Margaret Cho will tell you anything. About her surreal childhood: “Some people were raised by wolves; I was raised by drag queens.” About her girlhood fantasy that she would grow up to be surrounded by gorgeous men – which came true, but with a decidedly gay twist: “I should have been more specific,” she sighs. Her act may be full of lewd, jarringly personal sexual and showbiz tales (including the trials of dating men like Quentin Tarantino), but to hear her tell it, Cho is a lot more discreet than she used to be. “In the past, I was just embarrassing,” admits the 30-year-old comic actress, whose brazen new show opens July 8th at the Westbeth Theatre Center (home to Sandra Bernhard, Eddie Izzard, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch). “I would be appalled by the way I talked onstage, that I would just … go there,” Cho recalls. “No boundaries.” These days, she’s feeling something new: “If I didn’t know me, I would like me,” she says. “That’s really strange.”
In fact, life would be perfect if only she got to live it all onstage. “I have such an easy time talking to an audience about something that I could not talk to you about one-on-one,” says the San Francisco-born performer, whose years of club gigs, cable specials, and roles in films like Face/Off and It’s My Party have won her a growing legion of rabid fans and a reputation as an anti-geisha, the upstart spawn of Robin Williams and Courtney Love. “When I’m onstage, I do everything right, and then I get offstage and I cannot live, I’m totally fucked up and crazy. I really have a problem with surviving.”
Offstage, the NC-17 diva seems disconcertingly PG. Stand-up comics are typically in-your-face, angry, withholding neurotics, but Cho in the flesh is soft-spoken, open, unguarded, the kind of person who says things like “My life radiates with love.” Of course, the words are coming from a person wearing a T-shirt with KISS ME ME emblazoned in glitter across her chest.
Sipping water in the offices at Westbeth, Cho sits beside her two favorite companions – the dog who never leaves her side and the manager who’s recently returned to it after discovering Cho in her early twenties and sticking by her until Cho got a sitcom and fired her friend on the spot. Acknowledging her “devastating mistake,” Cho begged her to come back some four years later.
If tragic childhoods produce the best comedians, young Margaret had it made: As soon as she was born, her father was deported to Korea. “He didn’t tell my mother until she’d just had me,” recalls Cho, “and then he said, ‘I’m going away in three days.’ ” Her mother soon followed, leaving Cho in the care of strangers for the first seven years of her life. “I got very used to being very charming to whoever I was with at the moment, so I wouldn’t be abandoned … loving who I was with,” she says with a laugh, “which carried through my adult life.”
When she was 8, she was reunited with her parents, who’d come back to San Francisco to run a bookstore on Polk Street. But as they were rarely home, the girl soon learned to entertain herself. “I never left the front of the television,” she says. “That was my primary caretaker.”
She had no dreams of going into show business. “I wanted somebody to tell me what to do,” says Cho, who started doing guerrilla improv in high school and at 15 dropped out to become an actress and comedian. Relatives said it couldn’t be done – “They don’t make those in Korean,” Margaret was told – and she relinquished her hopes of ever finding fame. All that mattered was that she keep performing.
As it turned out, the teenager so skilled at entertaining herself also had a flair for delighting others. Traveling around the country, she became a favorite at colleges, though some days the only time she spoke to anyone was onstage. If the isolation of the road was “strangely familiar,” it was also “really scary – and I looked weird,” Cho says, laughing. “I was wearing this huge leopard skin coat and giant purple sunglasses – I’m, like, in the middle of Indiana in the winter, trying to eat dinner in a combination gas station-restaurant. I looked like an alien.”
Taking a break from touring, she went to L.A. for a visit, crashed with friends, and accidentally stayed. Her way with a tale soon won her club gigs and made her everyone’s favorite discovery, from Bob Hope and Arsenio to Jerry Seinfeld. “I was hard to ignore,” says Cho, citing her Korean-ness, her gender – and the fact that she was like no performer anyone had every seen or heard. “I was not this pretty thing, not this sweet thing; my persona was very cool, very mean – but not to you.” Then one day the former TV addict got an irresistible offer: to star in All-American Girl, a landmark Asian-American sitcom designed to bring TV audiences her unique voice and style.
All she had to do was change them. “It was too good to be true, and it was terrible,” says Cho, who is only now able to see clearly the celebrity train wreck she almost didn’t survive. Crash-dieting on orders from producers until “my ass was small enough that they could begin shooting – I was so on the verge of ‘She could be really hot if she could just be artificial,’ ” she paused briefly to recover from kidney failure, then prepared to be remade into a star. “If you’re an artist and you don’t know who you are,” she says, “there’s lots of people out there who will tell you.” Yet for the first time, Cho found something she was a failure at – “being somebody else” – and the show was canceled: star to has-been in a heartbeat. Add low self-esteem and a lifelong love affair with alcohol and drugs, and Cho was a bad TV movie-of-the-week waiting to happen.
Years of depression and drinking followed; adopting a puppy she was told was going to die, she assumed they’d die together. Cho sank so low that even she decided she’d better get up and change. No more nights holding the mike stand to keep the room from spinning. “I think that person died,” she says. Clean for a year, Cho can at last recognize what happened to her; yet if her show tackles the pitfalls of fame, it does so without the bitterness one would expect. Her fans will recognize the old Margaret with the “big appetite for food, sex, clothing, success” – but the surprise is that she bares her past with an undisguised joy at where she finds herself today.
In private, talking about the challenges of being a “star,” she falters, barely able to get the word out, embarrassed at applying it to herself even in the past tense. Yet to the audience that screams for her to come out and leaps to its feet when she is through – Asian students, gay couples, Jewish parents, big-haired girls from Jersey, straight couples on dates – she’s not only a star, she’s their star. No one is more amazed than Cho. “I always thought, Oh, well, I’m good for a lay, but I’m not good enough to marry,” she says, recalling the first time an audience gave her a standing ovation, an increasingly common occurrence these days. “I can’t believe this is my reality,” she says of the place fate has landed her today. “I feel like a good-time girl being taken to the altar.”