NEW YORK -- Oh where oh where can Cher be?

Still at MTV, introducing her new video. The one where she wears a black garter belt and rubs her lean, see-through bodysuit against her lean, real-life 23-year-old boyfriend who wears an earring and looks like Sylvester Stallone.

You wait in the empty lobby of Morgan's, a trendy art deco hotel, for 40 minutes, hoping the hip Perry Ellis-type doorman doesn't think you're some wacko casing the joint or worse, some groupie, and by the time La Cher does arrive, a young PR woman has confided why she likes the star so much. "She's so, so ... ," searching for the right word, "centered."

She breezes through the door, wearing a silky black jacket over an "Invasion of the Elvis Zombies" T-shirt, her huge almond eyes peeking through an oversized tangled mop of inky-black Rastafarian kink, her porcelain skin dusted with Gold Medal flour and her lips a pale lavender.

The embalmed look.

Her face has the bored, blank stare of a heavy-metal prom queen. Somebody who, at 41, has been publicly and privately cool, not to mention hyperfamous, for more than two decades. It's the same look she used to give Sonny, her ex-husband, when she put him down on their television show every week and so begat the modern wimp.

But if you think you know Cher, you don't. Sure, there's the nose job. And the tattoos. And the breast lifts. And the younger men who came and went with the regularity of summer colds. Addicted to excess, she gave "tacky" new meaning. But the glitzy, trash 'n' flash TV Cher is merely an invention. Scratch the surface and you find a thoughtful, rather shy artist. With a sly, self-deprecating wit. Very thin, and yes, very centered; somewhere behind that Bob Wackie expose-your-navel public persona and the insouciant celebrity is a sweat-suited mother of two who likes her couch as much as the rest of America.

And with her latest film, "Suspect," which opened last week, she has shown once again that while she still may be a cartoon, she is also a gifted actress. Something her friends and insiders in Hollywood have known for years. Something it has taken her a lifetime to prove.

For now, though, she is a concerned mother. Her 11-year-old son Elijah Blue has a fever. She walks through the lobby with her arm draped about his neck. He stares up at her adoringly, his cheeks the hue of Ida Red apples. He is eerily reminiscent of his father, the equally hip rock keyboardist Gregg Allman, who was married to Cher for five minutes back in 1975.

She moves to the elevator, surrounded by an entourage that includes her Stallone-clone boyfriend -- the one she met in the disco, the one who was making bagels before she put him in her video -- and various publicity people. The elevator is small. Eight people are squished in.

"Why is this so red? Did you have an earring in here?" Cher is stroking Elijah's cheek and examining his right earlobe. Her hands are pale, with unvarnished nails and long tapered fingers and a sparkly diamond, or maybe rhinestone, ring.

"Yes," Elijah answers.

"Did you clean it?"

"No."

The two are talking softly while the elevator ascends. Cher keeps fingering the infected earlobe as any suburban mother would examine her son's latest boo-boo. Only this time it's Cher and the boo-boo is the result of a pierced ear.

"You have to clean it, honey."

His face is flushed and Cher stares down at this cherubic offspring and in that instant, they look frozen in a grainy Helmut Newton Gothic tableau: punk Madonna and child.

Later she will relate the story, in halting cadence, of the time her son came home in tears and said the mother of one of his playmates had called Cher "a whore."

The elevator stops. The group moves toward the penthouse suite she's rented (her Manhattan apartment's being renovated) and she takes Elijah aside. They talk for a minute, then Cher says laughingly, "What is your hair anyway?" She ruffles the blond locks. "It's not spiked, it's not flat."

He gives her that universal "Oh mom" look. She seizes his face in her hands. She is suddenly serious. "You think I'm trying to run your life, don't you?"

"Yes."

"I'm sorry."

Don't worry. Cher hasn't changed that much. If Betty Ford ever opens an annex for shopping addicts and exhibitionists, Cher would probably be a charter member. But better shopping than drugs, right? (She's never done them.) Better showing your navel than studying it. If Cher was, and is, addicted to anything, it's attention. It's not that she's taking herself more seriously now, it's just another level of attention she's after.

"After you're famous for a really long time and you're looking at what you've been famous for, it isn't that satisfying. I mean, I have to say I really enjoyed 'The Sonny and Cher Show.' I had a really good time on it. It was a lot of fun. I enjoyed singing. But it stopped at a certain place."

Mainly it stopped when Cher decided to divorce Sonny. "You'll never work again," he threatened her. The country would hate her, he warned, for breaking up America's sweetheart duo. But if the country hated Cher, they loved to read about her. When she was bad, she was very, very good.

Yes, she says now, she knew she was a freak. "Because of my life style and because of the press and because being one of those kinds of people that's like real quotable and does bizarre things, or looks like they do bizarre things, even if you're not doing anything bizarre."

So, like, how is she?

"I'm all right. I think I'm holding up remarkably well for a woman my age," she quips, falling into a gray deco sofa in the spare, high-tech penthouse suite. She hops up to fetch a V-8 and returns, propping her perfect, suede-booted feet on the cushions.

There is some discussion about running behind. The press is stacked up like La Guardia. Everyone's waiting to land. "Can we just push everybody a tiny bit?" she says, very nicely, to the nice PR lady, who agrees and silently goes off in search of food.

"ELIJAH," Cher yells.

"Yeah," her son answers from one floor below.

"Sweetheart, you can play the guitar. Go in my room and shut the door."

There is the muffled sound of nylon guitar strings being strummed.

She settles back. Is she nervous about "Suspect"?

"I guess I'm nervous about all films that come out." Her first film, Robert Altman's "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," was followed by her acclaimed supporting role in "Silkwood," her brilliant, if unappreciated, turn in "Mask" and her wacky performance in "The Witches of Eastwick."

"But I don't really want to be nervous. I just don't think it does any good. I'd like people to like it."

In "Suspect," she plays Kathleen Riley, a workaholic Washington public defender who risks her career to exonerate a deaf and mute Vietnam veteran accused of murder and in the meantime falls for a handsome juror played by Dennis ("The Big Easy") Quaid.

"I called him 'Scum.' I don't know why. Because he's so charming and all the women were crazy about him. I called him either 'Crud' or 'Scum.' " She laughs easily.

Another film -- "Moonstruck," directed by Norman Jewison -- will open next month. In it, Cher plays a dowdy, gray-haired Brooklyn accountant.

Yes, she says, people are still surprised that she can act.

"People take you more by the way you look, still, than by even the products you put out. I don't think you can stay popular, forever, as long as I have, and not have to finally come up with some kind of talent."

She leans forward. "People call me a 'serious actress.' I don't like the words 'serious actress,' but I am serious about my acting and I'm serious about my work. I don't take myself so seriously I can't laugh at myself. Some people I've met, not the coolest people or the most talented, take themselves so seriously it's really ridiculous. All I do is just a job. It's a cool job, granted, but it's just a job."

She fiddles with the catch on her gold Rolex. The one with the diamond bezel. "It's an artistic expression ... I think that the way I dress, I don't expect people to like it or dislike it. I don't expect any kind of reaction."

But there were calls for the oxygen tent when she arrived at the Academy Awards last year in a diaphanous black Bob Mackie costume and crow-feather plumage. It was her way of thumbing her nose at the community for failing to nominate her for Best Actress for her role in "Mask." Her boyfriend at the time, Joshua Donen, son of director Stanley Donen, encouraged her to attend.

"I was really upset about not being nominated and then I thought, I can't go to the Academy Awards. Joshua's father was producing it. He said, 'Would you come and make a presentation?' " She mutters an expletive under her breath. "First I said no. Then I said yes. That can be fun. I can enjoy that. But I thought, I'm not gonna go in a little black dress. I'm gonna go as the me that they didn't like."

The biggest misconception about her, she says, is "that people take the dichotomies about me and believe both of them at the same time. That I'm really superficial and flighty, or that I'm really broody and moody." Actually, her real persona "falls on both of those areas and also a lot in between."

Does she like being famous?

"I kind of like it, yeah," she says with a small smile. "I'm kind of used to it. Sometimes it's a real pain, but I kind of like it because" -- her voice trails off -- "it gets me into the movies without standing in line."

She fiddles with her sparkly ring. "There is kind of a satisfaction I get, walking down the street sometimes and like, knowing that people know me. Or like me. I kind of like it. It's really weird, but when I walk into some place it's like people know me and they know me really well."

Yet she doesn't enjoy crowds all that much, and walking into unfamiliar terrain fills her with dread. The fear is "not measuring up to people's expectations. Or I feel a responsibility to be 'on' and then I'm not having a good time. It's like I'm working the room."

The negative part of her image, she thinks, grows from her restlessness. She has never stayed the same for very long.

"I get really bored easily. And also, I don't remember where I ever read that people can't change."

By now, we already know that Cher started out as Cherilyn Sarkisian in El Centro, Calif. Her mother, sometime singer Georgia Holt, married eight times -- three times to Cher's father, who at best can be called "absentee." At the age of 16, she left home and met Sonny Bono, then 23. The next year, 1965, they recorded a little song Sonny had written called "I Got You, Babe." It sold 4 million copies. With their bell-bottoms and boots, their wisecracking, world-weary demeanor and their daughter named Chastity, they became a sort of hip '60s American Gothic.

"He was real childish. We got along great," she says. But the relationship soured as Cher began to mature. "He wasn't interested in me growing older. He was interested in me staying exactly the same. So the more I tried to become me, the less he liked it and the more controlling he tried to be."

After 10 years, they are scheduled to be reunited for the first time on "Late Night With David Letterman" next month.

"It was my idea," says Cher. "Knowing Sonny's sense of humor, he'll think it's a great idea too." They will not, however, do any singing.

Sonny, a restaurant owner, is running for mayor of Palm Springs, Calif. He and Cher don't talk, though "we're really not enemies." He's just kind of mad "because I've said negative things about him in the press. I said positive things for so long, I just got tired of it. Also, when Chas was young I never wanted to say anything mean about him.

"It's like Gregory," she says, referring to her second husband. "At one time I was really in love with him and I realized it was a huge mistake on my part. It wasn't his fault. Anyone with a brain could have seen that. With Sonny, I was crazy about him when I met him. We were great friends. I don't think we should have been married. We were such good working partners, and yet the work and the marriage got so entangled that even when one wasn't good, we could go out and be great together because we had a really great time working."

So Cher was a better actress than anyone imagined?

"In some aspects. I thought maybe it was just me. I couldn't be happy. I needed a lot of diversion."

Her exploits were much reported; the closets full of bugle-beaded gowns, the shoe collection to rival Imelda Marcos', the neon sign that blinked CHER ... CHER ... CHER ... over the fireplace of her 31-room Tudor mansion.

At the time of the split, Sonny was quoted as saying, "I lost it all."

"We were much better friends than we were married partners," she says. "I could read his mind. It's like people who work the trapeze. They don't have a net, they have their partner."

Cher once told Rolling Stone magazine that men are luxuries. "You can have poundcake or you can have chocolate mousse pie. They're both desserts, but one is so much more fun."

"I really feel that way," she says now. "I don't dislike them. I'm really crazy about them. I just don't think you need a man to survive."

No, she says, Sonny "wasn't exactly poundcake. He was different things at different times. He still remains the most interesting person I've ever met."

She went from Sonny to record producer David Geffen to Gregg Allman, drug addict and cofounder of the Allman Brothers Band. They married June 30, 1975, five days after her divorce from Sonny. Nine days later, she filed for a separation. A month later, they reunited. A year after their son was born, they legally separated. Her list of desserts grew longer: Gene Simmons (of the rock group Kiss); actor Val Kilmer; Les Dudek, with whom she formed a rock group in 1980 (Black Rose); actor John Heard.

It would be safe to say that she has weird taste in men.

"I think I do. At least eclectic taste ... I think I see things in men that other people don't see."

She met her current chocolate mousse, Robert Camilletti, last year. "He was making bagels." She had turned 40 and had gone dancing at Heartbreak, the Manhattan disco. "I saw him and I said, 'God that guy is so beautiful. Look at his eyes.' I thought if he was an actor, if he was talented at all, having those eyes would be really great."

She met up with him again three months later. "I didn't expect that we would be boyfriend and girlfriend at all," she says, rather innocently. "We talked in this suite in those chairs." She points across the room. "He was telling me he really wanted to study acting because he didn't really like what he was doing and didn't really know what he wanted to do ..."

Is she considering marriage? "I don't really want to settle down."

She says she doesn't know what happened between her and Josh Donen, "my most serious relationship since being married."

"I still really love Joshua and I see him all the time. I just didn't want to be with him anymore as a girlfriend."

Does she fall in love easily?

"I don't think so. Also, I don't date. Usually by the time I've decided to go out with somebody, I already know them and have seen them."

She believes in monogamy. "Let's say, if I left Robert for another guy that I saw tomorrow, eventually I would hope for the same kind of relationship that I've already got. I can only be with one person at a time."

She has traditionally done the leaving, though she says quietly, "I've been left once."

She twists the diamond ring nervously.

"I'd much rather do the leaving than be left. They're both pretty hard, but it hurts a little bit more to be left. Somebody pointed out that my relationships last two years. I don't know what's lacking in me."

She takes a swig of V-8. "I've been thinking about this heavily lately. Like, I don't really wanna do it anymore. I'm getting a little bit tired. I really like the men I've been with. I've had great experiences with them, but the list is getting long. I would like to have the facility to settle down a little bit more.

"I don't dislike the idea of marriage. I'm afraid that what I would do with it was, I would get married and the moment I was married have to get divorced because I would feel, like, tied up or tied in. Because both of my marriages were not that much fun."

She crosses her legs. "I wanna be married to just a person."

Does she mean a normal person? A noncelebrity?

"Robert and I went out once, in the public eye, and he was astounded. He couldn't get over it. These people almost killed each other to take our picture. He said, 'I don't really like this very much, Cher. I like the other part better.' I can understand that. I like the other part better, too."

Cher once told an interviewer that Cher was something she invented.

"We all invent ourselves," she says now. "It's just how creative you can be."

She stares out the window at the Manhattan skyline. "I know that the me that I like is almost never the me that you see. The me that I like walks around in sweat pants with no makeup. The other me that I like too is the one who went on the Academy Awards and said, 'Here, take this.' "

She smiles. "I like having that kind of guts."

Ask Cher about her children, and her face lights up. "My daughter's kind of more pragmatic. She's artistic, but very level-headed. He's very artistic and very flighty."

They divide their time between a house in Los Angeles and her downtown apartment. Chastity is a freshman at NYU. Elijah has taken up the guitar.

"When I look at him, it's his father walking. I swear to God. Like I had nothing to do with it. I just carried the package. He is his father. He's a lot me, too. He thinks he's so cool, but he's still so naive. He has almost a genius IQ, skipped a grade and is like at the top of his class and yet he won't do his homework so he's going to fail one of his classes ... This is his rationale. 'If I get 90s on all my tests, then it means I know what I'm doing so why should I do my homework?'

"So I said, 'You have to do the homework because it builds character.' "

Cher herself suffers from a learning disability, a form of dyslexia. Last year she was given an award by Washington's Lab School for her achievement despite her handicap. "This is the first time I've gotten an award for being a dummy," she quipped.

"At MTV today they wanted me to read stuff off a teleprompter; I couldn't do it. I can't read it that fast."

It's not easy, she admits, having a celebrity for a mother. "Chastity's used to it, but if people say bad things about their parents, it's hard."

And then there was that time Elijah came home from school and told her that the mother of one of his friends had called her a whore. She winces at the memory. "I said to Elijah, 'Does his mother know me?' He said, 'No.' I said, 'Well, do you know me?' He said, 'Yes.' I said, 'What do you think?' He said, 'She's wrong.'

"I said, 'Look, you know who I am and I know who I am and other people can just make up their minds as to who I am."

But also, she says with a smile, "he'll be talking on the telephone and I'll hear him call out: 'MOM THIS GUY WANTS TO TALK TO YOU HE DOESN'T BELIEVE YOU'RE MY MOTHER!' "