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The Perfect Margaret Trigg

The performance artist and sitcom actress would do anything to be a star, including making herself her own lethal science project.

Margaret's notes to one of her plastic surgeons two years ago on one of many marked-up photos found in her Thompson Street apartment.  

The last time I saw Margaret Trigg, I ducked into the doorway of a 14th Street bodega to avoid her. But I don’t think she would have noticed me anyway—her walk was manically purposeful. Her face had the overly smooth, waxy sheen of too many plastic surgeries, and her legs, moving quickly through the summer crowds of Chelsea, were bone thin. Clearly, she was on her way to something of importance. But wherever it was, I certainly didn’t want to go there. A regular in the downtown stand-up scene and an avid writer and performer of one-woman shows, Margaret would call to invite me to watch her acts or to pitch stories about her to local magazines. Like so many small-town beauty-queen types, she’d moved to New York to become an edgier version of Katharine Hepburn. At one time, Margaret had been well on her way. She was funny, talented, and beautiful, so much so that ABC saw fit to cast her as the lead in a sitcom.

But Margaret was a construction, and like most constructions, especially those built with the peculiarly toxic material of ambition and self-loathing, she was eventually bound to collapse.

I met her in 1992; the East Village still had a grubbiness then, enough of an atmosphere to keep Texas farm girls tucked safely away on the Upper East Side. But Margaret had a sense of wonder about downtown, where she performed her stand-up comedy act at a variety of venues, many of them heavy on mildew and light on charm. She, however, had a radiance about her that made the audience forget about the uncomfortable seating and odors. She was gorgeous, with a caramel-colored mane and the face of a forties pinup girl, almost too beautiful for anyone to pay attention to what was coming out of her mouth. She wore long spaghetti-strap gowns designed to hide her rather voluptuous figure, and ranted onstage like a screen goddess gone mad. She wrote her comedy pieces from a small, hopelessly dusty two-room apartment on Thompson Street filled with a combination of looming, dark antiques and showgirl kitsch. It was not unusual to see a fuchsia feather boa draped over a rump-sprung Queen Anne chair, a combination of Edward Gorey and a Las Vegas bordello. Few would have guessed that she was a rancher’s daughter from Bastrop, Texas (population: 6,200).

Even as a teenager, Margaret was focused on moving to New York to become a star, drawing her inspiration from the pages of fashion magazines, which she channeled in her one-woman show Growing Up Vogue. “She was always a performer, from the time she was a little bitty thing,” says her mother, Minifred Trigg. “I’d give her my old cocktail dresses, and she’d dress up and make up plays. She became a majorette in high school and insisted on the fanciest outfits with the most trim.” Margaret also pushed the Bastrop envelope in public, forcing her cousin to try on debutante dresses with no underwear to scandalize her very proper southern grandmother. Her exploits at the local Wal-Mart were equally eccentric: She’d go there with a camera and chide the clerks into giving her their smocks and taking pictures of her in provocative poses. “She knew there was a more exciting world out there,” says Margaret’s niece, Susie Trigg, who was a surrogate little sister.

“Bastrop is a little town—it almost seems like it’s got a bubble over it. Margaret wanted something much bigger from her life.” Margaret always had unfailing drive. Before moving to New York in 1989, she had already starred in a low-budget science-fiction film, R.O.T.O.R., in which she was tormented by a homicidal robot. It was closer to Plan 9 From Outer Space than 2001, but it offered a glimpse of the actress she would become. When she performed, “she was able to completely transform herself,” says Francis Hall, also known as Faceboy, who recently hosted his 500th open-mike night at Collective: Unconscious, a Lower East Side alternative theater. “If she was doing a teenage-boy character, for example, you’d completely forget it was Margaret.”

Once in New York, Margaret entered the comedy world in a series called “No Shame,” which found a home at Here Arts Center, a performance space in Soho whose alumni include John Leguizamo and The Practice’s Camryn Manheim. “Her pieces were hilarious, but they were also commentary on societal mores and traditions,” says Robert Prichard, who met Margaret through “No Shame” and founded another venue where she frequently performed. “I was not just looking for comics, but real performance artists, and Margaret was it. She was sort of a female Lenny Bruce.”

Rather than do stand-up in the Jerry Seinfeld tradition, Margaret expressed her comedy in a series of sharply drawn characters, each with an ax to grind. There was a narcissistic shoe model, a self-absorbed acting teacher, an elderly southern lady, and a burned-out teenager, to name a few. “She used them to express her outrage at society’s demand that women look a certain way, and the southern social mores that demanded women act a certain way,” says Prichard. She wrote all of her own material, poking fun at the ridiculous behavior she believed evolved from conformity. “She and I used to brainstorm crazy comedy ideas,” says Steve Bird, a writer and longtime friend of Margaret’s. “One time, she was obsessed with the expression ‘Are we on the same page?’ ” It was clear to everyone who knew her that she was talented and had the goods to go far in the entertainment world.

But the one thing that got in her way at that time, at least in her mind, was her figure. “She’d seen enough episodes of Friends to realize that women with serious back were hardly taken seriously in Hollywood. That’s when the laxative abuse began,” says Pete Holmberg, a comic turned public-relations executive. “She loved to eat, and it was a way she could literally have her cake and eat it, too.”

Though she was never really overweight, “she was teased about having a big butt in high school, and her looks were really important to her,” says her niece Susie. “Every time she came home from New York, she’d ask me to take her picture in one of her outfits. She’d say, ‘I’m not going to look like this forever.’ She was deathly afraid of becoming old, being fat, and losing her beauty.” Her mother agrees: “Someone said something to her about her weight in high school, and she just never got over it.”