“I am a former sex worker,” Margaret Cho says. “So I know that when you have consensual prostitution, it’s actually a victimless crime. And I think that’s something that should be honored.”
Instead, last week the government shut down Rentboy.com. “It was a way to keep people safe,” Cho says of the gay escort site. “I think sex workers need that modicum of safety, through a commercial organization.”
Cho compares Rentboy’s travails to the more publicized case of Ashley Madison, the site that encourages extramarital hookups. Both controversies are examples of America’s anti-sex default mode — attempts, as Cho puts it, “to throw a blanket over everything that has to do with sexuality.”
A bisexual San Francisco native of Korean descent, Cho has consistently worked to counteract such prudish attitudes and negative portrayals about sex and alternative sexualities, in over two decades of work as a stand-up comedian and TV personality. She’s currently preparing for a new chapter that promises to be her busiest yet as she returns to sitcom television this fall, two decades after her short-lived but pioneering ABC series, All-American Girl.
But first, the 46-year-old is embarking on a new stand-up concert, which she’ll tour throughout the U.S. and Europe this fall. And in each city, Cho, an ordained minister, will marry, live on stage, a couple selected from a group of online applicants in each city.
One of the first stops on Cho’s tour is the Warner Theatre, where a politically engaged audience will very likely be eager to hear her take on a certain presidential candidate with the temperament of a 12-year-old bully.
METRO WEEKLY: What is the focus of your new stand-up show, the PsyCHO Tour?
MARGARET CHO: The tour is current events-driven — guns and police brutality and all this violence against women. There are so many things that I think can be helped with comedy — the rage that we feel, the fear.
MW: How do you make such serious topics funny?
CHO: You have to find exactly where you can talk about something that people are thinking about, that’s really difficult, and turn it into some way of alleviating some of the sadness and fear around it.
MW: I’m assuming you’ll be riffing on Donald Trump.
CHO: Yeah. I haven’t figured out a way to crack that yet. On his own, he’s just so ridiculous, and he’s such a racist. And he’s such a misogynist. He’s so bad on so many levels. But I think sometimes America really responds to that. Sometimes people look to the presidency as a source of entertainment. Which is not the right way to look at it.
I mean, Donald Trump cannot be president. It would just look so bad to the rest of the world. The only kind of equivalent I could even see is maybe Silvio Berlusconi in Italy — that level of corruption and racism and sexism and idiocy. That’s what I think would happen in America if Trump were elected. But I really don’t think that’s possible.
He’s a bully, but also he’s a terrified bully. He’s actually afraid because he knows he’s wrong. I think he’s just trying to not admit that he’s wrong, and continually digs himself deeper. But I think that a lot of his feelings about women are very true to him. The way he talks about them is so demeaning and demoralizing. I think he actually has that feeling towards women.
MW: Have you met Trump before?
CHO: I haven’t. He pursued me for years to be on The Celebrity Apprentice. And I never wanted to be on that show. A lot of my friends have been on it. I was invited to do some of their challenges and be there for them. It’s just always very terrifying and grueling. So that show never appealed to me.
MW: You’re going to be selecting a couple to marry right from the stage, picked from those who apply via your #MarryMeMargaret campaign. What inspired you to do that?
CHO: I’m doing that in every city on this tour, which is exciting. I was deputized by San Fransisco mayor Gavin Newsom to marry gay and lesbian couples inside San Francisco City Hall. We started working on gay marriage in 2004. Which was a tremendous thing because City Hall in San Francisco was the site of Harvey Milk’s assassination. So it has a very painful history when it comes to gay politics. To be able to marry couples — it was such a big huge deal. So it was a real honor.
Ever since the Supreme Court’s decision, I wanted to continue that. I still have accreditation from a church, the American Marriage Ministries, where I have the authority to marry people. So I want to do it on stage. And I think it will be such a great memory for people — a joyful celebration of what we’ve created.
MW: Some traditionalists might claim you’re cheapening the institution of marriage by creating a spectacle around it. You don’t feel that way?
CHO: No, because I think it’s about celebrating it at this point. Most of the people coming to my shows had some part in really pushing the idea of marriage equality forward. And over time we’ve all worked on it. And over time I’ve also had a number of people propose to their partners at my shows, so it’s become a semi-regular feature anyway in the journey towards marriage equality, and where we’ve been legally over the last 15 years.
MW: Conservatives of course still believe that gays are destroying the sanctity of marriage — but the rest of us see the institution as being blemished by the type of hypocrisy and adultery encouraged by social media, specifically sites such as Ashley Madison. The recent hack of its system revealed that conservative 19 & Counting television personality Josh Duggar was a member.
CHO: It’s all so crazy! It’s very interesting, especially with the Duggars, and with all of that happening.
Everybody is trying to crack down on these sites that promise illicit, confidential sex. Ashley Madison is different from Rentboy, but I think people are sort of lumping them together as being these things that are bad for the moral fiber of the Internet. It’s like they’re trying to throw a blanket over everything that has to do with sexuality. I actually don’t think Ashley Madison is wrong, either. It’s just the fact that the Duggars are so prominent — everybody wants to expose what they’re involved with, and Ashley Madison is part of that.
MW: Last week’s shutdown of Rentboy.com seems like another manifestation of how our society is anti-sex.
CHO: Rentboy is just a site that facilitates consensual prostitution, which is going to happen anyway. Prostitution is the oldest profession, and it is something that deserves laws and law enforcement to protect sex workers, as opposed to criminalize them.
MW: Gay men are used to seeing people in an “open relationship” on our dating sites, but that’s not possible on OKCupid or Match.com, provoking the rise of Ashley Madison.
CHO: If you go on those sites, you’re supposed to disclose everything. And often times people wouldn’t want to have a relationship with somebody who is in one already. Or who are supposed to be monogamous. You just want an honest view of the person and what you’re getting into. Honesty is the most important part of any relationship. I think people need to just get really mature about it.
I think 90-something percent of the women who posted on Ashley Madison weren’t even regular users. So it wasn’t even a functioning site, actually. It was just kind of this bulletin board for peoples’ fantasies that never really culminated into anything.
MW: While on the subject of marriage and relationships, you divorced your husband last year. Do you think you’ll ever get married again?
CHO: I don’t know! I think it’s always possible. I had been married for a long time, and I ended that relationship, which was very difficult and very painful. So I’m not sure. There are definitely really important benefits to marriage. And especially with marriage equality, it’s not exactly about marriage, it’s more about equality. It has more to do with having the same rights as heterosexual couples. And it’s just about the government honoring that. But I think personally when it comes to marriage, I’m a little bit burnt out on my end of it. I’m a little bit disillusioned by it. When it doesn’t work out, it just takes a while to re-approach it, and re-approach the romance, and find it again.
MW: Because you know so much about sex and relationships, do you find that hard to translate to your personal life?
CHO: No, no. It’s always a mystery though. Even though you have a broad knowledge of what people do together, it doesn’t necessarily make you better at it. It’s kind of unfortunate that you can study something, and study relationships, and study sexuality, and really be a scholar of it, and still be terrible at it. [Laughs.]
MW: I’m sure you didn’t have a childhood dream of becoming a sexologist or even the idea of being someone so well-versed in the subject. What prompted that?
CHO: Sex was always very interesting to me, and then when I grew up sex was really changing because of AIDS. AIDS really changed our relationships. It really changed our sexuality, at least in terms of the LGBT community.
What happened was, there was a lot of different kinds of sex going on — there was a lot of S&M, a lot of fetishes, a lot of different kinds of power exchange. You were taking the body fluids exchange out of it, and then you were turning it into a power exchange. Which sex ultimately is. It takes some of the physical danger of AIDS and HIV out of the equation. So you had these amazing different expressions of sexuality when I was growing up. I worked at a queer BDSM collective when I was a teenager and into my early 20s. And so I was very, very experienced in domination and leather sex, and the way that the gay community was healing from AIDS and HIV infection with different forms of very spiritual sexuality — including Tantra. It all grew out of what was a terrible tragedy. I have an interesting view of it because I grew up in a very revolutionary time in terms of gay sex.
MW: Was becoming a celebrity an ambition as a kid?
CHO: I wanted to be a comedian. And I knew that I was going to be a comedian. But I didn’t know that I was going to be as successful as I am. I never expected that part. I always thought that I would stay in San Francisco, and I would do shows and be kind of a local favorite. But to me, the reward of it was just to be able to do it and perform. And that in itself was enough.
MW: Are you still close to your family?
CHO: Yeah. They’re great. They’re very funny and fun. It’s a real joy, I think, that they never really understood where I was going with my career, and now they’re so excited and grateful, and I get to have them in my work every now and again, which is always really hilarious and ridiculous and fun.
MW: You’re also becoming something of a musician. I understand you’ve developed more music rooted in comedy along the lines of your 2010 Grammy-nominated comedy album Cho Dependent.
CHO: I just made a music album and a bunch of music videos for it. That will come out around the same time as my Showtime special, which is on Sept. 25. It’s some comedy songs — some really fun little anthems with funny comedy videos.
MW: Are music videos becoming a kind of fun, new way to express your comedy?
CHO: To me it’s kind of a new art form — it’s a weird thing where music videos have been rejuvenated ever since we used to watch them on MTV. They’re kind of back.
MW: Also back, in more ways than one, is the idea of an Asian-American-focused sitcom.
CHO: It’s thrilling. I love Fresh Off The Boat. I think it’s really good. And I’m going to be on Dr. Ken, which is the next Asian-American family sitcom on ABC, with Ken Jeong. I’m going to play his sister.
MW: In a sense, one could view Dr. Ken as ushering in a new chapter in your television career.
CHO: Yeah I think so — more acting, but also producing. I’m going to be behind the scenes, behind the camera, developing some TV shows. I’m excited about that. I can’t really talk about what it is yet. Nothing’s really exactly planned out. But it’s all very new and exciting to me. I’ve been doing television for a while, but it’s great to do different things.
MW: In recent years you’ve mostly appeared as a guest or contestant on reality shows, from Dancing With The Stars to most recently Celebrity Wife Swap. You swapped lives for a week with Holly Robinson Peete. What did you learn from the experience?
CHO: It was just a different kind of world for me to be around — kids. I realized I’m so good at that. So I really kind of missed something by not becoming a mom.
MW: Has the experience made you a wistful about not having children?
CHO: Yeah, totally. It’s very sad.
MW: Is it prompting you to reconsider the decision? I mean, technically it’s not too late.
CHO: Well, it would be great. But I’m just so kind of reliant on what my body can do. Of course you can always adopt too. I’d love to investigate that.
MW: You’ve referred to yourself as a kind of mother figure in the LGBT community, so at least there’s that. And one way you help “nurture” us is through fundraisers, such as one you’ll be doing before your show at the Warner for Brother Help Thyself. Are you motivated to do that out of a sense of responsibility, or simply a desire to give back to the LGBT community?
CHO: It’s a good thing to do for the LGBT community and the place you’re coming to. I’m doing different meet-and-greets and helping different charity groups in every city.
MW: I’m not sure Donald Trump has that same feeling, the desire to give back.
CHO: Well, I think he’s got — I’m not sure how he is with charity, but he’s got his own views on everything. I’m sure he conducts [his charity accordingly]. I don’t know — I’m not sure how he became such a big businessman by being such an incredible jerk. I don’t get it.
Margaret Cho performs Friday, Oct. 9, at 8 p.m. at the Warner Theatre, 513 13th St. NW. Tickets are $41.50 to $74.50. Call 202-783-4000 or visit warnertheatredc.com.
Submissions are due Oct. 1 for those couples interested in applying for the #MarryMeMargaret contest. Visit margaretcho.com.
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