Margaret Cho reminds me of Monica Lewinsky. The comic and the intern both love sex, for one thing. And they both enjoy having a national audience (not to mention zealous interviewers) eager to hear all the juicy details--although I've yet to hear Lewinsky exclaim, "I love dick," as Cho is wont to announce to cackling fans. Both have been screwed, depending on how you define it, by entertainment and political execs, in Cho's case by the producers of All-American Girl, who white-washed her randy-diva standup act beyond recognition for that ill-fated sitcom. Then there's the media's obsession with womanly weight, from tabloid tales of faux ethnic diets ("Chow like Cho") to ABC's starvation-diet "remedy" for Cho's face (too "full" in their opinion). And, finally, there's the chance for sweet public revenge, an opportunity Lewinsky only half realized in Barbara Walters's confessional chair, but that Cho is now seizing by way of her one-woman show, I'm the One That I Want, playing this weekend in Minneapolis.
Maybe they have the same therapist. Speaking on the phone from her manager's L.A. office, Cho describes her five-year path from self-destruction to self-discovery, and from Hollywood ruin to current critical acclaim, in Oprah-inflected terms. "Our society is so geared towards self-loathing, especially for women," she declares. "And the message in my show is that, you know, we need to find this strength within ourselves. And that beauty is definitely something that we have a right to. It's something that we can feel and be and are. So much of my life was spent looking outside myself for reassurance and value, and I realized that I can find that within."
Likewise, I'm the One That I Want chronicles Cho's clash with TV execs, her efforts to fit an all-American babe/Asian-everywoman mold, her spiral into drugs and depression, and her rebound. She's managed to "usurp her own power," she explains, with the result that her humor now "comes from a place of strength and power and self-love."
Luckily, Cho's rebellious and profane sensibility acts as a partial antidote to such recovery jargon (though she does now "do" green tea and yoga). "I was with this guy for a long time and I really hated him," she explains about her four years living at "a bottom." "But I thought that we were, he like convinced me, he totally talked me into the idea that we were in love. He kept telling me that we were. He just talked me into it, using all of this relationship psychobabble and psychotherapy self-help language, [so] that I just believed it. And I thought that I had a fear-of-intimacy issue--that's why I didn't want to be with him. I didn't realize that I fucking hated his goddamned guts."
Cho honed this caustic edge in queer circles: on San Francisco's Polk Street, where she grew up in the unruly Seventies, surrounded by hippies, queens, and bibliophiles (her parents owned a small bookstore); and later in gay clubs and on lesbian cruise ships, where she cultivated her most ardent fans. (Girlfriends magazine pronounces her "bigger than bi" this month). But the new and self-improved Cho now looks for love in less liberated--say, more Midwestern--places. "Like, last weekend I performed in this place and it was very conservative, very uptight," she says of a recent show. "Yet I found so much love there. Like they're uptight, but there's this need to just break out of it. They gave me a standing ovation at the end, because they were so overwhelmed by this freedom that I had. And so even though they didn't give it up as much, they were still so moved."
Befitting her recently acquired sober, vegan outlook, Cho's sexual shtick is now more temperate--you will hear fewer fisting gags, for example--but, in her opinion, no less subversive. "I think it's more shocking to delve into the emotional life of sex and the reasons behind it," she says. "That is more shocking than just a dick joke. The nakedness of the feelings. I love talking about sex. It's one of the entry points from the physical life into the spiritual life. It's one of those weird things that really cross over into the supernatural. Sex is such a transformative, intense experience. Can you hold on a second?"
...And with that, call-waiting interrupts our soul communion; Cho has a 10:30 appointment for her next confession.