National Geographic's book In Praise of Difficult Women by Karen Karbo profiles women throughout the world who have pushed societal norms and boundaries in areas spanning the gambit from politics, art, media, books, and more.
In 1999, I was in New York for one reason or another and a friend whose name I cannot recall—in those days she would have been called an acquaintance, but since the advent of Facebook, that term no longer exists—came down with something or other and gave me her ticket to an off-Broadway show to see a one-woman act by someone I’d never heard of. My memory is pretty good, but Margaret Cho blew my mind to such a degree that nothing associated with how I wound up in that theater seat exists. I laughed so hard my mascara tears left black stains on the front of my T-shirt. A bisexual Korean American—former phone sex operator, former sitcom star, daughter of a disapproving Asian mother whom she imitates brilliantly with equal parts scorn and love—Margaret Cho was a revelation. The show, I’m the One That I Want, went on to become a hot concert film and bestselling memoir. In 2002, her next show, Notorious C.H.O., would sell out Carnegie Hall.
Margaret was 31 years old in 1999, and “Hollywood obese” (that is, a normal-size female). She wore a pink skirt over pink pants, and very tall black platform shoes. Her set pieces included riffs on race, faghaggery (her term), sexuality, eating disorders, and the reason men in straight porn are always so unattractive. She had just put herself back together after having barely survived the trauma of starring in her own sitcom, All-American Girl. The show came and went in 1994, leaving her devastated, suicidal, and with a shrink’s filing cabinet worth of material to be mined.
She was born in San Francisco in 1968, at hippie ground zero. Her father, a writer of joke books, also owned Paperback Traffic, a gay bookstore in the Castro. She went to elementary school on Haight Street, at home among the aging flower children, druggies, and drag queens. It may have been the peace and love 1960s, but the kids at school were as mean as snakes. Margaret was bullied mercilessly. She tells the story of a time she was ganged up on at summer camp. She was told she looked like shit, and then one night someone stuffed a handful of dog poop into her sleeping bag. “I had to empty it myself in the dark forest and still sleep in it, smelling that shit all that night and for weeks after, because my family was too poor to afford a new one.”
In 1984, at the age of 16, Margaret started doing stand-up at a club near her father’s bookstore. School was not really her thing. She skipped classes, got lousy grades, was expelled from one high school, and barely graduated from another. She lied about being in college when she entered a local college comedy contest. The winners were awarded the chance to open for Jerry Seinfeld. Margaret was one of them, and after her set, Seinfeld took her aside and told her she should just drop out of college and work on her stand-up full time. She was thrilled, since she’d already done just that.
Amy Schumer wasn’t even born when Margaret was landing sexpositive jokes about her lady bits. In the early 1990s, she was the most popular act on the college circuit, booking upwards of 300 concerts a year. Roseanne Barr, another Edgy Female Stand-up, was starring in a smash sitcom based on her comedy. Hollywood rounded up all the successful Edgy Female Stand-ups like wild mustangs and, eager to duplicate Roseanne’s success, handed out production deals. That Korean-American Margaret Cho’s comedy was bawdy, groundbreaking, and difficult to categorize made no difference. She, too, was given her own show.
All-American Girl was the first sitcom centered around a Korean-American family. The network, in its wisdom, cast actors of Chinese and Japanese descent. Margaret was the only Korean American. You can imagine how well this went over with Asian-American viewers. It also turned out that Margaret wasn’t supposed to be genuinely edgy, but fake TV edgy. Also, fake TV Asian American. It turns out girls born in San Francisco to immigrant parents can be pretty American. (Because they are.) ABC, having no clue how to “fix” her, hired an Asian consultant to offer instruction. “Use chopsticks, then put them in your hair,” was one piece of advice.
Margaret was also—wait for it—too fat. I’m sure you’re surprised. A dietitian and personal trainer were quickly dispatched to whip her into shape. She lost 30 pounds in less than a month. She had a bit in her stand-up routine during this time about how, when she first saw Jesus Christ Superstar, she could only focus on how many calories Jesus burned hauling that giant cross uphill. Eventually, she was hospitalized with kidney failure. She was also told there was an issue with “the fullness” of her face. Meaning, her Korean-American face.
The entire experience, from being discovered to cast aside, was due to all the ways in which Margaret wasn’t right. On YouTube, you can see her doing a short set at the Montreal comedy festival Just for Laughs, the same year she was trying so hard to be some studio executive’s idea of a perfect Asian-American sitcom star. Her voice is high and a little breathless. She’s very put together in all black, with a slash of red lipstick and styled hair. The real Margaret is still under wraps.
Margaret Cho is one in a long line of boundary-busting female comedians—Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, and Wanda Sykes come to mind—who has figured out how to be her own woman, involving herself in pretty much everything that catches her creative eye. Her interests are far-ranging, and she explores them all. In addition to acting in a burlesquestyle variety show, creating albums supported by music videos (some of which she’s directed), and starting a clothing company, she took up belly dancing, developed a line of belly dancing belts, and co-wrote and starred in a sitcom (it was not picked up). She got a hankering to do some funny animated rap videos, so that happened as well. In 2010, she was on Dancing with the Stars (this girl says yes to everything); she and her partner were voted off the third week. She’s cohosted a podcast, and also currently cohosts E!’s Fashion Police.
Everything about Margaret Cho’s persona is difficult. She’s sweary. She’s not afraid to talk about or imitate oral sex, gay sex, threesomes (insofar as one person can imitate a threesome). In recent years she’s amassed dozens of tattoos: beautiful peonies and, weirdly, portraits of Presidents Washington and Lincoln, one on each knee. “I wanted to be in a one-man band, that’s my idea,” she told the Today show by way of explanation. “So I was going to put knee cymbals so I could bang their heads together. I just thought that it would be good to keep the beat and stay patriotic.”
Difficult women who have this much access to their rage tend to put people off. The world doesn’t seem to know what to do with women who insist not only on talking about their sexual abuse and anger but then converting it into comedy. Margaret was Jerry Seinfeld’s guest on his web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, and cracked him up with a display of her mother’s feeling about her molestation. “I know he’s a rapist because he’s already raped your aunt. You’re not special. Also, he very old. He gonna die soon. So why don’t we do this? We can cremate him and I let you flip the switch.”
What Margaret does best and most consistently is give us a glimpse at what it’s like to walk in her Korean-American shoes. Once, when she was out promoting All-American Girl, she was a guest on a local talk show, and the host wanted her to say something in her native tongue. She looked into the camera and spoke in clear, West Coast–accented English. Her hilarious impression of the obsequious, bowing, tiny step–taking, Asian flower girl sends up our expectation that she or anyone like her would ever behave that way. In 2015, she made a cameo at the Golden Globes as a Korean army general and expert on pop culture. She stood between Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in their sexy gowns opining about Orange Is the New Black. Was it just hilarious, hilarious and offensive, or hilarious and racist? A million think pieces bloomed in the coming days; she was lambasted as engaging in “minstrelsy” by journalist Kai Ma in Time. But this is all part of the Margaret Cho terrain. “I take issue when PC culture works against me,” she says. “When it works to silence me, then it’s racist.”
She’s certainly had her flops. She’s always playing on the edge, and sometimes she falls off. In her most recent show, Margaret Cho: PsyCHO (2015), political rants take center stage. And you know, I can do that for myself.
But I’m still with her. She set the bar high all those years ago—and if I’m not weeping with laughter, that doesn’t mean I love her any less. It’s instructional that when Margaret was trying to contort herself into Hollywood’s vision of herself, people turned away. Now she’s freely mouthy, angry, and unrestrained. And as a difficult woman extraordinaire, she’s earned our respect.