Exclusive: Margaret Cho talks busking and stripping for San Francisco’s homeless

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Comedienne and native San Franciscan Margaret Cho has been on a unique tour of her hometown. Not so much the comedy clubs or the music venues (although she’s been to plenty of those), but rather she’s been busking on street corners like any down-and-out musician.

Since Robin Williams’ death this summer, Cho has been haunted by the long shadow he cast. Specifically, Williams mandated that his crews include a certain number of homeless people, and his work with Comic Relief brought the issue front-and-center. As San Francisco has become more “Dickensian”—in Cho’s own words—she felt motivated to act, and the hashtag #BeRobin was born.

Cho’s busk outside the Victoria Theater was hardly a few jingles and a photo shoot, followed by a hasty retreat to a luxe trailer. It was two-and-a-half hours of songs, interpretive dances, comic interludes by local talent, impassioned pleas by reps from SF nonprofits, and people eating spaghetti and Chinese food and getting their hair cut for free by stylists from Glama-Rama Salon.

Sadly, it’s rare to see homeless San Franciscans and their more tony neighbors commingle for any period of time, so this gathering was all the more conspicuous. As Glama-Rama owner Johnny Kat said, “Some of these people, it’s been a long time since they’ve had a haircut, or a personal interaction with somebody. So we’re hoping it has a benefit beyond just the physical.”

Crowds came and went, and SFPD stayed away all afternoon as the donations came in. “We’ve got huge boxes of Tampax,” Cho said. “I took one, I’m not shy.” And she handled odd moments—such as the woman who began dancing and undressing right in front of the band—with aplomb. The entire thing might have been titled “An Afternoon of Bowie and Elvis Costello Covers by Margaret Cho and Friends (With Striptease).” 

As for that, it was pretty chilly out, but Cho bared nearly all, holding a big basket into which people with money could give and out of which people in need could take. “There’s no bigger joy than to make it rain on the homeless!” Silly, yeah, but sincere. Almost paradoxically, this busk was the very opposite of grandstanding, and I had the opportunity to speak with Margaret Cho at the end.

dot429: Would you like to talk about how the busk went?

Margaret Cho: This was really incredible. We had Glama-Rama salon donate their time to give homeless people haircuts. We had a nail tech there to do their nails. It’s powerful. It’s really fun. I get to be really fierce and cunty and sing all my songs and covers.

dot429: I liked your strip tease. Wasn’t it a little chilly?

MC: It was chilly. Also, I’m wearing, like, the most unattractive lingerie. I love poking dollar bills into my G-string to give to homeless people! I get so excited.

dot429: There were a lot of people who had no idea who you were, but they were like, “I heard there’s free money!” and they stayed. It’s cheering people up in December.

MC: It’s a good kind of antidote to all the anger and frustration people are feeling after the Eric Garner decision, so we’re doing something that’s in solidarity with them and is a kind of protest. But it’s people helping people of all races.

dot429: You really handled well the woman who may have been mentally ill and started undressing herself. It’s refreshing, especially when you see other liberal celebs who are like, “Get me the Purell!”

MC: Homeless people are treated so poorly in this city. They’re not touched, and they’re not acknowledged. Part of what I want to do is humanize everyone, and get people who have stuff to give to give it away. All this stuff was donated. 

dot429: How has homelessness changed in San Francisco since you grew up here?

MC: I think it’s gotten so much worse. I feel like the richer the city gets, the poorer it gets. It really looks like a Dickens novel now, you know? The tech community, which is great and has done great things for San Francisco, that’s part of the problem because they’re all looking at their phones. They’re in their own world and not looking out. That was part of this project for me: let’s get offline and get into life.

dot429: And did you have a nice birthday the other day? [Cho turned 46 on December 5]

MC: I did. I worked. The reason this happens on weekdays is that I work on weekdays. I was in San Antonio doing shows and talking about this. I never go out, so this is my “out.”

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