03/10/2003 at 01:00 AM EST
Sometimes Margaret Cho feels as if she doesn't fit in. Other times she knows it for a fact. Shopping at a swanky New York City boutique last year with pal Kathy Griffin, Cho found only one garment that looked as if it could fit her. Then "the praying mantis sales-clerk, she was so skinny, snatched it out of my hand and said, 'You can't try that on. You'll tear it,' " says Cho. "I was so demoralized."
Now Cho is fighting back with her favorite weapon: her stand-up act. In Chicago on March 1 she kicks off Revolution, a 35-city tour featuring the comedian's no-holds-barred take on politics, race and, most important, her newfound self-acceptance. Turning 34 last year, "I woke up to a lot of things," says Cho. "I'm happy with the way that my life is. All of that worry and fear has gone away. The show really reflects that."
Indeed, after a decade-long struggle with weight, Cho says she is no longer obsessing over her body image. "I just don't care anymore. I want to look how I want to look." Her professed indifference to the contrary, Cho is looking slimmer than ever these days. Having eschewed fad diets, Cho says she finally "learned that everything has repercussions, so I stopped thinking about eating," and now eats only when she is hungry.
She recently got engaged to Al Ridenour, 42, an L.A. artist with whom she shares a three-story Mediterranean-style home in Glendale, Calif. "It's one of the happiest times in her life," says best friend Ava Stander. "It's like everything is aligned just right for her."
About time, too. In two stand-up tours turned feature films, 2000's I'm the One That I Want (also the title of her autobiography) and 2002's Notorious C.H.O., Cho has chronicled her battles with drugs, alcohol and weight, which were exacerbated by her 1994 sitcom All-American Girl. After ABC insisted that she lose weight for the series, Cho dropped 30 lbs. in two weeks. Her kidneys collapsed in protest. When Girl was canceled in 1995, "I did drugs and drank," says Cho. "But food was my real addiction." Finally, in 1996, a hungover, overweight Cho realized "this isn't me, this is stupid."
"To turn to drugs and alcohol, that's so characteristic of the Hollywood dream falling apart," says her brother Hahn, 29, who acts in commercials. "The good thing about Margaret is that she rose above it."
Her struggles actually began as a child in San Francisco, where her parents ran a local bookstore. Teased by other kids about her Korean name, Moran (which she changed to Margaret at age 10), Cho began skipping class frequently in high school and was expelled at 15. She was accepted into performing arts school, but dropped out at 17 to pursue stand-up. Her star ascended after she toured with Jerry Seinfeld in 1991, which led to All-American Girl.
This fall she plans to take Revolution Off-Broadway. At the same time, she and Stander plan to launch a clothing line, High Class Cho. "I want to take away the stigma of whatever 'plus-size' means," says Cho, who will substitute size labels with the names of '50s icons: "Lana Turner" for small (sizes 8-10) and "Marilyn Monroe" for medium (12-14). "You want something in a Calista? You got to special-order that."
Monica Rizzo in Glendale