I write today of two strong women. One recently deceased, one very much alive. On the surface, they’ve got nothing whatsoever in common — I’m sure they’ve never been mentioned in the same article, much less the same sentence — except for the lesson they have to teach us.
It has to do with being real. Despite being judged.
I once met the late Elizabeth Edwards at a fundraiser for George Mark House, a children’s hospice founded by a good friend. Edwards, the keynote speaker, had left the stage and was heading off to her next engagement, when I jumped up to shake her hand. Her husband had just begun his campaign for president, she had just announced that her breast cancer had returned, and I babbled on about how I hoped to see her in the White House. (At that point, the primary campaign was pretty much a dead heat, with John Edwards espousing the most progressive positions. Funny, that.) Anyhow, we chatted for more time than I thought we would and here’s what happened: I reached out for a handshake, she instead gave me a huge hug. A real one. Unrehearsed and warm.
And so, like many of us, I was shocked and disappointed when her husband crashed and burned and, at least at first, she supported him. Huh? Like Hillary, we castigated her for living in denial, for standing by her philandering man. As if, when a powerful man has a fling with a silly woman half his age, it is the wife who looks like a fool. She ultimately left him — but not after getting raked over the coals despite the fact that it was her husband’s mistakes she was just trying to deal with. And yet. Most of us turned away.
I’ll get to Cher in a minute, here, but first: One who didn’t turn away from Elizabeth Edwards was Salon’s Joan Walsh, a huge admirer of Edwards’ ever since she conducted a long interview with her back in 2007. This week, Walsh wrote an elegant obituary, which she ended thus:
At the end of our 2007 interview, I asked [Edwards] whether she was bothered by critics who said she shouldn’t have continued to campaign after her cancer recurred; she should have stayed home with her young children. Her answer can stand as her last word, again:
“After all I’ve been through, I realize: You don’t know exactly what life lessons you taught your kids until much later. You don’t. And maybe the most important life lesson for them is for me to say, When bad things happen, you don’t let them take you down. If I hadn’t continued to campaign, I’d be sending the opposite message: When bad things happen, go hide. Do I know with absolute certainty we’re doing the right thing? I don’t. Having been through what I’ve been through, I hope people trust I wouldn’t risk my relationship with my children. I think this is the right choice.”
And this is what brings me to Cher, the cover girl for this month’s Vanity Fair. Like Edwards, she’s been judged — for everything from her big hair to her tiny outfits, to her plastic surgeries and tabloid relationships to whether or not she’s been properly supportive of her daughter’s sex change. And like Edwards, she willingly admits that life is complicated and that she sometimes gets it wrong. That she has gotten it wrong. From VF writer Krista Smith:
At 64, she has been up and down too many times to count. “I feel like a bumper car. If I hit a wall, I’m backing up and going in another direction,” [Cher] says, adding, “And I’ve hit plenty of fucking walls in my career. But I’m not stopping. I think maybe that’s my best quality: I just don’t stop.”
Now do you see it? What the political wife and the Vegas diva have in common? What they can teach us, and why, deep down, we love them both? Let’s check how salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams calls it:
Underneath all the many layers of wigs and sparkles, what makes Cher so enduringly special is her realness, her willingness to say to the world that she gets confused and she gets it wrong sometimes, but she keeps trying anyway, because that’s the right thing to do. And that’s what makes the spangly, big-haired queen of Vegas a role model for us all.