Cher talks to us about her new album, her new movie, and her love-hate relationship with Hollywood

It’s not as hard as you might think to find out what happened to Cher. Here’s what to do if you want to learn how she went from triumphant Oscar-winning actress to cheesy infomercial diva to virtual recluse to, she hopes, comeback queen: Fly to Los Angeles, rent a car, drive up the Pacific Coast Highway to the northern end of Malibu, and take a left down to the ocean, make a right, and stop in front of a walled compound. State your name to the voice on the intercom, drive past the gate, and walk up to the front door. You’ll be ushered into a cavernous foyer and up a flight of stairs.

From a distance, you’ll see a smaller-than-you-would-think figure standing in the middle of an enormous bedroom. Candles are burning. The smell of sandalwood incense is overwhelming. Two caged lovebirds are chirping. A collection of silver crucifixes hang on the wall above the king-sized platform bed. The figure is barefoot, dressed in a black T-shirt and leggings. Her hair hangs loosely past her shoulders and her face looks plastic surgery-smooth and just a little too taut. She walks warily toward you and extends a hand. ”Hi,” she says, ”I’m Cher.” She points to a gold crushed-velvet chaise longue. ”Sit down,” she commands, ”and take off your shoes.”

It’s a good idea to do what Cher says. In her long strange trip from one-half of the buckskin-jacketed pop oddity Sonny and Cher to 50-year-old catalogue maven, she has really only let one person ever push her around. And she’s still a little mad at Sonny, uh, Congressman Bono, for that. After her last major film, Mermaids, in 1990, not even the powerful Ron Meyer, her agent at CAA from 1985 until 1995 and now the head of MCA, could convince her to stick with movies instead of detouring into infomercials. ”Most people listen to good sound advice,” says Meyer. ”And I was very opposed to what she did with her career. But not Cher. She does what she wants to do.”

Cher would agree. ”I’m really a peaceful person,” she says, settling cross-legged in a chair and sucking on a chocolate lollipop. ”I’m not mean. But if someone f—s with me, I want to go rip their f—ing throat out.”

You could argue, though, that the only person who has messed with Cher in recent years is Cher. Surprisingly, she agrees. She is poised to resurface next month with an album of covers of mostly male-written tunes, It’s a Man’s World, and recently directed and acted in one segment of a sure-to-be-controversial movie for HBO on abortion, If These Walls Could Talk, which will air this fall. She also has a greatest-hits album coming out, is about to sign for two new feature films and can be seen in reruns of the old Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour that began this month on Nick at Nite’s TV Land.

But this sudden Cher blitz comes after six years during which she virtually disappeared, squandering her hard-won A-list actress status by hawking shampoo and artificial sweeteners on TV and launching Sanctuary, a catalog of Gothic and medieval knickknacks. ”The infomercials were just devastating to my career,” admits Cher, who says she did them reluctantly as a favor to a friend and was horrified when they became a late-night staple and were spoofed on Saturday Night Live. ”I’m kind of stupid when it comes to things. I’ve always just done what I wanted and it’s just worked out. Not this time. I really screwed up.”