Margaret Cho: Advice To My 26-Year-Old Self
Comedian Margaret Cho broke the mold by talking about race, growing older, sex in your 40s, and periods. But guess what — she was once an insecure 26-year-old, just like us.
Acclaimed stand-up comedian, writer, and actress Margaret Cho is currently on her "Fresh Off The Bloat" world tour and hosting her weekly podcast, The Margaret Cho, with her new dog Lucia. Guests include everyone from Jonathan Van Ness to Diablo Cody. At 26, however, Cho was only just getting a foothold in the comedy world, and she was dealing with her first public failure: the cancellation of her TV series, All-American Girl. The one-time ABC series was the first primetime sitcom to focus on an Asian-American family, but because Cho didn’t have as much control over the series as her ABC contemporaries, like Ellen Degeneres (Ellen) and Roseanne Barr (Roseanne), the series was criticized for perpetuating stereotypes and failed to charm audiences.
I remember you at 26. You already feel old.
You think that your life is already set for you, and look, you’re not too far off. You feel like your career is on track, and you’re right. Stand-up comedy is where you belong. But you think you know everything about everything, from how to be on the road, to something as simple as how to drink alcohol, and you really don’t. You think you’re old hat because you’re doing well, that you’re so mature and so advanced and so over everything, but you haven’t done everything. Yet.
You're supposed to be an adult. You think you know what you’re going to be when you grow up, because you think you are grown up. But while it feels like you've arrived at adulthood, here's the truth: Your journey hasn’t even really started yet. It feels like you've been at it for a while, but in reality you've just been preparing, like a vacation you haven’t even started packing for. You’ve been practicing — practicing relationships, practicing these cycles we all go through in life. It's not real yet. And before it gets real, there are some things I want you to know.
You Have Nothing To Be Jealous Of.
You’re optimistic about where your career is going, but you’re going to feel jealousy about the paths that other people are taking. And while you don’t yet have the internet or Instagram to fuel it, you have FOMO. Fear of missing out on everything, jealousy that other people are living this great life that you don’t have the chance to because you don’t have the right opportunities.
On one hand, that’s show business. On the other hand, you’ll learn that it all kind of evens out in the end. It’s really weird to realize nobody actually has a charmed life — everyone experiences degrees of difficulty, pain, and suffering. But you don’t know that yet. You think everybody has it better than you. They don't.
You Are Beautiful.
You’re thinking about your body a lot. Being thin will be the great obsession of your twenties. It’s brought into your life by show business and the era of CK One. The world will tell you to reach a painfully thin “ideal” form — that if you don't have a visible pelvis, you’re not beautiful — and you will spend so much time punishing yourself for not meeting that bar. If I could, I’d tell you that’s all wrong. Don’t listen. When you’re my age, you’ll regret every minute you spent worrying about weight.
You are a very beautiful girl, and you just don’t know it. That's the saddest part of all — you’ll only realize it when you don't have your 26-year-old beauty to enjoy anymore. You’ll enjoy your 50-year-old beauty, too, but 26 is special. I look back at photographs and I see you and think, that poor thing. You are just so wrapped up with anger and jealousy that you can’t have this body that is impossible for you to achieve. And in doing so you miss the beauty before you. It’s devastating. So please, for me, appreciate your youthful beauty, and stop spending so much of your time and your power trying to pursue a body that isn’t going to be the thing that makes you happy anyway.
Your Love Life Isn’t Your Whole Life.
No one romantic path is guaranteed to make you happy, either. There’s no need to define yourself — It’s okay to be attracted to anybody. Don’t be so concerned that your relationships include men; that they include women; that they see varying degrees of success. You don’t have to decide, no matter how much you feel the need to. You actually don't have to figure that out at all. Ever.
And no one person will make you happy. There’s a weird thing that will happen when you are older — you’ll come to realize that these guys aren’t important in the story of your life. When you’re my age, and you see these different men you were so concerned with for so long, you’ll see that they’re just a bunch of old men. After 25 or 30 years pass, you’ll be so embarrassed that you were fretting over some idiot. They age. They're mere mortals. These people, they don't matter.
You Have Power — And You Will Have More One Day.
You are afraid of “authority,” and that’s understandable. At your age, show business is still run by a few men in power, and it sucks. It feels wrong — and it is wrong. But it will improve. And as time moves on, you will become more and more equipped to deal with these struggles. And now we, the artists and the people who are creating content, are in a position of power. We can speak about injustice. We can complain. There is a greater sense of accountability and autonomy. It is better now.
Of course, I wish that you, and everyone in your shoes, could've had the power to speak out before. But we were so afraid. And I wish that the abuses didn’t go on for as long as they did. But it's truly amazing that we've now shifted to this place where we can talk about safety, where we can feel okay saying “no.” If I could change anything, it’s that you would know that the world would change when you are older. That you could look forward to that.
However, you should make peace with the fact that there's no future in which everything is just solved. There isn’t. It's complicated, and then it will get more complicated; I’ve realized that life is a continuing, evolving masterpiece. But maybe knowing that makes it all a little less daunting.
Just avoid saying "never." Everything, right now, is a "maybe."
You Are Right — About A Lot Of Things.
As time goes on, comedy will change. And one day, you will find that all of the things you suspected before are actually right. All the impulses you have right now? They’re spot-on. You started doing comedy because you wanted to feel safe in a comedy club, not like an Other because you’re a woman or person of color or queer. You wanted to shift the industry so that when you are on stage, you can create a new kind of comedy for people who also feel like outsiders. I’m here to tell you you were right on the money with those ideas. The future will bring what you want for yourself.
Failure Is Okay.
You’ll still falter, though. You’ll have a very grand failure at a young age with your television show. You’ll think that because you failed at that, that your life is over. In truth, your professional life won’t really even begin until that happens, and you start using that experience in your writing and your comedy; it will be what puts you on another level as a stand up comedian. Failure is what inspires the work that gets you stand-up specials and comedy films and tours all over the country. It will all happen. But not until you amass quite a few big failures. Even when it looks like everything is over, it's actually just beginning.
That probably won’t stop you from getting discouraged when something doesn’t go your way, but don't get hung up on it and definitely don’t make any absolute proclamations. You can say, “I’m never gonna do that again” or “I’m never going to see so-and-so again,” but you’ll be wrong. Just avoid saying "never." Everything, right now, is a "maybe. "
But I know you're a little bit too tied to the world that you know. The thing is that you need to learn to switch worlds, switch planets, and go into other dimensions. There are lots of them. You think you've exhausted all your possibilities at 26, and it's not true. It's just that you may have exhausted all the possibilities in that little world that you've created for yourself. There is a huge, huge universe of a lot more than you can even imagine, and you're about to embark on a voyage of discovery. An open mind will take you everywhere.
And before you take off on this journey, I want you to know one thing: You will survive it all. And that is the thing that will make you most proud, but on some level, I know you already suspect that.