Vp Issue 1: “The Tao of Cho, An Interview with Margaret Cho”

[Originally printed in the first issue of Velvetpark magazine July 2002, by Kent Martin and Grace Moon]

[Originally printed in the first issue of Velvetpark magazine July 2002, by Kent Martin and Grace Moon]

Life is good for comic desperado Margaret Cho these days. The self-produced, self-distributed film version of her successful touring and off-Broadway show I’m the One That I Want was an unprecedented smash, earning $1.4 million at the box office with only nine prints in circulation. Her book of the same name that delves deep into her harrowing personal and public journey, became a national bestseller and was recently released in paperback. Finally, a series of significant awards in the last two years have honored Margaret and her penchant for speaking out in favor of unity, equality and acceptance among various cultures and lifestyles.

Velvetpark caught up with Margaret as she was preparing to attend a sneak preview of the concert film on the opening night gala of The New Festival—The 14th Annual New York Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. 

After the success of your first film, was Notorious C.H.O. easier to write and produce? 

Oh yeah, it was easier because I knew what I was in for. Even the filming was easier because I was not under any particular kind of pressure. I knew what to expect out there, and I knew what I was doing. I had a lot of confidence as the producer. I think the first time, when I was filming, there was pressure and fear. This time it had all gone away.

That’s what struck me almost immediately in the film. Besides being terrifically funny, as usual, you seemed more at ease with yourself and with your career. For the readers who aren’t familiar with it already, how does this film differ thematically from I’m The One That I Want?

Well this is much more of a stand-up comedy show whereas the first was like a one-person show. And so this one has a lot of jokes. It focuses on alternative health care, gays and lesbians, adventurous sexuality, self-esteem, politics, feminism. It’s a really broad show, covering a lot of ground. Whereas the first show was really just one story I was telling.

Asian Americans are called “The Silent Minority.” What do you have to say about that, and what do you have to say to your fellow Asian Americans?

I think that it is changing. The “Silent Minority” is becoming very loud. As things happen in society, as times change, we are realizing en-masse that we do have to be vocal about the way that we’re represented, that we do have to be vocal about what people are saying about Asian Americans, because it affects us. We are tired of being silent about it. There was a huge controversy recently with the clothing company Abercrombie & Fitch, who put out a line of t-shirts that had very racist depictions of Asian Americans on them. So the Asian American community (especially students on campuses all around the country) was up in arms and started a huge campaign on the internet. They were being very vocal and staging protests outside Abercrombie & Fitch stores. The clothing company basically pulled the t-shirts off the market. That would not have happened if we were still the silent minority. The new generation is getting sick and tired of seeing themselves like that, and that being the only time they ever see themselves in the media. So what I’m saying to the younger generation is “Go for it.”

You said in another interview that America has a limited view of Asian American women. So, who is she? What is an Asian American woman?

Oh you know, like a newscaster. She has blush on the sides of her nose, to make sure it’s narrow and very slim, very beautiful but not too sexy. That is what America believes Asian women are. And then of course there are other sorts of wilder stereotypes that go into the “Asian-Babe-Erotic-China Doll” thing, and then there’s “The Student.”

So you’re saying that “Look, you can be wild. You can be out there. You can be unique.

Right, you can be sexual. You can be crazy. You can be totally normal. You can be whatever you want. But I want to basically kind of re-define what Asian American women are in the media. I mean I’d like to. That’s my goal.

Who are your current female role models?

Sandra Bernhard, Rosie O’Donnell, Madonna. I love so many great authors like Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston. I’m just a big fan of so many women. I love Bjork!I love Bjork so much that every time I see her I just start crying. She just really does it for me.

Are there any women in the media, Margaret, that you think are really sexy?

Yeah, I think Diane Lane is hot. I saw her film Unfaithful last night. She’s totally sexy. I think k.d. lang is really sexy. So is Gabrielle Reese, the volleyball player. I love butch women. Butch women are the greatest. You never see them! I think that one thing that is sexy in women is masculinity. That kind of “butch bottom” is my archetype. She’s just like one of the sexiest things in the world. Because a butch woman is somebody that doesn’t care about what society defines as womanhood. She is her own woman. That’s the kind of woman that you don’t see very much in the magazines. She’s not in Vogue.

Right, I mean that kind of answers my next question. You say in Notorious C.H.O. that you love gay men because of their kind of fun and frivolous nature around sexuality. And then I was going to ask if there was anything you admire about lesbians and I think that you’ve answered that!

Yeah, I love the kind of woman who defines who she is through her butchness and doesn’t give a shit what the world thinks is sexy and hot about women, that she’s sexy and hot in her own right. You know, that defiance to me is the most beautiful thing, and you don’t see it. I mean outside of lesbian magazines, outside of some feminists magazines. And some feminists shy away from it too.

Yeah, it’s a touchy issue for some feminists. 

It’s totally touchy, because it’s a weird kind of dynamic, you know? There’s still a level of girliness that goes along with some feminists, and they don’t want to see that. But I love it. We don’t have enough butches. We don’t have enough butch rock stars, we don’t have enough butches in photographs. There needs to be more.

That certainly leads me to my question, which is, you’ve become somewhat of a revolutionary breaking mass media’s stereotypical image of women. What would you like to say to all those Hollywood and network executives about women, right here, right now?

Well, through your neglect and refusal to include women of all sizes and all ages, we’re slowly… killing women. I mean I think that the media has a tremendous impact on how young women view themselves. Not seeing older women, not seeing women of any shape and size whatsoever, not seeing women of color, you’re just really insulting the rest of the world. You know, I think it’s just really destructive also that these young women who are watching television and movies today are just not seeing that they could be okay if they’re not skinny and white and 19. They’re sort of like saying, “How do I fit into the world?” And they’re not seeing how, and I think that’s really destructive.

In your book, I’m The One That I Want, you said that a part of you was writing to your 14-year-old self. Granted not every 14-year-old may be allowed to read your book. What would you say to a classroom full of young teenage girls?

That you can really love yourself no matter what anyone else says to you. That your opinion can count more than anyone else’s. That you can give yourself the permission to allow that. It doesn’t take anything but a decision within yourself to do so. It doesn’t take permission from anyone else. It doesn’t take years of therapy or self-help books. For myself it was 20 years of anorexia and bulimia. It doesn’t take anything like that. You could say “Yes” to yourself right now. I do say that to a lot of kids, you know. I speak to children or kids in their teens and G.L.B.T. kids in their teens. These young people who are just coming out and struggling with self-hatred, struggling with suicide, struggling with not thinking they’re okay enough to live. I always tell them that “You know what? You are. And it doesn’t have to be a big deal. But this decision that you make may save your life. Not only save your life, but also make your life so much better than it is now.”

Was it an easy transition for you, when you finally did give yourself permission? Or was it more of a process?

It was an easy transition, actually. I mean, in a sense, it was a process because it took me a long time to get there, but once I did it was a snap decision. It was like, “Okay, now this is how it’s going to be.”

I want to personally thank you for speaking out about gay marriage in Notorious C.H.O. I wonder if you think change is going to happen on that front anytime soon?

I think so. I mean, the only problem is that there is so much religion and morality tied up to the institution of marriage. That’s what is standing in the way. The moral majority is going to be very unlikely to give that up without a fight. But as we have seen, the G.L.B.T. community really loves to fight. Which is one great thing in our favor. We love to get in the ring. So I think it’s going to happen.

I hope so. There’s a chapter in your book called “Bravery,” where you write about the cruel teasing you went through as a kid, especially when you were in Summer Camp. It’s really moving. I was wondering if you think that growing up as an “outcast” per-se has made you a natural ally to the gay community?

Well I think it adds to it, but I think that I always have been. Even when I was kind of an outcast, I always had gay boyfriends. Yeah, I identify certainly. But then I think that what happened to me, in a sense, is not really unusual because at some point in life it happens to everyone. My speaking of it and retelling it is my way of reaching out to everyone. We’ve all felt that way. Maybe not to the same degree, but I think whenever something bad happens to you, it always feels bad. There’s no level of feeling bad; it just sucks. There is no suckiness contest. We all experience suckiness and have to just live it. I think that’s what I was trying to share with people.

In Notorious C.H.O., among other things, you end with a pretty powerful message, which is “love yourself.” Do you believe in God?


And what does your image of God look like?

Well my image of God takes many forms. God is everywhere. God is my godchild, my dog, the female Buddha. God is Ganesh and the flowers growing in my backyard. It’s really kind of hippy-dippy. (laughs)

But you’ve obviously done a lot of searching. And you’ve probably dabbled in a few different paths!

Oh everything. I think that it’s all God. I love it all.

Where do you go, what do you do to find your center?

Well I have a group of really close friends. I’m really so lucky to have these great relationships, and they keep me grounded and centered. I love my home. I’m so happy there. I love my work. It’s all part of it. Nothing about my life takes me out of my center. Nothing about my work takes me away from that. You know, I’m not so obsessed with the fame thing. I’m not intensely into Hollywood parties. I don’t give a shit about what happens in the entertainment industry. I don’t care. I’m all about politics. I’m all about what’s happening in my work and what’s happening to the people that I love, which extends to my audience. So all of the other shit that people get caught up in in Hollywood and get freaked out about, which ungrounds people and makes people crazy, I don’t pay attention to. So it’s not like I have to worry about being grounded because it’s not like anything takes me by surprise.

Show business is such a hard business. What do you think is the key to longevity, just surviving?

Well it’s really about knowing and treasuring yourself as an artist, and knowing your audience and taking care of them, and creating good work and consistently paying attention. Not getting caught up with the Hollywood bullshit. You know, the whole publicity game.

If you weren’t in show business, what would you be doing?

I’d probably be in politics. Or I would be doing something with animals. I might be a vet. I do have a talent for healing, especially animals. So that’s something I’d probably be involved in.

You’re pretty frank and open about sex and sexuality, and it seems like you’ve just done it all: men, women, sex clubs…. Is there anything that you haven’t tried that you’d like to? Are there any taboos left to be broken?

(Laughing) Intimacy within monogamy. That’s the next frontier. Now that is really dangerous sexuality. That’s the most adventurous thing anyone can do.

At the Lambda Ceremony in New York you received the “Bridge Builder Award,” and during your acceptance speech I couldn’t help but notice your mom beaming, sitting in the front row. She had her hand cupped behind her ear, making sure she didn’t miss anything. In your book you write about your childhood and all the confusion and misunderstanding between you and your parents. Obviously, now, there is this great love and acceptance. Was that love always there? Or did it happen as you both broke through your own limitations?

It was always there. But I didn’t really understand it. All of my problems with my family are really cultural. Korean parents have a kind of style of parenting that is about coldness, different foundations. It’s about this objectivity that is, I think pretty damaging if you’re not in Korea, if you’re growing up in the western culture where you see such incredible affection between kids and their parents. In friend’s homes you’re thinking, “Well, why aren’t my parents like that? What’s happening?” I have this really good friend who’s Jewish. He and his family are very close, and they all kiss each other on the lips. That is positively shocking to some Koreans.It’s totally weird. It’s like, “Oh my god!” My parents were just so not like that—hands-off! You know? So, as I got older I started to understand that style of parenting, and I started to understand them. That made us a lot closer.

In your shows, of course we love it when you poke fun at straight men. But we’re going to give them a break here, and ask you who are your straight male heroes or icons?

I have a lot of straight male icons! I love lots of different people: Bill Clinton, the boys from Y Tu Mama Tambien, although I don’t know if they would be called straight. They are so cute! There are a lot of guys that I love—all the straight men in my life, which are many. And I love my boyfriend, who is straight and who’s great. I make fun because in society there’s a great lack of making fun of straight guys. There’s a celebration of their stupidity, which is apparent on things like The Man Show. They’re totally into that. They’re excited by their stupidity. I don’t think their stupidity is that great. So I like to call attention to it. I think my view is pretty limited, meaning you don’t see a lot of people saying what I’m saying about them. So I’m happy to.

Do you ever see yourself starting a family, or do you have your hands full with your animals?

Oh, I definitely want a family. I have children in my life now that aren’t mine, but I’m ableto love and care for them asa great aunt and godmother, which is a wonderful thing.I really love kids and I want to have them.

In your book there’s a whole section about your “marriage fantasy.” How do you see marriage now? Do you have a different take on it?

Well I do. I mean, I don’t look at it as a fantasy. Now it’s just kind of like, well, it’s an option. There’s a possibility there. I don’t really think that it’s necessary for me to want to do that—I don’t really care anymore. I mean, I think that things and what I value have changed so much in my life, that that kind of weird exterior stuff doesn’t really matter anymore.

Sort of like the Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins kind of attitude.

Yeah, it’s like, who cares?

In the chapter called “Woodshed” in your book, you talked about how you had written a screenplay and what happened when you tried to get it produced. I’m wondering if you ever look at that screenplay now and think, “God damn it, this is good. I still want to make this?”

Yeah, I want to make a feature. I actually want to produce a new feature in the fall. The movie that I wrote is not really appropriate for what I’d like to do now. Maybe it would be for somebody else. But what I’d like to do is a new film. I don’t really know what yet, but I do plan to do that later in the fall.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m working on writing my new show. I’ll be in Provincetown working on it through the summer, which will be a lot of fun. I have friends there and to me it’s like a wonderful artist’s retreat, a little hideaway. I’m looking forward to that. So yes, I’m just writing new stuff and possibly working on a new book and movie in the fall. So, there’s lots of stuff.

Well we’re looking forward to it all. Thank you so much!

Thank you.


Interview by Kent Martin & Grace Moon / photos by Matteo Trisolini Summer 2002 premiere issue no 1.