I've forgotten to breathe. In a few seconds I'm going to be talking to Margaret Cho, and for a brief, skittery moment it hits me that I'm terrified. I don't get this way about just anybody. In my five years here at The Inlander I've interviewed hundreds of people, even famous ones (including a bored and prickly Mary-Chapin Carpenter). But Cho is different, because... I'm a great, big, geeking-out fan. I've watched her concert films (I'm the One That I Want, Notorious C.H.O and Revolution) -- so many times that I have huge portions memorized. Her Web site blog (www.margaretcho.com) is one of my first stops every day and her regular responses to the news, pop culture and this year's presidential race have become as necessary to me as my morning coffee. And don't even get me started on the glamour - fed up with the lack of hip fashion for normal-sized women, Cho launched "High Class Cho," her own line of curvaceous couture. Onstage, she fearlessly discusses sex, she voices her opinions, she makes fun of her own mother. In short, Cho is stylish, fearsomely smart and one of the funniest women on the planet. And I'm in awe.
Also, at least three friends have warned me that, according to the Internet, Cho loathes doing phone interviews. But if that's the case, there is no sign of it when she comes on the line. She's engaging and quietly enthused about the first leg of her new show "State of Emergency" (which makes a stop in Spokane this Saturday night). Currently touring through such swing states as Missouri, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington, Cho's show is more overtly political than anything she's ever done before.
"I've done a lot of stuff over the years about how 'the personal is the political,' but this one is more about being critical of government than anything I've done so far," she says. "It's a way for me to exercise my voice and hopefully, rally others and give people a different point of view. What's cool is that it works on a lot of levels - it works for people who don't necessarily have a strong liberal perspective in their community, and it works for people who don't even necessarily agree with what I'm doing or saying but love the show anyway because it's entertaining."
Cho electrified audiences in 2000 with I'm the One That I Want, a combination of her incisive, no-holds-barred stand up and a raucous and vulnerable recounting of what it was like to be the first Asian-American with her own hit TV show. In the early '90s, she starred in ABC's All-American Girl, a sitcom about a traditional Korean-American family with a mildly rebellious, 100% "American" daughter. Behind the scenes, however, the producers hounded the then size-6, Korean-American Cho about her weight, about not being "Asian" enough, and in one memorable bit, told her they had a problem with the size of her face. "What do you do when someone says they have a problem with your face?" Cho asks in the film, her voice suddenly becoming serious as the audience considers the ramifications of such a statement.
In her case, she went on a dieting binge that resulted in kidney failure and hospitalization. Her show, increasingly tweaked and manipulated by ABC brass, was eventually cancelled. Cho spiraled into a Behind the Music-esque depression, benchmarked with the requisite drinking, drugs and promiscuity. "I gave a lot of unnecessary head," she announces in the film, smiling with the hard-won confidence of a woman who's learned to own, and even make fun of, her own bad times.
Cho survived, and in one of those great examples of irony on the big scale, she became a success not by trying to fit ABC's narrow parameters but by telling the truth and being herself. Her concert films are raw, confessional and deeply refreshing, if for no other reason than that Cho moves through them with a visible tummy and bitches about things that few women entertainers would dare to take on. Not surprisingly, sex figures into the new show but on a much broader level.
"I talk about sex but it's much more about women's rights and women's sexual identity and this fear of women's sexuality that exists. I talk about the basis of misogyny and how subtle it is," she says. Part of the show's theme - "state of emergency" - deals with women's issues and how, as Cho points out, they're considered a "secondary emergency" and as such, tend to get shelved rather than solved.
"The primary emergencies are the ones we hear about the most. For gays and lesbians, it's the idea that they may be constitutionally barred from marriage, or barred from equality. For African-Americans or Asian-Americans, the primary emergency is racism," she explains. "So when you look at women's rights, they're always being pushed over to a secondary status. Which is dangerous because a lot of people aren't really aware of things like the fact that if Bush is in office for another four years, we may not have the right to choose any more. It's not talked about very much, but it's a huge issue."
Over the years, Cho has also discussed the subtle misogyny of American media, about how women become weighed down by internalized comparisons and about how they're valued or dismissed purely on the basis of how they look. She's currently writing a book on the subject and says she's often "deep in thought" about such matters these days.
"The angriest I get is when I feel invisible. I think the 'invisibility factor' is the most infuriating thing for any woman who doesn't feel like she fits the ideal -- which is all women, really," she says. "It's that fear or anger at invisibility that motivates me to write, to perform and to do what I do. Because if I didn't, then I would be invisible and that would be intolerable."
As heavy as all this might seem, Cho still sounds hopeful. She cracks jokes over the phone about Republican "Barbie" pundit Ann Coulter while going on to describe how rewarding it is to come through swing states and be greeted by enthusiastic, intelligent crowds on both sides of the political spectrum.
"I always have hope for the future, although it's a scary time and it's not really great for anyone right now. But I think that it's just gotta get better," she says. "I think that people are more politically minded and more informed than ever. When 9/11 happened, we actually saw the effect of politics in our daily civilian lives, and I think the terror of that, the alarm of that, the fear of that really marched people into a political mindset. So now people are much more political, much more aware and focused, and no matter where they are on the scale, no matter where they fall in terms of Republican or Democrat, at least people are thinking about it, which is more than ever has happened. So that's really good."