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Marianne Schnall Headshot

Exclusive Interview with Margaret Cho

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On Her New TV Show, Feeling Beautiful, Homophobia, and Her Outlook on Life

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Comedian, actress and activist Margaret Cho stars in the new, critically acclaimed series Drop Dead Diva which premiered this past Sunday, July 12th on Lifetime television. Drop Dead Diva tells the story of a shallow model-in-training who dies in a sudden accident only to find her soul resurfacing in the body of a brilliant, plus-size and recently deceased attorney. Actress Brooke Elliott stars as lawyer Jane Bingum, and Margaret plays her supportive friend and assistant, Terri.

The show is not only well written, funny and entertaining but also touches on body image issues which are close to Cho's comedy and her heart. I checked in with the outspoken actress, on a break from filming in Peachtree City, Georgia, to talk about her new show, the politics of feeling beautiful, homophobia, the Internet, playing the banjo and her outlook on life. (Margaret will also be hitting the road this fall - for tickets and tour dates, click here.)

Marianne Schnall: I watched Drop Dead Diva this past weekend and loved it. For anybody who has not yet seen the show, how would you describe the concept behind the show and what appealed to you about doing the show?

Margaret Cho: Well, the show is about a shallow, thin, blonde, model girl who dies and gets sort of reinserted in the body of lawyer who is very brilliant, but pretty insecure - she doesn't really think about her looks much, she doesn't live the life of the body in the way that the model was used to getting by on her looks and that kind of thing. So it's really a show about how society values certain kinds of beauty over another kind of beauty and what it's like to live on the other side - whatever side of the beauty continuum you're on - sort of all the different aspects of it.

So when I first read it, I was really impressed at the way that it dealt with these issues with such grace and humor. And I was the first person cast in the show. And when I did the pilot I just really thought that they did such a great job casting Brooke Elliott in the lead because she just really is perfect - she's the only actress I could ever see playing that role. She plays both roles really - Jane and Deb, you know. And it's funny how a show that's so based in fantasy, sort of a fantastical premise, is closer to real life than so many of the shows out on TV [laughs]. It shows real women, real body types, real people. I think it's a beautifully-written show, it's very funny - that's what appealed to me is the humor, and also the heart.

MS: I was thinking about your own personal history in television and the struggles that you've had in terms of body issues, when on your first show "All-American Girl" the network executives asked you to lose weight to play yourself - and you wound up dieting yourself into the hospital - there's this sort of beautiful irony to coming back into a show that's actually dealing with these issues head on - it feels like maybe there's a little progress there, or some hope, to have a show like this, and that you're on it.

MC: I love it, yeah, and I love that I get to be on it. And to me it's a wonderful thing because the images of women are so limited in television, you know. And then if you see somebody who is different than the girls that are like super-thin - then it's like we're treated like a visual joke. It's like weight, just like race, becomes part of the issue. It's like you can't just have a person that has a different body size than the norm what is considered hot and not have to have that be the story - it's like a weird thing. Why can't all different types of women be considered beautiful? Why can't we can't we all be considered possible love interests? It's very - I don't know. I think things are getting better - just with the sign of a show like this is that things are getting better. I think maybe a show like this makes things get better.

MS: That's what I hope. Talking about beauty - your last tour and concert film which I saw on Showtime and loved is called Beautiful, and you've said it was your official "coming out" as beautiful. I also saw you on "The View" last week and you said, "We have the power as women to call ourselves beautiful." Can you talk about that?

MC: Well, it's more like - I always thought that people told you that you're beautiful, that this was a title that was bestowed upon you - that it was other people's responsibility to give you this title. And I'm sick of waiting, people! [laughs] Waiting around for people to tell me that I was! I'm tired of waiting. And I think that the world is pretty cruel to women, in what it considers beautiful and what it celebrates as beauty. And I think that it's time to take into our own hands this power and to say, "You know what - I'm beautiful - I just am. And that's my light - I'm just a beautiful woman." And I am just going to start talking about how beautiful I am, and people will start talking about it after I start talking it. And I've noticed - and I've done this now for a couple of years - and it's changed the way that I carry myself, it's changed the way that people respond to me, and it's changed the way that I feel , and I think this is an important experiment and an important thing for people to do. To start telling people that you're beautiful, or just feel beautiful, just start acting like you are the most beautiful woman in the world. And it really improves everything! Because your sort of psyche responds to it - like this is truthful! I think self-deprecation is such a disease, and I want to cure everybody of it and so that's my contribution.

MS: And I've heard you say, which I thought was interesting, that even being able to call yourself beautiful is almost like a political act - where it's not just something you do for yourself, for feeling good and self-esteem - but it's also that the more women feel beautiful, they are more inclined to use their voice.

MC:
Right. And express their opinion and feel powerful. Like when you feel beauty - and beauty for women is definitely power. When you feel powerful, you are willing to stand up for your rights, you are willing to stand up for what you believe in, you're more willing to stand up and be counted. I think it goes deeper than just something that's about looks or something that's about any kind of sexual power or whatever - it really has to do with pride. And pride and a sense of self, and a sense of worth.

MS: And that's what I thought was interesting about the show, I was thinking about how it subliminally sends a message that our bodies are not who we are, which is often how we define ourselves and are judged - that it's talking about the beauty within, which you don't hear a lot about.

MC: Right. And it's the depth of where we can pull that out, you know, how we can express that beauty. And it's like yeah - we are not our bodies. We are so much more than that. And so I think the show does a great job of expressing this idea through this kind of very fantastical drama comedy thing, and I just think it makes people feel good and I hope that people get really into it, I hope they watch and are inspired, just like I'm inspired. I think for me it's an emotional show because I am a fan of it as we shoot it, because I love Brooke, and I love how it makes me feel when I see her on camera. When I see her on camera, just winning all these cases and being so fabulous, and so beautiful, it makes me want to cry because I just don't feel invisible any more. And I think she's just going to make so many women, especially young women, feel good about themselves and feel like they're OK - whatever size they are, that they are beautiful just like her. It's a wonderful feeling.

MS: I know you have admitted to being anorexic and bulimic at various points in your life, and obviously eating disorders are very much still an epidemic. What advice would you give to people suffering from those issues? Because it seems like it still ranges from teenagers to women of all ages.

MC: Well, I think it should be treated with the same graveness and the kind of seriousness - we should treat eating disorders with the same kind of gravitas as cancer. Because it is a disease and it can be terminal. And it's something that stays with you and eats you up from the inside. And I feel really worried about young women, especially in the world that we live in. Especially with the online culture that's directed at actresses' bodies or women's bodies - it's an all-out war. Like when Jessica Simpson made that appearance and they were saying all these things that she was fat and whatever - and I just want to shield young girls from that. I don't want young girls to look at that at all. Because they'll look at that and think, well, Jessica Simpson's gorgeous - am I like that? Is my body like that? My body's must be like that, I must be fat too...

It sends a message out there when young women's bodies are criticized in the media that we are somehow wrong, and if I can shield young women from that message and somehow protect them, that's just become my life mission of late. Because I've suffered so much from eating problems, and I almost died. It's a miracle that I didn't die. Women die every day from this. And you know - it may not be diagnosed as an eating disorder or whatever - but now, I damaged my body so much from dieting, that I have a heart murmur, I have a myriad of problems with myself physically that will probably kill me eventually. If I had carried on dieting and carried on with this insanity I know I would have died sooner, but it's really something that we need to talk about and discuss with young women and really protect them from.

MS: What would be the one message you would most want to instill in young girls?

MC: That they're beautiful - that they are so important and worthy and that they need to safeguard themselves from the messages that are out there, that our society, for the most part, when it deals with or talks about women's bodies is wrong. That you don't have to be a size 0-0 - you don't have to look like a Gossip Girl to be beautiful. That you don't have to be like one of these bone-skinny actresses. You can be, if that's how you naturally are, but you don't have to strive for that - that they're all beautiful, that any woman has the right to be beautiful and that you can claim this for myself. And so this is a very important message and I want to just instill this in everybody.

MS: On the opposite scope of things, I know you just turned 40, and I am turning 42 next month, and now with all the pressures on women to fight the natural aging process and cosmetic surgeries on the rise - what is your own personal attitude towards aging?

MC: Well, my thing is I get tattoos, but that's another thing entirely. To me getting tattoed is a beautiful way to kind of deal with this idea of aging and to decorate myself as I get older - it inadvertently is a young way to do it. I don't know. I don't really have that much of an opinion about plastic surgery per se - I don't think I would get any myself, just in that I am too scared of like going to the doctor. I don't know why going to the tattoo parlor is like less painful than going to the doctor [laughs] - I would just rather not do this - I don't know. I don' t really think about it, but I am definitely into body modification which is expressed through tattooing, which I think is a similar impulse to change my body as I get older and make it younger - instead of actually stretching or pinning anything back, I'm just drawing on it.

MS: Well, at least it's something that's on your own terms and something that feels good to you rather than something society is imposing on you that you should do.

MC: Yeah.

MS: I am the founder of a 14 year-old-web site called Feminist.com , and I know there have been so many misconceptions about what feminism is and I know you have called yourself a feminist, but what I've learned is that everybody has a different way of defining what that is. How do you define feminism? What does feminism mean to you?

MC: Feminism is my life! It's who I am. For me, it's just a logical way to be. It's the way I approach everything. I guess I approach everything as a feminist first, and then I'm thinking about racial issues, and then I'm thinking about queer issues. So, politically that's sort of how it goes, I think, sort of the most important thing that I am. But issues come up, and other things get pressed down [laughs], my guess is. But I definitely identify as a feminist and feminism to me is like the oxygen that we breathe, it's so vitally important to life, because women ultimately make life happen, and so feminism is really a respect for living. But not to be confused with pro-life! [laughs] It's a matter of respect for life and where life comes from and what life is and to respect women's rights and to respect women's wishes and what women want. And to respect the Earth and to really respect the planet and just respect life itself.

MS: That's a beautiful way to think about it. And to me when you were talking about all those other issues I think whether it's ethnicity or sexuality, it's all interconnected - it's just the right for everybody to be themselves and make choices in line with who they are.

MC: Yes, that's true.

MS: Speaking of which, my brother is gay and a fan of yours, and you have always been an outspoken advocate for gay and lesbian rights - how do you view the progress that has been made?

MC: Well, I think it's tough right now - I'm really disturbed and feeling the disappointment of not being able to repeal Prop 8 in California, and the crushing realization that we have to wait another - I don't know how many months or years until we can try again. So I'm disappointed in California, I'm disappointed in voters, and I'm disappointed in my home state, which is such a great state, is so filled with ignorance and hatred. But what is great is I got to marry couples last year - I was deputized as a marriage commissioner in San Francisco and was able to marry some friends of mine, and that was so beautiful. And so, you know, I did get to celebrate that, which is something I didn't know I would see in my lifetime - having been around queer politics since the seventies, since I was a child. You know, I learned about politics from Harvey Milk, that's my generation and sort of where I grew up, so it's a triumph that we're even fighting for this. But it's still very disappointing.

MS: What do you think is behind homophobia? Having grown up myself with a brother who is gay, sometimes I think if you know somebody or are very close to somebody who is gay, it is really hard to understand what is behind homophobia. It so widely prevalent, yet it's so upsetting and disturbing in so many ways.

MC: Yeah, it is. It's weird - we shoot here in Georgia - I'm actually in Georgia now. We shoot in a little town called Peachtree City and I go to the gym every day and I have a fight with somebody at my gym - there's this magazine called Focus on Family which is the James Dobson group - you know, they gave all the money to Prop. 8 and they're very into - they're the biggest, kind of really neo-con, religious-right organization. They have these magazines that they put out at the gym. And I'm so offended by it. So every day I bring my copies of Out, and The Advocate [laughs] and I put them all out and I cover up the Focus on Family. And then every time I come out of the gym, my magazines are gone but the Focus on Familys are there. So then I have to do it again, so every time I go, I bring like queer literature, I bring like Southern Voice, which is an Atlanta gay paper, I bring like whatever I have, you know, and I just lay them out, side-by-side to the Focus on Family, covering up the Focus on Family. And then by the time I'm out it's Focus on Family. [laughs] But it's like at least they don't throw them away - they just put the Focus on Family on top. So at first I wanted to throw them away but then I realized no, that's unfair - I'm just going to cover it up.

I don't know, It's weird down here because I think what it is, is that they just don't know any gay people, and the people that are gay around them aren't willing to come out of the closet - and it's not that people are that mean down here - people are like the nicest people in the world - they're just afraid of disappearing. You know, because if you look at popular culture, their culture is not catered to. Nobody gives a shit about ultra-conservative Christians, so they feel like they are disappearing, and they're experiencing invisibility, which I think with queer society, with queer stuff, we have so much more of a voice now in the media. And the voice of the conservative is silent, it's considered ignorant - which it is -and they want to hang on to their ignorance like it's some kind of comfortable blanket. It's not that they're evil people, it's just that they only love what they know, and they are afraid of losing it so they hold on harder. And so that's why it's such a weird battle. You know, I was really worried about coming and living down here and I was really concerned, but the people that I've met have been so lovely and wonderful and I know that they are homophobes. [laughs] I know that they don't want gay marriage to exist. And I know all these things, yet they're not bad people, they're just fighting invisibility - the kind of invisibility that I have lived with my whole life. And so I am like finally becoming visible and relevant in society and they're sensing their dwindling devolution and lessening grasp on society - they used to be the majority and now they are slowly dwindling away. And that is where ignorance comes from, that's where all those people who want to kill the abortion doctors, that's all the people who want to make sure that gays can't adopt - their voices only exist because they're louder because they are afraid of losing them.

MS: When Barack Obama was elected I felt like maybe we were entering some kind of new paradigm. As an Asian American yourself, do you feel proud that we finally have a minority - an African American - as President? What does that mean to you?

MC: Oh, I think it's wonderful. I think it's really exciting! You know, it's hard because he has such a huge job. He has to reverse all this damage that took eight years to get there. It's a really tough job. But I think he's amazing and I'm proud, I'm excited about the future. I think he's done an amazing job so far, and I'm very excited about what's going to happen.

MS: And maybe we are getting to the point, going back to what we were talking about earlier about judging people on their inside- talk about breaking barriers, it was such a hopeful sign, that we managed to elect a President not based on external factors but on his character and what he represents.

MC: Yeah, it's also that people - to me, his victory also had a lot to do with minorities voting for him. Minorities actually feeling like they identified with him and wanting to make sure that we had this chance. So that had a lot to do with it too - so that's great.

MS: Someone who was familiar with you as an entertainer asked me if you were also a political activist. And I have always felt that your comedy was a form of political activism. Do you consider yourself a political comedian?

MC: Yeah, for sure - to me, it's political but it's also... I mean it's political because I don't have a choice - the nature of my existence is political so I think all female comics have to sort of acknowledge that this existence is political, there are so few of us, and especially for women of color certainly, we can't avoid it. Yeah, I absolutely consider myself a political comedian. And an activist.

MS: And how would you describe your comedic style?

MC: Hmm. I don't know! [laughs] I do a lot of different things - yeah, lots of different stuff. It's high brow and low brow at the same time.

MS: You always seem to say whatever you want, you never seem to worry about: am I being controversial, is this too raunchy, am I pushing the envelope... How are you so fearless and brave? Where do you get your courage?

MC: Oh, well - only because it has to have a really good joke or to me it's worthless. To me it's like as long as the joke is good, then that's so solid that it can be as raunchy as it can be, it can be as controversial as whatever - as long as the joke is solid, then I'm happy with it. I'm very particular about - like I just have to have as many jokes in as short a period of time as possible, and they have to be really, really big, good laughs, hard laughs. I have permission to say whatever I want - I give myself permission to say whatever I want, as long as the joke is solidly funny leading up to it.

MS: Were you always funny? Has comedy been a passion you've had since childhood?

MC: I have! I haven't always necessarily expressed it in that way, but I have always wanted to do this, and I knew very early on that this would be my career.

MS: I was thinking about how you managed to channel all your life experiences, including like the painful stuff, into your art. Do you think there is truth to the tortured artist concept - that you need to suffer in some way to create powerful art, as a way to turn darkness into light?

MC: I don't know - I mean, because I think everybody has suffered, everybody suffers, you know life is filled with suffering of all different types, and of all different people and you can't escape it - no matter who you are, it doesn't matter. Suffering is an element of life. And if you do something with it, like create something, it is a very satisfying way to cope with it. I don't know. I think that everybody says, well, great artists need to suffer - but everybody's suffers, and everybody suffers I think to the same degree. I don't think that there's more or less for anybody - it's always just different circumstances. But I just enjoy trying to write jokes and trying to do things and you can make something good out of it I think.

MS: You have a comedy music CD coming out this fall I heard about titled, "Guitarded"...

MC: I don't know - it's either that or it's going to be called "Banjovi" [laughs]. Because I play the banjo, so it might be called "Banjovi". I love puns! And so it's puns, so it's silly. I'm writing an album - I don't know. I just heard a song with Andrew Bird - I write with some of the greatest musicians in the world - I'm bringing them down to my level and making them write filthy songs with me. And so it's people like Andrew Bird, and Patty Griffin, who's wonderful, John Brion, Grant Lee Phillips - there's a lot of really amazing people on it. I don't know when it will be finished - it's kind of a long project, because everybody lives in every part of the world, so it's hard to connect everyone. I thought maybe I would try to tour with it, but I don't know if that will even be possible. But it's like a comedy project, a long-term comedy project. It's funny.

MS: Is this your first real foray into doing it in a musical style?

MC: Well, I've done some music stuff, I did a song in my last show Beautiful, and I did a couple songs over the years. I did a song when I did The Cho Show last year for VH-1 -I took out one of Britney's old cast off songs and I performed it. [I Cho am a Woman] So I kind of like picked up a little here and there, music stuff, since about 2003. But this is the first time I've actually played an instrument - I play guitar and I play banjo and I'm building it up from there. But it's fun. I take inspiration from like Steve Martin and Weird Al Yankovic . Weird Al Yankovic is truly my idol, I mean he is still incredible. He just had one song out just a couple weeks ago called "Craig's List" which is the most amazing, Doors cover about Craig's List and he actually does a great Jim Morrison and he actually has Ray Manzarec playing on it. And it's really beautiful, so to me the ultimate is Weird Al and I'd like to get to that point.

MS: You seem like you're constantly churning out stuff in so many different mediums - what is the source of all your energy and inspiration?

MC: If I don't make art, I'll just go shopping and that's really not creative. [laughs] I know it feels creative while you're doing it, it's actually not though. I have a lot of creative energy - and I like to play, and I like also hang out with artists. It's also something to do to hang out with people - all my friends are musicians and comics and dancers, and it's a nice way to get together and do something fun.

MS: What do you feel is the underlying message to all your art?

MC: I think underlying it - I think it's that we're all just trying to be beautiful, we're all just trying to feel beautiful, and I want to make people feel beautiful and I want people to know that I'm beautiful, and that's what it is.

MS: Going back to the beautiful question - how would you define beauty? My daughter's six grade teacher had an assignment where they all had to define beauty but they couldn't say anything related to anything about physical appearances. And I thought it was an interesting assignment. And then they made the parents do it too.

MC: That's cool.

MS: What is beauty to you?

MC: I think it's just a feeling of goodness and happiness and that you don't have to change anything - I think it's about being content. And not having to fix anything or change anything or do anything - that we are perfect as we are. It's very zen. It's just being as you are.

MS: How do you keep yourself centered and sane, especially in the craziness of the entertainment industry and your busy life and all you do?

MC: Well, I try not to get too involved in what is happening with my business - like if there are things written about me or whatever I don't look at it. Because I don't read any reviews, I don't read anything, I don't look online for anything, or I don't try to look at anything negative, I don't think about anything like that [laughs]. And I don't think of my career in any way after I am finished with working on something - I just am done. I don't re-look at it again.

And I think fame in itself is kind of a weird circumstance and that celebrities, a lot of times, their whole lives are kind of so self-involved and they don't know what to do if they're not talking about themselves or doing something about themselves or whatever. I think it's a poison. I think it's poisonous to inject something about yourself, this sickness that you have to ...it's for other people not for you. So I'm just real conscious of not being too self involved, and maybe that in itself is self-involved [laughs]. I don't know it's hard to tell. [laughs]

MS: It's funny because you used the word "poison" and I remember when I interviewed Annie Lennox she also used similiar terminology, calling fame a "dragon" capable of eating her up and not wanting to be "cannabilized" by the industry of fame. It's so ironic because it's what everyone seems to strive for in their lives, and then you hear that from people who are famous talking about it in those terms, it's really ironic.

MC: Yeah.

MS: Do you have a spiritual philosophy or way of looking at life that helps guide you?

MC: I just sort of think - it's almost like a bumper sticker thing - but it's like everything is going to be fine in the end, and if it's not fine, it's not the end. That's super bumper sticker - actually I think I saw it on a refrigerator [laughs] but that's like my religion. [laughs]

MS: I like that one. Also, you've been married now for six years. Any advice for married couples?

MC: No, you know - I just got lucky. My husband is awesome and we've been together for ten years now. I think you just have to be really honest. And my husband's so great. And also I think it helps to go away a lot [laughs]. Travel a lot. [laughs] It's just communication, and a lot of closeness and a lot of affection and constant talking - like if we're not together, I talk to him like thirty or forty times a day. It's like we're super attached at the hip, even though we're not physically together, but when we're physically together, we're always together. So, we take it seriously. It's like serious togetherness and it just works good.

MS: You seem to me really at a happy point right now. Where do you see yourself in your own evolution? Are you feeling that way? Because that's what you're kind of radiating is this sort of comfort in yourself, after years of struggling through so much to get to that place.

MC: Yeah - I feel good. I mean, I feel strong. I feel good. You know, I want to play better banjo - I don't know, I get real simple like goals - like today I would really like to... This banjo I got is really heavy, it's like a twelve string banjo, which is kind of like this anomaly, and it's so big and it's glass and it's wood and it's like trying to play a telephone booth - [laughs] it's so giant. But I just want to learn to play. I think what it is, is that every day I have these real small goals [laughs] - like trying to play the banjo - and that's enough. That to me is I think gives you happiness is every day you just kind of get these little small goals and you accomplish them and it's awesome.

MS: When people look out at the world there are obviously a lot of problems going on and we can get so overwhelmed - what advice would you give to the budding activist or somebody who wants to make a difference but has no ideas how to put their voice into the world or get involved?

MC: Well, I think that now more than ever there are so many ways to get involved, especially if you're talking about politics or trying to change things, there's blogs, there's so many ways to just have a voice. To blog about things, to talk about things, people now have so much more access to information and spreading information - more than ever, since the beginning of time. So this is the best time I can imagine ever to have a cause that you believe in and to really talk about it and to spread your message. It's amazing the power that everybody has to have a voice now. So to take that into consideration that everybody who has that access to a computer has the same power of voice than anybody else. It's really incredible.

MS: By the way, I'm following you on Twitter and I've also seen your blog at Huffington Post and on your own site - have you been enjoying that? And it's also like interacting in a more direct way with your fans.

MC: Yeah! I love that. I think that's really cool. It's kind of funny, you can actually talk to like super famous people [laughs] who will tweet back at you and it's like really surreal. Like oh, my god, that's so weird! [laughs] But that's what I mean how powerful information passing has become, that we've all become connected in this incredible way that's so new. I love it. I don't use it as much as I should or as I would like to, like Twitter and stuff, but I think it's so amazing. So I definitely check-in. And it helps for business stuff, of course, but it's a really wonderful way to check-in with people and see what people are thinking.

MS: It also makes us feel more like a one-world community online - and when you talk about the idea of beauty and not judging ourselves by our looks, it's also freeing that we're interacting without half the time knowing the race, gender, sexuality of the people we're interacting with.

MC: Yeah - it's their opinion or their voice or what they're thinking, and I think that's really cool.

MS: What is your wish for the children of the future?

MC: I just hope that they find a new revolution and that revolution will be beauty- that we feel beautiful and they feel beautiful and they feel how precious they are. If I was young again, I wish somebody told me how beautiful I was, and really, really tried to make me understand that. So whenever I see like young people, I always try to make them really understand how beautiful they are, and how exciting everything is and how great their lives are going to be and how feeling beautiful will help them, if they could get that into their head. So I just want to make sure they have that.