Tuesday, July 16, 2002 | 8:13 a.m.
Phil Costa was down to his last chance.
The 42-year-old contestant from Phoenix had erred while answering Cher Questions No. 1 and 2.
Though a Cher fan since 1971, Costa didn't know the working title for Cher's 1979 album "Prisoner."
Nor did he know the name of the fitness book Cher co-wrote in 1990.
So when he blurted "Heart of Stone," the correct answer to Cher Question No. 3, he received a vigorous round of applause from the audience.
More importantly, he retained his seat in the "Cher Trivia" game.
And so it continued in the dimly lit Riviera convention room.
For nearly an hour Cher questions were fired off to surprisingly knowledgeable contestants: "Which candidate for president did Sonny & Cher support in 1968?" "Who designs the interiors of Cher's homes?" "Who read Cher's name when she won an Oscar?"
"Cher Trivia" was just one of the highlights at last weekend's Cher Convention 2002 at the Riviera, where Cher fans from throughout the country converged to purchase Cher's clothes and Cher memorabilia, dance to Cher music and sit through Cher seminars.
Fans watched Cher impersonators sing Cher hits, sat through a live recreation of "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour" and over dinner confessed to each other their longtime feelings for the star.
Though the convention's turnout paled in comparison to the Cher convention held in Chicago two years ago (because of Sept. 11 and the fact that Cher is on tour, organizers say), fans were not disappointed. Many found the kinship they sought.
Mary Ladd, a 32-year-old Los Angeles resident and host of "Cher Trivia," said the conventions are a release for many diehard Cher fans who keep their deep affections for the star muzzled in their day-to-day lives.
"It's not always PC in the real world," Ladd said referring to the intense Cher fanship displayed by the conventioneers.
Here, she said, "They can be Cher nerds."
Ladd, who writes and edits the pop culture Web magazine apeculture.com, has been following Cher's career since 1975. At the Chicago convention she led fans through such games as "Name that Cher Tune" and "Cher Bingo."
The winner of "Cher Trivia," a game that she assembled, would garner the title of Master Cher Scholar of the United States. Losers were sent offstage while being insulted by a Cher impersonator (quoting a line from a Cher movie of the losing contestant's choosing).
"This is like Cher agony for some people," Ladd said during the game, while a contestant struggled with the answer to "Which department store in Los Angeles did Cher work at as a teen?"
"Cher-gony!" a fan interjected from the audience.
Many fans attending the convention, inluding those who traveled from overseas, struggled breathlessly to explain just why they love Cher so much.
"She's my angel," one said. "She's a legend," said another.
Others referred to the Grammy- and Oscar-winning performer, who has taken multiple hits from the media during her four-decade career, as a survivor and a source of inspiration.
Ladd simply said that Cher is never boring, she is often unpredictable and always sincere.
Sincerity is what won the diva over among representatives and members of the Children's Craniofacial Association(CCA), a handful who happened to be at the convention.
Cher became national spokeswoman for the Dallas nonprofit organization after starring in the 1985 movie "Mask," and has befriended children who have facial differences, including Scott Guzzo, an 18-year-old from Evansville, Ind., who was born with Crane-Heisi Syndrome.
Guzzo and his family attended both Cher conventions as VIP guests and have met the star on a few occasions. Cher sent flowers to the teen this year when he was ill.
"She's not the diva, not the megastar with these kids," Paula Guzzo, mother of Scott, said while flipping through a photo album of Cher and her son. "She's their friend."
Supporting a Cher cause
Knowing of Cher's interest in the association, Cher fans decided that the conventions should serve as a benefit for CCA. At the Chicago ("Cher-cago") convention more than $20,000 was raised for the association.
Fans had no problem shelling out money for the cause this year.
"We wanted to say 'thank you' to Cher for all the years she has given us," said Darla Kramer, who flew from Baltimore to attend the convention and help raise funds for CCA. "This was the best way we knew how."
Kramer arrived in Las Vegas three days early to avoid any chance of missing the convention. She missed the Chicago convention when her flight was delayed due to inclement weather.
"I cried all week because I missed it," Kramer said from the check-out register at the convention where she was buying Cher T-shirts and pens that read "Have a great Cher day."
The stay-at-home mom and "devoted fan" of 32 years was joined by her friend Kathy Vysoky, a hospital switchboard operator from Chicago who last week flew to Baltimore to meet Kramer in person for the first time.
As with many of the fans at the convention, the two met three years ago in a Cher chatroom and became Internet friends who were connected by their love for Cher. The friends flew together from Baltimore to Las Vegas.
"We've just been laughing ever since," Kramer said. "It's been awesome just to be with people who love Cher as much as I do."
Vysoky, a 20-year-fan, said her friends in Chicago don't share the same enthusiasm for the superstar.
"They don't understand," she said.
Indebted to Cher
In an attempt to shed light on what it's like to be devoted to Cher, Chelsea Recicar, a 46-year-old fan from Orlando, Fla., said she started writing a book three years ago about Cher titled, "Fan of A Messy Icon."
"It's a story about what it's like to be a Cher fan," Recicar said while selling homemade Cher magnets from a table in the convention hall. "I have been defending Cher for 31 years.
"I stuck with her through it all. Even the famous infomercials."
As with other fans attending the convention, Recicar's fanship has a story attached that began when Recicar was young.
"When I was 15, Sonny and Cher came out," Recicar said, referring to the couple's television variety show.
"I had a very bad childhood. My home situation was very bad at the time. Wednesday nights when the show came on was the only time I was happy.
"Ever since then I've followed her career."
It is because of Cher that Chad Michaels has a career.
The 31-year-old from San Diego has been impersonating Cher throughout the country since 1992. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to the singer/actress, he performed Cher hits at the convention and mingled with fans.
Michaels said he met the star last year at a benefit in Malibu, Calif., where he warmed the audience up for Cher.
"She was so sweet and completely kind to me," he said. "I'm very grateful to her ... She's given me my life."