January 21, 1991 12:00 PM

I can’t be thinking about Cher,” says the 44-year-old entertainer. “I’m too busy being Cher. Sometimes it’s a pain in the ass being Cher. But it’s a good job.”

She has not only held it for 25 years, her updated ’90s résumé suggests she’s hardly ready to retire as she rocks into midlife this spring. There’s Mermaids, her first film since her Oscar-winning performance in Moonstruck three years ago; her Heart of Stone album, which has sold 4 million-plus worldwide; and her 1990 concert tour, which spanned eight months, three continents and two casinos—the Sands in Atlantic City and the Mirage in Las Vegas. Next week, Bantam Books will publish Forever Fit, her workout-diet-well-being bible, co-authored with nutritionist Robert Haas. (See Book Bonus, pages 70-84) Oh, and if you liked her perfume, Uninhibited, you’ll love her forthcoming skin care products. All she needs to complete her assault on the five senses is a line of frozen low-cal dinners—Chez Cher?

By year’s end she was savoring a well-earned break. “I’m pretty tired,” says Cher. “I’ve had a heavy workload. I’m happy the tour is over. I had no juice left.” That pace could have made Cher the poster girl for Epstein-Barr, the fatigue syndrome that has sapped her now and then since 1987. “I can kind of will it away. Or I don’t get it badly enough to interfere. I get a temperature, I sweat a lot. I just work through it.”

If 1990 left Cher feeling spent, she still had the energy to spend. She sold her triplex in Manhattan and moved from her condo in Malibu, then snapped up “at really good prices” a roomy home high over Point Dume, north of Malibu, and a cliff-side adobe retreat on eight acres in Aspen, Colo. Despite California’s real estate slump, no Dume and gloom for this lady. “It was either put my money into this,” reasons Cher, “or give it to the government. They take enough of my money.”

A reported $4 million of that money came from her Mermaids fee. Cher picked a risky, offbeat movie project that has treaded gamely ($21 million and counting) against a riptide of Christmas rivals. As Rachel Flax, an exuberantly flighty, sexy divorcee and mother of two embarrassed daughters, Cher says she found a window into her own childhood: “It wasn’t verbatim me, but very close to autobiographical.”

She loved the script and won a “screaming fit” with her agent Ron Meyer, who had wanted her for the Kathleen Turner role in War of the Roses instead. She admits Mermaids—a small film, and an ensemble piece—”wasn’t necessarily the right move. I’m not very good at making decisions about movies based on business. I base them on emotions. I want to make movies I’m proud of. I wish there were more films like Dances with Wolves, Terms of Endearment and Moonstruck to balance Total Recall, Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. If today’s movies reflect society, someone should call the paramedics.”

Mermaids survived emergencies of its own. Its first director, Lasse (My Life as a Dog) Hallstrom, was taken off the film in preproduction. Actress Emily Lloyd was on board, then left the project, replaced by Winona Ryder. Lauren Lloyd (no kin), who co-produced with Wallis Nicita, claims that the second director, Frank (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) Oz, immediately fell behind schedule, lost his actors” trust and “created a tension-filled, acrimonious atmosphere” on the fall ’89 locations around Boston.

Orion let Oz go after two weeks of shooting, and Richard Benjamin suited up. By then, Ryder, 19, Cher’s elder onscreen daughter, had bonded with the star for warmth during the emotional blizzard of Oz. “Going through the stuff we went through, you expose yourself,” says Ryder. “I watched her cry, and she watched me cry. People think she’s superhuman, but she’s totally vulnerable.”

Cher won’t discuss Oz. more than to say. “It never got to “him or me.” but it was drastic. I didn’t have complete control like a producer, but I did have complete responsibility. I fought for this picture a long time, got it made, got it placed. It was rough.”

No wonder the first lady of rock and reel tends to prefer life on her tour bus to location trailers. “The road is so much easier,” she says. “I didn’t care where I was as long as my family was with me.” She means her trio of most-trusted confidantes—sister Georganne; assistant Paulette Betts, ex-wife of Allman Brothers guitarist Dickey Betts; and workout partner Angie Arnaud—as well as manager Bill “Bumper” Sammeth and children Chastity, 21, and Elijah, 14. Chas came along at times, and Elijah spent some of his summer vacation as Mom’s rhythm guitarist.

“Also,” Cher says, “there is no immediate gratification in film. And you never have any idea what the movie will be. When you do your best on tour, your best will be there. No one edits it, turns it around. With movies the acting is 15 minutes a day, and the rest is waiting. That’s what makes films harder. On Mermaids I was alone a lot.”

On tour, almost never. The camaraderie was so spirited that as it wound down at the Mirage in early December, Cher invited her close-knit troupe to a private postmidnight screening of Dances with Wolves and the next night threw a farewell “It’s Not Over Till Milli Vanilli Sings” bowling bash for everyone.

In more private times, her sister, Betts and Arnaud worked out with Cher, usually on gym equipment brought to hotels or rented houses in tour cities. Angie and Cher discovered nonaerobic relaxation by sitting on hotel beds and stringing bead necklaces. Or the catty quartet would string mock insults and dish. “We’d just groan and bitch, dissect and rip each other to pieces,” says Angie with a laugh. “Cher’s got a great sense of humor, and it sharpens you up.”

Cher was also the guru of the Golden Girls—as they sometimes called themselves, after one of their favorite sitcoms. Says Betts: “Cher cuts to the essence of things. She always says you don’t grow and enrich your life by being safe but by being willing to change. And she’s a great emergency person. She just holds everything in a crisis together.”

Ryder knows because Cher helped her deal with feeling “naive and confused” as the tabloids feasted on her new love affair with Johnny Depp. “Cher told me to shrug it off,” she says. Ryder then agonized over her Godfather III commitment to play Michael Corleone’s daughter Mary: The prolonged Mermaids shoot cut into her GFIII schedule and left her feeling “like a corpse.” She went to Italy but was promptly examined and released by doctors because of exhaustion. (Beleaguered director Francis Coppola’s much-criticized replacement was his daughter Sofia.)

Says Winona: “Cher was about the only one who said, ‘Think of your body and your health first. People will tell you your life is over, you’ll be miserable, you’ll never work again. But things cool down, it’s over, you move on.’ She’s really wise—and at the same time reminds me of a teenager. She’s got a young spirit.”

Cher spent the holidays with her children in the Aspen home, with its foot-wide pine beams, dining chairs made from elk antlers (the animals shed their antlers annually) and enough antique crucifixes to fill a large church or a Madonna video. But they’re about design—not divine—intervention. She and decorator Ron Wilson pulled the place together during a three-day shopping binge last August. “We had the best time and just found everything,” says Cher. “He said, ‘We can’t possibly get this done by December.’ I said. ‘I bet we can if you just stop thinking negatively.’ Then he busted his ass.”

Those withering bursts are pure Cher. “She is so intricate and precise. Her mind never stops,” says Betts, who worked on Cher’s Christmas gift for 200 friends—a black leather Heart of Stone backpack stuffed with a robe, beach towel and mug. “Cher’s a perfectionist. She never stops re-creating herself. She stands totally behind anything that has her name on it.”

Except tabloid headlines. If Cher’s public posture is more guarded these days, it’s due to her anger at what she sees as an increasingly reckless press. While there once was a laughable insanity to tales about her having test-tube babies and marrying Idi Amin, things got ugly last year when her children were targeted by stories about lesbianism and Satanism, and she was accused of having ribs removed to narrow her waist. “I can’t get really out of my mind about it because everything they write is really so ridiculous.” However, she did take the trouble to have a plastic surgeon attest in writing that Cher has had no ribs removed and has never had cosmetic surgery on her eyelids, cheekbones, chin, abdomen, buttocks, thighs or lower legs.

Cher is proud of the way her kids have rolled with the ugly press. “It’s not like Chas hasn’t seen it her whole life,” says Mom. “You can’t grow up in this business and have all this stuff printed about your parents and not get some sort of shell against it. But it’s always a little worse when it comes directly at you. It just pissed me off. Everything they write has gotten so far out of hand.”

Cher’s own level of interest in the tabloids couldn’t be lower. “I don’t want to know anything about anybody else’s life, truthfully. I care a lot about the crisis in the gulf. I don’t give as—about Madonna‘s video and who’s sticking whose tongue down what throat.”

One subject that could animate Cher in the past—her love life—is now off-limits. In Vegas she introduced “Love Hurts” by joking: “I could write what I know about men on the head of a pin—and still have room for the Yellow Pages.” But not for an update on her boyfriend of a year and a half, Richie Sambora, 31, Bon Jovi’s guitarist. “I’m not talking about it. I’m not.”

She will say. “It would be very difficult to be Mr. Cher,” and, “For the last couple of years I haven’t had much time for a private life.” Indeed, Cher’s and Sambora’s careers have frequently kept them apart. But, she concedes, “A great relationship would be fabulous.” adding, “I was with one man [first husband Sonny Bono] for 11 years [second husband Gregg Allman lasted from 1975 to 1977], and it wasn’t that much fun. I can’t see staying in there to say, I’m a martyr, what a good job I did.’ If I’d stayed with Sonny, I wouldn’t have Elijah, wouldn’t be an actress, wouldn’t be a woman. God, I’d be dead.”

“Nobody’s protected against being lonely,” says Georganne. “The fact that my sister works constantly does help. We all want to have a mate and be in love. I think that’s why she has all of us so close; there hasn’t been any one man.”

As for a third child, Cher says, she would have another baby “in a heartbeat, absolutely.” But would a third marriage be a prerequisite? “I wouldn’t rule it out, and it wouldn’t be necessary.” Either way she is getting aunt-sy. “My sister loves babies,” says Georganne, who last September married Ed Bartylak, Cher’s former director of security (he’s now a Vegas fire fighter). “She’s driving me crazy to have a baby.”

Cher’s own babies are growing up, of course, which isn’t always easy for Mom. Chastity, whom the family calls Da (her baby brother got only that far when trying to say her name), has moved back to L.A. from New York City to cut an album for Geffen Records with her new group. Elijah, who spends half the year out of state at a boarding school, has also logged time on the road as rhythm guitarist with his father, Gregg. “It’s weird now,” says Cher, “because Elijah’s like a man. When I was growing up, I thought my mom was ridiculous for wanting me to do things with her, but now I see what it’s like to be on the other end. Elijah was coming home to L.A. on the 14th, and he said. ‘I’ll spend the first night at home, but then I’m going to a party with this friend and spend the next night at his house.” I go, ‘Well, all right.’ Then I wanted Da to come to Aspen on the 17th, and she said, ‘Mom. I can’t possibly get there before the 22nd because I have to get my house in order.’ You don’t expect your child to say those things.” But the news isn’t all bad. “You raise your children to grow up and not need you, but I still get calls,” says Cher. “I know I’m still needed.”

The kids who may need Cher just as much are those affiliated with the nonprofit International Craniofacial Foundations, an organization Cher has been raising funds for since she starred in Mask in 1985. Most craniofacial kids are born with or suffer severe facial and skull deformities that can require dozens of costly reconstructive operations through adolescence. She has set up her own fund to sponsor selected children from as far away as Italy and Australia to come to the U.S. for surgery. Last September Cher met with First Lady Barbara Bush and appeared at the Soviet Embassy to help raise funds. While in Washington, she hijacked a limo full of craniofacial kids for an adventure sans parents. They holed up in her hotel and scarfed down burgers, fries and Cokes. “I met hundreds of craniofacial people on tour,” says Cher. “Some came the day after operations, with steel staples in their heads. These are great kids—funny, smart as a whip sometimes, great personalities. You have to realize there’s a real, viable, adorable person in there who can’t be discounted. There’s no way they shouldn’t have a chance at having decent lives, being successful human beings.”

In her reflective Forever Fit epilogue, Cher writes that her own life is still a “work in progress.” After a quarter-century reign over an often fickle, bruising pop culture, the search goes on for the serenity and joy that would ease the work of remaining forever Cher. One of her best-loved books is a Hazelden title, Each Day a New Beginning: Meditations for Women, with a life-affirming passage for each day of the year. Cher has been “flipping through it for three years.” You could say it’s the story of her life.

“Sometimes people welcome you with open arms, sometimes it’s more hostile,” muses Cher. “You’re a bimbo; you’re a great actress. Cher to me is just me. There are parts of my life I have to keep working on. But a lot of it I’m enjoying. It’s real comfortable and it works for me.”

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