Margaret Cho is an open book. She wears her past mistakes and disappointments as a badge of honor, completely unafraid to speak her mind. In short she gave me the kind of interview that I live for. An honest and unabashedly self-assured celebrity can be about as rare as a flawless and colorless five karat diamond. But they make my job worth doing.
Perhaps I should not have been surprised by Ms. Cho’s candor. After all, this is the same woman who has shared with millions of people, the ups and downs and ins and outs (so to speak) of discovering her sexual identity, as well as her past body image issues, in excruciating and hilarious detail. In turn, Cho found her authentic voice, a voice that was briefly stifled in the early days of her career when she tried her best to fit the mold of a generic Hollywood starlet. Made to feel ashamed of her natural size and ethnicity by studio bigwigs, Margaret Cho hit an emotional and physical wall. Never one to stay defeated, she gathered her thoughts and came out swinging using a microphone as her weapon of choice.
Margaret Cho has found a sense of inner peace by living her life outside the status quo. Her stand up comedy (including her current tour, Beautiful) is the natural by-product of a road less traveled, and of Cho’s reverence for living life on her own terms despite potential negative labels. As a result some people love her and some people hate her, but no one is ever bored by her.
Margaret Cho’s new reality show on VH1, The Cho Show, is full of outrageous and endearing characters, including her parents, whom she has immortalized in her act since the early nineties. The show’s underlying theme is self love and self acceptance, which I applaud her for.
PR.com (Allison Kugel): You’ve talked a lot about your negative experiences with network television from years ago. Did you ever think you would take the leap back into television?
Margaret Cho: Yeah. I always thought there would be something. I had gained a lot of experience and learned a lot about production. I was a producer, and I’m a director and a screenwriter. I was just preparing for what I could do. Now having all of this experience behind the camera, it really helps to learn how to edit too. So, I just felt like there would be a place for me there.
PR.com: Is that the kind of creative control you have right now with The Cho Show?
Margaret Cho: Yes. I have a tremendous amount of creative control. I am a producer, I’m the creator of the show, and I’m the person that everything has to get ok’d through (laughs). It’s really a good feeling.
PR.com: And how did you get your parents to agree to be on the show?
Margaret Cho: They are so sweet and they always want to help me. They’ve always wanted to help, but they didn’t know how. So, this was really great, because this is the perfect opportunity for them to actually help me out. They were so into doing it. I was excited!
PR.com: I finally realize why you’ve put them in your act for so long. They are so funny without realizing they’re being funny.
Margaret Cho: Yeah, they’re really cute.
PR.com: What do your parents think of your public persona?
Margaret Cho: I think they’re a little shocked by it, and a little bit taken aback by it sometimes because it’s so foreign to their culture. Korean culture is very puritanical and super secretive. They never talk about, like, sex or anything [like that] in mixed company. Even in segregated company you don’t talk about things. They’re very, very much about image and status and everything looking a certain way. I think it’s hard for my parents sometimes to accept what I do, but they love it.
PR.com: Do you think that growing up in what you describe as a puritanical, status conscious atmosphere is what you’re rebelling against today?
Margaret Cho: Absolutely. Because I grew up in this very repressed environment, I just want to be rebellious, and I want to talk about all the things that I do and be very honest about it.
PR.com: What I love about your career, and I think what most people love about you, is that you’re brave enough to be yourself in everything that you do.
Margaret Cho: I think that’s really important and I guess people respond to that. That bravery is what people respond to. For a long time I was the first Asian person people saw on TV, and someone who was talking about gay stuff. So, because of that, my presence was so important. It’s not because I was so good, but because I was brave.
PR.com: Speaking of your sexuality, you confuse me because you come off as very androgynous in your sexual orientation. You talk about guys, you talk about girls and you talk about experiences with both. Is that really who you are, and are you bisexual?
Margaret Cho: Yes. But then that’s sort of false because I am probably more connected to or attracted to transgender people. So, I would be more than bi. To say bisexual is saying that there’s only two kinds of gender. I really like transgenders (laughs).
PR.com: So, you’re trisexual (laughs).
Margaret Cho: Yeah. But, when I say that, then people think it’s a joke. It’s not (laughs)! It’s actually my life! Transgender people are people who feel that they were born in the wrong body, and so their life is about transforming into the body that they feel comfortable and good in. So, those are people who get gender re-assignment surgery. That’s part of it. That’s not always transgender, but that experience is always different and everybody’s different, but I would say bisexuality would be a limiting term.
PR.com: Does that mean that there’s no marriage or family for you down the road?
Margaret Cho: No, I’m married. I’ve been married for a long time. I’ve been with my husband for ten years and he’s a biological male. I’ve been with him for ten years and we’ve been married for six. But, when I talk about experiences on stage they’re really sort of things that I have been through, because I went through seriously slutty phases. So, those are things that happened before my marriage.
PR.com: Just wanting to experiment…
Margaret Cho: Well, just falling in love every day with somebody new, which was kind of my life until I met my husband, and then it was just about him.
PR.com: And your parents obviously want grandkids. Do you want to have kids?
Margaret Cho: I don’t know. I love children. I think that it’s an idea, but I don’t know if I’m ready for it. And I’m getting older too, so I don’t know if that’s something that I want. I’m not sure. And I don’t want to be unsure, you know? That’s something that you should be sure of.
PR.com: As far as your body issues and a lot of the yo-yo dieting that you’ve been through, and even being put through the ringer with a lot of the powers-that-be in Hollywood, it seems as though you’ve really overcome a lot of it. Do you still struggle with your body image?
Margaret Cho: No. I feel really good with where I’m at physically, and also mentally, about it. I feel like now is the time to really try to help other people with it. I almost died. I was super anorexic. It wasn’t even yo-yo dieting for me. I would just not eat for weeks, and I would just be so sick that I would have to be hospitalized. You don’t have to be 87lbs. to be anorexic either. You can still be sick and be dying, and people wouldn’t know. Anorexia is a really horrible disease and it’s totally deadly. It needs to be treated like cancer or AIDS, or anything terminal.
PR.com: There are a lot of famous women in Hollywood, without naming names, who are so skinny. They say that they eat and obviously they’re eating something because they’re alive, but you can tell that their body is in starvation mode. You can tell that they’re barely eating enough to survive. So, I guess that would be considered a form of anorexia as well.
Margaret Cho: And that’s the norm in Hollywood. That sort of body and that sort of consciousness around the body where you feel like you can’t eat. That’s just the status quo. And that to me is really frightening.
PR.com: You’ve talked quite a bit about growing up with no Asian role models to look up to in show business. You were kind of a pioneer in that respect. Do you see yourself as somebody who filled that hole where there was something missing?
Margaret Cho: Yeah, because people recognize, in this whole journey, that I was the first Asian-American person they had seen with a TV show, or the first Asian-American person they’d seen doing stand-up comedy. That’s a really powerful thing. I think when you see images of yourself out there in the media, people who look like you, you really feel like you matter. You feel like you exist. That’s a huge thing for people!
PR.com: Were Asians not on television or not in movies because they couldn’t get parts at one point, or because a lot of Asian people weren’t gravitating towards the arts?
Margaret Cho: A combination of things. I think that there is a racism that exists in our industry, certainly. I learned a lot of that. And the way that racism plays out nowadays is not through racial slurs or stereotypes. It’s really through non-inclusion. That’s a very hard thing to maneuver around. So, that is the major contributing factor.
PR.com: Did you ever think about writing scripts for Asian actors?
Margaret Cho: Yes. I directed a film where I had developed the script. It was called Two Sisters and it’s a film about belly dancing. It’s not out yet, but it will be at some point. It’s a film starring Yunjin Kim, Tamlyn Tomita and Kal Penn. That’s something that I spearheaded and wanted to produce and direct. I also wrote a screenplay and produced a film for myself called Bam Bam and Celeste which was sort of my story. Also with The Cho Show, now bringing my family into the picture. So, it’s very much about, for me, bringing different kinds of people to the screen. Like Selene Luna who is Mexican-American and a little person, and really talented and funny. She’s only 3’10” but her personality is so great and huge, you would think she was ten feet tall.
PR.com: Is she really your personal assistant as she is on The Cho Show?
Margaret Cho: Yes. She is my very good friend too. She’s also kind of my muse because I’ve actually made quite a few projects with her, lots of little films and different kinds of things. I’m just really into her.
PR.com: How’d you get into tattoo culture later in life?
Margaret Cho: I really wanted to get them my whole life but I didn’t really start until I was much older because I feel like you shouldn’t really be tattooed until you’re much older because you don’t know who you’re going to be yet. I feel like people aren’t really themselves until they’re thirty. They need to really know who they are before they embark on something that permanent. I have always wanted to be fully tattooed, not just a little bit. I always wanted to have complete bodysuit tattooing. One of the people that raised me outside of my parents is a man named David Forbes. He has a full body tattoo from Ed Hardy, who also tattooed me. Ed Hardy is a family friend and I have always been planning it and have always been inside tattoo culture.
PR.com: You are going for the full bodysuit?
Margaret Cho: Yeah, eventually. I’m gonna stop right now around my knees and… there’s nothing below my elbows. And there’s nothing on my neck. I could wear a v-neck and you could never tell that I have any at all. I’m an actor still, so I do a lot of movies and TV where I’m a judge or like a cop on stuff, so I have to sort of maintain a vanilla exterior (laughs). Everything else is gonna go tattooed.
PR.com: On one episode of The Cho Show, you were about to get an award from the Korean community and you weren’t quite sure if you wanted to accept the award, because in the past they hadn’t been too pleased with you. Where do you stand within the Korean community now?
Margaret Cho: I’m very respected and loved within the Korean community. It took a long time. People didn’t accept me because I was really different. I was talking about sex, and I was a woman and gay, and all this stuff. It was hard for the Korean community which is very conservative, very sexist, very racist and very homophobic. They just did not want to see me or hear from me. But, now a lot of the people who had problems with me are not around anymore and it’s their kids who are really in love with what I do, and that’s really great.
PR.com: What’s the best compliment you’ve ever been paid by a fan?
Margaret Cho: It’s happened a few times where people have said to me, “You’ve helped me reconnect with my family because I’m gay and they didn’t like it, and your films helped me to feel like I can show them who I am and open up that discussion.” I’m really lucky because I get a lot of it too. People really connect with me on that level, so I’m really proud of all of the connections that I make with fans.
PR.com: Putting your lifestyle so out there and being so open with everything, do you get negative input from the right wing religious community?
Margaret Cho: I get death threats on a daily basis. You just kind of go, “Ok, well I spend a lot of money on security.” I have to be very careful, but yeah, I get a lot of death threats.
PR.com: Wow! I was just going to ask if you get some hate mail. But, yet you continue to do what you do…
Margaret Cho: Well, what are you gonna do (laughs)? It kind of comes in waves. In 2003 I was really one of the first people to come out against Bush and really talk about how much he was so bad for the country, so that sort of started it. Back then there was a lot of anger and hatred from the right wing and really anti-gay, anti-woman, and anti-Asian [people]. Because I embody so many different minority groups, there is a lot of hatred directed at me from people who feel like they’ve been wronged by these groups, or they don’t feel like morally these groups are right. So I’m very familiar with hate speech and hatred that way.
PR.com: Did you happen to follow the Democratic National Convention?
Margaret Cho: Yes, I was there. I’m a Barack Obama campaign surrogate. It was the youngest convention I’d ever seen, too. That was what really impressed me. The delegates and everybody out on the floor, and everybody in the street, were so young. That’s just because Obama is really bringing in people who have never voted before, who are so excited that this is their first election. I’ve never seen young people so fired up about politics.
PR.com: I just feel like I haven’t seen people so fired up about a human being since the 60s.
Margaret Cho: Yeah. Not since Kennedy and that’s saying a lot. It’s very exciting.
PR.com: Thoughts on McCain’s announcement to have this woman, Governor Sarah Palin, on his ticket?
Margaret Cho: Well, I think it’s an insult. It is pandering to people who wanted to vote for Hillary Clinton, and wanted to vote for a woman in the White House. But, this woman, her politics are so anti-woman. She is anti-choice, she is anti-gay, she is so just horrifying. To me it’s more of a betrayal when women betray their gender than when men betray women. I think it’s way worse. She is somebody who should know the value of women having a choice, whether they want to have kids or not. Women should have the choice to do what they want with their bodies. For a woman to come out as anti-choice is so horrifying. It’s so insulting that the McCain camp would go, “Oh, she has a pussy!”
PR.com: We have to find someone with a vagina. Hurry (laughs)!
Margaret Cho: I really hope that the voters are smart enough to recognize and see through that. But her politics are appalling, and she has no experience whatsoever. Two years as governor in Alaska is not enough.
PR.com: Lastly, let’s talk about your tour Beautiful. Are you currently on tour?
Margaret Cho: Yes.
PR.com: Why did you choose Beautiful as the name of your tour? What does that name mean to you?
Margaret Cho: The whole show is about how we are beautiful, and that you can claim beauty for yourself. You don’t have to wait around for somebody to tell you that you’re beautiful. You can just say that you are! If you say that you are, people will start saying it back to you. It’s really a powerful thing. It’s about the power of beauty and how when we call ourselves beautiful, we’re willing to fight for ourselves harder and feel good. You stand up for yourself if you feel beautiful. It’s a really important thing and that’s what I want people to do.
Margaret Cho’s “Beautiful” stand-up comedy tour currently has dates in the Unites States and Canada. Visit: margaretcho.com/tour/tour.htm for dates and cities.
“The Cho Show” is currently airing Thursdays at 11PM on VH1. Visit: www.vh1.com/shows/dyn/the_cho_show/series.jhtml for additional times and video clips.