The Untold Truth Of Margaret Cho

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This article includes references to child abuse, hate crimes, eating disorders, drug and alcohol addiction, and suicide.  

Margaret Cho is one of the funniest women in comedy. She's also a force to be reckoned with throughout the world of entertainment. After starting out as a stand-up comic at age 14, the San Francisco native later starred in 1994's "All-American Girl," the first TV series to feature an Asian American family. Starting in 2009, Cho starred as Teri Lee on the Lifetime comedy "Drop Dead Diva," where she remained for six seasons. In 2011, she nabbed an Emmy nomination for her role as Kim Jong-Il on "30 Rock." 

In 2022, the five-time Grammy nominee starred in the Hulu Original rom-com "Fire Island." Beyond the screen, the singer and bestselling author has been killing it for years with her live shows. Her one-woman show, "I'm The One That I Want," was a smash hit off-Broadway, and "Notorious C.H.O." sold out Carnegie Hall. In 2017, Rolling Stone named Cho one of the 50 Best Stand-Up Comics of All Time.

While many comedians draw on their personal struggles for material, Cho has been through some of the worst you can imagine. Yet, she doesn't hesitate to find humor in spite of her pain. "Laughter is this involuntary intake of breath which you don't expect. It carries you into life to live the next moment," the performer told The Cut. This is the story of her extraordinary life, and how comedy may have saved it.

Margaret Cho had an unconventional upbringing

Margaret Cho grew up in San Francisco, California. Her parents were Korean immigrants who owned a gay bookstore at a time when the city was building its reputation as the world's "gay mecca." "I grew up in the era of all of those exciting events," Cho recalled to The Bay Area Reporter. "In the '70s on Polk Street, [the gay neighborhood before the Castro became its center], everybody looked like the Village People, or like a live drawing by [homoerotic artist] Tom of Finland."

Cho had a hard time making friends in school as she was bullied by her classmates. "They said that I was a lesbian, which I didn't even understand what that was, so it was painful to go to school," she shared with The Cut's "In Her Shoes" podcast. That's what drew her to the comedy scene in The City by the Bay. "So I just escaped into this idea that, 'Well, I'm going to be a comedian.' And I started very young because I just wanted to be an adult."

Cho was accepted into the San Francisco School of the Arts. The comedian shared that her parents never attended any of her school plays, and they would lie to their friends about her chosen profession. "They would say that I was going to be a theater teacher or a theater historian," Cho told The New York Times. Of course, they aren't making up stories anymore.

She was sexually assaulted growing up

Margaret Cho was sexually abused for years, and it all started when she was very young. From age 5 to 12, someone close to her family molested her. "I had a very long-term relationship with this abuser, which is a horrible thing to say. I didn't even understand it was abuse, because I was too young to know," she told Billboard in 2015. In an essay published that year in Nylon, Cho said the man also raped other female family members.

Her parents' suggestions were that Margaret not "sit on his lap so much" and, to protect the abuser, not make a big deal about it. "I think Asian culture often is in denial about such things. Like, if they don't talk about it, it doesn't exist," she explained to Billboard. Another man she knew raped her when she was 14, and she was continually abused through her teens. The "Drop Dead Diva" star said her childhood trauma affected her sex life for years to come.

With the help of therapy, her comedy act, and her music, Cho has managed to cope with her pain. Speaking about the lyrics for her 2015 single, "I Wanna Kill My Rapist," she wrote in Nylon, "I had the epiphany that I needed to kill the rapist inside me, instead of killing myself."

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Margaret Cho struggled with body image issues

Margaret Cho was in her mid-20s when she landed her breakout role on "All-American Girl." Before filming began, the network execs were criticizing her weight, Billboard reported. "I didn't understand. I was too fat to play the role of myself?" she asked. While filming, the sitcom star went into kidney failure because she had lost 30 pounds in 14 days. She subsequently developed an addiction to diet pills, per The Guardian. Looking back on that time in her life, Cho told the outlet, "I have a lot of regret because I did not appreciate how beautiful I was. I just thought I was fat and ugly and I was so angry about the way I looked." The actor has said that much of her negative body image was based on imposed cultural ideas. "The stereotype is an Asian woman is supposed to be petite and not take up too much space," she told Bustle in 2021. Cho added, "But now I realize that you're entitled to that space."

Cho noted that fat-shaming is dangerous, especially coming from a high-profile celebrity. After designer Karl Lagerfeld labeled Adele "a little too fat," the comedian penned a 2012 blog post entitled "Shut Up, Karl." She also told "What's Trending," "I am anorexic, I am bulimic, and I think that these diseases are just as deadly as AIDS or cancer." Cho explained, "So many girls have been told, myself included, growing up: 'You would be so pretty if you lost weight.'" The comedian shared that comments like Lagerfeld's promote disordered eating.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, or know someone who is, help is available. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website or contact NEDA's Live Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also receive 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741).

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Margaret Cho's sitcom was a ratings bomb

Margaret Cho was the star of ABC's "All-American Girl," the first sitcom about an Asian-American family. It was canceled in 1994 after one season. Loosely inspired by Cho's time in San Francisco, the show became a tug-of-war between the star — a foul-mouthed stand-up comic who wanted the show to have more of an edge — and producers who wanted to steer clear of controversy, per JStor Daily.

Many Korean Americans claimed it wasn't funny, and wasn't a good representation of their culture, the Los Angeles Times reported at the time. "They wanted an authentic Korean family, and I was like, what is that? As if there is only one type of Korean family," Cho told the outlet in 2001. BD Wong, who appeared on the short-lived show, also co-stars on "Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens." Wong said Cho had her hands tied trying to create the character of Margaret Kim.

"She wasn't allowed to tap into her own essence in the way that Awkwafina actually is tapping into her own essence, because she's a co-creator of the show. So Margaret was put at an extreme disadvantage and she was even put into physical constraints," the "Mr. Robot" actor revealed to Collider. After the hardship of "All-American Girl," Cho had the opportunity to pay it forward on another groundbreaking TV series in 2014. She was a consultant on "Fresh Off the Boat," which The Guardian noted had the only all-Asian American cast since Cho's first sitcom.

She became addicted to drugs and alcohol

Margaret Cho struggled with addiction for more than ten years before she sought treatment. "I was drinking and suicidal and eating like a million pills. I had this fancy handbag with a special compartment with every drug known to man in it and $7,000 so if I ran out I could buy more," she told The Scotsman in 2021. It became so bad that Cho's family and friends tricked her with a surprise birthday party ruse so that they could intervene and take her to a rehab facility. There were 12 people from Cho's time in treatment who later died.

In rehab, Cho came to understand that she misused drugs to forget all the hurt and trauma she suffered in her life. "The thing about opiates is that it's not really a high, it's a removal of you caring, but you still feel the pain, you still feel the anguish," she told The Guardian in a 2021 interview. Cho, who got sober, added, "The entire situation made me very grateful to be alive. It's pretty incredible that I got out of opiates before I got into fentanyl." In 2021, almost 72,000 Americans overdosed from fentanyl or other synthetic opioids, per CNN. The "'Til Death" actor admitted she once considered getting into the business of growing her own poppies for opium. "I was going to get really Martha Stewart and go to the flower market, but I was just too wasted," she quipped to The Guardian.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Margaret Cho says comedy saved her life

Margaret Cho has a long family history with depression, and she told Bustle that Asians don't usually seek help for mental health issues. In her 2002 memoir, "I'm the One That I Want," via The Guardian, she writes about wanting to commit suicide after the cancellation of her primetime TV show. "Suicide ... seemed very practical to me ... [I decided] to drink as much as I could until I just stopped breathing." After surviving that setback, in 2013, Cho attempted suicide in a hotel room. 

Cho noted that her ability to make others laugh and to poke fun at herself may have meant the difference between life and death. "My sense of humor probably saved me from dying," the "Ghost Whisperer" alum said, noting that it's not something you can switch on and off; it's an intrinsic part of her. "At your darkest moments; it's actually the thing that shines the brightest. I'm really grateful for it and I'm really grateful I got to live," she added. The star has advocated for suicide prevention throughout her career, particularly working with The Trevor Project.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

Margaret Cho dated her share of celebs

As of this writing, Margaret Cho has been linked to four men — a famous director, an artist, a singer, and a fellow comedian. In 2014, Cho told The Hudson Union that when she met "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" director Quentin Tarantino, "I knew who he was, because ... [1992's] 'Reservoir Dogs' had just come out, and then he approached me because he's a fan. And he and I just clicked." After Tarantino, she briefly dated singer Chris Isaak.

The relationship never got serious, and according to a 1995 MTV News article, Isaak didn't appreciate Cho revealing details about their relationship in her act. "She's a very pretty woman," the "Perfect Lover" singer told People, admitting, "life tore us apart." In 2003, she married artist Al Ridenour after dating for several years. Speaking to Bond, Cho described their relationship as "very conventional and conservative," but the couple shared an open marriage. Cho broke it down in 2013 on "The Real."

"We got together because ... we both have this [idea of], 'I just don't want to have sex with the same person my whole life. That's gross,'" she explained. Following 11 years of marriage, Cho filed for divorce in 2015, per People. In a 2017 interview with The Scotsman, the "30 Rock" alum spoke about her then-fiance, fellow comedian Rocco Stowe (above). "It's fun to have a comedian, we laugh, and sing, do yoga, cook and have a great time together." In 2021, Cho told The Guardian she was dating somebody else.

Margaret Cho says she is 'truly bisexual'

Margaret Cho was about 18 when she first spoke of being attracted to women. "I thought I was a lesbian," the "Good Trouble" actor told HuffPost. "And then I realized, "No, I'm actually attracted to men as well. So then it became something really confusing for me." Though her parents worked in the gay community in San Francisco, Cho told the outlet, "They didn't understand bisexuality. It's still a sensitive issue for many people in my life."

Despite all the progress in LGBTQ equality over the last 20 years, some people don't think bisexuality is real. In a 2013 study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health (via the Daily Mail), nearly 15 percent of 1500 respondents believed being bisexual was "not a legitimate sexual orientation." The outlet added, "...straight men [are] three times more likely to categorize bisexuality as 'not a thing.'" Margaret Cho sometimes feels caught between two different worlds, never fitting comfortably in either.

"The Flight Attendant" actor shared with HuffPost that her romantic experiences have included people of multiple different gender expressions. As of the 2018 interview, she had never had a bisexual partner, and she didn't believe any of her partners understood bisexuality. "I've only been with either straight or gay people, so, it's a very suspicious place. Nobody has ever really accepted that I'm truly bisexual."

She was slammed for her Golden Globes schtick

At the 2015 Golden Globe Awards ceremony, Margaret Cho had an ongoing bit throughout the show that many viewers called racist rather than entertaining, per Deadline. Parodying a stone-faced North Korean General named "Cho Young-ja," she criticized the Golden Globes show in one segment. "You no have people holding up many card to make one big picture. You no have Dennis Rodman," Cho said in character, prompting the Twittersphere to erupt.

One user wrote, "...still not funny. The Asian stereotyping bit still old, even pretending to be North Korean. Worst bit of the night" (via the Daily Mail). Even loyal fans were turned off. "I've always loved margaret cho but she needs to stop shuckin' for white folk," another person tweeted. Following the social media storm, Cho came to her own defense with a punny punchline. "I'm not playing the race card. I'm playing the rice card. #hatersgonwait #winnersgonpun," she wrote on Twitter.

In 2011, Cho played North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il on an episode of "30 Rock," earning an Emmy nomination for her portrayal. In another episode, she played the Supreme Leader's son and successor, Kim Jong-Un. Speaking to The Daily Beast in 2017, the "Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens" alum explained that she is of North Korean descent. "When I do an Asian character or an Asian voice, I'm doing one because that's my heritage and my family and where I come from," she said.

She was close with fellow comic Joan Rivers

Coming up in the world of comedy, Margaret Cho idolized sharp-tongued comedian Joan Rivers. "Joan was my favorite comedian of all time, soooooo funny. And foul and dirty. I'm hard to shock but she would shock me every time," Cho told The Scotsman of her long-time mentor. When the two women critiqued celebrities' fashion faux pas as co-hosts of E!'s "Fashion Police," the unfiltered Rivers would often pour out her Starbucks and fill the cup with a 7am chardonnay.

Rivers, who died in 2014, also taught Cho a lot about being a woman in comedy. The comedians first met after one of Cho's New York shows, when Rivers went backstage to rave about her act. "Before I met her, my whole life was devoted to becoming her. When I finally met her, she had actually sought me out," the "Dr. Ken" alum recalled to The Globe and Mail. While the legendary comic is famous for her acerbic humor, she also had a softer side.

"It was a healing force that she had, this incredible softness to her that people just don't really understand," Cho shared with Yahoo! Entertainment in 2017. Rivers was a trusted companion and confidant to the younger comic. "She was a huge inspiration. And then she became my friend, my mentor, and was always there for me, like if I had a bad night or a bad show or something," Cho added. "She was always very, very supportive."

Margaret Cho is a vocal LGBTQ+ advocate

Margaret Cho has been an outspoken member of the LGBTQ+ community for years. Her contributions have been recognized by many leading organizations, including GLAAD, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and LA Pride, which honored the star with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011 for "leaving a lasting imprint on the LGBT community," per her website. Cho says her motivation dates back to her involvement with the queer community and politics after she came out in San Francisco. "It was a big deal for me and had a great impact on me," Cho told HuffPost in 2017. "It's something that is in my heart and in my history and in my life, and it always will be." 

As she works to be a visible force in representing her community, Cho spoke to E! News about what she called the "lost history" of queer people in 2022's "Book of Queer" series on Discovery+ (which Cho appeared in). "The biggest discrimination that I felt is really invisibility," the "Dancing with the Stars" alum revealed. "This lack of representation and lack of leading by example, lack of seeing who's out there that I can relate to in terms of being Asian American and a queer woman." 

Cho is encouraged by her younger Asian counterparts who are seeing success in comedy, like her "Fire Island" co-stars, "SNL's" Bowen Yang and "The Resident's" Conrad Ricamora. For some of these performers, Cho paved the way, and she's proud to do that. "My greatest achievement is to be able to inspire a generation," she told E! News.

The actor is using her platform to stop Asian hate

Margaret Cho has been a leading voice in the campaign to stop hate against Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, following a rise in hate crime attacks after the COVID-19 outbreak. According to a California State University San Bernardino study, "Reported hate crimes against Asians in 16 of the nation's largest metropolitan areas [increased] 164%" in the first quarter of 2021, compared to the first quarter of 2020 (per CNN). Cho speaks about the issue in media interviews and on her podcast, "The Margaret Cho: Mortal Minority."

The Guardian explained that much of the anti-Asian vitriol has stemmed from Donald Trump's discriminatory slurs when he has described the virus. "I love to Donald-Trump-bash and blame him for any reason I can, but the fact is that his casual racism is more a symptom of the greater problem than the cause of this," Cho told the outlet. On the NBC News special "The Racism Virus: Anti-Asian Attacks Surge," she discussed the important role that visibility plays.

While Asian Americans have come a long way in TV and films, the "Good on Paper" actor believes that some depictions, like the ones seen in the hit film "Crazy Rich Asians," may not be sending the right message. "We're not all super rich and we're not all crazy rich," Cho said on NBC News. "It's not all 'Bling Empire,' which, I love those shows and movies, but at the same time, it enforces this stereotype — or narrative is probably closer to it — that we are untouchable and invisible, which is kind of a volatile combination when it comes to violence."

If you or a loved one has experienced a hate crime, contact the VictimConnect Hotline by phone at 1-855-4-VICTIM or by chat for more information or assistance in locating services to help. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

Margaret Cho isn't worried about dying alone

In 2019, Margaret Cho had recently celebrated her 50th birthday, and with that came some self-reflection. "In my adult life, I have never been single for more than a few weeks. Let's be honest — that is really strange," the "Sex Appeal" actor revealed to Out in Jersey, noting that she also had trouble staying in new relationships long-term. "Why am I living this way? What is important and what is not?" she pondered. At that point, she decided to change the pattern and live life in her 50s as a single lady.

A couple years later, in an interview with The Guardian, Cho was living alone and loving it: "I'm not going to live with anybody else ever," she insisted. "You know, as women, we're told: 'Oh, you're going to die alone'; that's like the biggest fear," she said. But that doesn't worry her at all. In fact, she actually prefers this way of life.

Also in 2021, the "Sex and the City" alum echoed to Bustle that she is very content being alone in her 50s. "I really like sleeping in the very middle of the bed. I really love adopting as many animals as I want," said the owner of Lucia Caterina (a part dalmatian, part chihuahua rescue dog) and two sphynx cats. "I can watch what I want on TV and eat what I want at any time I want. I feel really good about that."

How much is Margaret Cho really worth?

Margaret Cho has an estimated net worth of $4 million. Best known as a stand-up comedian, she never had any inkling about doing anything else. "I always knew that I was going to be a comedian," Cho told The Badger Herald in 2017. "It was a weird thing like...it was just my destiny. It just all seemed very clear to me at a very young age. I just knew that this was my path."

Cho had a smash hit with her first off-Broadway one-woman show in 1999, "I'm The One That I Want," and she turned that into a book and corresponding movie. The Grammy-nominated performer has released two music albums, "Cho Dependent" and "American Myth," and numerous comedy albums, including "Assassin" and "Psycho." As for what success means to her, it's not about being a celebrity or making headlines, as the "Face Off" actor explained to The Globe and Mail in 2013. "I try to define my success by how much I enjoy something. People get into the entertainment business because they want to be famous, which is just not what it should be about."

Cho doesn't talk too much about how she likes to spend her money, but it's obvious that her pets are a top priority. Per The Pet Collective, this comedian has multiple dedicated spaces for her cats at home, including a big "catio" outdoors and a pretend Sake bar and Chinese palace indoors (which Cho built from a kit).