Margaret Cho on food, feminism and sexy nuns


Margaret Cho is hilarious.

Kylie Northover

I wasn't forewarned that American comedian Margaret Cho is having a break from alcohol when I arranged for us to have lunch at the City Wine Shop. With an entire wall lined with floor-to-ceiling wine bottles, and its impressive drinks list, it's a less-than-ideal setting and I'm warned minutes before her arrival not to order a drink or offer Cho one.

But when she arrives – my sneaky pre-lunch wine hastily dispensed with – Cho is unfazed.

"It would be so nice to have a drink in a beautiful wine shop like this – and I love wine," she says. "I love drinking! But it's good to have a break now and then. It's been about four months now."

The comedian, actor, singer and activist is referred to as the "patron saint of outsiders", known for using comedy to discuss taboo subjects such as racism, homophobia and rape culture, and draws heavily on her own experiences.

She's been open throughout her three decades of performing about her eating disorders, but as she reads the menu, she says she's "made peace" with food in recent years. "And I love a bistro; this place is perfect."

She orders the tuna nicoise, I have the orecchiette with broccoli and anchovies. We share a bottle of sparkling water.

"I cook a lot now, and when you put your hands in the food or you know how it's constructed, you're connected to it," she says. "I really appreciate all that."

And her crazy diets are behind her – like the persimmon diet she's famously talked about in her stand-up that ends in her missing the "window of opportunity" when the laxative effect caught up with her while stuck in LA traffic.

"I like weird diets but that one was really strange. You could only eat one food at a time, so only persimmons – but as much as you like and only eat that for weeks. It was really gross."

Cho is in Melbourne on her PsyCHO tour (full title: ''there's no i in team but there is a CHO in PsyCHO"), in which she's equally delighted and offended audiences across the US, Asia and Europe for the past year. Her shows have always been a mix of jokes and activism, and PsyCHO, she says, is a celebration of "rage".

"It's about celebrating your insane rage," she says. "The word 'psycho' is always a feminised term, a dismissive term, like someone talking about a crazy ex – 'oh, she's a psycho'. It's a way to dismiss women's anger and defuse it.

"Even in the movie Psycho, he doesn't become crazy until he becomes his mother."

A big part of the show is inspired by "feminised rage" around atrocities, such as the recent case of Canadian radio star Jian Ghomeshi, who was tried (and acquitted) for a string of violent sexual attacks on women. "He was arrested for punching women on dates – 10 came forward – but he said it was because he was into BDSM. When you're into BDSM, you really need to tell the other person," says Cho drily. "Then there's Chris Brown and Jimmy Savile. Oh, and Rolf Harris."

Cho ties all this in with frank anecdotes her own years of sexual abuse, and her recent single (she's been twice Grammy nominated for her comedy albums) I Wanna Kill My Rapist, which caused controversy even among her feminist fans.

The song has been criticised for its violent message, but Cho says it's merely a metaphor, "I talk about my experience and the way that message comes through is ... wanting to murder the memory inside and find strength there", adding that if people are outraged by it, she's achieved part of her aim.

"It's a very healing thing to do," she says. "I don't really understand who could really be offended – rapist rights groups? Some feminists have been, and I guess that's because there's an idea that victims should be silent about their abuse. I don't think that is very feminist."

Cho is accustomed to offending people though – even her own family is not always comfortable with her material, particularly jokes about her childhood abuser, a family friend still in contact with her parents.

"I never allowed them to silence me, but they're in a state of constant alarm as I've always been very vocal about everything," Cho says.

Her Korean immigrant parents were in many ways very progressive, running a gay bookshop in San Francisco in the 1970s and 80s – "it was very unusual – even in Korea now when they have a gay pride parade they don't allow photographs and people wear masks" – but when it comes to her addressing her abuse, they're less understanding.

"My family is not like most Korean immigrants, but when it comes to that, my mum's like, 'why do you have to talk about this now?'. It's her shock. Plus I don't understand the years of silence that all of my family has gone through; that kind of abuse is very common in Korean, or Asian, families in general."

It is, says Cho, a generational thing, "part of the patriarchal culture where that happens a lot. It's inherited. I think it's existed for a long time … so the silence is over many generations and to break that silence is powerful."

She also had a "really bad experiences" as a teenager.

"But you know, I grew up in an era where we didn't have the term 'date rape' – nobody knew what it was or what to call it. It was a weird time. Roman Polanski, Woody Allen with Manhattan. He was with a 16-year-old girl. And then Soon Yi… so gross. Even Bill Cosby... so many women have come forward… but I feel like he's gonna die before anything happens, like Savile. But at least the survivors now have a voice and have unity."

It sounds like heavy stuff for a comedy show, but Cho is an old hand at wringing humour from the bleak; she sees using comedy as a platform, despite what some of her detractors might think, as "feminism in action".

"As I get older I become more confident and able to deal with subjects that are not traditionally thought of as fodder for stand-up comedy," she says.

"If you wanna be on the offence when you have comedy that is … promoting rape culture or allowing this sort of misogyny to exit, then you need a really strong counterpoint to that. That's what I'm trying to do."

But there will still be filthy gags about bodily fluids, race, or sex, too.

Last year Cho divorced her husband of 11 years, and is single for the first time in 16 years.

"I'm kind over it … I'm sick of sex. I think? I think so," she muses.

Sick of men, women or all of it?

"All of it – I thought I was bisexual but now I realise I'm asexual. Or maybe I'm just jaded."

She talks about how much she loves Australia, ( "I've been here a number of times and I've seen it change – now it's much a more urbane, sophisticated place"), her shopping plans while she's here ("I think this might be the last year I can buy clothes from Wheels and Doll Baby; I'm getting a bit old for it now"), sexy nun costumes ("I like those Italian exploitation films with sexy nuns – it's a very pretty, flattering look. I have a couple of nun outfits"), drugs ("One year I was here for Mardi Gras and there was a big drugs bust the day before – I thought that was a hate crime"), marijuana-flavoured lube "(It's so good) and, perhaps most bizarrely of all, her contacts in the hacker group Anonymous. Don't mess with Cho on Twitter.

Although she doesn't need to tweet to create an outrage – last year she was accused of racism after her appearance alongside Tina Fey and Amy Pohler at the Golden Globes as the fictional North Korean general Cho Young Ja (although in 2012 she won a Primetime Emmy award for outstanding guest actress for her role on 30 Rock as Kim Jong-il).

"That was really weird. My family is North Korean, so if anybody can really do it, it would be me. I feel like my family has been fighting the North Korean government since the '60s so it's OK," she says. "I'd rather do it than not do it."

Today's combination of political correctness and social media, she says, has affected comedy in particular.

"It's a weird profession now. Everybody weighs in on what is happening, but then it all goes away very quickly, and we're on to the next thing."

But offending people when you do comedy, she says, is the "right thing to do".

"But if things get moved to a level of censorship, where everything is shut down and I think that's wrong. It muffles the voice of art."

And means you can't approach any subject?

"Or you can do everything but you have to fight to say it," she says. "Which is OK too."