In June, Cher took the spotlight on the finale of The Voice to unleash dance anthem Woman's World, the debut single from Closer to the Truth, her first album since 2002. The stage warhorse with 50 years of performing behind her concedes that she felt terrified.
"Everyone judges you on what you just did," she says. "Right before I walked out there, I told my mom, 'I'm so sweating it. I'm a has-been. My career is nothing.' It's my first time out of the box in 12 years, in front of 20 million people. If it had been horrible, they would have tarred and feathered my whole life with that brush. My career would have ended on such a sad note."
Whoa. Doesn't an Oscar, Emmy, Grammy, three Golden Globes, sales of 100 million solo albums and a half-century of diva status bolster faith in her talent?
"Ah, no, not at all," she says. "I keep coming back because I have no place else to go. What else would I do? I love to sing."
That's why she'll return to the road, eight years after her Farewell tour ended with a gross of $192.5 million for 273 shows.
"The road is a nasty place and lonely," she says. "The shows make it worthwhile. If I didn't do it now, I would never, ever do it again. Tina (Turner) went out when she was 70, but ... she's much tougher and has an energy like I've never seen in any human being."
On Friday night, Cher is holed up in her 16,000-square-foot Italian Renaissance-style villa on a bluff overlooking the Pacific. She perches cross-legged and barefoot on a sofa in an upstairs bedroom, sipping a can of Dr Pepper as scented candles glow nearby and Mr. Big, a gray cat rescued as an injured kitten during her Believe tour, curls up at the foot of the bed.
No makeup. Her long black hair falls past her shoulders. She appears toned and trim in a coral fleece jacket and black leggings. In light this soft, Cher, 67, could still get carded at the nightclubs that will be blasting Red and Dressed to Kill.
And yet her age is the conversation's running gag.
"It's been so long since I made a record — not since gramophones," she says. "I can't get on radio because they're not playing women who are almost 100."
Ask her how the industry can possibly ignore a global superstar simply for crossing the Medicare threshold, and she bellows, "Oh, my God, look in the mirror! It gets harder when you're working against girls in their 20s. Tell me who at my age is making a record and wants to be on radio? When I started out, I thought I'd be dead by now."
Even Cher underestimates the power of Cher. In 1998, at 52, she became the oldest woman to have a No. 1 hit on Billboard's Hot 100 with Believe, the Grammy Award-winning title track from the album that topped charts around the world, selling 20 million copies.
While she insists there's no upside to aging ("I'm not going to lie and say I'm smarter; I haven't learned anything since I was 40"), Cher says it won't stop her. She's relieved the years haven't eroded her vocal powers, as she happily discovered when recording the demanding power ballad from 2010's Burlesque soundtrack, a bonus track on Truth's deluxe edition.
"A lot of people my age are dropping notes and don't have much of a voice anymore," she says. "I was completely shocked with You Haven't Seen the Last of Me. I kept saying, 'I can't do that song.' I did it to my absolute, utter amazement. It gave me a bit of confidence."
She freely volunteers missteps, though on Truth,they're superficial: the title ("I should have called it Dressed to Kill") and the smoldering cheesecake cover (platinum hair, skimpy lingerie, fur pillow).
"I meant it to be camp, like a Playboy centerfold, but people didn't get it and took it so seriously," she says. "You make mistakes, you pay and keep going."
She shrugs off an axed duet with Lady Gaga, The Greatest Thing. Dubbing it not up to par, Gaga pulled it from Truth, and an unfinished version leaked last month.
"She didn't like it," Cher says. "I wasn't thrilled with my part, and she wasn't thrilled with her part, and neither one of us were thrilled with the music. She was the one who said, 'I don't want it out.' I would have given it another shot and re-recorded my vocal and had someone else do the music. But she was over it, and it's her song."
There's no ill will. "Gaga's got 'it,' the way Madonna had 'it,' something that made you stop and go, 'What's that?' " says Cher, who is also a fan of Bruno Mars, Adele and the late Amy Winehouse. "It's not just crazy clothes. Madonna had her ear to the ground and knew what was coming before anybody else."
Cher's toughest tirades these days are less TMZ than WMD. She has informed and passionate takes on the Syrian crisis, litigation against Chevron over oil pollution in Ecuador, erosion of women's rights and an explosion of laws against feeding the homeless.
"I'm amusing and crazy on Twitter," she says. "I talk about important things, stupid things. I rant against teabag idiots. What are they going to do to me now?
"I can't spell or do grammar, but I'm smarter and more serious than people think. I'm no featherweight when it comes to digging deep and being involved. So many stars I know do so much. It's our duty to give back."
She gets blowback.
"Yes: 'Die, b----.' But if you do nothing, nothing will change."
Citing the country's recent anti-gay laws, Cher declined an invitation to open next year's Winter Olympics in Russia.
"It's a drag because I have so many Russian friends and fans, but I can't do it," she says. "What they're doing is inhumane and sad."
The twice-married mother of two (musician Elijah Blue and transgender writer/activist Chaz) is less forthcoming on her love life.
"If you talk about it, it gets ruined," she says.
She finds escape from stress in Buddhism, "but I'm probably the worst Buddhist ever because I have a terrible temper."
This is neither the best nor worst stage of her life. She was happiest in the 1980s.
"I had the most fabulous boyfriend (baker Rob Camilletti), the kids were young, New York was amazing, I was making movies and records. Everything clicked. It was heaven."
One of the low points came after her 1975 divorce from first husband Sonny Bono.
"I thought I'd never climb out of that hole," she says. "I had no money, and I had to pay him $2 million. It took a long time. I worked my way into a spot in Las Vegas playing two shows a night. My managers were making more money than I was. I pride myself on still being here. A lot of people were gigantic, and then they were gone."
If Cher could turn back time, she'd tell her younger self to lighten up. "I've forgotten most things that were life-and-death to me at the time. I was such a drama queen."
Has age mellowed pop's long-reigning bohemian?
"Absolutely not," she says.
Singer, actress, director, writer, activist, philanthropist, fashion daredevil, indomitable diva. Cher has blazed trails, scaled peaks and burned bridges during her half-century in entertainment. And yet the Goddess of Pop hasn't quite mastered the art of self-promotion.
"I wasn't even going to do it," she says of Closer to the Truth, out Sept. 24. "I thought I already did my best and I didn't want to do less."
Cher, 67, credits the relentless prodding of co-manager Lindsay Scott for luring her back to the studio to craft her 26th solo album, the first since 2002's Living Proof. The diverse results include dance hit Woman's World, moving 9/11 anthem Sirens, melancholy My Love and swaggering duet Take It Like a Man with Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters.
"I'm just so not a Cher fan, but I like these songs," she says. "In my life, there are songs I've done that I really love, that I don't think I ruined, like You Haven't Seen the Last of Me, Song for the Lonely or Believe. But there's only a handful. The early ones I don't like at all. My voice was so strange and different. This is as good as I'm ever going to do."
That's Cher's backhanded way of saying Truth might be her best album ever, a sentiment echoed by early critical buzz.
She's especially pleased with Lie to Me and I Walk Alone, supplied by friend Pink.
"I'm a gigantic fan," Cher says. When she heard Pink's Dear Mr. President, "I cried my eyes out. She's a real girl who has problems, is soft, is hard. She's a kick-a-- girl who follows after me."
Cher and pal Shirley Eikhard co-wrote Lovers Forever, cut from 1994's Interview With the Vampire soundtrack.
"They didn't love it and there were no other vampire outlets then, so I held it," Cher says, noting that she seldom records her own material because "it's moody and introspective, a bit dark and very personal. I write about Kurt Cobain's death and homeless people. It's not for everybody."