Margaret Cho: Celebrity as a disease

She rocketed to fame, then crashed and burned. Now, in her new one-woman show, the former star of "All American Girl" talks about the dark trajectory of Hollywood Ruin.

By Cintra Wilson
July 28, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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The last time I saw Margaret Cho, we were in Hollywood. We were both vaguely hanging around the same pack of young L.A. comics, a lot of whom are pretty famous now. I was half drunk at Smalls. She walked in with her entourage of pretty, gay young men and had on a fabulous go-go dress and white boots, and we compulsively started sexy-dancing together. I felt special. Her big TV show was about to come out, and she was going out with Chris Isaak, and Disney had recently signed her to a contract worth millions. I was half-suicidal on a rotating schedule of Ritalin, Wellbutrin and a not-so-carefully controlled cocktail limit, and having seizures of depression so fierce friends would have to come and baby-sit me until my arms stopped uncontrollably jerking around, but I thought I was the only one with serious problems. Only last week did I realize that Cho was also hysterically crazy and traumatized during that little disco emergency. Who knew? She seemed so slick.

When her TV show, "All American Girl," came out, everyone felt sad for her, because it was so unforgivably lame. It was clear that she had no creative control; otherwise it would have been funny. The show was quickly canceled and America didn't hear from Margaret Cho for a while, because she was totally drunk off her ass.

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Now Cho has a one-woman show, called "I'm the One That I Want," at the Westbeth Theatre in Manhattan, wherein she talks about the professional experiences that led her down the dark path of Hollywood Ruin. She is Clean N' Sober now, and more grounded. Her energies are tethered to her own center in a way that makes her seem taller and meaner and more fiercely alive.

The morning of the interview I woke up at 6:30, the result of a nightmare I had about a kind of Frankencelebrity: a blond with every surgery imaginable and virtually no brain except whatever the corporation asked her to stand for, including a few vaguely controversial anti-feminist sentiments; just enough for newspaper fodder. There were two different minds in my dream, the mind of the manager-agent who built her, who was thinking of all of the possible marketing angles, and the mind of the Frankenceleb herself; she had her own justifications for being what she was.

I began by telling Cho about the book I just finished writing: "Celebrity Re-examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease," and hoped she wouldn't object to my contention that fame is the worst thing that has happened in the New World since the influenza of '18. I'm always looking for evidence to support my conjecture that celebrity in Hollywood is sort of like a Joel Peter Witkin photograph: It looks like a big lush banquet table filled with abundance and cornucopias, and then if you look at it closer you see that all the fruit is made of wax and that entree in the middle of the table is actually a dead baby. Happily, far from disagreeing with me, she bolstered all of my most vile contentions.

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The last time I saw you, we were both in L.A., hanging out with these really fabulous people, and we all seemed like we were really "happening" at that moment in time, and then looking back on it now, I realize that half of the people that I knew were unbelievably miserable.

I think around that time I was really close to death. This is the sick part of fame -- I was in the depths of my alcoholism, I was really sick, I felt so washed up, and part of me loved it, being washed up, and part of me was in such pain ... I had this really irresponsible boyfriend. I was having such a bad time in my life, and my lost fame kept coming up as the reason why ... and I got pregnant, and I had to have an abortion, so I went to the doctor to have an abortion, and I'm having the abortion, and the doctor said, "You know, when you had your TV show, it really didn't capture who you are as a comedian. And I think if you go back and do it again, that you should really strive for more creative control." And I said, "You know what? That's fine, but could you just kill my baby?" That didn't make it into the show -- "I'm the One That I Want" -- but it totally captures what happened. It would keep coming up, this disease. It is a disease, fame is a disease, like cancer or alcoholism; you catch it, and it never quite leaves you.

I read in your press material that in one incarnation of your new show you were talking about your relationship with Chris Isaak; I remember seeing you talk about that relationship at Luna Park (a Los Angeles comedy club) in 1995. You were really struggling with it.

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That was really creepy. I mentioned it in the show, and it got so much attention that I took it out, because that is a show unto itself. That experience was so -- not exactly heartbreaking. It's kind of like fame, in that you put all your dreams, your hopes, your aspirations, on somebody, and you think they're going to be the greatest thing, if you can just get that person, your life is complete, and then you get that person and that person is worse than you ever imagined. It's not his fault. He's a very nice guy, but he's not what I pictured or wanted or imagined or anything.

You were both real famous at the time you were involved. What was it like being famous and having an affair with a famous person? Was it like a sun consuming another sun? Was the fame a big aphrodisiac?

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No. Not really. I was so insecure about mine, and he was so ... I don't know what, about his. It was really more about this attraction, that was real. He never really mentioned my job to me, and I didn't talk about his job to him.

Oh come on! It didn't even play a little part?

No! It was this weird unsaid thing; it was so obvious, it was never talked about, which made it weird.

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Do you think the attitude of non-famous people toward celebrity is different in L.A. than it is in San Francisco or New York? I tend to think of non-famous L.A. people as really craven and desperate in their pursuit of fame.

Yeah, but [in L.A.] it's hidden. They don't want to admit it. It's not as naked as it is in other places, like New York, where it's really raw, and ambition is clearly evident in conversations and interaction. In L.A. people are more closeted about it; there's more of a desperation there. There's more of a need to conform to the system ... there's more eating disorders, more plastic surgery. They try to make appearances fit, whereas in New York or other places, it's more about the art, the real stuff.

I want to hear how desire for celebrity made you give yourself away and lose yourself, because I think everybody in America suffers from that, in one way or another. What is the percentage of famous people who sell off huge hunks of their souls to be famous?

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I think it happens to everybody, but nobody talks about it. I think it happens to everybody. I mean, it's got to! That's just how it is. I'm reading this book about Judy Garland, and all the beginning years of her life, they were trying to make her lose weight, and putting her in corsets and trying to give her a waist. They find somebody with natural, amazing talent, and her body is built around a diaphragm, because she's a great singer, so she has this certain body type that isn't going to conform to the system's ideal. I think that what the system tries to do is homogenize unusual talents. That's what happened to me. I already had an inferiority complex because of my race ... I already felt weird ... being in Hollywood. I was already unusual, and then to be a comedian, and then to have [requests from the network] to conform, I really felt like I had to do it, like they were making allowances for me, because I wasn't white, so I had to make allowances for them.

What a big responsibility: You were under a huge contract with Disney to introduce Asian-Americans to mainstream TV, and it kind of trapped you.

It was terrible, it wasn't just comedy, there were so many other factors involved, and the way they went about it was just crazy.

You had a super PC "Asian consultant" on the show ...

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Who really didn't know anything! And she was very annoying, and it was very demeaning to have her there! As if our [Asian-American] existence is so specialized that we needed a translator to translate the culture, not even the language -- the culture! It was so insulting. There was one ad that didn't make it on the air, that was animated. It was my character, animated, doing karate chops through all of her daily life, like that's how she dealt with everything -- boyfriends, family, work -- was by doing karate chops to it. I was so appalled, but they all treated it like it was so normal!

Your relationship with Hollywood was kind of like a bad love relationship, in that everything they fell in love with you for was everything they wanted to beat out of you.

Exactly.

You have a really strong group of friends who believe very ardently in your comedy. You talked a little bit in your show about pissing them off by selling out your precious material to the terrible Molech of the network. That was really poignant to me, that you felt like you'd alienated your friends.

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That really hurt, and I think the more complex side of that is jealousy, professional jealousy. [My friends were essentially saying] "You have this opportunity, and you wasted it, by conforming to the system ... you wasted your opportunity to really 'be you' out there. Why didn't I get that? You fucked up, and I'm going to tell you why you fucked up, because I'm mad at you, because I wanted that, so I'm going to passively aggressively try to make you feel like [shit]" ... Hollywood is really fucked up!

You talked in your show about how, at a certain point in TV stardom, it's suddenly OK for everyone to talk shit about you. You're a huge dartboard for everyone's criticism.

That was really hard too! I've always been incredibly sensitive, and I just couldn't believe the attacks. I put it in the show I'm doing now; there was this Korean Media Action Group, and the leader said that he was monitoring my activities and would protest at the first opportunity -- treating me like I was a criminal! And I was just trying to do a TV show!

Did you ever figure out why he was so angry at you?

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I think I am not what certain people in the Korean community wanted as a role model. I don't play violin, I don't have any elegant, nice things about me [laughs].

They were trying to turn you into the Korean Jennifer Love Hewitt. A Pret-ty Girl.

Sweet.

No significant personality.

No. And I was on the edge of it. If they took these edgy parts of me away, then I could be that. But I would have to change so much.

I think everyone who is outside of celebrity sees it in terms of tiers, like there's the "A List," the Puffy Combs parties, and then there's a "B List" -- you were "A List" at one point.

Yeah, I shot up there, A-List with a bullet. You get up there really fast, but then as fast as you're up, you're down. Then nobody cares.

How fast is that whiplash action?

It changes on a day-to-day basis. It's also relative to who you're with at the moment. It's really instantaneous. It's just the weirdest thing.

Then after you fall off the list, do people pretend they don't know you as well as they actually do?

Yeah. There was a period right after the show was canceled where people would try not to know me. I'd be out, and I'd see executives and they wouldn't look at me, they'd pretend I wasn't there, or we'd be re-introduced, and I'd have known them for a long time and they'd [pretend we hadn't met]. At one point I was really depressed and really fucked up, and I was at a party for "Frasier," and I was almost dead ... and again, I was into the role of the Hollywood Casualty. People were talking to me like I was the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, people were like [haunted voice], "Oooh, you don't want to be like her, talk to her, because that's what you don't want to do." I was sitting in the corner as a reminder of the real world and the ugliness of fame, and how it can wreck you.

There is an entropic Hollywood role as the "Fame Casualty." It's a definite role, something you can be in Hollywood.

Totally something you can be. I have a really geeky side where I go and collect autographs. They have these things at the Beverly Garland Hotel, they open it up and invite all these washed-up celebrities to come and sell their autographs, and it's really depressing; it's like, Todd Bridges and Apollonia.

What can you get for an Apollonia autograph?!

I think it's like $15, and you can talk to her. But there's so many people in there, and Todd Bridges is the big star; the big Hollywood Casualty. He talked to me there. He said, "Fame is good on the way up, and bad on the way down." There was no pre or after conversation. He just looked at me, and reached out to me, and said that. And then he went back into ...

Jail.

Yeah. It's really intense.

Drew Carey got a TV show right after yours, and he didn't have to lose any goddamned weight. Do you feel that women in Hollywood are always treated like three-holed chattel, or is it mainly a sexist double standard concerning weight?

It's women. There's such a need to categorize women as "fuckable" or "unfuckable." One or the other. You can't be in between. You can't be just a person. You have to be a "Baywatch" Babe or a "Tool Time" Girl, or you have to be something on the other side, so completely that it's just like a caricature of a person, like, obviously the harpie or something, or the mom, or whatever. There's no room for women to be really women.

And then there's Roseanne.

Yeah. Who is incredibly successful because she demands to be herself. There are people out there who make it through that unscathed, because they have the strength of character to remain themselves, and then they get enormous support, because people love to see that. It's so unusual. I didn't have that kind of stamina or confidence ... I was way too young when the whole thing went down.

I don't think Roseanne is all that complicated, but I think you're complicated. I think if you're a complicated person you have less of a chance of figuring yourself out, early on. What really got to me in "I'm the One That I Want" was the press conference for "All American Girl," during which a reporter asked you if it was true that the network made you lose 30 pounds to play yourself on TV, and the network executive snatched the mike away from you and said there was "no truth in that rumor at all."

That was really awful. It was really painful because [the executive] was my friend. She was somebody that I really loved and trusted ... People are your friend in this business to a point, and they can only be friends to a point, because they have to keep their jobs. She was just trying to keep her job.

There's another real chilling part of your show where you're doing a TV Guide shoot, and they kept twisting and contorting you to look thinner, and you started crying, and it didn't even faze them, they just powdered over it.

I think they were just used to crazy actresses. I look at those pictures now and I look crazy, like a crazy person, because I'm crying, but I'm being forced to smile, and I look totally insane. They put those pictures everywhere.

Another thing that got to me is where you talked about the tabloids having photos of you revealing your ethnic celebrity diet of rice and fish, which was totally bogus. Can they do that? Were you some kind of network property, which made that OK?

Tabloids just do that. They just make up shit. They just do it, and you can't do anything about it. What's good about it is that I'm talking so much about this now and criticizing it so openly that if I do get back to that tabloid level of fame, they couldn't print something like that now.

You're going for it again.

Yeah. Sure. I hope so.

You like being famous. Being famous is good.

Well, I can handle it now. I think I understand it a little better. I think I just want the money now. And the artistic expression, that's really important. There's some responsibility for me to go back and make things right, and ultimately, that's my job, and fame is part of the job.

Did you spend all your money?

No. I did pretty good. I did not do expensive drugs.

You got those big screw-top bottles of Popov. You were trying to kill yourself, slowly.

Yeah. I clearly remember getting very drunk and saying, "I am in the process of drinking myself to death" to whoever was there to listen to me.

Which was half-funny and half-true.

It was true. I really thought I should do that. It was another Hollywood Casualty thing. I thought, "I'm gonna be more famous when I'm dead." It's gonna be really worth it.

Oh, that's so sad!

Yeah. I thought I could be a really good Hollywood legend.

"Everyone'll only remember the HBO Special and those fuckers will be sorry!" [Laughs.] I want to go back to talking about that part in "I'm the One That I Want" where your TV show got picked up, and you got a call from the president of Disney who told you, "Margaret Cho, you're a star!" which you described as "a thousand champagne corks popping." That's the thing that worries me the most about fame as a disease. That phone call is universally seen as one of the few things in the world that can completely validate a human being. Everything you've ever said is right! You're OK.

It was weird, it was like, this phone call, and then a million things happened. The door kept knocking and it was flowers, and then champagne, and flowers, and champagne, and the phone was ringing off the hook, it was congratulations, and telegrams, and just ... shit!

Who, if any, are artistic role models and fave influenzas?

I think recently it's really the gay divas, like Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. It's so stupid, but I was watching "A Star is Born," the Streisand one, and I was just crying and crying. I don't know why. "The Rose" really got to me. Really, really got to me. Mostly because she had to pay for everything. That was so painful for me that she was the one paying for the drinks, and she was the one paying for the jet and everybody's career. Paying, paying, paying, so much, with her money and her career and her tragedy. That was so me. Anne Magnusen is a big influence. I went to her show, and there's a big part about being a "Successful Woman." Part of that's really painful. So I identify with those really successful women. Part of me wants to be that, of course. But, there's a price to pay. You pay with your femininity, a lot.

I figure that if there's a heaven, then there's a room in heaven where you can look over all of history and be anyone you want to be, at a peak moment in their lives. For example, I always say I would choose to be one of Stevie Wonder's backup singers on the "Innervisions" album. If you could be anybody at any point in history, for that amazing peak, who would it be?

Maybe Pamela Des Barres [we laugh]. She always impresses me. Or I'd love to be in the Runaways. I'm friends with Joan Jett, and I just can't believe I'm friends with her. I hear her voice on my machine, and my stomach just lurches. I'm so into her, and I can't believe I know her, I'm amazed by her so much, and to be in a band when I was 16 like that, like the Runaways. To be like her, or Lita Ford. Lita Ford!

Lita Ford!

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I hope that Cho's refreshingly vulgar and personal stage show will cause her career to spring Phoenix-like upwards, putting her back into the American star-consciousness where she belongs, because Cho is really fuckin' funny. She's a good egg who deserves our continued attention. If Fame turns its back on Cho a second time, we'll probably find her down at the Beverly Garland, cackling, selling her name for $17. She is a Teflon survivor, now: The beast can never beat her down again.


Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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