. Was that Frederick’s of Letterman look right for a woman over 40? “Did you see anything out there,” she snaps, recoiling with a smirk of mock displeasure, “that you’ve never seen at the beach?”

The tumult of the past year began with a nearly traumatic spell over Witches. “That experience,” she sighs, “was great and terrible. The actors [Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon] were unbelievable, fabulous. The director, George Miller, left a lot to be desired. He never wanted me. The studio finally forced George to use me. I was in tears with him because he kept saying he didn’t want Cher—he used to make quotation marks in the air whenever he used my name—to ruin his movie.”

Things went better on Suspect, a hit courtroom suspense drama with Dennis Quaid in which Cher plays a public defender. But Moonstruck is her favorite of the trio. There is already Oscar nomination buzz about her work as a dowdy Italian widow who gets transformed into a modern-day Cinderella when she falls for a passionate baker (Nicolas Cage). “I was in love with the story,” she says. “It’s my best work since Mask.”

That’s quite a claim from someone who, despite solid reviews for tackling risky roles, says she can’t stop unloading preemptive critical strikes on herself: “I tear myself to pieces before the critics can get to me.”

Historically she is on firmer ground with music. Cher welcomed her return to recording—on ex-lover David Geffen’s label—because “I’ve been singing all my life, and there’s a freedom you don’t get with acting.” I Found Someone became the first video she ever directed—demanding that Camilletti (she calls him Mookie, slang for a regular Joe) play opposite her. “I didn’t expect to slip that one by the record company,” she smiles. Indeed, she did not. Geffen stunned her by refusing to finance the $175,000 project as long as she insisted on directing and using Rob. “His reason was that if I used Robert, people would fixate on that and not think I was serious. I said, ‘I’ll get it done somewhere else.’ ”

She shrewdly lucked out; her backers at Health and Tennis Corporation of America, whose TV spots for their string of health clubs she had done for five years, bankrolled the shoot on her terms in return for the right to use the video for two TV ads.

It’s been a hard climb back to those kinds of power plays. Cher can now command a $1 million fee for a starring role. She’s at work on a diet and exercise book for Bantam. She wants to produce challenging topical projects and has bought rights to a book, Forever Sad the Heart, about Vietnam-era nurses exposed to Agent Orange.

For years, after Sonny and after Vegas, she couldn’t break into legitimate acting on either coast. Her performance as a tank-town sexpot ashamed to admit she’s had a mastectomy in Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean got her, finally, to Broadway. Her work in the play (later repeated onscreen) led to an Oscar-nominated supporting role in Silk-wood with Meryl Streep and an acclaimed starring shot in Mask, as the mother of a deformed child. Then she spent two years being choosy and not finding her next part. Somewhere along the way, she recalls, “I was broke. Health and Tennis was there when I needed them. I did the ads because they paid my kids’ tuitions. I was willing to gamble, but it took me a while to build credibility.”

She keeps her L.A. home in Benedict Canyon as a summer retreat because Manhattan “sometimes drives me crazy.” She sank more than $1 million into the 3,500-square-foot SoHo triplex. Life for now revolves around Camilletti and her kids. She first saw Rob on the night of her 40th birthday, 18 months ago. They were both at a Manhattan dance club called Heartbreak. Earlier that day at home, talking with Witches director George Miller, she was led, mistakenly, to believe that Nicholson thought she “wasn’t sexy enough” for the role she wanted to play. She was devastated. “Paulette Betts, my friend, and Chas were bringing me this cake and singing down the hall, and there I was on the phone, crying. I thought it was going to be a horrible night.” But once she caught a glimpse of the strapping Camilletti at Heartbreak, she gasped to Paulette, “He is the most beautiful man I have ever seen.”

They actually didn’t meet for a date until three months later. Her assistant Debby set it up. They went to the theater with Cher’s pals Sean and Madonna. Cher and Camilletti have been all but inseparable since. Age—”yes, I know, Rob was about a year old when I was on the road with Sonny”—has never been an issue. “This morning I said, ‘You know, Mookie, if we stay together for a real long time, I may start to get really wrinkly. How are you going to feel?’ And he took my face in his hands and he went [squooshing up her own face], ‘Let’s see, how does this look? Okay, I think I could stand that.’ I’m so happy with him that it just doesn’t make any difference if anyone takes a potshot at us. He’s the most well-adjusted man I’ve ever been with.”

And the most unassuming. Camilletti grew up in Queens, the son of a construction supervisor for Con Edison. After a year at a local community college, Rob waited tables, studied acting with Stella Adler and worked at a Great Neck bagel shop, hoping one day to have his own bakery in the Village “in case things didn’t work out with acting. I used to go to the shop at 4 a.m. to light the ovens. I was rolling dough and outta there by noon.”

When he met Cher, Rob was living in Forest Hills, seeing a couple of girls, coming into town with pals a few nights a week to dance clubs. “No commitment type things,” he insists. He worked the door and tended bar at El Rio Grande, a Greenwich Village singles spot. “The girls there didn’t want to meet the bartender,” he says. “They wanted guys with Gold Cards and a lot of dough.” “He’d freeze his butt off out there,” Cher recalls. His other job was no piece of cake either. “He’d leave my place at 3 a.m. to catch the last train to the bagel shop,” she says.

When his eyes met Cher’s for the first time at Heartbreak, Rob remembers thinking, “What the hell could she find interesting about a guy like me? I didn’t admit to myself that I was attracted to her. We’re from totally different worlds.”

Once they dated, Rob says he was struck “by how quiet and reserved Cher was.” They phoned each other constantly while she shot Witches in L.A. “One night on Witches she had a tough time, and we spoke for five hours,” he recalls. “I knew then there was something happening to us.”

Camilletti, who is now studying with Cher’s Moonstruck co-star, famed acting coach Julie Bovasso, says, “The age thing never bothered me. I always went out with women a little older. But Cher is the first woman I’ve ever been in love with. Never been there before. I like coming home and she’s there.” The two enjoy staying home or going to the movies with her children. “Cher’s a really good mother,” Rob raves. “Her kids are always first on her list.”

Unlikely as it seems, Cher prizes normality in her personal life. “It’s me going to Balducci’s and buying stuff and Chas calling her friends to come over and raid the refrigerator and Elijah coming in with dirty clothes and sitting on the coffee table with his shoes on and me going, ‘I’ll break your legs if you don’t get down.’ ”

Cher discusses nothing as proudly, and with as much loving intimacy, as she does her children. She calls Chas Miss No Frills because she ducks Mom’s media glare. “She doesn’t want to be famous, because the price is too high,” says Cher. Chas pleased Mom when she decided to live at home while studying film at New York University. “She hasn’t liked a lot of the choices I’ve made. Chas is real honest. She loves Rob, though.”

Elijah is a chip off the old rock block, Gregg Allman. The kid has hardly seen his dad since Allman’s 1977 split from Cher, but he has his old man’s blond-hair, blue-eyed, drawling soul. He sat onstage with Allman during his comeback tour this past summer. “I try not to discourage it,” says Cher. “Gregory was a terrible father, but I want Elijah to have some idea that he comes from a person who’s not some total idiot. Elijah is going to have a great voice. You know Gregory’s husky, soft voice? That’s Elijah’s voice since he started talking. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I have to go through this again?’ He’s exactly like his father. Elijah wanted to rent two movies the other night. One of them was Pinocchio. The other was [the punk epic] Sid and Nancy. Okay? This is my son.”

And this is Cher: blunt, tough, free-spirited, outrageously funny, vulgar and vulnerable. She is driven and ambitious but takes offense at published reports that she is power-mad. “I don’t want to play ‘power’,” she says. “I want to play ‘work,’ play ‘integrity.’ I want to play, ‘If you don’t mess with me, I will be a fabulous person and we will have a great time, and if you mess with me, I’ll kill you.’ The power I have is like the French word for power—pouvoir, which is also the verb ‘to be able to.’ That’s what I have.”

If she is into controlling and perfecting anyone, it is herself. Drugs, drinking, smoking and caffeine are out of the question. She had her nose “refined” after Mask. “It looked too big onscreen and bothered me. Hey, if I need cosmetic surgery, the moment I need it I’m getting it. Okay? I have no qualms. I get to do what I want with my face and my body.”

That includes jazz-ballet classes, weights, calisthenics and vigorous treks on a fancy walking machine at home. “The toughest part is keeping my butt up there, nice and tight. Workouts release a lot of my tension.”

But Cher has discovered an even better method for easing the strain: She’s given up apologizing for herself. “No matter how much I try to fit in,” she says, “I just don’t. Hollywood doesn’t think I’m part of it. Neither does the music business. Nobody really thinks I’m part of any of it. Somehow I manage.” She does more than that. Almost 23 years after I Got You Babe, Cher is still like no one else in the world. Only now she likes it that way.

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