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Bob Mackie’s 40-year fashion love affair with Cher comes full circle in musical

Fashion designer Bob Mackie, who has designed the costumes for "The Cher Show" stage musical, speaks to the Chicago Sun-Times about his experience working with Cher for four decades, on Tuesday, June 5, 2018, in Chicago. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Legendary designer Bob Mackie greets you with a big smile amid a few chuckles as he offers, “They said there’s a sequin shortage in Chicago because of me.” The 78-year-old Emmy Award-winning fashion icon is referring to his avalanche of costumes for “The Cher Show,” the stage musical based on the singer-actress’ life, receiving its world premiere in Chicago.

A lot of history plays into his quip.

Mackie and Cher have gone hand-in-hand like fine leather gloves for more than 40 years, ever since he met her at CBS studios in Los Angeles, where Cher, partnered with Sonny Bono, was on the doorstep of becoming a pop culture superstar. With thousands of sequined and feathered and otherwise bedazzled costumes for her television series in the 1970s and Las Vegas residencies in the 1970s, her subsequent solo world tours, and now at least 400 or so pieces for the stage musical, Mackie’s roster of Cher ensembles have demanded an impossible to estimate supply of glittery accoutrements. Her gowns and ensembles have both shocked and enchanted; some have taken on lives of their own.

Teal Wicks (from left), Stephanie J. Block and Micaela Diamond star as the title character in the pre-Broadway premiere of “The Cher Show,” now playing at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

In town recently to talk about the musical, Macki talked to the Sun-Times about designing for Cher.

Q. When did you first meet Cher, and when did you start working with her in earnest?

A. Cher was on “The Carol Burnett Show” with Sonny the very first year [in 1967] and every week we would have “the young act” to bring in the young folks to watch the show, because at that time they were worried [about the show’s success] and they didn’t know they were going to go on for 11 years!  … I expected this kind of a solemn, hokey kind of girl because all the pictures of she and Sonny that I had seen, they are always kind of looking [dour]. She just wasn’t at all like she looked in those pictures. She was this cute, Audrey Hepburn-like girl with black hair, and she was tan and she had a little mini dress on, with her hair in pigtails. So we talked, and she said, “One day I’d like you to make me one of those beaded dresses.” And I said. “OK, I’m ready when you are.”

And it was a few years later that actually I worked with her when [“The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour”] debuted. The producers and all the writers [of the show], they didn’t know what to do with her. She didn’t look like what pretty stars were supposed to look like at that time. She didn’t have a big head of teased-up blond hair and a turned-up nose. She didn’t look like the models that were so popular at the time. … And then she wasn’t intimidated by anything she wore or any way I’d fix her up. [But Cher] could look so many ways. She always had a tan. She could look Hispanic. She could look Middle Eastern. She could look African. She could be anything. She was always, “Oh, I like this. This is cool.” And she wore everything as if it were jeans and a T-shirt. You see people in an evening gown that are so uncomfortable they don’t know how to act or how to sit. And she was never like that. Some people are just just born to be goddesses!

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Q. You describe her early on as an awkward teen, but on the TV show, wearing those gorgeous gowns, she carried it off like a pro. She always made it look so easy. What were some of her best features?

Opening night of the Pre-Broadway premiere of “The Cher Show” musical at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

The curtain call on opening night of the pre-Broadway premiere of “The Cher Show” musical at the Oriental Theatre on June 28, 2018. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

A. Cher could wear anything! She just had the most beautiful shoulders, the most beautiful arms. There was an article once said she has the best armpits in the business because they were just sculpted. And that beautiful midriff. The minute we started showing midriff [on TV] of course all the censors were having fits. But at the same time the producers were saying don’t change that — that’s what people are watching for. They’re watching to see what she’s going to do and wear.

Cher, seen in one of Bob Mackie’s most flamboyant creations, at the 1986 Academy Awards, where she presented Don Ameche (left) with the best supporting actor Oscar. | Lennox McClenndon/AP Photo

It was a funny time, though, because you know in the afternoon on television you would have shows with girls in bikinis and boys in little bathing suits all dancing and jiggling around and that was OK — it was in the afternoon. But somehow for prime time they got more nervous for whatever reason. But you know it was such a hit that the networks were happy. I mean, CBS was really happy that the ratings were so big and people were tuning in to see what body part we were going to show each week.

The thing about Cher is that she never looked vulgar in anything. It always looks so natural and easy. And there weren’t very many people very many women that could really pull that off.

Q. Did you design a lot for Sonny Bono during the run of their variety show?

A Bob Mackie sketch for costumes he created for “The Cher Show” stage musical. | COURTESY BROADWAY IN CHICAGO

A. I did a lot of things for Sonny in the beginning, and then we were so busy that another designer had to do Sonny because I was so busy with her clothes.

Sonny and Cher and the fashions of Bob Mackie on “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour.” | CBS

Q. Did Cher have a favorite color when it came to fashion?

A. Well she went through stages like like any young girl. She had her favorite colors and colors that she hated. And actually the color that she still doesn’t like is orange, which she absolutely looks fabulous in. And I used to put it on her once in a while. You know you had to when you do that many clothes, you have to use all the colors. And she looks beautiful in pure pigment, like oranges and pinks and reds and turquoises. You know when you’re a black-haired girl with light skin or tanned skin you look great in those kind of colors and I still use them all the time with her. She pretty much went with the flow.

Los Angeles, UNITED STATES: Costumes designed for Cher by Bob Mackie are on display 29 September 2006 at a public auction preview at a Los Angeles hotel. Sotheby's will auction off furniture, clothing, jewelry, art, books and more from Cher's 16,000-square-foot Malibu Italian Renaissance mansion on 03-04 October in Los Angeles. Cher told the Los Angeles Times that she is selling off much of the contents of the home so you she can redecorate in Tibetan, Moroccan, Indian and Zen style. AFP PHOTO / Robyn BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Costumes designed for Cher by Bob Mackie were displayed ahead of a 2006 auction by Sotheby’s. | ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images