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"I went to Las Vegas last week to see my mom's show which spans her whole career: nearly four decades. Seeing her, I thought: Well there is just no way I can compete with this. There are only a handful of individuals of our time that have had a career like hers, and have survived and reinvented themselves like she has."
In the 1970s she was recognizable as the adorable blonde daughter of Sonny and Cher. On Monday nights, Chastity Bono stole the hearts of millions nationwide with appearances on her parents' top-rated show The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. When asked what it was like to be a part of that program, her response was "I really don't remember it. The one memory I have of the show was when we did a Tweety and Sylvester skit. I was Tweety and I remember it because the headpiece really hurt".
After coming out in 1995, Bono built a career outside her parents' shadow, becoming a leader in the gay and lesbian community. Her work has included being a reporter for The Advocate, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign and entertainment media director for GLADD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. She is the author of the bestseller Family Outing, a coming out guide for gays. Now 33, Bono has written her second book, a memoir entitled The End of Innocence, a very moving autobiographical account of how a lost love led to this well-known individual's path to self-discovery. In this book, Chastity presents a memoir of what was probably the most difficult period in her life to date.
Bono begins her story at the age of 23. Aside from constantly being hounded by tabloids, Bono was trying to establish her own career as a musician with her then-girlfriend, Rachel. When their band Ceremony, finally began to receive the results they had worked so hard for, Chastity fell in love with Joan, who was not only 23 years her senior but also a friend of her mother's. With her current relationship on the line and Ceremony's future still uncertain, Chastity followed her heart and devoted herself to Joan's battle against non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
I recently met with Bono during her book tour for The End of Innocence. Very friendly and down to earth, she reminded me of the time I met her father, the late congressman Sonny Bono, nearly five years ago. When I contacted her at her home in Los Angeles, California, Chastity was just as delightful and forthcoming as she had been during our first encounter. The sincerity in her voice allowed the interview to progress comfortably, considering the nature of the questions asked. We spoke about her childhood, personal relationships and future plans which include a book that will span her childhood.
Nicole Malliotakis: Do you have a favorite author whose work you follow and enjoy reading?
Chastity Bono: Yeah, I have a few. I really like reading crime novels. That's my favorite genre. My favorite author is probably James Patterson. I also like Michael Connelly, Anne Rice and Patricia Cornwell.
What prompted you this time around to write a memoir of such a personal account?
Once I make the decision to do something and get comfortable with the idea of writing about something, I'm going to write it as truthfully and as accurately as I can. This story is pretty personal, but the only thing that really changed were the people's names. I try to be fair to the other people in the story. It's kind of uncomfortable when you're not only telling your story, but obviously that of the other people involved in your life. I try to be as fair as possible.
Looking back on the success of Family Outing, do you feel you have grown as a writer and individual since then?
I think as an individual, I have, but not as a writer because they are such different types of books. They are both terrific books for the genre that they fit into. Family Outing was a technically difficult book to write, because it combined so my different peoples' stories. To make it flow was a kind of difficult thing to do. Also, I was trying to impute so many different ideas and guidance without it sounding preachy or like a text book. That was really a technically hard thing to do. As easy as it seems to read it was hard to write to make it seem that way. End of Innocence was real easy for me to write. ... It was more emotionally draining. There were definitely days when it took a lot out of me.
From where do you draw your inspiration?
I wanted to get both of the books that I've written out there for different reasons. The first book I thought could really help a lot of people and this last one had a lot of personal meaning to me. I also thought it could be very entertaining for people. With everything I put out, I want to do the best job possible and hope that people enjoy it and get something out of it.
What do you see as the most distinguishing trait of your writing? What makes your writing style unique?
In both of my books when I am talking about myself I try and write in a very conversational manner that is very easy to read and straightforward. Both books are interesting because Family Outing kind of spans my whole life, talking about my coming out. Because I started when I was very young, I try to vary my voice depending on the age that I'm talking about. I try to create the voice of that age. The End of Innocence all took place [when I was in] in my 20s. As far as the dialogue, I don't talk like that anymore, but I really tried to recreate what it was like back then. I always try to write in a real straightforward, easy, conversational way that I feel people can get into and relate to.
I've read your father's book And the Beat Goes On and I see some similarities in your styles of writing, do you think your writing ability may have been inherited from him?
My dad and I are very similar. We've always been very similar so it doesn't surprise me that somebody would take that out of it. I've always been a lot like him.
You were diagnosed with dyslexia when you were very young. Have you ever found your dyslexia to be a challenge?
No, that is not true. My mom was actually tested and found out that she had dyslexia and somehow it got out there that I did, but I really don't. I ended up being tested for it in high school and I actually don't have it. I had a lot of trouble in school when I was younger, which I think is mostly due to the fact that my parents used to take me out of school to be with them on tour. I missed so much of my formative years that I really had to struggle in school. But I didn't actually have a diagnosed learning disorder. I really think it had to do with not learning the proper stuff at the time I needed to learn it.
You have said that when you were 13 years old, you went to see the movie Personal Best. It made you realize you had an interest in females. Did having Joan around help solidify the realization that you were gay?
No, but it helped having somebody to talk to. I knew that there was something different about me, but I just didn't have the words for it. When I saw Personal Best I finally figured out what the word was. I was absolutely and totally convinced of it. I didn't need any convincing. It was great to have somebody older and gay that I could talk to about my feelings. She was really helpful, and probably the only real adult that I had talked to [about it].
At 13, was Joan your first crush, or did you interest in other girls as well? Were you attracted to any guys ever?
No, I had a lot of crushes growing up. I never really had any interest in guys. I can think of maybe one or two crushes on guys that I had when I was a kid and they were all gay. [Laughs.] I wouldn't say that they were feminine, but they had a real softness to them. I also had crushes on girls from the time I can remember. Usually my crushes were on older women, but I didn't know that they were crushes. I just really liked being around them.
Joan was probably one of the first more mature crushes I had, after I realized I was gay, where it was a very conscious attraction. At that time I was just figuring out my sexual orientation. Also, I was really hitting puberty [and] was having more mature sexual feelings versus the childlike feelings of really liking being around certain people but not knowing what it meant. With Joan, I could identify that there was a real attraction. There was a distinctive difference between my feelings for her and the other crushes that I had.
What was the initial attraction to Joan? Since you basically grew up around Joan and this was someone you knew for so long, I am wondering if it was a physical attraction or was it that she cared so much about you, or was it a combination of both?
The night that I talk about in my book -- where I am at the party -- that was when it first hit me that something [had] changed in the way that I saw her. After that, because of the physical attraction, knowing that she was gay and thinking that this is somebody that I can relate to and talk to, we became really good friends. My feelings for her ran very deep from a very young age. People who have never read the book say to me, "you guys weren't even a couple for that long why was it so difficult when she died?" It was because we had this unbelievably intense relationship, that if we had never become lovers and she had died I would have been devastated -- absolutely devastated -- because she was a real constant in my life: somebody that I could always count on, was always there for me, loved me unconditionally and a wonderful friend. I had all that with her plus I had this physical attraction to her as well. The core of our friendship meant the world to me. So when she died it wasn't just like losing a lover that I had been with for a year and a half. I had known her my whole life, she had always meant so much to me and she was such a sacred person in my life.
Is there anything that you would say to somebody going through a loss like this at a young age like you had?
Yes, I would. I think that the one mistake I made during that time was that I really didn't take care of myself at all. All my focus was on Joan, so when she died I had nothing. I had no support system set up for me whatsoever. Here I had been putting all my energy into this person and one day she's just not there and so I still had all this energy but I had no idea what to do with it. I think that had I gotten into a support group or therapy while she was sick and cared a little bit about my own mental health, it might have been a little bit easier.
When you first started your relationship with Joan, were you afraid of how your parents might react knowing that this was one of your mother's friends?
No. When I was 18 I didn't even think about my parents. There was no way that they were going to find out -- it was a kiss and that's it. Then, when we ended up getting together, I was nervous to tell my mom because this was her friend of many years. My mom took it great. I think she was actually happy about it because she didn't like the relationship I was in before and she didn't like the way I was being treated. She knew what a great person Joan was and she knew that I would [be] treated well and cared for. I think that is all my mom ever cared about as far as the women I have gone out with -- how they treat me. The one thing that she said was that she thought it would be a good life experience because of the age difference and because of what she thought I could learn from Joan. Knowing Joan as well as she did and knowing what a kind and sweet person she was, she knew how much she had to offer me. Up until Joan died it was an unbelievable life lesson for me in what unconditional love is all about.
Do you think being with someone so much older accelerated your personal growth and make you mature a little quicker?
No. Not really. We were on a very similar level in most areas because Joan never worked or dealt with adult responsibilities. She had a real childlike quality to her. I think, if anything, she got me to be less serious than I had been before. She taught me how to really enjoy life. I was already very mature for my age and if anything she helped bring out the kid in me.
Do you think you will ever love someone with the same intensity as you had for Joan?
It's really hard to compare. I spent a lot of years doing that: comparing every relationship. I was such a different person then, so young and innocent and untouched by life at that point, that I could never have the kind of relationship with anybody that I had with Joan. I am a different person. It has nothing to do with the partner. I never felt so free and happy-go-lucky with anybody as I did with Joan and I know that I won't because I'm just not that person anymore. I think that, in the relationship that I'm in now, I am deeply in love and it's the first time that I haven't had Joan there in the way she was in all the other relationships. Prior to my relationship with Stasie, whenever things got tough or were going wrong, I always went back to thinking how great things were with Joan, and if Joan were alive, this wouldn't be happening. I finally broke that. It was really unhealthy and not fair.
How has Joan's death, in addition to your father's tragic death a few years later, changed the way you value your life and life in general?
It was really hard for a long time. I really had a bad [out]look on life. For many years after Joan's death I thought how messed up life can be. It took me a lot of years to deal with and get past it. It didn't have the effect of: Life is short so let me make the best of it. It just made me feel: Life is pain and what's the point.?
How long did it take for you to get over her death?
To get over the real intense pain of it took about a little over six years. I've had two good years up until now. As far as being over it, I don't think you ever get over something like that. I still have the sadness about it. I still miss her to this day and I still feel robbed to this day but I don't carry it around with me in the same way.
What did you do or stop doing in order to reach that point?
I finally stopped trying to mask it with things. I used pretty much anything I could, whether it was prescriptions, medication, work, or relationships. Work was a big one. I completely focused on my career and shut down the personal side of me. I tried covering it up at any cost and heal and get the right type of support setting and the right type of therapeutic avenues I needed.
Was it hard to write about such a painful time in your life? Did it bring back any intense feelings of anger or depression?
The thing that was really difficult for me to write about -- and brought back feelings and made me sad afterwards -- was talking about the good times that we had. Writing about our relationship before she got sick was much more difficult.
In your book, you also discuss your band Ceremony and your first record deal. Where did you get the inspiration for writing your music?
At that time our greatest inspiration was probably the Beatles, because both myself and Rachel and our producer who we wrote a lot of the songs with and some of the guys that played on our album that we wrote with, the one thing we all had in common was that we loved the Beatles, so I would say that they were probably the greatest influence of our music.
Trying to establish your own career as a musician, and being the daughter of Sonny and Cher, did you ever feel you were at a disadvantage because you had to prove your own talent out of their shadow?
It was hopeless. We could not get away from them. It's still that way but it took me doing something that they haven't done in order to get what little bit of separate recognition I have. Every single article that was written about us compared our music to theirs. Whether it was positive or negative didn't matter. It was just opposed to my parents and I always felt really uncomfortable with that, especially when we were doing live shows because we went on tour before our record came out and the only reason there was for people to show up was pure curiosity because they hadn't heard anything. I always felt like I was being dissected when I was on stage and I never felt comfortable and never felt the kind of high that I thought you were supposed to feel on stage. Ironically, when I started pubic speaking and lecturing like I do now, I do get that feeling and the feedback from the audience I was hoping to get back then, but I was always too uncomfortable.
How involved were your parents in your music career? Did they ever give you an input, advice?
Not creatively. We would go to my mom for advice on the business side of the record industry. She knew our producer. He was a friend of my parents for years and years so I knew him when I was growing up. We used to talk to my mom about that a lot and also how to deal with the record company and management. She was very helpful with that but we never talked about the creative side of things. She loved our music and was always very supportive of it, but it would have been inappropriate of her to try to put her two cents in and she has a good sense to know that.
As someone born to two individuals successful in the entertainment industry among other things, what things do you feel you've inherited from them?
Their drive to put out the best. I can't think of a more eloquent word than guts. Neither one of them graduated high school, and even if they didn't know how to do something they would take the opportunities presented to them. They never allowed fear to get in the way and this is the way I've always been.
How do you feel the publishing industry differs from the record industry?
You cannot compare the two. They are like two different worlds. The publishing industry is great. I've worked with two different publishers [and] the experience with both was great, whereas the record company is sleazy. It's almost as if they expect you to give them your first born in order to play your records.
People seem to be very curious about your childhood. You have stated that there are many misconceptions about what your life was like growing up. What do you feel is one of the more major misconceptions?
I am sure a lot of people get what I do but just on a different level. Like if you run into a co-worker of your mother's and they tell you how great your mom is. Or maybe, you are being compared constantly to an older sibling or you feel you need to compete with them in school. For me, it's just that, magnified 100 times. When I was younger I felt I was in competition with my parents. But I went to Las Vegas last week to see my mom's show which spans her whole career: nearly four decades. Seeing her, I thought: Well there is just no way I can compete with this. There are only a handful of individuals of our time that have had a career like hers, and have survived and reinvented themselves like she has.
[In the book] you mentioned that when you attended NYC School of Performing Arts, other students started rumors that the only reason you were accepted to the school was because your mother bought the school new equipment. How did you deal with this? How did it make you feel?
It felt terrible. I think what happened was I was sheltered in L.A. New York was a different thing. I was in a NYC public school. I was kind of a novelty. Once the novelty wore off, I was just another freshman.
Were you surprised with how well both of your books were received by the public?
I am very happy with the feedback. I am thrilled anytime someone says they read my book and liked it. Whenever anybody tells me I've inspired them, I am happy.
Can you see yourself writing any other types of books other than autobiographical accounts, like maybe a novel or biography?
There is a children's series I am thinking about. Also I have thought about writing books on public issues or books that can help others without my own personal story attached.
Do you have any other aspirations right now aside from writing?
Producing films. I would really like to see End of Innocence made into a movie. Aside from that, there is one project my mother and I would like to work on together which may happen in the future.
I heard your mother say in an interview back in the day when you were studying film at NYU, that you had aspirations to become a director. Is this still something you would like to do?
No. I would really like to do some producing. I have no interest in being a director anymore. I'm just not a visual person.
What about screenwriting?
Writing is a lot different. It's creativity. As for screenwriting, not alone, but with someone, If End of Innocence were to be turned into a movie, I would definitely like to be a part of it.
You mentioned your plans to write another book. Would you like to talk about that?
My next book is going to start pretty much where this book left off. It will [begin] with my father's death and go into my childhood. There has always been so much curiosity about my childhood and what it was like growing up with my parents. It's going to contain a lot of personal material.
In your opinion, what does it take to be a good writer?
I really don't know. I think writing is a skill you are born with. It doesn't have anything to do with intelligence. I believe it's a God-given talent. You either have the aptitude for it or you don't. I mean, you can improve the writing skills you have but you are either born with the aptitude or not.
Are there any weaknesses you believe you need to overcome as an author?
Not for the style of writing I've done so far. I've done what I feel really comfortable with, which is, telling my story by giving the most honest account of my experience and how I remember it. I am pretty comfortable with writing the types of books that I have written. If I were to write a novel or something like that, then I would need some assistance in putting it together. | October 2002
Nicole Malliotakis holds a B.A. in communications from Seton Hall University and is a freelance writer for various magazines. She has worked in the media relations department of the National Lacrosse League and Staten Island Borough President's Office. Currently, she is negotiating a proposal for a book on the entertainer Cher with a number of publishing houses.