Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Margaret Cho on her activist bona fides

Outspoken comic to perform at Southam Hall

Margaret Cho has had about as many careers as Madonna has had hairstyles.

If you’ve been keeping even half an eye on the ins and outs of Cho’s 20-plus years in the spotlight so far, you may think she already has a lot to juggle when it comes to artistic identity.

Well, you can add singer/songwriter to the list of genres she’s putting her stamp on, including comedian, author, fashion designer, TV and movie actor, recording artist and burlesque dancer.

Her newest comedy show, Cho Dependent — and the accompanying 13-track album of the same name — blends stand-up, singing and instrumental music, including Cho herself strumming and wailing on the guitar.

She credits Madonna with giving her the guts to pick up an axe, saying, “If that bitch can do it, then so can I!”

“It’s really inspiring that somebody like her would go back and learn what is quite a difficult instrument — and what is traditionally kind of a male instrument. I thought I would do the same,” says Cho, whose new album features a host of hot musical collaborations with Ani DiFranco, Andrew Bird, Tegan and Sara, Grant-Lee Phillips and Fiona Apple.

But why the move to merge music with stand-up?

“I had been wanting to do music in my work for a while,” says Cho. “I did an off-Broadway show called The Sensuous Woman [in 2007], which was burlesque-fusion and kind of a dance show. I first started doing music there, and it felt like a really good direction for me. It wasn’t like I was leaving stand-up, because it was still comedy, but it allowed me to do something different.”

Cho Dependent was recently nominated for a Grammy, showing that people are taking notice of the type of fusion she’s proposing. Cho says that she couldn’t have done any of it without the support of her musical amigos.

“I had a lot of friends who could help me along in my journey,” says Cho. “They helped me make this album, which I’m so proud of.”

While Cho acknowledges that her songwriting is still evolving, she says it’s unlikely that she’ll dump comedy for a straight-up career in the music industry.

“It doesn’t feel like that’s what will happen with my music, although I don’t know. I don’t feel like that would be appropriate for me or that I would want to — I don’t have a real straight album in me.”

Then again, there’s not much that’s straight about Cho, period. From her poly marriage to Al Ridenour to her relationships with people all over the gender spectrum to the hilarious romps through gay themes in her art, Cho pretty much specializes in living a life that she calls “gayer than gay.”

For years now, people have tried to put labels on Margaret Cho’s sexuality, but she’s as hesitant to settle on a singular sexual identity as she is an artistic identity. Her usual response is to talk about how she identifies as a slut and where’s her parade? But lately, the answer has been different. She’s more likely to say, “I’m not bi, I’m I.”

Despite her desire to eschew identity and pigeon-holing, Cho has for several years now been using the pronoun “we” when she talks about the queer community. And she’s one of the hardest-working activists for gay rights the state of California has ever known.

This fact is so widely recognized that, after same-sex marriage became legal in California in May 2008, Cho was deputized by the City of San Francisco to perform marriages there. That summer, she married many couples of her acquaintance with obvious glee. The state no longer issues same-sex marriage licences, but Cho is fighting to reverse the situation.

She’s also been getting more involved in grassroots politics in San Francisco. In last November’s local election, she endorsed a transgender candidate who was campaigning for a supervisor’s seat: Theresa Sparks, executive director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission.

“She didn’t win,” says Cho, “but it was a really important step in getting us to think about different-looking people, different-sounding people in public office.”

While no one can deny that Cho is a committed advocate for gay rights, her pet issue is body image — hands down. After a difficult and damaging struggle with anorexia and bulimia during her short-lived TV show, All-American Girl — which has left her with health issues to this day — Cho is very much committed to transforming the current take on beauty norms.

Most recently, she’s been doing this work through her role on Lifetime TV’s Drop Dead Diva — a show about a shallow, vapid model who is killed in a car crash and comes back to Earth in the body of a plus-sized lawyer played by Brooke Elliott. Cho plays Elliott’s assistant, Teri Lee.

“It’s fun for me to help out on something that I really believe in,” says Cho. “I think it’s a great concept and important for women. This is a show that is popular, that is out there, that is celebrating women’s bodies and celebrating women’s beauty, and I think it’s really valuable. We’re in our third season now, and we’re starting to shoot next month, so I’m getting ready to do that.”

The ever-busy Cho will be wrapping up her North American tour of Cho Dependent soon (including an Ottawa date) then zooming through the UK, Australia and New Zealand. She says the six months she’ll spend shooting Drop Dead Diva in Peachtree City, Georgia, will give her a chance to write songs for her next comedy/music album on race identity and immigration, which she anticipates releasing in 2012.

“I think it’s [going to be] called The Yellow Album,” says Cho, laughing.