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Dancing queen: Abba-period Cher has a new army of devotees

Cher, pictured at the world premiere of the film "Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again" in London, has picked up numerous awards in film and music
Cher, pictured at the world premiere of the film "Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again" in London, has picked up numerous awards in film and music Cher, pictured at the world premiere of the film "Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again" in London, has picked up numerous awards in film and music AFP/File
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Los Angeles (AFP)

Cher has a stately air as she receives a steady line of journalists in a West Hollywood hotel room with the studied equanimity of Catherine the Great addressing her subjects at the Winter Palace.

If Madonna is the Queen of Pop then Cher is surely the Empress of Entertainment, surveying the spoils of a showbiz career that has reaped a best actress Oscar, three Golden Globes, an Emmy, a Grammy and a number one record in each of the last five decades.

And with an acclaimed movie role this summer, a new album of Abba covers on the way and a Broadway musical about her life on the horizon, the 72-year-old icon shows no signs of abdicating anytime soon.

"It seems I have a bunch of new fans, young ones, little ones. It's great. I honestly didn't expect it," she enthuses, a playful grin fleetingly snapping the aristocratic aura.

A post-war baby boomer of Armenian, European and Cherokee heritage, the performer was born Cherilyn Sarkisian in southern California.

To a certain generation she will always be an icon of Sixties counterculture and the unique contralto voice who, along with late former husband Sonny Bono, gave the world "I Got You Babe."

But she has been shocking and delighting since ditching her folksy girl-next-door Sonny and Cher-era image to emerge as the siren in a hardly-there body suit and leather jacket in the 1989 "Turn Back Time" video -- a quarter-century before "twerking" had entered the lexicon.

"Believe" brought Cher to a new generation of fans in 1998, with its innovative deployment of the robotic, digitally-enhanced "vocoder" vocal for which she is now famous.

- Stealing the show -

Cher holds the record for the longest gap between number one songs on the US chart at nearly 25 years but recently has mostly concentrated on a residency show in Las Vegas.

She has been in more than a dozen movies, Oscar-nominated for her turn as a nuclear safety activist in "Silkwood," and acclaimed for roles as a tough, no-nonsense mother in "Mask" and a young Italian American widow in "Moonstruck," for which she won her Academy Award.

This summer, she reunited with longtime friend and "Silkwood" co-star Meryl Streep to sing two of the signature tunes on "Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again," the sequel to Abba-inspired 2008 jukebox musical "Mamma Mia!"

She is scornful of the term "starred" for what amounted to a relatively short stretch of screen time but the fact is she stole the show after turning up in the final act.

The movie inspired her 26th album, a collection of Abba covers called "Dancing Queen" that is a mix of reverent retreads and club versions that are unmistakably Cher.

"'Mamma Mia' and 'Waterloo,' -- those are the most like the original. I didn't want to change them in any way," she told AFP ahead of the album's September 28 release.

"And the other ones, there's no way I'm going to ever sound like the girls. So best to just do what I do and hope for the best."

With only 10 tracks to choose from, Cher says she went for a blend of the all-time classics with some of her own personal favorites, such as "Chiquitita," "One of Us" and "Name of the Game."

"Singing is different than listening, and I think the important thing for me was to try to keep the essence of Abba and try to blend myself in with them," the singer added.

- 'That was fun' -

Early previews of songs have gone down well with critics and fans but it has not been entirely plain sailing.

AFP caught up with the pop legend on the day she was finishing the record ? and just hours after one of her favorite tracks, "One of Us," had briefly gone missing, prompting no small amount of middle-of-the-night panic.

"I was upset," she says, a study in understatement.

A platinum blonde these days, the star has always been famous for her outrageous, revealing stage attire.

The feathers and fishnets will be getting a workout again with the singer at the start of a grueling tour that takes her from Australia and New Zealand in the fall to just about every corner of North America next year.

One day she'll slow down -- perhaps if "The Cher Show," a musical due to hit Broadway in December -- earns her a producer's Tony Award to complete the coveted "EGOT" awards grand slam alongside her Emmy, Grammy and Oscar.

For now, each success is "(Just Enough to Keep Me) Hangin' On," in the words of one of her early singles.

"Sometimes I love it and sometimes I just want to tear my eyes out... Of course I have those days, and what I've learned is you just go through them and they pass," she says.

"And sometimes you only have a week of it, or sometimes you're like, just go, 'Oh my God.' You're thinking, 'Oh my God' and then you do the show when you're thinking, 'Oh that was fun. That was good.'"

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