CNN PEOPLE IN THE NEWS
Profiles of Melissa Etheridge, Margaret Cho
Aired May 24, 2003 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANNOUNCER: Next on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS: She's the female rocker whose songs are as provocative as her life.
MELISSA ETHERIDGE, SINGER/SONGWRITER: My personal life is probably larger than my music now.
ANNOUNCER: She grew up harboring secrets in small town, Kansas.
ETHERIDGE: Realizing I was gay was a long sort of waking up.
ANNOUNCER: She came out of the closet with a very public relationship and later a very, painful breakup.
KATHY NAJIMY, ACTRESS: It rocked our world, but my main concern for my friends is that they are happy.
ANNOUNCER: And now she has regrouped with new music and a new love. An intimate look at Melissa Etheridge.
Then, she's one of the queens of stand-up.
JERRY SEINFELD, COMEDIAN/ACTOR: She's kind of like a true comedic voice.
ANNOUNCER: Her upbringing and background would give her comic material for years to come.
MARGARET CHO, COMEDIENNE: In the late '70s, we owned a bookstore in San Francisco, and my mother for some reason was in charge of the gay pornography section.
ANNOUNCER: She broke barriers with her sitcom, but it almost caused her to breakdown.
CHO: I'm going to burn out before I fade away.
ANNOUNCER: She's taking the stage by storm. A look at Margaret Cho.
CHO: Come on girl, you need to hurry. Come on.
ANNOUNCER: Their stories now on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS. PAULA ZAHN, HOST: Hi. Welcome to PEOPLE IN THE NEWS. I'm Paula Zahn.
Melissa Etheridge has gained fame and a reputation for her music. Her leathery voice and her hard driving, often very personal love songs. But over the last decade, Etheridge's private life has been at center stage as often as the star herself, perhaps even more so. Candid and unflinching, Etheridge now speaks and sings about heartbreak, sexuality, and the dark secret she has kept since childhood.
Sharon Collins has our profile.
ETHERIDGE: Life happens, and I write about it wherever I am.
Actually, I'm writing right now.
MIKE STRANGE, FRIEND: When you think of rockers, you think of maybe Springsteen. And when you think female rockers, you think of Melissa Etheridge.
NAJIMY: And I would say, like she slipped into our hearts and taken our stories and written the songs. It's like, how did she know?
SHARON COLLINS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Melissa Etheridge knows all too well. In just the last few years, the 41- year-old rocker's life has become an open book; from coming out of the closet to a 12-year relationship and painful breakup to the dramatic revelation of her children's famous father. The world has gotten to know Melissa Etheridge inside and out.
ETHERIDGE: Sort of that lesbian/David Crosby breakup thing is probably larger than my music now. So I realize I have entered the American culture.
COLLINS: Whether it's stirring ballads of love and heartbreak or screaming rock love songs about infidelity, Etheridge's music has always reflected her life. It's also what kept her going through the dark times.
ETHERIDGE: I learned very early on that I could write truths, I could write about sadness or anger, where I couldn't actually speak it.
COLLINS: Putting honesty and raw emotion into words, in songs like "I Want To Come Over," is something Etheridge began doing as a young girl in Kansas. An escape, she says, from childhood isolation.
STRANGE: Growing up in Leavenworth was the typical Midwestern experience as a kid. That there was really no crime that we knew of. We wandered the streets and did we everything we wanted to do. It was almost right out of TV.
COLLINS: But Etheridge's life was no "Ozzy and Harriet." Born May 29, 1961, young Melissa, nicknamed Missy, lived at this house in Leavenworth, about 40 miles from Kansas City, Kansas. Etheridge says her family, mom Elizabeth, a computer consultant, dad John, a high school teacher, and older sister Jennifer were emotionally unavailable. Which led to years of loneliness.
ETHERIDGE: I came from that Midwestern kind of repressed; everything's fine. We don't talk about anything.
COLLINS: Etheridge made music her outlet. At 8 years old she got her hands on her first guitar and took some lessons here near home. She would escape to the family basement and put her heartfelt emotions on paper. Her first songs were filled with sadness, a cry for love, a fear of abandonment.
ETHERIDGE: The sadness is that I would -- that I started funneling all my emotion into that. And so that maybe the sort of dysfunctional way I was raised actually nurtured my craft and my songwriting.
COLLINS: She tested out her guitar and songs for childhood friends. She played in band and choir at Leavenworth High. But her ballads, filled with emotion, put her in a class all her own. She performed in local variety shows, won talent contests. Etheridge was realizing her dream.
She was just 12 years old when she started playing with mostly male country-western bands at local bars. The young musician's confidence grew on stage, but her parents were worried about her raspy voice. She was sent to a voice coach.
ETHERIDGE: Yes. She was like go home; tell your parents that you're going to sing the way you do, and that I shouldn't try to stop you.
COLLINS: Etheridge did sing her own way. As a teenager, she played in bars and restaurants all over Kansas City. But the husky voiced singer was restless, anxious to leave home for more reasons than one.
ETHERIDGE: My experience of sort of realizing I was gay was a long sort of waking up. And because there wasn't a lot of gay things around, I didn't know what to call it at first.
COLLINS: The 18-year-old left Kansas and headed to Boston to attend the Berkeley College of Music. While her heart was not in school, she did find success and her first paycheck singing solo at piano bars in back Bay restaurants. After just a year in Boston, Etheridge knew she had to reach a bigger audience. With some money in her pocket, the 21-year-old packed her car and drove west to LA in search of fame and a hit song.
ETHERIDGE: Around the world, that song, I start that beginning. And it always has the same reaction; people are up.
COLLINS: When PEOPLE IN THE NEWS returns, that song and the woman who changes Melissa Etheridge's life forever. ETHERIDGE: One of those situations you're like, you're not gay? Who I definitely didn't assume she was married, but she was.
ANNOUNCER: Also ahead.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHO: Mom, it's LSD. How do you know that?
ANNOUNCER: The comedy has broken barriers of race in its own unique way.
CHO: They've never seen a Korean American role model like me before. You know I didn't play violin.
CHO: Stick it in!
CHO: I don't know what happened.
ANNOUNCER: And always funny. Margaret Cho, that's later on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.
ANNOUNCER: Welcome back to PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.
COLLINS: By 1982, Kansas native Melissa Etheridge was struggling with her home life, struggling about her sexuality. She was ready to escape and sing her heartfelt songs to a bigger audience. With dreams of becoming a rock star, the 21-year-old made a go of it in LA. She played everywhere she could: restaurants, lounges, and eventually gay bars. Although not publicly out of the closet, Etheridge soon had a loyal following among lesbian club goers.
Her songs were not an immediate hit, but her love life took off. She met a lot of women and became notorious for having one-night stands.
ETHERIDGE: I was just leaving the Midwest. I was just being comfortable in my sexuality, and it was Southern California. There was beautiful people, you know.
And there's a fun time to be had by all tonight.
COLLINS: but it was in one of these women's bars that Melissa caught the attention of a man. Music manager Bill Leopold was there with his wife when he saw Etheridge perform.
BILL LEOPOLD, MUSIC MANAGER: I thought she was the reincarnation of Judy Garland. I was blown away.
COLLINS: Leopold signed Etheridge certain he could get a record contract. But record company after record company turned them down.
ETHERIDGE: They would say, you know we love you. You're very good but we just don't hear that hit song.
COLLINS: Etheridge didn't have a record contract, but in 1984 was hired as a songwriter for A&M Records. She wrote song tracks for some 80s B movies like weeds, starring actor Nick note. But mostly took this time to work on her own material. She drew on her unfulfilled relationships for inspiration.
ETHERIDGE: A gal. You know, a gal. Being with somebody else, these non-monogamous relationships I was in. It's fine if I did it, but if they did, forget it. I'd write about it. COLLINS: Etheridge's passionate songs finally caught the attention of record exec Chris Blackwell. Although the '80s music scene was rocking with male groups like, Guns and Roses and Motley Crew, the Island Record exec put his money on the girl with the acoustic guitar. In 1986, 25-year-old Etheridge had a record contract.
"Rock Anthem Bring Me Some Water," an angry song about infidelity and lost love did not bring Etheridge a hit single, but it drew raves from the music industry. In 1987 she had a Grammy nomination for best female rock vocal. The song put Etheridge firmly on the road to stardom, but the music video would change her life even more.
While shooting the video, she met filmmaker Julie Cypher. Cypher was then married to actor Lou Diamond Phillips, but found she was strangely attracted to this female rocker.
LARRY KING, HOST, "LARRY KING SHOW": Was Melissa the first woman you were attracted to?
JULIE CYPHER, FILMMAKER: She was.
KING: What was that like?
CYPHER: A big surprise, like you said.
COLLINS: The two flirted but began a friendship over the phone. Etheridge was on her first concert tour, Cypher at home alone, her actor/husband on a movie set. A romance soon developed. A year later in 1988, Cypher filed for divorce from Diamond Phillips. Etheridge and Cypher were now an item, but they weren't ready to share it with the world.
ETHERIDGE: It was kind of a long building of a relationship. And one of the reasons was I was on the road constantly.
COLLINS: As Etheridge's love life intensified so did her music. In 1993, more honors from the Academy, a Grammy for rock song isn't it heavy. But it was something else that catapulted Etheridge into the limelight. Etheridge made a bold decision that could have ruined her career. Tired of only alluding to her homosexuality in songs and interviews, she publicly came out of the closet. The occasion, a President Clinton inaugural ball, the first time gays and lesbians were invited to such an event.
ETHERIDGE: I remember walking up and on the microphone, with thousands of people going, well, you know, I'm proud to have been a lesbian all my life. And I'm like, oh, wow. I just came out.
LEOPOLD: And from that point, her career exploded.
COLLINS: Etheridge's relationship with Cypher was now also public, and the album "Yes, I Am" quickly rose to the top of the charts, each song clearly declaring her love for Cypher. Etheridge was now selling out arenas, and though being on the road caused tension at home, she was living the rock star life.
ETHERIDGE: The subject and the reality of having children came at the height of my career. I look back not sure about the relationship, but willing to go along with it.
COLLINS: Two years after Etheridge came out, she and Cypher gave the world even more to talk about. In 1997, Cypher gave birth to a little girl, Bailey. But the couple kept quiet about the identity of the baby's dad. The media frenzy intensified a year later when brother Becket joined the family. For three long years, Etheridge and Cypher were asked the same question. Who is the biological father? The speculation led to rumors of possible fathers like celebrity friend Brad Pitt.
ETHERIDGE: We joked about Brad. There's no way he would want to be in his child's life. He would just would.
COLLINS: Etheridge and Cypher grew tired of the rumors and worried the badgering could hurt their children. In January of 2000, the couple came clean, their secret revealed on the cover of "Rolling Stone."
ETHERIDGE: He's in the children's life in exactly the way that we had hoped; in that he's -- you know, you ask any of our kids who's your dad? Oh, it's David, you know.
COLLINS: That's David Crosby, rock legend and Woodstock icon. It was the musician's wife Jan who volunteered her husband. But the seemingly happy parents were in deep trouble.
When PEOPLE IN THE NEWS returns, Etheridge's personal life falls apart.
ETHERIDGE: One of the hardest phone calls we made was to David and Jan because we felt like we had let them down.
COLLINS: And the rocker reveals another secret, this one from the darkest chapter of her life.
ETHERIDGE: My family doesn't deny anything that I've put in the book because it is the truth.
ZAHN: Melissa Etheridge tells all when we return. But first, here's this week's passages.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It looks like there will be some layoffs coming at the law firm on ABC's "The Practice." The TV show has been sliding in the rankings, so in an effort for the Emmy winning show to cut its budget nearly in half, some of the long time players will be dismissed from the courtroom. Among those hearing the final gavel: Dylan McDermott, Lara Flynn Boyle, and Kelly Williams.
Now, the news came as a shock to viewers who didn't know "The Practice" was still on TV.
New York Yankees centerfielder, Bernie Williams is known for his bat and glove. Now will he be known for his acts? Williams signed a deal this week with jazz label GRP to release his debut album," The Journey Within." The album, on which Williams plays guitar, is set to hit shelves this July.
The Godfather of Soul has even more reason to feel good. James Brown received a full pardon Tuesday for his crimes in South Carolina. Now, you may remember back in 1988 when Brown, high on PCP and carrying a shotgun, led police on an interstate chase that led to his arrest. He served a 2 1/2 year prison term on drug and assault charges. Brown, who made a personal appearance at the hearing, sang "God Bless America" after the decision. Proving he truly is the hardest workingman in show business.
For more celebrity news, pick up a copy of "People" magazine this week.
ANNOUNCER: Now back to PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.
COLLINS: By the year 2000, Melissa Etheridge was a Grammy winning, platinum selling rock star with nothing to hide. She was out and proud, had two children with the help of rocker David Crosby, and what appeared to be a perfect relationship.
KING: Is Julie the love of your life?
KING: No doubt about it?
ETHERIDGE: No doubt about it.
COLLINS: But by this time, there were doubts, and their relationship was in deep trouble. The problems were fueled by separation and confusion. Etheridge was constantly on tour and Cypher had begun to re-question her sexuality, not certain she was gay.
The couple tried to salvage their deteriorating relationship but at the end of 2000, just eight months after the birth of their son, Etheridge and Cypher were finished. Etheridge was devastated. The crushing blow made even bigger with the breakup of their family.
ETHERIDGE: It was tough being a single mom. It was tough being in a divorce with children. Very, very lard.
COLLINS: The two women now share custody of kids Bailey and Becket.
ETHERIDGE: We do split weeks right now. Week on and week off, which you know, it works now. So...
COLLINS: The breakup saddened close friends.
NAJIMY: It rocked our world because, when you hang out with two families, you just get in patterns. You get used to things.
COLLINS: And fans who considered the couple role models for gay parenting were let down.
ETHERIDGE: Julie and I broke up. That disappointed. But I'm certainly not going to live my life for other people.
COLLINS: Etheridge poured all her pain into her music. She recorded songs of vulnerability and betrayal.
ETHERIDGE: It started with the album "Skin" and sort of coming to an end of a part of my life. And writing about it and singing about it, and then touring alone with it. And sort of -- it was a healing. It was a journey.
COLLINS: The music was just he beginning of her catharsis. In 2001, Etheridge embarked on another journey. She wrote her first book, a frank autobiography detailing the romantic fallout with Cypher. The book also chronicled her painful up bringing in Kansas, years of childhood isolation and depression.
But in this memoir, Etheridge also made shocking revelations. Etheridge alleged that, when she was 6 years old, she was physically and sexually abused by her older sister Jennifer. She says the abuse lasted for five years.
ETHERIDGE: I would never say I had a bad childhood at all. I just had a certain a set of circumstances, and my sister definitely had a large influence on me.
COLLINS: Although Etheridge won't go into detail about the abuse; she says it was much more than a childhood game of doctor. Her sister Jennifer, now a homemaker in Arkansas, did not return our calls. But CNN did contact Etheridge's mother. She refused an interview but wanted to make the statement that the family is very proud of Melissa.
ETHERIDGE: My family, I communicate with some of them. My sister and I just have an agreement sort of not to talk about it.
COLLINS: Etheridge says speaking out about the abuse and about her painful breakup with Cypher has helped her move forward. This year, the 41-year-old put the painful ballads behind her and embarked on a tour filled with the upbeat music of her earlier albums.
Etheridge's love life is rocking again too. She was at a Hollywood restaurant with pal Kathy Najimy when she met actress Tammy Lynn Michaels. She had starred on the now canceled WB show "Popular."
NAJIMY: This little woman came up, this little, Q-Tip of a woman with this spiky blond hair and all this lip-gloss, came up...
ETHERIDGE: Out of the blue, I swear this angel came down. And my attraction to her has been different than any other woman in my life.
COLLINS: Twenty-seven year-old Michaels appeared in the Etheridge video "I Want to Be in Love." The couple now live together here in LA.
ETHERIDGE: The age difference was probably the biggest obstacle for me. I was like what? She's at the age I was when I started my -- in my professional career. It's been 14 years. And so it's kind of on the other side of it looking at -- I kind of get that experience back again.
COLLINS: Etheridge certainly has a lot of experiences to share.
I have been a woman with a desire for a career for 40 and was building and going. And it was always, and when I get there, when I get there. I'm here.
COLLINS: Melissa Etheridge, hit maker, risk taker and survivor. Having song the blues, she now returns ready to rock.
ZAHN: Melissa Etheridge and Tammy Lynn Michaels say they are now engaged. They also say they're planning a wedding ceremony for the end of the year. Etheridge is also working on a new album but there is no release date as of yet.
ANNOUNCER: And next on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS, her sitcom was the first of its kind, and it was almost the end of her.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHO: I just started to have like a kidney collapse, a kidney failure.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ANNOUNCER: Rebounding from near ruin, a profile of Margaret Cho when we return.
ZAHN: Welcome back to PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.
Everyone told her she wouldn't make it. But Margaret Cho has certainly proved all her doubters wrong. The Korean American comic has enjoyed an off Broadway hit, a best-selling book, and two smash comedy films. But success has by no means come easily.
Here's Kyra Phillips with the "Notorious C.H.O."
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She's got her own stories about life, but somehow you can relate them to all the kooky things that go on in your own life.
CHO: I was walking down the street and I walked past this guy, and he goes, me so horny.
EVA KOLODNER, FILM PRODUCER: She catches you like off guard. You find yourself laughing at something, and then you're like, wait a minute. She's making you think about sexuality and gender and race discrimination.
CHO: Maybe someday I could be an extra on M.A.S.H.
LORENE MACHADO, FILM DIRECTOR: I think her messages of invisible racism are really, really important.
KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): She's been compared to stand-up legends Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy. She's racy.
CHO: Monogamy is so weird. You know, like when you know their name and stuff.
You go, girl.
PHILLIPS: She's brutally honest.
CHO: I had sex with a woman on the ship, and I went through this whole thing, you know, I was like am I gay? Am I straight? And I realized I'm just slutty.
PHILLIPS: She mocks her own mother.
CHO: She calls me and leaves me these messages on my machine. Boop! Are you gay?
PHILLIPS: And some say Margaret Cho might be the funniest woman in America.
SEINFELD: She's got a -- like a true comedic voice. She's not like trying to be a comedienne or acting like a comedienne, she is a real comedienne.
PHILLIPS: But for this 34-year-old Korean American comic, it's not just about the jokes. Her stand-up is part comedy, part social protest, raw materials drawn from her own life experiences. It's made Cho an icon for many people who have experienced sexism, racism, and homophobia. From her early days on the comedy circuit to a stint on prime time television, Cho has battled discrimination and depression her entire life.
CHO: I've always been a reject. I've always been too loud and unpleasant to look at and unpleasant to listen to and just all together wrong.
PHILLIPS: Rejection, even from her own family. Her strict parents wanted their Korean American daughter to walk a more traditional path.
YOUNG HIE CHO, MOTHER: Become a lawyer or professor or doctor, something like that.
CHO: Boop! Hi Savony (ph), don't marry a white man!
PHILLIPS: Though her parents tried to push her into the role of a traditional Asian-American woman, Cho would be inspired by a completely different culture. San Francisco, 1968, a time of rebellion and experimentation, free speech and free love. It was during this time, on December 5, little Margaret was born. Her parents called her by the Korean name Moran.
HIE CHO: Her head is big, and her shoes is so narrow, the baby clothes is all the time coming down like this. And the shoes so tiny.
SUEN HOON CHO, FATHER: I like this picture very much. She had something to say.
PHILLIPS: Cho's parents, Seung Hoon and Young Hie had recently left their war torn home in Korea in hopes of a better life. They settled in San Francisco. Her father earned an MBA and found work as an auditor. But money was tight. At just four months old, Margaret was sent to Seoul, Korea to live with her grandparents.
HOON CHO: She become really independent from early stage, I think, because she was you know sent over there.
PHILLIPS: Margaret was three when she returned to San Francisco to live with her family. She and her parents and little brother Han lived at this home in the Sunset district just south of Golden Gate Park. Her bold manner made her an outcast early on.
CHO: Because I was just like the irrepressible one who wouldn't shut up. And it was just like, so horrible. So it was like "Lord of the Flies," every single day.
PHILLIPS: Although a bright student, she was ostracized by peers for her Asian features and her Korean name.
CHO: You have to understand I've heard my mother scream it from across the hills. Moran! Moran!
PHILLIPS: Margaret couldn't relate to her Korean culture or her classmates. She was lonely and frustrated. But when she was ten years old, things changed.
HOON CHO: Right at the corner of Hoag and California.
PHILLIPS: Her parents bought Paperback Traffic, a bookstore in the heart of Polk Street in the late '70s, an epicenter of gay culture in San Francisco. Surprisingly Cho's conservative parents employed mostly gays and lesbians.
CHO: My father especially encouraged me to hang out with gay men because he knew that gay men had the key to culture, that they knew everything about the arts, and that they had really good taste in music and food and art.
PHILLIPS: She attended a prestigious high school for kids with above average intelligence, but Cho fell into a bad crowd. She began cutting class, drinking, smoking pot. At 15, she was expelled. Her parents were crushed. They wanted their smart Korean daughter to put education first. Cho became motivated by something very different.
CHO: It was seeing Richard Pryor in the film "Live At The Sunset Strip." It just really, really changed me. I thought, wow, that's it.
PHILLIPS: Cho watched the outrageous stand-up and was inspired. At age 16, she auditioned and was accepted at a high school for artistic teens. She dove into drama classes and joined an improv group.
CHO: What I'm interested in is power.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Please welcome Margaret Cho.
PHILLIPS: When we return, Margaret Cho rockets to Hollywood fame but crashes along the way.
CHO: I just lost an incredibly large amount of weight, and it was so horrible.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now back to PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.
CHO: I look like one of those girls you would see in a Korean grocery store on a calendar. Holding a box of soy milk.
PHILLIPS: Before she became famous for her rants on race, Margaret Cho struggled with her own identity.
CHO: It's good for you.
PHILLIPS: As a teenager, she became obsessed with American culture and TV, white bread shows like "The Brady Bunch."
CHO: And I would always see Asian Americans all over the place, I never saw them on television. So I started to think that maybe there was something wrong with us.
PHILLIPS: Cho finally found her own niche while performing in high school comedy sketches. Cho's keen observations about life and her own Korean mother set her apart from her classmates.
CHO: My mother has a problem with blind intersections. She will sit there for a very long time and rant, "they never give you a chance!"
PHILLIPS: The mom material eventually would become an audience favorite, but Cho's parents didn't approve.
CHO: Everybody in my family is just not something that I could do. They said that you can't. But I just knew inside that there was a way.
PHILLIPS: By the late '80s Cho was obsessed with comedy. Stand- up pulled her out of depression, but it didn't keep her in class. At 17, she dropped out of school moved out of her family home, and in with a friend. In 1986, her roommate dared her to perform at an open mike.
KENNEDY KABASARES, FRIEND: We both kind of debated it, and we were kind of looking at each other going, oh, do you think we should? Oh I don't know. And at one point, we just -- I think she turned to me, and just goes, let's go.
PHILLIPS: She took center stage at a comedy club, coincidentally upstairs from her family's bookstore. She kept it a secret from her disapproving parents.
CHO: I knew not to tell them. I didn't tell them for a long time. I didn't tell them for years.
PHILLIPS: Cho brought the house down. Eventually, she took her show to L.A. She fine-tuned her material and tried her luck on the college comedy circuit. In 1991 she won a competition. Her prize, a chance to open for the king of stand-up, Jerry Seinfeld.
SEINFELD: There's not a lot of people really that do comedic -- comedy that really -- that that's their thing. There are a few people that are lucky enough to find that thing that's that what they should do, and she's one of those people.
PHILLIPS: Television execs agreed. By the early '90s, Cho was the most booked comedy act in the market. She landed prime-time TV specials.
CHO: And maybe it's me, but tell me honestly. Do I look like Connie Chung's slutty younger sister?
When I was a little girl, there were never Asian women on TV. So I had no role models. Oh one, excuse me, "Mr. Eddie's father."
PHILLIPS: The laughs kept coming. In 1994, the 26-year-old had a chance to make television history.
CHO: Mom, this is how they used to fight on "The Brady Bunch." We can do better.
PHILLIPS: Cho became the first Asian American to land a sitcom. If the pilot was picked up, she'd play a family friendly version of herself in ABC's "All American Girl."
Producer Ken Mock was a show developer.
KEN MOCK, PRODUCER: She's edgy. She's brash. She's in your face.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have confidence that you'll do what is right.
CHO: Based on what?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MOCK: And I think that was an important image to get out there to say that, you know, we as Asian Americans can also be just as obnoxious or you know as confrontative and funny as anybody else.
PHILLIPS: But before Cho got the part, network execs wanted her to look the part. They were concerned she didn't match the image of an Asian-American girl. They asked her to lose weight for the pilot.
CHO: Now, the fact that they said that it's fine, but just the idea that these people had a meeting to discuss my big, fat ass.
PHILLIPS: Cho didn't want to blow her chance at stardom. She went on a crash diet, began taking diet pills. She kept her ordeal a secret.
CHO: I just lost an incredibly large amount of weight. And it was so horrible, and I just started to have like a kidney collapse, a kidney failure.
HIE CHO: She was quiet, and we just meet, and she never talk how she suffer.
PHILLIPS: Cho says all her suffering paid off. The sitcom was picked up for 1994. ABC execs called her to break the news.
CHO: Margaret Cho, your pilot is going to series. Margaret Cho, you're a star!
PHILLIPS: But the show bombed. Ironically, it was the Asian- American community that disliked the sitcom and Cho.
HOON CHO: The first episode, she was dating a mechanic, and for most of the Asian communities, this is unthinkable thing. They wanted to have their daughters to date Ivy League, you know, college kids rather than mechanic, you know.
MOCK: People didn't feel that that Asian-American experience was authentic, and Margaret in the show was like putting a round peg into a square hole.
PHILLIPS: But she wasn't ready to give up fame and fortune.
When PEOPLE IN THE NEWS returns, Cho fights to stay on TV, and the all American girl hits rock bottom.
CHO: And I really wanted to commit suicide, but I was afraid to actually do it. So I would just be drinking all the time.
ANNOUNCER: We now return to PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.
PHILLIPS: By 1994, 26-year-old Margaret Cho had become a famous stand-up comedienne. When she left the stage for prime-time television, her world fell apart.
CHO: I was still willing to sacrifice my health for this chance at the big time.
PHILLIPS: She had endured a grueling diet, lost 30 pounds, but sitcom execs still didn't find Cho Asian enough. They tried revamping the show, even hired an Asian consultant.
CHO: She would follow me around, "Margaret, use chopsticks. Use chopsticks. And when you're done eating, you can put them in your hair."
PHILLIPS: But producers and the Asian American the community still didn't buy it. In 1995, amidst of the poor ratings, ABC canceled all American girl. It rocked Cho's world.
CHO: At that point, I really thought, well, you don't have a legitimate career unless you're an actress. So I thought that everything was kind of done.
PHILLIPS: Cho's self esteem sunk with the show. She lost herself in alcohol, drugs, and one nightstands.
CHO: I thought, well, I'm just going to be a really destructive rock star. And you know, then I'm going to go on tour and be a stand- up comic. But I'm just going to be the best stand-up comic there ever was, and I'm going to be the most disgusting. Like I'm going to live the most gross life. I'm going to burn out before I fade away.
PHILLIPS: Cho eventually tried stand-up again, but she was deeply depressed, still consumed by alcohol and drugs.
CHO: I would perform in a complete blackout, and I would sort of wake up in the middle of it and be like, oh, wow, what am I doing?
PHILLIPS: The substance abuse continued for months, but by 1996, the 27-year-old grew tired of the self-loathing. Her turning point, in bed, after a booze filled evening with a boyfriend.
CHO: But the stain was in the middle, so we couldn't figure out who wet the bed. And I said, what kind of Motley Crue, "Behind the Music" life is this? I realized it's not me. This is not what I do. And it just really struck me as very stupid. So I just kind of woke up.
PHILLIPS: Cho got herself out of bed and put the misery, the loss of her sitcom, behind her. She went back to stand-up, this time clean and sober. Her real recovery came when she started talking about her own problems on stage. She starred in 1999's off Broadway hit "I'm the One That I Want." It was different than any other stand- up she had performed. There were plenty of jokes.
CHO: They'd never seen a Korean American role model like me before. You know, I didn't play violin. I didn't (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Woody Allen.
PHILLIPS: But Cho was mostly dead serious. She used the stage to talk about the suffering she had endured over the years. Audiences loved Cho's new confessional stand-up. The show sold out. A critically acclaimed film version and best selling book followed.
And the edgy comedienne hasn't stopped since. In 2001, "Notorious C.H.O.," her raw cuss comedy tour, had audiences howling. And in 2002, "Notorious C.H.O." hit the big screen. Cho toned down the rage, but not the raunch. She focused on her own struggles with body image and sexual identity.
CHO: There's some stuff I don't really understand, like the G- spot. Where is it? I can't find it. I logged onto Map Quest and everything.
PHILLIPS: But it's the impersonations of her Korean mother that keep fans flocking to the shows. CHO: I saw her in the lobby before the show, and she was looking around at people going, "Do you know me? I am so famous."
HIE CHO: This is the first time we went there, and I was so surprised, you know because everybody was standing in line to buy the ticket. I felt like to serve them coffee and doughnut.
PHILLIPS: But what about her daughter's X-rated material?
YOUNG HIE CHO: I don't understand in details. That is the best part.
PHILLIPS: Nothing's off limits for the outrageous Cho, not family and certainly not sex. CHO: Bam!
PHILLIPS: But she's cleaned up her act. She settled down here in Glendale, a suburb outside of L.A. Her funky hillside home is a lot like Cho, bold and colorful.
CHO: Hi, boy.
I thought all this time I was a winter, but actually I'm a vibrant spring. So these are all colors of the vibrant spring palette.
PHILLIPS: When Cho's not giving home tours, she's on tour trying out new stand-up material all over the country. But you can still count on one familiar face...
HIE CHO: She's so busy she cannot have baby yet. That's why I love babies so much.
CHO: She doesn't really know how to walk on a leash, so she has to be attached to me.
PHILLIPS: But until there are babies, she says her dogs will do just fine.
CHO: Hi, girl. Hi -- Ow!
PHILLIPS: After all, the 34-year-old "Notorious C.H.O." has never been very good at doing what she's supposed to do.
PHILLIPS: I'm going to succeed as myself, and I'm going to stay here and rock the mike until the next Korean American fag hag starter, girl comic, trash talker, comes up and takes my place.
Thank you. I love you!
ZAHN: Margaret Cho is set to star in the new feature film "Bam Bam and Celeste." It's a buddy film that Cho wrote herself. The comedienne also continues to tour the nation with her latest act, "Margaret Cho, Revolution."
That's it for this edition of PEOPLE IN THE NEWS. I'm Paula Zahn. Thanks so much for joining you. Hope to see you again next week.
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