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Margaret Cho Bares It All for a Good Laugh


One thing Americans really aren't that good confident about is how they look. It's not news that our culture is bombarded by the message that nobody's size is too thin, no string bikini too small. And that, especially for women, the body should be tiny, sexy and on display.

Well, they certainly are on display in a new burlesque show written and starring the bawdy comedienne Margaret Cho. It's called "The Sensuous Woman." And it's just opened in New York after runs in L.A. and Chicago. She joins us from our NPR bureau in New York City.

Welcome, Margaret Cho.

MARGARET CHO: Thank you very much.

SEABROOK: So what's your show like?

CHO: Well, it's basically my own version of something like "Donny & Marie" or "Sonny & Cher." These are like the variety shows that I grew up with and shows that I really love. And so they're sort of a wild and neo-burlesque version of those variety shows.

SEABROOK: But I can't imagine you, Margaret Cho, doing anything resembling "Donny & Marie Osmond."

CHO: Well, it is - it isn't as wholesome. You know, it's a little bit country, a little bit of anal(ph). You know, it's its own thing.


CHO: I remember I went on a first gay transatlantic crossing, which is a big deal. Gay cruises are amazing. They have leather night and tuxedo night and military night. They don't have that on lesbian cruises. They have Birkenstock nights.


CHO: They have an artificial insemination (unintelligible).


CHO: They have a Peppermint Patty look-alike contest.


SEABROOK: It sounds like you have a few inherent contradictions in the way you've described this. I'm thinking, Margaret Cho, she's a comedienne. She's really well known. But what does burlesque allow you to do that other forms of entertainment don't?

CHO: Well, burlesque allows me to communicate with my body, which I'm so used to communicating with words and with ideas. And so moving out of that realm, you sort of change the way that you tell the story.

SEABROOK: This must look very different.

CHO: Well, it looks very different, although I do stand-up in it. In other parts where I'm doing some music, doing some dancing.

SEABROOK: Do you guys wear costumes? Is it like big feathers and that stuff?

CHO: Oh, yes. Lots of costumes, lots of glamorous feathers, lots of showgirl stuff. I'm naked quite a lot in the show, which is very controversial.


CHO: Well, I was really, like, amazed at how shocked people are by that. I mean, I think - well, you know, Nicole Kidman did it and Harry Potter did it. I'm sure though that I should be able to do it.

SEABROOK: Wait. When did Harry Potter - when did Harry Potter do anything naked?

CHO: Daniel Radcliffe was naked in "Equus." This was like...

SEABROOK: Oh, the London theater production.

CHO: ...in the West End...


CHO: ...earlier this year. And I thought, well, I've got to do it too. But nudity from people who are not necessarily supermodels is always very controversial because we're so used to seeing a certain body type. There's only one body type that is deemed sort of acceptable by the American public. And that's the one body type that we see exploited everywhere. For some reason, we are so used to seeing anorexia that that seems to be the norm.

SEABROOK: What do you have to do to psych yourself up to go out on stage naked? I mean, does it even bother you?

CHO: It doesn't bother me because, for me, I don't really care. A few years ago, I went to go see a burlesque show in Los Angeles. And it really changed my life because I've been a longtime body complainer. I've had body issues - anorexia and bulimia and real distorted body image for many years. And so going to see the show where there's all these different kinds of women, beautiful women, taking off their clothes and being totally okay with that. I was so moved by this. I mean, I really was moved to tears because so much of my life had been spent trying to control my weight and control my body. And I've got to make sure that I wasn't offensive to people. And really, when I was able to watch these women be beautiful and be naked and be okay with it with people looking at them, I was so cured.

SEABROOK: You know, as an American woman, I don't think I know a single woman who doesn't worry about these issues every day, at least several times a day.

CHO: Several times a day. I mean, it's something that we are constantly living with. I mean, imagine your life if you didn't care about this stuff. This is what the show is. It is really the cure to all of these body dysmorphia that's out there.

SEABROOK: Does it go back to the original burlesque - the burlesque of the early 1900s that, you know, was also sort of a time that women were testing sexuality?

CHO: I think so because burlesque then gave women a kind of liberation that they were not able to experience in their daily lives. Of course, that liberation came at a cost of being labeled as burlesque performers. And they were, of course, outcasts in their own right. But it was certainly a rebellion against this Victorian era - I mean, the sort of values of that era.

And now, today, we're coming up against different values although they are still as strict as the Victorian-era ideal of beauty. It's very hard to attain that ideal beauty in today's culture. And so it oppresses us from everywhere you'd look.

SEABROOK: It's funny because our conversation here, Margaret Cho, is very serious.

CHO: I'm very serious.

SEABROOK: But I imagine - you are very serious.

CHO: I'm a very serious person, yes.

SEABROOK: I see. Yeah. No, but I mean I imagine the show isn't quite as serious.

CHO: No. No. No. No. No, it's a hoot.

SEABROOK: Margaret Cho, comedienne, burlesque show gal.

Thank you so much for talking with us.

CHO: Thank you.

SEABROOK: Margaret Cho is starring in her new burlesque review, "The Sensuous Woman." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.