THERE WERE HUGE, SPIKY, BLACK plumes coming out of the top of her head, and her body was swathed in what looked like a fetishistic Solid Gold dancer's idea of an American Indian outfit. After much praise and an award from the Cannes Film Festival, she'd been denied an Oscar nomination for Mask. A trifle upset, she did the most vindictive thing an actress can do to the Academy: She called Bob Mackie. Mackie, a designer whose most potent work can induce hangovers, obviously pinched himself in delight and created the costume equivalent of giving the finger. Taking the stage as a presenter on the world's most bloated awards telecast, our beloved former Cherilyn Sarkisian rolled that famous tongue around the inside of her mouth, then coyly let it fly.

"As you can see," she told the crowd, "I did receive my Academy booklet on How to Dress Like a Serious Actress."

Don't mess with Cher. A woman whose roughest words are always dropped like pearls without the slightest hint of an "oops," Cher can call David Letterman "an asshole" and Madonna "a cunt" and still have your mother just really hoping she finds happiness. She can humiliate herself by hawking a friend's hair care products in an infomercial then show up years later in A Town Near You charging $80 to hear her cover U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" wearing a Viking headdress.

When Cher comes to Seattle on August 14, the masses will gather at the altar, whoop it up when she materializes in her mirrored jeans, and secretly ponder, "How the hell does she get away with this?"

I don't particularly care for her music. I can take something tasty like "Half Breed" with as much relish as everyone should, but it's no secret that much of Cher's musical output is strangely bland. For someone with so much personality, Cher makes music almost completely lacking in it. "Believe," the surprise monster single that provided her latest comeback, won me over in an arm wrestle with my better judgment, but it's clear Cher took a very relaxing lunch break after recording the vocals for the accompanying album. The production surrounding her voice is glitzy and retro but never touches her. She's never truly had a personal stake in the upkeep of her sonic pools of cheese; she dives in and swims around but comes out remarkably dry. In the pop pantheon of music made by icons, her songs don't have that extra little kick that accompanies Madonna's epic paeans to self-expression. When Cher sings about "Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves" it's because, well, really, why not?

There's something so deliciously American about Cher, so admirably nonchalant in her pursuit of... whatever. The Lori Davis infomercial debacle (an episode entitled "How to Destroy Your Life in One Easy Lesson" in Cher's autobiography) was mystifying on the heels of her hard-won film career and Oscar win, but she shrugged it off publicly, as if knowing that, please, something's always around the corner. Her sometimes remarkable self-invention extends to any number of rumored cosmetic surgeries, yet she still comes off like that lazy creature of the '70s who regularly cut down her impish husband between prophetic yawns. When she appeared at the Mirage in Las Vegas in the early '90s, lifted by hydraulics, the giddy audience leapt to its feet. She laughed back at them, "Oh, come on, you're not really that excited."

Her face, whatever has taken place upon it, seems to have relaxed now after the most recent upswing on her pop culture ride. Still straight-talking and rolling with the punches, she looks faintly amused that some wacky disco tune could have her commanding top dollar and parading around on VH1 with Tina Turner and Elton John -- and who wouldn't be? If you're getting a kick out of it, so is Cher. Who is she to question why life would provide her with the opportunity to best Meryl Streep, screw Val Kilmer, and give birth to a ubiquitous lesbian spokeswoman? The world has been mostly good to Cher, and anyone who can sing "Dark Lady" completely sober can only have been good to us.

When she finally won her Oscar, in 1987, she accepted it with an aplomb that epitomizes her appeal: "I don't think that this means that I am somebody, but I guess I'm on my way." This is a woman you want to be lifted by hydraulics, because she knows how damn lucky she is to be standing there.

"She always had a mystique about her," the late Mr. Bono once said of his ex-wife. "You look at her, and you just gotta wonder... what the hell is she?" MUSICLIVEPREVIEW

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