Let's talk about sex

Margaret Cho on her Emmanuelle year, her super-duper leather dude ex-boyfriend and why Asian-Americans make fun of their parents.

Published August 22, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Margaret Cho leaves little to the imagination in her new concert film "The Notorious C.H.O.," detailing, whether you really want to know or not, the details of her more recent sexual escapades, including being fisted by a very short lesbian in a sex club. Yet there's something in her delivery -- and in her remarkably cartoonish face, which seems to almost turn inside out expressing outrage at herself -- that makes even the most graphic revelations as charming as they are disarming.

In person, she's a different Margaret Cho altogether, not the one who plays Margaret Cho on stage. Though they share some personal history, the two Margarets shouldn't be confused. "When you are doing the show, it's your job and it's for the audience," this Margaret says. "But I don't really like talking about myself." On this particular morning, just days before the opening of her film, Cho is more animated when she's discussing her dog Bronwyn, whose gorgeous mug is featured in the morning's Daily News. And then there's the landscaping of her California property. "Do you know how much trees cost?" she asks. Clearly, Margaret Cho knows the cost of a decent tree. And it doesn't sit well with her.

But she's willing to push domestic concerns aside to discuss the experiences that inspired much of her current material. "The last year, in terms of relationships, was very erotic for me," she says, but with a softer, more confessional tone than the braggart persona she adopts on stage. "I burned through a lot of different people. So I had a lot to write about. It was my own personal Emmanuelle sort of year. The whole sex club thing comes out of this relationship I had with a guy who was a master, a real super-duper leather dude."

"I wasn't really into that kind of a life, but he could not leave it. He just couldn't function outside of that world. He was like a mermaid. I couldn't take him away from the sea. He didn't want to go to the movies, or out to dinner. He just wanted to go to these different sex events. Which was OK, but after four months I said, 'I can't do this anymore.' We just weren't connecting anymore.

"He was there with all these people insisting, 'This is who we really are,'" she says, adding with a chuckle, "but they were all wearing masks!" Not that wearing a mask or being dolled up in a sling doesn't have its appealing aspects for her. But in the end, Cho realized she was looking for something more than costume drama. "I'm really open-minded, but it just really shut me down a bit. I really cared for him, and I know he did for me, but we just couldn't get beyond his need to be in this very extreme environment. For me, real adventure is intimacy. Real adventure is people getting together and talking about what's going on. I just got really frustrated."

"I think there is an innocence though, in the way that I talk about sex. I'm frustrated with the lack of symmetry in sexuality. I think it's fun to talk about certain things when there are a lot of gay men in the audience because they are just very freaked out to hear about pussy. And they don't want to know! But it's all in fun."

"The Notorious C.H.O." isn't just sex talk. Cho's parents get a fair amount of screen time, both as talking heads in the pre-show interviews and as characters in some of Margaret's most affecting moments on stage. "When I was growing up they were the worst," she says. "I was so mad at them all the time. I started making fun of my mom because -- its such an Asian-American phenomenon to make fun of your parents because they are so foreign and you just can't believe that they live with you and they are so embarrassing, and so we would just always make fun of our parents. My characterization of my mother came out of that. It was one of the first things I ever did as a performer, when I was like 5."

"They love the stories about them directly," she says, seeming as proud of them as they seem to be of her. "My mom likes it a lot. She's always trying to give me stories to tell for future shows. It's cute. It's always the stories that she doesn't know are funny that I think are so charming. The things that just kind of come off the cuff." One monologue has Cho, in her mother's animated broken English, delivering the funny and heartbreaking story of her father's homoerotic friendship with a college friend and his inability to accept his friend's proclamation of affection. "That's the one thing that does bother him," Cho says. "Not because I'm telling people but because he's really sad now that he lost that friend."

"My relationship with them changed drastically over the years. I was a very rebellious kid and hard to get along with and left home very young, so I was really kind of a black mark on their whole existence for many years until I became successful and then they were very excited and completely in awe that I had taken all of this and had created something of it. Now they are my biggest fans and my biggest supporters."

But in spite of the honesty she displays on stage, Cho would never share the same details with her parents in any other forum. "No! No!" she says, her voice rising an octave. "I would never tell them any of the things I talk about on stage in conversation. Never. My parents and I have been in therapy together, and I would still never say any of the things I talk about. But there is some sort of a freedom when I'm performing that I can not think about their reaction so much. They're accepting of what I want to talk about. They don't mind it. I think they get a little bit embarrassed."

Cho lives her life in recurring cycles: putting a show together, touring, promoting the film version and then returning to real life again to rest and begin gathering material. She's balancing now on that cusp between projects, reading, collecting her thoughts, catching up on other interests. This morning she just finished reading Jim Goad's new book, "Shit Magnet," and she's a little obsessed. "He was put in jail for beating up his girlfriend and he's very proud of having committed this crime," she explains. "But he's really an amazing writer, so I get past all of my own ... I'm the kind of person that if an artist is saying things that I absolutely disagree with, I can still like them. I just don't have to agree with what they are saying."

She isn't sure what the next show will be, but it seems likely that it will deal with racial identity. Cho was particularly pissed off and inspired by the recent line of Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts featuring Asian stereotypes doing laundry and the like. "It was so fucked-up. It's infuriating the casualness people have towards racial discrimination of Asians." A group of Stanford students started an Internet protest and inspired a nationwide boycott of the stores. "The response was really exciting," she says. "Students gathering together and taking action. I don't think there's been that level of organization by Asians before." It's not just Asian stereotypes that inspire her ire. Take the recent thriller "Unfaithful": "All that movie's about is how it is OK to kill French people. It is not OK to kill the French!"

"That's the problem with celebrity. People really take that stuff for granted. People think that the reason that everyone likes them is because they are special." She roars with laughter at this misguided sense of entitlement. "They're not! I put a lot of work into my shows and my touring and it is very important to me to do a good show, because it is such an amazing act to go somewhere and pay money to see someone you like. It's a big deal. So I want to honor their effort, because I'm such a ... homebody-crabapple. I would hate it to be someone who wasn't as respectful of their audience. I owe them. I owe them. I feel very lucky."

By Ken Foster

Ken Foster Ken Foster is the author of a memoir, "The Dogs Who Found Me," and a collection of stories, "The Kind I'm Likely to Get." His most recent book is "I'm a Good Dog: Pit Bulls, America's Most Beautiful (and Misunderstood) Pet."

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