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."