Conjuring Cher: A Conversation with Bob Mackie

August 24, 2016 5:00 am0 commentsViews: 315
Bob Mackie and Cher in 1975. Image courtesy of Bob Mackie Design Group, Ltd.

Bob Mackie and Cher in 1975.
Image courtesy of Bob Mackie Design Group, Ltd.

by Steve Desroches

Sitting on the porch of the Anchor Inn famed fashion designer Bob Mackie glances out on to Commercial Street one August morning just as it starts to get busy with bikers whizzing by, delivery trucks making their way out of town, and a few people strolling home from the previous night’s revelry. Mackie is on vacation. He has been coming to Provincetown most every summer now for a little over 10 years to catch his good friend Marilyn Maye perform at the Art House. She’s the reason he first came to Provincetown at all, and now he is completely charmed by the town, with all its natural beauty and eccentric character. Mackie settles back in his chair, sighs, and smiles. While he is on holiday, work is never far from his mind, not because he can’t let go of it, but because most everywhere he looks in Provincetown he see’s a reminder. Provincetown is loaded with drag queens wearing recreations of his designs.

“Once I saw Varla walking down the street in a knock-off costume of a gown I made for Mitzi Gaynor,” says Mackie. “I couldn’t believe she remembered it.”

Image courtesy of Bob Mackie Design Group, Ltd.

Image courtesy of Bob Mackie Design Group, Ltd.

Mackie has dressed everyone from Patti LaBelle to RuPaul to Jayne Mansfield to Liberace. Of course, there are his costume designs for The Carol Burnett Show. And then there’s Cher. Of all the people he’s dressed and the thousands of pounds of sequins, beads, and feathers he’s used over the years, there is perhaps no other celebrity more associated with the work of Mackie than Cher. And it’s the spirit of Cher that greeted him upon his arrival in Provincetown on his very first visit.

“The first thing I saw was the back end of Cher on a scooter, which of course was Randy Roberts,” says Mackie. “I thought to myself, ‘Where the hell am I?’”

When he talks about all of the people he’s worked with over the years designing gowns and costumes for television variety shows, a red carpet or a world tour, there is a special affection in his voice for Burnett, but an extra tenderness for Cher. Having had his professional start in 1961, he and Cher met not much after that. They were just kids, he says. And unbeknownst to them at the time, they were about to embark on a fabulous, sequined adventure, one that they are both still on over 50 years later.

Nicknamed the Sultan of Sequins and the Rajah of Rhinestones, Mackie is successful for more subdued designs, but he is best known for those spectacular creations, like the Mohawk-inspired, bikini-infused gown Cher wore to the 1986 Oscars (on our cover this week). As Mackie has often stated, “A woman who wears my clothes is not afraid to be noticed.” And everybody noticed Cher at the Academy Awards. It was a bit of a punk rock move for her as, despite garnering a supporting actress nomination two years prior, some of the Hollywood elite still dismissed her as just a pop star. She would of course win two years later for Moonstruck, but on this particular night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Cher wanted to make a statement. And did she ever.

When Mackie designed the gown according to her requests his initial reaction was one of apprehension, says Mackie. But Cher was certain. And 30 years later it’s the thing people most remember of that night. She was such a splash that Don Ameche, the actor to whom Cher presented the Oscar that night, sent her a bouquet of flowers thanking her for wearing the daring ensemble as it was so spectacular photos of the two of them were published worldwide, something that hadn’t happened to him in years. Mackie’s design allowed Cher to be Cher.

“You don’t want to change them,” says Mackie. “You want them to be themselves. I’m never there to change them. I never believe in make overs.”

Image courtesy of Bob Mackie Design Group, Ltd.

Image courtesy of Bob Mackie Design Group, Ltd.

Whenever Mackie is questioned about any of his designs he always answers with a “her” or a “she” rather then an “I.” While it’s always his viewpoint and vision that go into a Mackie creation, the client clearly comes first. They are, after all, the reason for the design. With so many designs over the past half century Mackie laughs that he has a hard time remembering them all or who has worked with as he’s worked with just about everyone. He laughs as he remembers being called the “Godfather of Drag” because his designs are the most copied of anybody’s due to the sheer ubiquity of his creations in entertainment. He’s seen a lot of drag. And he’s seen a lot of Chers. Always polite and always the gentleman, he applauds and meets the queens after the show, even if he’s seen the act a thousand times before. But several years ago he went to see Thirsty Burlington’s show and the impossible happened: a Cher impersonator left him speechless.

“I was so blown away,” says Mackie. “She freaked me out because she sounds so much like her in speech and singing. It was really spooky. This was back when there were about four or five shows doing Cher at the time. They would just attack me on the street! I’ve seen a lot of performers do Cher. But I’ve never seen anyone do Cher better than Thirsty.”

Mackie walks to the top of the steps of the porch at the Anchor Inn, surveying the sky and searching for rain clouds as he and friends are going to go for a bike ride. He says once more how truly impressed he was with Thirsty’s Cher. Cher. Cher. Cher. The word rings out across the front yard. And only a few blocks later down Commercial Street, on this particular August day, the words ring out again. Cher. Cher. Cher. This time it’s a young gay man in a pink tank top and denim shorts running toward a friend yelling, “Cher’s coming! Cher’s coming!” News that Cher would be in Provincetown for a Hillary Clinton fundraiser August 21 had just hit. It was news to Mackie, too. But just as he’s known for creating magic with his designs, perhaps Mackie repeatedly saying Cher over and over again on that porch reverberated over the town and created a little magical Mackie manifestation, prompting true believers to say that just maybe he conjured up Cher for Provincetown.