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Comedian, actress, author, singer-songwriter, activist – MARGARET CHO keeps herself very busy indeed. Writing comedy since her teen years in San Francisco, Cho has never stopped moving, evolving, dipping into new territories, both personally and professionally. A powerhouse on the comedy circuit and a recognized celebrity in the States, she’s now an international star and an important role-model in terms of blasting stereotypes of Asian-American and queer women in the media (she’s the product of Korean parents and is openly bisexual). She’s also one of the most down-to-earth artists you’ll ever meet.

Completely at ease with talking about her sexuality, her tattoo fetish, her ethnic background, her desire to see more minority artists visible on mainstream TV, her eating disorder struggles, her passion for LGBT rights / anti-racism / anti-bullying campaigning, Cho has single-handedly raised the bar for all artists who are in the public eye. By being gracious and open, she has emerged into somewhat of an icon – a celebrity with immense substance and heart, admired and adored by many. And those numbers are on the increase.

Her role as legal assistant Teri Lee on hit US TV show Drop Dead Diva since 2009 has won Cho a whole new slew of fans. The show would certainly not be the same without Teri’s satirical presence, and she lends it some much-needed diversity. The feel-good show has helped increase the visibility of some very talented North American female artists, attracting guest stars from all walks of celebrity including Kathy Griffin, Vivica A. Fox, Ricki Lake, Cybill Shepherd, Wanda Sykes, Liza Minnelli, Jennifer Tilly, LeeAnn Rimes, and in Season 4 Serena Williams, Joan Rivers and Kim Kardashian. It has fast become the show to “do” and stars are queuing up to take on the legal comedy-drama series.

In 2010, Cho appeared on another US hit show Dancing with the Stars (American equivalent of UK’s Strictly Come Dancing) and won her second Grammy Award nomination for Comedy Album of the Year, this time for Cho Dependent featuring several collaborations with musicians including Fiona Apple, Tegan & Sara and Ani DiFranco.

She then made a name for herself on the hilarious TV show 30 Rock, playing the late Korean leader Kim Jong Il whom, spookily, she does strongly resemble after some makeup and THAT jumpsuit outfit.

Several TV shows and stand-up tours later, we meet up with Cho backstage at the renowned Brighton Dome after her live show as part of her new CHO DEPENDENT tour. Cho has the audience in absolute fits of laughter, as she craftily weaves some much appreciated digs at British culture into her repartee: from British perception of Asia (with faux British accent, “I LOVE Chinese things! I LOVE Memoirs of a Geisha – anything Chinese!“) and UK airport security (“I was wearing this giant pink hat and they just had a problem with that… If you come into this country with something coloured on your head, it’s a problem, and if your face is also coloured, it’s a big fucking problem. And I just forget that I am not white – because my eyes are IN MY HEAD. It was really stressful, it was real Prisoner Cell Block H for a second…”) to stinging comments on the Palins (“Bristol Palin is the temple prostitute of the right wing”) and the Tea Party (“which is so hideous. Michele Bachman is really evil, but what’s really weird about Michele Bachman isn’t Michele Bachman – it’s Marcus Bachman her husband, who is just fucking gay, but he teaches at a facility where he teaches gay people how to be straight. Oh well, I guess those who can’t “do,” teach!). She can’t help but lean towards the controversial and the crowds are with her every step of the way – she’s a delightful breath of fresh air in the sometimes overly stuffy British comedy scene.

In this interview, Cho talks about (lack of) visibility of women of colour in mainstream media, her desire to do more touring in Europe, and why forming queer cultural alliances is important.

Since this interview, Margaret has appeared in Season 4 of Drop Dead Diva and is about to launch a new US TV cookery show Blind Dinner Party. She has also received an “Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series” Emmy nomination for her role as Korean dictator Kim Jong Il in 30 Rock – the announcement is due on 23 September 2012. She’s also just launched her new MOTHER tour which she will be bringing to the UK this October.



You mention your mother a lot in your shows and you do a good job of playing up the ethnic stereotypes. But you yourself are far from the stereotype of the submissive Asian woman. How did you manage to escape that?
I think I was really raised without supervision, so I didn’t have the messages drilled into my head. I was kind of a wild feral child, so I didn’t have any kind of guidance.

And how accurate is your portrayal of your mother in the show?
Oh, she’s exactly that way! It’s really loving, but it’s also very status conscious, really materialistic, and about the status quo and “fitting in.”

With such a background, what led you to become a comedian?
I just kind of turned into it, but I was always kind of wild. Then when I got older, I just wanted to live my own life. It’s just that I didn’t have any kind of guidance, but that turned out to be a blessing.

How were your parents about your coming out?
Well, with my parents it was weird, because they bought a bookstore from these guys who were really trying to get rid of their business because they were dying of AIDS. All these gay men around them were dying of AIDS. They found themselves in the 70s and 80s surrounded by gay men and this business they had bought into, trying to make it work. The community was really struck by this disease.

So, my parents just became part of the gay community. They learned about what it was, but they had no experience with it or understanding of it. It was like this really intense community in crisis, and so my parents didn’t have homophobia because they couldn’t afford to be homophobic. Because everybody was dying and all the people they loved around them were dying. So it was a horrible thing, but also something that they really learned from. If I had any guidance, it was from those gay men.

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So, how are you feeling about your new tour, Cho Dependent?
I think it’s just fun for me, because a lot of it is stuff I have just written in the last couple of weeks, so the show’s changed pretty drastically since I’ve been performing it. Except for the stuff at the end, a lot of it is different, so I’m just excited to write new material and kind of do different things.

Yeah, you included a lot of UK-related jokes….
Yeah, I’m trying to!

And you were in Edinburgh recently?
Yeah, I was there for the month of August. It’s really a great city and it’s fun to perform there. But it’s pretty tough for queer performers. I mean, we really banded together – like me and Scott Capurro, David Mills, Hannah Gadsby and the boys from Briefs – we kind of made a queer alliance. We HAD to make a queer club because it’s super straight out there – there’s not a lot of representation for us. We band together, because we really need each other. We needed an alliance in Edinburgh, which was really nice, because I think there are a lot of great performers up there. Le Gateau Chocolat was part of our crew – he’s here tonight! [waves to Le Gateau Chocolat behind us]. But it’s definitely such a monochromatic landscape – you have one point of view that’s really heavily represented, and you don’t have a lot of people of colour, woman, queers. So the ones that ARE there, we feel so excited to be together, so lucky to be there.

But at the same time, the homophobia that exists here is different than the homophobia that exists in America. I think here it’s not about race – it’s about class, so race is often invisible. For me as a foreigner here, I feel really powerless to bring up race or queer issues, without feeling I’m doing something wrong or like something outlawed, or that that is something I’m challenging. People get pretty defensive if you start talking about race issues or homophobia because they want to feel like they are past it or beyond it. There are a lot of trends in comedy in the UK that’s really racist, really sexist, really homophobic, because they feel like they’re above it, they’re beyond it.

You’re talking about comedians in the UK who aren’t part of those communities they’re commenting on…

But, in your case, you’re simply drawing on your own backstory and personal experiences, so that makes it more acceptable or easier on the audience…
Yeah, since I’m just telling my truth. In America, the different reaction is people are scared – they would say that I was racist, that I was homophobic, that I was sexist or that I was doing something wrong. I’m in a lot of ways making jokes about the same topics, but from my perspective. In America, a kind of political correctness comes in and that’s where it’s strange. Here they feel like, “Oh, we’re past that, we don’t need correctness anymore…” So it’s just interesting to perform in different places.

You’re such a big star over in the States, and now you have the success of hit TV show Drop Dead Diva, in which you appear alongside many other accomplished female comedians. But, is it still difficult for women to get ahead in your industry in the States?
Yeah, for sure. But at the same time, I’ve had such a long career over there so I kind of know what I’m doing. I have a lot of integrity in what I’ve done. But, even so, you still deal with invisibility – you still deal with racial invisibility for Asians and invisibility for queers. It’s still kind of manageable in a sense, because the sexism is a little bit less. We actually really listen to female comics in America – female comics are more powerful than male comics in a lot of ways.

That seems very different from the UK – I recently interviewed a British comedian called Zoe Lyons…
She’s great!! She’s awesome, I love her. I haven’t gotten to see her live. I’ve only seen her videos and then I’ve just talked to her on twitter, but we haven’t met in person.

From what Zoe said, it seems like the US and UK comedy scenes are worlds apart.
It’s really different, because women have an easier time in America in terms of getting attention and acceptance in the comedy business, and actually their success is far superior and far more intense than for men. My career, compared to the average guy doing it on my level, is so much more advanced – we get a lot more work, just because female voices are really important there. So the big ones are like me and Sarah Silverman… and Wanda Sykes is huge – she’s amazing – she’s kind of like who we all want to be. We want to aspire to be like Wanda! And Kathy of course – Kathy Griffin is major… Ellen DeGeneres, Rosie O’Donnell… Rosie is super politicized and then Ellen is definitely different, like super mainstream. You have different kinds of views of different kinds of women, different kinds of queer women.

Then of course you have collaborations among female artists, and not only comedians. For example, your collaboration with musician Ani DiFranco on your Grammy-nominated comedy album Cho Dependent
Yeah, that’s really cool. That’s a great thing to be able to go into. Ani is great, and Tegan and Sara. So I have a lot of great really close connections in music and in comedy with women.

How do other Asian people react to you challenging stereotypes of Asian women?
Yeah, they sometimes don’t know what to do with it, and are kind of scared. Sometimes people say that I’m racist because it’s more like a voice that they are not used to hearing. But then, they are used to hearing a white person making fun of it, saying it, so that’s why they get defensive. So it’s weird! They’re like, “Oh, wait…” because I’m talking about it from what I know.

In your show, you voiced your frustration that actors of colour are often limited to the role of sidekick on the screen, but is that still a reality of the industry?
It’s just something I have noticed over time – like, that’s kind of all I’ve done and that’s what people of colour do in Hollywood. And I think it’s funny, because it’s like it’s such a familiar thing – we know that’s what we see. There is a long tradition of that, to acknowledge the tradition of people like me, which comes down from Hattie McDaniel for Gone With The Wind. You have these mammy characters who are very integral, all these peripheral characters we have been playing, and it’s a solid body of work, you know. I acknowledge we are a part of it, even though it’s racist, even though it’s fucked up, but at the same time it’s all anybody knows of people of colour.

Even if I do something that’s really mainstream, there is still this need to explain why you are there, there’s this need to talk about your background. It’s just because the perspective of television is FROM a white perspective and TO a white perspective. So when you introduce people of colour, it’s always going to be in a kind of a way where you are telling their story in the dialogue in the story of the show. I’m not sure when that’s going to change…

Do you think there’s going to be a turning point?
I don’t know – I don’t know, because it’s been that way since I’ve been in it. I’ve definitely worked a lot more as I’ve got older. I also know that it’s something that I can’t see changing from my perspective, just because I’m so used to it. I don’t know… would there ever be a [mainstream] film that’s going to talk about a person of colour’s perspective from their perspective? I guess maybe the first film I can imagine is Precious. And then you think about Tyler Perry’s films and then you think, “Okay, well that’s from a black perspective to a black audience, that’s kind of something that makes sense to me and I can identify with.” Or you think about The Joy Luck Club. But even still, people latch onto it and think, “What perspective is this from?”

You could argue that things are changing in Hollywood, because actresses such as Sandra O and Maggie Q are playing leading Asian identified characters. But, if you look closely, it’s as if the Asian qualities are toned down in their onscreen characters…
It’s diluted, and they are still sort of sidelined. I love Sandra, I think she’s great, and I love that show because Grey’s Anatomy has probably more inclusion than any other show on television. But Hollywood is still a weird place for people of colour.

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You’ve pushed so many boundaries in your own shows and your own life, and you’re doing so many different things. Where do you see yourself going next?
I want to work in Europe more – I do really well in France and I do well here. This is my first venturing out – Edinburgh and London to something else… something different. And so I’m really happy with that and I really love working here, learning about race, learning about queer politics, learning about gender politics and how different they are here.

Yes, there isn’t the same openness or history of socio-political movements here as back in the States…
It’s weird because they don’t like women in comedy here, but I think what’s good here, especially in comedy, is they are like, [in a mock-British accent] “You’re not really a woman, because you’re American and exotic, so we don’t want to think of you like a woman.”

You do a British accent really well!
It’s hard! I actually can’t do it when I leave. This comes from listening to it all the time…

It bordered on Australian at one point…
I know, it does, because I worked there a lot too!

Have you been out in London this time?
We’ve been going to some cool places. We went to Duckie last night at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. That was amazing, really cool, I’ve been there a bunch of times and I love it!

Finally, do you have a message for people who want to do what you do?
I think people should just do it! I think we need more queer voices, we need women of colour, we need women in general, we just need progressive voices and people should step forward and do it. Comedy is such a white man’s game and we have got to change that. I think there has got to be other perspectives and the most important perspective has got to be “the other” – it’s the best thing. For me, I always try to mentor young gay guys, like I always take people on the road with me and I always try to create these queer alliances with people. You need to support other queer artists, like Hannah Gadsby is very important, Scott Capurro is very important, Le Gateau Chocolat – this kind of amazing entertainment. People like us have to fight so hard to be heard.

And the more you stick together of course, the louder the voice…
It’s Important.



PEACHES Interview

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Merrill Beth Nisker, AKA Peaches, the Berlin-based Canadian electro musician and performance artist is in relaxed, buoyant mood backstage prior to her slamming DJ set at one of the coolest nights in Scotland. Chatting before her appearance at Death Disco at The Arches Glasgow, we ask the inspirational lady some questions while she’s getting ready. As we settle down for our interview, Peaches is enthusing about the recent Cindy Sherman MAC cosmetics campaign. Known for pushing the boundaries of gender and sexual identity, her extravagantly edgy costuming, eye-popping performances and explicit lyrics, Peaches talks frankly about her career trajectory, changes in the industry and life as a multi-instrumentalist producer pioneer.

At the end of the interview, we hear a knock at the dressing room door as one of the club staff brings in the bottles of fizz which 30 minutes later are sprayed from between Peaches thighs over a hot sweaty capacity crowd. Screaming for more as she blasts out her mix of dirty beats, the crowds are treated to some of Peaches’ own finest musical moments.

This girl can still “kick it” for sure!

Since this interview, in May 2012, Peaches starred alongside 6 Opera singers in L’Orfeo, composed by Monteverdi in 1607, in which she played the lead male role. In August of the same year, she put together a video with a number of artists and volunteers, appealing for the release of three members of the Pussy Riot group jailed in Russia to widespread international condemnation. To top it all off, her “anti-jukebox musical” has now been made into her first feature film Peaches Does Herself which is to premiere at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.



So, who or what was your main inspiration when you first started out and were formulating your ideas?
I guess what was important for me and how I got into stuff was that I loved so many local things. For me, it was people that weren’t necessarily famous or somebody that people knew but maybe someone who dressed a little different or talked a little different. I was always drawn to those people and was like, “How are they like that? How does that happen?”

Was there a vibrant scene back then? You’ve worked with a lot of different musicians over the years, like Chilly Gonzales for instance…
I was more into experimental bands, and really into the location of places and the atmosphere. Right now, I’m interested in more conceptual standing of the art, or performative art pieces that last and then go away. I realised that things don’t go away – they come back in waves… it’s always waves. Whether you like it or not, it’s like, “Oh yeah, that waves coming…” Right now, it’s the whole dubstep, drum and bass kind of music… And with house music, that’s something I diverted from and made punkier by doing dirtier stuff. It’s funny to see how thing’s regurgitate and come back. And then you realise that when you first discover it, it’s so important to you. And as the year’s go on, it’s “That’s it again – OK! Wow, yeah!” And with psychologies and philosophies, it’s always up and down like with waves of music – things that turn out to be ghettoised and then turn into huge scenes. It’s funny…

When you first got out there, you were doing it all yourself – do you consider yourself a pioneer in that respect?
It was a funny time because there was all this overproduced house and breakbeat, and I wanted to get back to punk but I also wanted to use these updated electronic sounds. Yeah, it’s really funny because it was so strange, especially in Canada, that somebody would get up there and just have one little tape machine. And it was before people had macs and loads of computers, everybody had their Garage Band or whatever to make music on. Now everybody and their grandma does these playback shows with VJs. But right now, 11 years later, I’m doing more of a DJ/MC thing which is totally going back to how I started. I feel very comfortable with screaming over tracks or whatever it is I do, and it’s funny coz now it’s such a standard but it was so strange then.

Do you feel the music industry has changed a lot since when you first entered it?
Yeah, it’s a different place because of the economics which are completely different. For me, there’s exciting parts of both. I started out before there was a lot of money involved and powerful major labels… in terms of big deals, big video budgets or whatever. I don’t think that’s going on now, which I’m also excited about, but I think it’s cool that people have to reroute and be resourceful.

Do you feel that major labels don’t take risks anymore?
I think there are different views and some don’t really know what to do…

Do you think things have changed also because of online music distribution?
In that regard, people can make music much earlier and easier due to technology. And that also means they can put it out easier on their own.

Do you think women have an easier time in the industry now?
That also goes in waves. With Riot Grrrl and electroclash, it was girls who ruled in that scene. Witch house music – now, girls rule that scene for sure. It’s strange, as there are millions of scenes out there and 5 of them are with girls in the focus. So it’s weird ways. It’s still like, “Oh you’re a girl and you’re a drummer??” Like, I had this taxi driver and we couldn’t really communicate, but he asked me what I do and I said, “I’m a DJ” and he said, “A singer? A singer?” He couldn’t get it. There’s something really undeniable about a woman’s voice and the woman’s voice is way more powerful. Maybe that’s the secret to what they want.

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Recently, you’ve been branching out, as with the Peaches Christ Superstar project?
Yeah! And I wanted to do an opera based on my own person – Peaches Does Herself. I did it in Berlin twice but I would need money to take it anywhere else as it’s a huge show. It’s incredible and I love it. It’s like the next generation of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I really think a lot of my work is questioning mainstream things that go on – like: what’s the deal with that jukebox musical style? Why are you taking all these great songs from Queen and turning them into a weird ‘there’s a world and there’s no more rock music’ weak plot? So I wanted to make my show more like an opera where the songs are the trajectory for the plot not this bad actor drama stuff.

In 2010, you worked with film director Celine Sciamma (director of films Water Lilies and Tomboy) on Ivory Tower. Do you want to do more film work?
I really do. I have no interest in being part of the whole Hollywood thing, but I really want to get into it. I have made my own videos. My image of what I want and how I want to see myself in film has a lot to do with my age and who I am right now. I don’t want to be hip about it and all young and fresh about it. I made a video for a song and I looked horrible in it. I oiled down my hair and I’m just running all the time in it – but it’s not ironic, I just made it hyper-real.

I don’t know if you saw the video for Show Stopper, but that was a test for a movie we wanted to make. We weren’t thinking of this but it’s similar to that film Berlin Calling (Hannes Stöhr 2008), in that it’s a film about a real DJ. The idea which the director Caroline (Sascha Cogez) proposed to me about 4 years ago was: “I want to make a fictional film but using your reality.” And I said, “Let’s do it, then!” She had the idea that a young girl stows away on my tour bus, but I was like, “No, there’s a woman whose my age in a totally different world.” So that’s what we did with this massage therapist. I really enjoyed doing that but we couldn’t get funding to make the film. But we’re still into doing stuff. It’s more than someone like Celine, as I would like to be more improvisational like in a Mike Leigh style.

So, are you getting a buzz out of going back out on the road and doing these DJ gigs?
Yeah, it’s good rediscovering that down and dirty level, and it’s also fun coz I get to come to places and talk to people more than when I’m doing my show. I want to interact with people and people want to interact with me – instead of me saying, “I’m putting on this show.”

And you don’t have a set game plan on the day?
I take chances, for sure…

You make extraordinary videos and you made many different ones for your last album I Feel Cream – the track Talk To Me is really crazy with the moving hair and THAT hair outfit!
Yeah, I made a video for every song, and for the last song I made two! I have a very good friend Charlie Le Mindu who I met in Berlin – he was a hairdresser who moved to London and became a fashion designer. He’s really amazing and does this incredible stuff. But I remember his first collection before he technically made a ‘first collection’ and he had all these wigs. So, I’m sitting in his apartment and say, “You know, we should do a video with these wigs!” If hair is on your head or eyelashes, it’s beautiful, but if it’s stuck somewhere unusual, it’s fucked up and I’m all about that! I used to sell merkins as merchandise and t-shirts with hair on, and for Impeach My Bush we did a video for Get It with this huge piece of hair that Charlie made that went down to my toes which was wild. A lot of my videos end up like, “Let’s go out onto the street in this weird costume!!”

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What’s next for you?
I’m actually producing another band – a girl band from Taiwan called Go Chic. The main singer is more into the Peaches and Chicks on Speed style, and the one who makes the beats is totally into new sounds… and they have some punky stuff too.

So are you set to become the next Phil Spector with a roster of bands coming through your studio whilst you work the Peaches magic?
[Laughs] I’m just checking it out… It’s fun, because I really like them and it’s a good opportunity. 2010 was the year I gave myself a bunch of presents for my 10th anniversary, so we did a show completely with lasers twice in Berlin and Miami called The Peaches Laser Show. It was an incredible experience playing with all those lasers with people going “Whoa!” And it was good for me because I didn’t have to jump on everybody. It was really effective and FUN! And the other present of course was making the opera. So I’m just trying out a bunch of stuff. It’s about music, but it’s also about much more than music.

You’ve never compromised in your career, and in turn have influenced a lot of people. What would you say to somebody starting out now?
Make sure you really do what you really want to do, even if it’s only because it’s something you question. Look at what’s out there and what you think about it, and how to continue.