Weekly Burlesque: Interview with Margaret Cho

Margaret Cho

Burlesque performers are my superheroes. The legends with their wild pasts and graceful moves, the newbies gathering their nerves to fling themselves onto a stage for the first time, the performers of my generation who have been christened neo-burlesque — they’re all my heroes.

When I see them get onstage, I’m starstruck by their beauty and abandon and skill.When I first learned that Margaret Cho was MCing the Miss Exotic World Pageant in 2006, it made perfect sense. She has every quality I want in a hero: nerve, honesty, gender inquisitiveness, sexiness, talent, and a brilliant sense of humor. That she has achieved fame and success just goes to show that the world in general is going my way.

When I met her backstage she had the qualities that always, for me, cement hero status: she was gracious, friendly, and warm. I couldn’t have been more starstruck.

“I almost cried the first few times that I performed [my drag act] because the audience reacted so strongly — screaming! People were literally screaming.”

I was even more grateful and stricken when, not long after MEW, she invited me to perform in her show “The Sensuous Woman” in Fire Island. I’m lucky and I know it!

Having been a part of that, I felt I could make bold and ask to interview her for my blog. She was, again, gracious and warm, as well as quick with the e-mails. I bring you, ladies and gentlemen, the burlesque interview stylings of Miss Margaret Cho, superhero of striptease, comedy, and genderfuckery.

How and when did you get interested in burlesque?
I saw a Velvet Hammer show a few years ago, and I was hooked. I was obsessed with [writer/singer/dancer] Pleasant Gehman and still am. She is my bellydance teacher, a creative collaborator on “The Sensuous Woman,” and my good friend. She invited me to the show and I was just floored… I loved it! That show was the first time I had heard about live burlesque shows going on and it really blew my mind!

Margaret Cho

What does burlesque mean to you?
For me, it is about seeing beautiful women — real women — being sexy, coy, funny, transgressive. It helps me to feel beautiful in my own body, to feel sexy and free.

When did you decide to start doing burlesque yourself?
About a year ago. I actually made my debut at Exotic World. I hosted and then on the Sunday night show I did my snake striptease! It felt awesome.

Who inspires you most and why?
Every dancer inspires me, but my favorites are Pleasant, Dirty Martini, Julie Atlas Muz, Tigger, and you! (I told Margaret that if she didn’t say something nice about me and my friends she’d never work in this town again — JBW)

What is your favorite aspect of burlesque as it is now?
It’s hard to say. I love how it can be so political but also really sexy. I just love the erotic charge in the air, the catcalls, the costumes — everything.

Would you like to describe one of your acts?
My favorite act to do right now is my big drag number. I was having a Louise Brooks moment when I conceived it, but it was more along the lines of “What if Louise Brooks was a drag queen?” I chose a beautiful aria from “Tristan and Isolde” for the music. I had a white flapper dress that I never ever wore but loved, so I put that on and made that my costume — after finding some glorious and EXPENSIVE pasties and matching panties to go with it.

Margaret ChoI realized I needed fans too so I splurged on a set of giant red ones — remember, you taught me how to do fans! Then I went to a special effects specialist, who is a friend of my husband and made a very light yet very realistic flaccid latex penis. It was very hard to find a dildo that was like a flaccid penis!

I needed one that would fit into panties and still look like something when I stripped them off, so it had to be collapsible, and it is — fully collapsible and will stick onto my crotch with double stick tape!

The choreography is simple, just a classic fan dance really, but with a big surprise ending. The audience really doesn’t know what to do. At first I try to seduce them, being very feminine and coy with myself, a very shy, teasing kind of dance. But then at the end, when I reveal I have this very real looking and startlingly plain penis, people really freak out.

I almost cried the first few times that I performed it because the audience reacted so strongly — screaming! People were literally screaming. I love that. So that is my most exciting number right now.

What would you like to see next in burlesque?
I would love to just see more, more, more! I would love to see people incorporate more of themselves too. To see them be more honest and exciting and real. When you did the “International Lover” number at “The Sensuous Woman” on Fire Island, it was probably my favorite burlesque moment ever, because what you were doing was so sexy and intimate, yet at the same time very clever and really fun.

I love when I am really moved by burlesque and you really did it for me that night…the purple rope and blindfold! I even found that exact purple shade of nail polish so that I could be reminded of your performance!

What is one of your favorite experiences so far?
I had a blast when we all did Fire Island together for “The Sensuous Woman,” and every time I get to do a burlesque show I just fall in love all over again. Every time is my favorite time.

– Column and second photo by Jo Weldon; other photos by Austin Young

Jo Weldon is Headmistress of the award-winning New York School of Burlesque and is a regular burlesque performer. Visit burlesquedaily.blogspot.com to read her daily blog.