As the recipient of this year's L.A. Pride Lifetime Achievement Award, Margaret Cho has a lot of lifetime to look back on. And we don't mean in years. The 42-year-old comedian/actress/singer/writer is being honored for her activism in the LGBT community, having offered herself from an early age as a rallier for the disenfranchised -- particularly those looking to laugh. We caught up with Cho and asked her to reflect on her prolific career, growing up in 1970s San Fransisco, how Rue McClanahan once saved her life, and what she imagines Lance Bass tastes like.
Out: First off, kudos for your amazing Kim Jong-il impersonation on 30 Rock.
Margaret Cho: Thank you! I love that show, so it was really exciting to step into that world. It was Tina Fey's idea to bring me on. I loved that laced-front wig.
Oh, so that wasn't your hair?
No! I have a lot of hair stuffed into that wig, which I think was Amy Poehler's wig. The costumes really helped me get into the role.
The hair was almost Jersey Shore-esque.
It's a Pauly-D kind of weird curl-up -- you're right.
You're being honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at this year's L.A. Pride. What was your first pride like?
My first pride was either 1976 or 1977. That was before Harvey Milk was assassinated. I think I'd seen him in a parade before. I remember not understanding (because I was so young) what the parade was about. My parents owned a bookstore, and all the people that worked for my father were gay. The parades were small until 1978, when Harvey Milk died. There was a shift in the participation. The candlelight vigil was an incredible moving carpet of people, and even though that wasn't a pride parade, in the deepest sense, it still was. So when I attend pride parades now as an adult, it really brings me back to my childhood.
Can you imagine your life taking the same path it has if you hadn't grown up in San Francisco at that time?
I witnessed a lot of political change and a lot of death. So many gay men of that generation died of AIDS, and it was a terrible thing to see. It focused me toward being an activist in the community. I've grown up always thinking politically, but also about living in a state of joy. People were coping with AIDS through dark humor, so I think that's how I understood to fight prejudice. It's why I do what I do.
What do you see as the milestones in your career?
The introduction of LGBT rights into most conversations that I have. Whether it's stand-up comedy or movies or writing, there's always the presence of wanting to talk about our stories. As far as milestones, I think it's just a constant effort to represent our journey. To me that's what this Lifetime Achievement Award is about. I'm very honored.
What's your take on another entertainer who's become a rallying point for outsiders: Lady Gaga.
Oh, I love Lady Gaga. She's taking her talent -- which is considerable -- and creating something for people who feel ostracized. There's a universal sense of alienation, and she's tapped into that. I'm certainly a fan, but I think artists have always done that. Madonna and David Bowie -- there's a lot of people who represent that to me in music.
You became that representation when you wore the rainbow dress on Dancing with the Stars. But do you think ABC tried to control that statement?
That was weird. To me, it was very important to make a statement about the gay teen suicides. That show is so conservative, so it was hard to find a way to inject my own views and values. I decided to wear this rainbow pride flag. Yeah, we were probably voted off because we were talking about something a lot of people couldn't handle. But I don't care about a dance competition -- I care about helping a kid get through it.
When you look at gay activism from your childhood in the '70s and the kind of more commercial, Glee-esque activism we have today, how do you compare the two?
That's the journey. Harvey Milk's message has grown from one person talking behind a podium to watching it on television. It's exciting to see, but it's discouraging that the arguments against it are still so loud. Living in Georgia now, I have a very different take on conservatism. Atlanta is progressive, but once you leave the city limits, the attitude changes significantly. Homophobia is casual and accepted, even though there's such a cultural presence of gay voices in the media. And they don't even see their homophobia as a problem -- they just want to 'protect marriage,' or 'protect the family.' It's a ludicrous argument. Why is my gay life a threat to your family? That still has not been explained to me after so many years of asking why. We still have to deal with these things even though Glee is so popular.
Speaking of Georgia, Drop Dead Diva starts its third season this month, and includes appearances from Wanda Sykes, Clay Aiken, Lance Bass, and Kathy Griffin -- which sounds like the gayest dinner party in modern history.
Pretty gay. And pretty great. I know Wanda and Kathy very well. Lance I actually met at Kathy's house years and years ago. And Clay is a new friend. I enjoy working with all of them.
Was there a moment when you found yourself sitting at Kathy Griffin's house meeting Lance Bass where you thought, Is this really my life?
I've known Kathy since she was living in a studio apartment in Santa Monica, so I've seen many versions of her house. When I met Lance, I didn't know who he was, actually.
Not an *NSYNC fan, I take it.
I didn't know! It was their heyday, but I was so indie rock.
If you, Kathy, and Lance were trapped on an island together, who would get eaten first?
I'm sure Lance would not survive. He's so tender and delicious looking. I would eat most of him. Kathy is much smaller than me. I could put away a lot of Lance.
Yummy. Ok, so Drop Dead Diva inspired me to play a game with you. I'll name a diva who has'dropped dead, and you tell me what comes to mind. Rue McClanahan.
I love Rue McClanahan! I did a Golden Palace episode with her when I was 18 years old and I had to sing 'Moon River' a cappella. I was so scared. Rue hummed the key into my ear very quietly so I would know what note to start on. It saved my life.
I saw her pretty close to her death. I was leaving Dawn French's hotel room and she was coming in. She was very old and thin -- I think it was close to the end. In your mind, you think of Bea Arthur as a very majestic presence. She had the height, but not the breadth.
I think Bette Davis is everybody's favorite. She was great in so many incarnations. I loved her craziness toward the end when she was smoking on The Tonight Show, decrepit but still kind of hot. That is a movie star.
I never met Divine. I know John Waters, and I really love all those movies. I can't believe I never got to work with Divine because I wish I had. It's one of my great regrets.
Liberace I would have loved. When I was little, I was very intrigued watching him. You had this very flamboyant, almost openly gay artist who had a huge female following. You see shadows of that with Clay Aiken.
We interviewed another diva for our Ladies We Love issue, Penny Arcade, and she said something about you that I wanted to get your take on. She said, 'When I look at people who are stars in the gay world -- Margaret Cho or Kathy Griffin or even my most beloved Joan Rivers, whom I adore -- all these people are always talking about their gays. And gay people accept that? When Kathy Griffin says 'my gays' I want to kick in the television. When Margaret Cho says 'my gays' I want to take an ax and smash the TV set. When someone positions herself alongside, and not with, I don't understand that. Nina Simone was with. Judy Garland was with. Barbra Streisand was not saying 'my gays.'"
I am gay. I agree with Penny Arcade because I would never say it like that. It's not about 'my gays,' because I'm gay. It's like when you have straight celebrities at a gay political function, and they say, 'Well, I'm not gay, but'' -- I'm always offended. Why do you have to separate yourself from the community? What is so threatening about being in the community? So, I think Penny Arcade meant someone else. She's thinking of Lucy Liu.
Margaret Cho's Cho Dependent concert film will be released later this year, and she will be receiving the Morris Kight Lifetime Achievement Award at L.A. Pride this Sunday, June 12, as well as riding in the parade and performing at the closing ceremony. For more on Cho, including upcoming appearances, visit her official website and follow her on Twitter. Season three of Drop Dead Diva will premiere Sunday, June 19, 2011, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Lifetime. For more info, visit the show's official website here.