By Michelle Woo
Photographs by Austin Young
I click off my tape recorder, shuffle together my belongings and step out of Margaret Cho’s dressing room.
After sitting on a couch for a half-hour chat with the megastar, a question still buzzes in my head: Who is Margaret Cho?
In a daze, I walk down the hallway, past a backstage VIP lounge, through the painted metal doors and into the MGM Grand Garden Arena, where — in less than 40 minutes — she will host the Las Vegas kick-off show to the True Colors tour, a 16-city concert series promoting gay rights. Margaret was handpicked by headliner Cyndi Lauper to emcee the politically-charged rockfest, which has a lineup that includes Debbie Harry, The Indigo Girls and The Dresden Dolls.
Thousands trickle into the amphitheater and fill the sea of teal fold-up chairs — girls with flashing tiaras, men with rainbow boas, people wearing T-shirts stamped with the words “Erase Hate.” In front of me, a man shows off the Margaret Cho stand-up DVD that he just purchased outside. Others in the crowd flip through programs splashed with photos of a scantily clad Margaret decked in a fluorescent Mohawk-like headdress, posing seductively with a bottle of soy sauce.
Who is Margaret Cho? In some ways, I already know. She’s a comedian, an actress, a director and a writer. She’s a self-described “Korean American fag hag, sh-t starter, girl comic, trash talker” who brashly dishes about drugs and porn and vagina washing in sold-out theaters across the nation. She’s had a roller-coaster career that’s taken her to show business hell and back. She’s a feminist, a lifetime activist, a pioneer.
But the woman I met backstage was a stark contrast to the Margaret I envisioned. She was calm and reserved, speaking in concise, PR-friendly phrases. No witty one-liners, no busting out into rap songs. Sitting alone with my notes, my picture of Margaret became blurred. Who is Margaret Cho?
Suddenly, the lights dim and all eyes turn to the stage. Wearing rhinestone clogs, dark, slim-fitting jeans and a black T-shirt that says The Cliks, Margaret steps out with a microphone and waves.
“Hey, fag hags!” she yells, sparking thunderous cheers.
“I don’t understand why George Bush hasn’t been impeached yet,” she declares. “They were all about to impeach Clinton for nothing. I wish Bush would just get his d-ck sucked. But no one wants to do it.”
“I’ll do it!” a man shouts from the crowd.
“You’ll do it?” Margaret asks, letting out a hearty laugh.
Now, that’s Margaret.
Backstage, about an hour-and-a-half before show time, a photographer takes snapshots of Margaret standing next to a rack of jeans. She turns her body sideways and smiles over one shoulder.
She spots me standing with her manager and informs us that she’ll just be another minute.
Fulfilling her promise, she steps toward me and reaches out a hand.
“Hi, I’m Margaret,” she says.
Walking me down the hallway, an elderly security guard stops us and asks for our badges. She politely tells him that her name is Margaret Cho and that she’s the host of the show. Looking apologetic, he lets us through.
In a small room filled with suitcases, make-up and protein bars, Margaret begins smoothing lotion across the phoenix tattoo freshly etched on her shoulder and upper arm, the latest design added to her almost completely inked-up body.
“It’s a really fun thing to be moving from city to city with all these people,” she says. “I’m so tired, though. You would think that we would party all night like rock stars. But it’s not like that. We all have our little beds and sleeping areas that are really cute. It’s very quiet and civilized.”
She tells me that she’s always been a big fan of Cyndi Lauper, so when she was selected to do the show, she was thrilled. Back in the ‘80s, she tried looking like Cyndi. She dyed her hair orange, shaved it on one side and kept it long on the other. She strutted out in petticoats, ripped jeans and lots of jewelry.
“I just think she’s amazing and it’s been really fun rehearsing with everyone,” she says, adding that she gets to sing “True Colors” — the show’s anthem — on stage with the cast and must take off for a practice run shortly. We segue into her latest projects.
So, what’s new with Margaret? In the past few years, the 38-year-old performer launched the vaudevillian burlesque and comedy show “The Sensuous Woman,” which moves from L.A. to off Broadway this fall; wrote and starred in the film “Bam Bam and Celeste,” out on DVD this month; and wrote and directed the upcoming film “Two Sisters,” which has a cast that includes Kal Penn, Yunjin Kim and Tamlyn Tomita. She also created her own line of belly dancing accessories, started directing YouTube music videos (search “My Puss” and weep with laughter), and sat in Rosie O’Donnell’s seat on “The View” as a guest host on the daytime gabfest.
“I’m really happy right now,” she says. “I’m really in a good place creatively and professionally.”
Her fans can recite the timeline that led her to this point, the series of events that transformed her into a star. Growing up in San Francisco, Margaret’s given name, Moron, which in Korean refers to a peony flower, was a major source of childhood trauma. At her parents’ bookstore, she befriended the gay clerks, whose lifestyle profoundly influenced her own. (She often sums up her vague sexuality with a one-liner: “I’m not gay. I’m not a lesbian. I’m just slutty. Where’s my parade?”)
Margaret began doing stand-up at age 16 and went on to become one of the hottest tickets on the comedy circuit. Then came her ‘90s sitcom, “All-American Girl.” What was marketed as the first network TV show to feature an Asian American family was instantly blasted as stereotypical by Asian Americans and unfunny by critics. Producers told Margaret she was “too Asian,” and, paradoxically, “not Asian enough.” They ordered her to lose 30 pounds in two weeks, which landed her in the hospital with kidney failure. With the show cancelled after one season, Margaret dazedly stepped into a world of drugs, alcohol and self-loathing.
Her road to recovery began when she started to express her bitterness and frustration in her stand-up routines. Her act, packaged as the off-Broadway show “I’m the One That I Want,” was raw and gutsy and, to audiences and critics, hilarious. She was back on top and has managed to stay there ever since.
Today, Margaret speaks of “All-American Girl” like a buried bullet-point on her resume. Last year, the sitcom was resurrected in DVD format, complete with reflective commentary from Margaret herself (“So hungryyy,” she moans over the pilot episode track).
“I kind of forgot everything, the specifics of each episode,” she says. “It was nice to go back and revisit it. It was kind of funny even.”
In an episode titled “Pulp Sitcom,” which guest stars Quentin Tarantino, Margaret walks herself through the whole experience in “that’s life” sort of way.
“I was so young and was in a lot of turmoil then,” she explains in her voice-over commentary, as the DVD shows young Margaret clad in a traditional Chinese-style jacket.
“I didn’t know if the show was going to survive. … All I know was that I looked really strange and that my hair was kind of orange.”
In reality, the failed TV stint was what ultimately spun her into one of America’s favorite underdogs. Described by Slate as “a messiah for the world’s disenfranchised, exploited, hyphenated and underexposed minorities,” she’s been honored by the ACLU, GLAAD, NOW and other powerful groups for promoting equal rights.
With a smattering of stand-up shows on her calendar, Margaret’s followers — the Cho-sen, if you will — include subcultures like the LGBT community, feminists, Asian Americans and anyone who wants to feel empowered. Margaret says she fits into all of them.
Bruce Daniels, who co-stars in “Bam Bam and Celeste,” says fans are attracted to her raw honesty. “Audiences feel as if they are with their friend,” Daniels says. “She shares every facet of herself with them. They know that there is no bullsh-t with her.” Offstage, Daniels describes Margaret as a very quiet person and an avid reader. “She is the most generous soul I have ever met,” he adds. “She never complains and she never stops working.”
Pleasant Gehman, a belly dancer in “Two Sisters” and “The Sensuous Woman,” first met Margaret in one of the dance classes she teaches.
“She was so quiet and intense in her learning process that nobody even realized that the Asian girl in the back of the class with the great technique was Margaret Cho,” Gehman says. The L.A. entertainer, also known as “Princess Farhana,” describes Margaret as calm and collected: “She is very generous and always amicable, likes to make people feel included.”
While quiet in person Margaret’s fans see a woman who never stops speaking — for change, for peace, for humanity.
On her Web site, she blogs about topics such as poverty in India, Asian eyelid surgery, Michael Richards’ racist tirade (“At this point, the only way Richards could redeem himself is if he showed up hand in hand with Bishop Desmond Tutu in Kofi Annan’s car”); her take on Christianity (“I know God loves gays and I want to spread that message”); and Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku girls (“To me, a Japanese schoolgirl uniform is kind of like blackface, I am just in acceptance over it, because something is better than nothing”).
Her MySpace page, which she checks almost daily, reads like a frazzled, never-ending love letter to the star.
“If people find you offensive, then they really don’t understand where you’re coming from,” writes one fan.
“Your heart is large to fit us all in it,” writes another.
“Bam Bam and Celeste,” which she calls “a fag and fag hag ‘Thelma and Louise,’” is perhaps a symbol of all that Margaret has overcome. She plays Celeste, the best friend of a gay high school boy named Bam Bam (Daniels). The film weaves in some of the real-life experiences Margaret had growing up, like when kids would throw milkshakes at her. She says that in movies, there were never any parts for her, so she had to write her own.
“I wanted to make something that was striking and interesting and funny and fun,” she says.
Margaret says that, over the years, her comedy has become a political force and an exploration of racial identity. During the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings in April, Margaret was quick to joke about sentiments felt by many Korean Americans.
“When I heard there was a shooter, I thought, ‘Please don’t let him be Korean. Please don’t let him be Korean,’” Margaret declared on stage at the 2007 Asian Excellence Awards in Los Angeles. “Not only was he Korean, but his name was Cho.”
That night, she received the award for Outstanding Comedy Performance.
“[Virginia Tech] was really one of the biggest events that Asian Americans had ever had to deal with, and I felt like we didn’t have a language to address it,” she says. “It was helpful to use it in comedy to somehow alleviate the tension around it. So when I talked about it, it was a wonderful feeling for me to acknowledge this huge thing that happened in a way that was dignified and not making fun of it and not making the situation worse. It was just acknowledging that we live in a very racist culture.”
When she’s not on the road, Cho returns to her home in Glendale, Calif., where she’s resided for more than five years. She lives with her husband, graphic artist Al Ridenour, and three dogs. On matrimony: “I’ve learned the secret to a happy marriage is that you have to f-ck a lot of other people. It takes a village,” she quipped during the “True Colors” show.
Life is good, Margaret says about a career that consists of press events, shows and riding on a tour bus. In her downtime, she says she watches TV, plays cards and posts an assortment of tour photos on her Web site, including ones where she’s getting her breasts made into plaster molds for the nonprofit organization “Keep A Breast Foundation.” (“It was really, really cold,” she says.”)
In a frenzy of various projects, stand-up will always remain at the core.
“In a way, my comedy has gotten easier,” she says. “I’ve become more familiar with it. It’s become more intuitive. I don’t spend as much time writing or fretting about writing. I just kind of go.”
“I’m probably going to just sleep for a while,” she says, standing up to rummage through her suitcase. “I really want to brush my teeth right now. That’s like my goal.”
And just like that, we’re through.
After the show, on my way back to the hotel, Margaret’s manager spots me and asks if I want to have a drink with the performers.
“Sure,” I say.
Behind the velvet ropes on the upper level of Studio 54, the locale of the night’s after-party, Cyndi Lauper, Rosie O’Donnell and a flurry of other celebrities mix and mingle over Voss water bottles and cans of Red Bull. Downstairs, on a giant dance floor illuminated by laser lights, guys and girls swivel and sweat to the fast thumping beat.
At a separate table, Margaret and a few acquaintances sit quietly. Suddenly, while holding a glass of wine, Margaret turns to me.
“Do you turn red when you drink?” she asks.
“No,” I say. “Do you?”
“Yeah. Everywhere. After just one.”
I tell her that I’ll sometimes turn pale and then she scrunches her nose and tells me that’s weird. She briefly chats about the type of music she likes (“I’m really into the Dresden Dolls”) and how the crowded hip-hop club isn’t really her scene. I tell her that on my way up here, some creepy guy whispered his room number in my ear, and she lifts her hands to her mouth and gasps.
Soon, her manager tells me they’re about to take off and Margaret stands up for a few quick goodbyes. Then she slips into the crowd, soon to be on the road to the next city.
Who is Margaret Cho? I realize that perhaps everyone has his or her own picture. For now, mine is of a Margaret who, in a whirlwind of celebrity hugs and toasts, ducks away to connect with a lone reporter, even if it’s simply to bemoan the pitfalls of the Asian flush reaction. This Margaret is softer and more low-key than the Margaret seen on stage, but I now know that her many dimensions are what have made her, arguably, the most recognizable Korean American of our time. She’s a leader, a fighter and an American icon.
And someone we can’t help but root for.