Her family simply assumed that getting thin was part of living in New York, where seemingly everyone was. “She’d come home to Texas, and we’d all see the laxatives in her suitcase,” Susie recalls. “We assumed she was using them for their original purpose. But I know people were thinking, How did she get so thin?” And Margaret liked it that way: It was hugely important to her that people think she was on the verge of fame, particularly the people back home. “I always got the impression,” Holmberg says thoughtfully, “that she desperately needed to be better-looking than other women, that she never got over not being the prettiest girl in school and was going to spend the rest of her life proving everyone wrong through being thin, beautiful, and famous.”
Once she began this self-punishing regime, Margaret slimmed down quickly. She started buying microminis and stacked-heel boots, teetering around the city bare-legged. It was hard for even the most cynical Lower East Side denizen not to notice this stunning girl clad in outfits usually reserved for go-go dancers and drag queens. And the thinner she got, the tinier her outfits became. All practicality was tossed aside so she could experience the rush of getting attention on the street. “It would be wintertime, and Margaret would walk around with practically nothing on,” says Jennifer Flynn, a friend, neighbor, and fellow performer. “I don’t know how she did it.”
In the mid-nineties, she was signed by the Gersh Agency, a talent agency specializing in comedians. Gersh got her a small gig playing a hooker on Homicide: Life on the Street. That led to her winning the role on ABC’s Aliens in the Family of Cookie Brody, an alien mother with a brood of multicolored children who weds an earthling. She was also offered a spot in an ensemble cast on comedian Dana Carvey’s show, but Cookie was a starring role, and the part paid almost twice as much. Initially, Margaret was hesitant—some of her fellow players were oversize puppets, and she’d have to trade in her pinup-girl aesthetic for a funky foam headdress. “She hated the costume, and she hated the fact that she had to play a mother,” says Holmberg. “She didn’t think it was glamorous. She really wanted to be an ingenue.” However, she rose to the occasion. The show was hardly an Emmy contender, but if you watched Margaret, the way she sashayed so confidently through the fake living room, it was hard to believe that the neon-colored behemoth marionettes were not her kids. She was so natural that no one could imagine how ambivalent she was about this first shot at stardom.
Ambivalence aside, she tried to share her newfound wealth with those still struggling. “One of the best things about Margaret was that she didn’t just ditch her friends who were still trying to make it,” says Prichard. “She’d take her industry friends to downtown comedy shows in the hopes the performers would be discovered.” Others don’t remember her television days so fondly. “I always loved Margaret, but she was so competitive, she never let you forget that she had deals going down. It was as if she were saying, ‘I’m better than you,’ ” says Steve Bird. Her stint as a Hollywood comer, however, was short. Aliens tanked after a few episodes, and instead of looking for another TV role that would suit her, at 32, she kept going after parts for much younger women. “There were so many roles she could have had easily—in soaps and sitcoms—but she just didn’t want those older parts,” says Holmberg.
Aliens was the last real job she ever had. “Margaret just had to be the pretty young thing. She got increasingly stubborn and wouldn’t take direction. Even when she was auditioning for a part as a well-known character on a soap, she refused to take any criticism or even watch a tape to see how the character had been played,” Holmberg adds.
“Someone said something to her about her weight in high school, and she just never got over it,” says her mother. Her family simply assumed that getting thin was part of living in New York, where seemingly everyone was.
And it was then that her real obsession with plastic surgery began.
She wasn’t a complete cosmetic-surgery neophyte: She’d had a nose job when she was in high school. But her work for Aliens had earned her about $120,000, which she started spending on ways to alter her appearance.
After the show ended, she decided to have a second nose job, and then she decided to have her eyes done. Then came her eyebrows and liposuction on her hips and thighs. “I question the ethics of the surgeons who operated on her,” says longtime friend Danielle Fenton. “She had her nose done a third time, several eye jobs. She told me that the last surgeon she visited wouldn’t touch her nose. But she always got some surgeon to do her bidding.” There was also a period when her eyebrows seemed to have risen an inch up her face, the probable result of at least one, if not more, brow-lifts. The surgeries became increasingly bizarre. “She was wearing a lot of weird makeup to camouflage scarring from too many eye jobs, and her nose was really weird-looking,” Fenton says. Margaret even went so far as to take one of her head shots, trace her face on it, and mark it up with comments about how her nose needed to be a centimeter smaller or her eyebrows were a few millimeters too arched, and filled notebooks with childish drawings and notes. “Little fat in lips,” says one. “I don’t want a deep or hollow eye crease. I hate this about upper-lid jobs.” Weeks before her death, she was planning yet another procedure with Dr. Lawrence Reed, of the Reed Center in Manhattan (Reed would not comment). If she could just make herself perfect, it seemed, then she would get the break she so deserved and longed for.
Holmberg and other friends were astonished. “I don’t know what freaked me out more, the fact that she thought she needed surgery or that the surgeons were willing to operate on someone who obviously didn’t need it and was clearly very messed up and fragile at the time,” he says.
Fenton believes that although Margaret was indeed scared to death of growing old, the surgeries served another, stranger purpose. “Margaret was obsessed with balance and composition,” says Fenton. This was certainly true of her wardrobe and apartment—she designed many of her own clothes to her specifications, and her furniture was carefully chosen and placed just so. “Plastic surgery allowed her to design her face.”