In late November 2020, as another COVID-19 wave had U.S. hospitalizations approaching what would be their pandemic peak, Cher braved the trip from Los Angeles to Pakistan to ensure the safe relocation of Kaavan — an Asian elephant languishing in the decrepit Islamabad zoo. The culmination of a five-year effort largely maneuvered by Cher’s Free the Wild, a charity fund of the Entertainment Industry Foundation that seeks the release of captive animals, Kaavan was moved to a sanctuary in Cambodia. But he was not the first pachyderm to pull at the legendary entertainer’s heartstrings. “The truth is that I saved Kaavan because I couldn’t save Billy,” says Cher. “And Billy still suffers every day.”
Billy isn’t anywhere as far off as Islamabad — unless you’re attempting a trip during rush hour in Los Angeles. The 38-year-old elephant has spent nearly his entire life at the L.A. Zoo. There are frequent calls for the animal to be released to a sanctuary. That also was the recommendation of a December motion by the L.A. City Council’s Personnel, Audits, and Animal Welfare Committee. But even as the number of American zoos that have closed or vowed to phase out elephant exhibits since 1991 approaches 40, L.A. Zoo leadership has never given any indication of following suit whenever the campaign to move Billy returns to the news cycle. (In response to this story, a spokesperson reiterated the comment issued after the 2022 motion, saying the zoo “vehemently disagrees with the characterization of the care and well-being of our Asian elephants.”) But Cher doesn’t want to see momentum wane again. During an August phone call, the singer, actress, philanthropist and newly minted gelato entrepreneur discussed her hopes for Billy and what’s keeping her busy these days — which, it turns out, is quite a lot.
What’s the top priority for Free the Wild right now?
My main concern is Billy. It took me five years in court to get Kaavan out of that zoo, but Islamabad finally understood exactly why it needed to be done. Now we’re working with one of, if not the most, developed nations on the planet, the United States, and our own people don’t seem to understand or appreciate the effects of zoo life on these creatures.
One might assume that, logistically, Pakistan would pose a bigger challenge than the city of Los Angeles.
Yes, you would think that. This kills me. I think about him all the time. He’s in constant pain from the cement-like ground he walks on. He is exhibiting the stereotypical behavior of a captive elephant who is in deep physical and emotional pain, literally every moment of every day. If you see Billy, he bobs and weaves and sways. That’s all he does. It’s just awful. He’s been there for a million years, and he deserves to spend his last years in a sanctuary. But zoos keep elephants because they’re the big draw. They bring in the big bucks.
Cher in Cambodia in November 2020 in front of the travel crate of Kaavan, an Asian elephant. The star’s campaign to free him was chronicled in the 2021 documentary Cher & the Loneliest Elephant.
TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP via Getty Images
What do you want people to do?
For people to bombard the City Council by reaching out to them with their concern for Billy and the need to get him into a sanctuary as soon as possible. The citizens of L.A. essentially own the zoo but don’t seem to have the authority to influence the decision-making.… And they’ve had [more than a dozen] elephants die since 1968. They don’t give you information about some of the deaths. You can’t get records.
When in your life did you feel like you most connected with an animal?
My sister and I had a dog when we were little named Pansy. But my biggest connection with an animal was with my cat. We found him under a truck when we were on the road in Detroit. He was very sick and so small. You could hold him in your hand. I’m not exaggerating, even though I’m prone to. So he was in the doctor’s while we played Detroit for two days. Then, I took him home, and I had him for 16 years. He was like a dog. His name was Mr. Big.
Other than Billy, what other captive animals have your attention?
Lucy, an elephant in Canada, and Lolita, a whale in Florida. They’re in horrible places right now.
After years of criticism, the L.A. Zoo moved Billy to a $42 million exhibit in 2010. But, in 2022, a City Council committee suggested his health problems are linked to the zoo environment.
ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images
Are variables that we’re facing right now, like climate change and the continued invasion of Ukraine, increasing concerns for captive animals?
In Ukraine, we transferred six lions, a bear, a panther and a tiger. We went in before the war and did everything to get them out. But we left the bear, so we had to sneak back in with a big pickup truck and get him out during the war. Do you want my opinion on the war in Ukraine? Probably not.
We’re helping them fight the war so that Russia doesn’t go in and take all the NATO countries. I don’t think a lot of the people in Congress understand or realize that, but [the Ukranians] are doing us a service. They’re fighting the battle. But there’s so much that’s happening in the world. It’s frightening. And I believe — and I’m not an alarmist — that if Trump got into office again, we would no longer be who we are or who we try to be.
As in America?
Yes, it’s scary. If you have gay friends, if you have a trans child, you almost have to divide your mind a little bit so that you’re not fighting every battle at one time.
I don’t want to talk about Trump, but I am curious what you think of the indictments that have come through.
They couldn’t do anything before they had all the information, but he’s been doing this the whole time. That’s my belief. But he’s so good — oh my God, is he good — at playing the victim and turning everything around to make people think he hasn’t done one bad thing.
You’ve used Twitter [now X] in your activism. It’s how you found out about Kaavan. What’s your take on the Elon Musk era?
I haven’t been on Twitter for quite a while. When he bought Twitter, I was using Tweetbot [a third-party posting app that was disabled by Twitter in January], which was very easy for me. I’m dyslexic, so sometimes I have a hard time navigating things. When I went to try to go to Twitter now, it’s difficult. I don’t know. I just think my people can’t find me. Before, we were all in one place. I went to Threads, so I’m on both now. I used to love going on Twitter.… (Background music interrupts conversation.)
Was that the Cherlato truck?
Very funny. No. Cherlato is at Taylor Swift’s concert today.
The initial reviews for your new gelato brand are pretty good — congratulations.
Look, I’ve been loving ice cream for as long as I can remember. You can see pictures of me eating ice cream all over the world. This is the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted. It figures that I had to find it in New Zealand. [Cherlato is a collaboration with Giapo, a New Zealand-based company.] It’s a little bit difficult for us right this minute because we have so many flavors, but in the truck, we can only have four or five at a time.
Did you enjoy the flavor development?
I ate my body weight in ice cream in New Zealand. It was unbelievable. Chocolate was what I wanted the most, but we have interesting flavors as well. People seem to like the avocado. That won’t be one I go to very often. I’m pedestrian. But when I saw the [edible] gold [ice cream] cones, I almost lost it. I wanted to wear them as earrings. Have you seen them?
Yes, on Instagram. Are you joining the truck for the Taylor show?
No, I’m working into the late night tonight.
OK, I’ve been told you’re not supposed to discuss it, but you have acknowledged you’re recording a Christmas album. What can you tell me?
It’s not your mother’s Christmas album. It’s a Cher Christmas album, whatever that brings along with the name. It’s definitely my idea of a Christmas album. I had to do what I felt. There’s no “Silent Night.”
Speaking of music, you just sold your catalog to Irving Azoff. Why now?
Well, everybody seems to be doing it. (Laughs.) And I get to keep everything from Believe on, so I’m fine with it.
We’re approaching a big anniversary for Believe. Looking back on the 25 years since its release, how do you feel about the role it played in the mainstreaming of Auto-Tune?
In October, Cher’s landmark hit Believe celebrates its 25th anniversary.
Courtesy of Warner Records.
We did it. We were the first ones. I was talking to [producer] Mark [Taylor] about that last night when we were in the studio — about how we felt when we did it. I don’t think they called it Auto-Tune then. It was just a pitch machine. I was having a hard time with the song. That’s the only argument Mark and I ever got into. He kept saying, “The chorus is fine, but you’ve got to sing the verses better.” I was singing and singing and singing, and finally he said, “Cher, you better do it better!” And I went, “You know what? If you want it better, get somebody else.” I walked out. And then the next morning, I saw this beautiful boy on the morning show in England. His name was [Andrew] Roachford, and he was singing with a vocoder. So I called Mark, I said, “Could we use a vocoder?” He said, “No, but I’m working on something that I think might be amazing, but I’m not quite there yet.” I went back to the studio, he started it, and we both jumped up and high-fived ourselves after we heard it. The record company didn’t want to do it. They said, “You can’t tell who it is.” I went, “Yes, I know, that’s the beauty of the whole thing!”
You said in an interview last year that you’re offered more work now than you can actually do. What gets you to say yes to something at this point?
It’s just a feeling. Usually I say, “That would be a lot of fun.” No matter what it is. It just strikes me.
You’ve had a biopic in active development for two years. Has that been impacted by the strikes?
No, because we are kind of starting again. It just wasn’t working out, and we needed to adjust some of the things. But we’re going to have to wait [for after the strikes]. I’m not going to go against my people.
The impulse of late for recording artist biopics is to make a jukebox musical of all their hits. Is that your plan?
I can never decide what I want to do. The thing about my life is that there’s too much. It’s hard to capture it and all the things I’ve done. So it’s really a lot. The biggest problem is trying to get the story into a decent time period.
What’s the latest on your memoir? You first said you were writing it in 2017.
Well, we’re almost finished because [HarperCollins] goes, “Cher, how long are you going to work on this?” (Laughs.) That’s difficult too, but we’re so close.
Nicolas Cage recently said in an interview that, in the years following Moonstruck, he got slapped at the airport a lot…
I didn’t know that! (Laughing.) That’s so funny. Oh, Nicky.
Is there something, hopefully less confrontational, that you get a lot from strangers?
I still get, “Snap out of it!” Over and over!
Do you two still talk?
Yeah, we’re still friends. He’s a very interesting man. I mean, he’s very, very Nicky. You know? I quit the movie because they weren’t going to hire him. But I knew that Nicky was the one when he did Peggy Sue Got Married. The way he said some of the craziest lines in that film, I knew that was the man we needed. It had to be Nicky. But he can do all kinds of stuff.
April marked 35 years since Cher (in Moonstruck with Nicolas Cage) took home the Oscar for best actress.
MGM/ Courtesy: Everett Collection.
Anything you do, be it starting a gelato company or your dating life, seems to generate a lot of attention. Being in the public eye as long as you have been, are you ever surprised to see the interest hasn’t waned?
You know what? I never planned a thing. And I did have bad periods. I had horrible periods — things that might make somebody else go, “Oh, I’m giving this up.” But I didn’t quit. I don’t know how to do anything else. That’s what I was put here to do. That’s who I am.
Who’s a performer that really impresses you right now?
That’s not a question that appeals to me. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. I just don’t want to single out someone or something — because there are so many great people right now. When you single out one of them, it just diminishes everyone else that’s working.
You recently listed your longtime home in Malibu for $75 million. Are you getting out?
I think I will. I’ve been here forever. I built this house so long ago, but I want to be flexible. And you can’t be flexible in this house — as much as I love it.
Well, thank you for talking and for all of your advocacy work.
There are so many important things to do right now that you can wonder, “How can we get all this done? How can we change all this?” And then you wonder why some things are changing that shouldn’t be. It’s a full plate. I don’t know what’s going on in America right now. It’s not what I dreamt of.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.