Margaret Cho, Comedian
Comedian Margaret Cho sits down with MAKERS to talk about growing up the daughter of Korean immigrants, the impact of the AIDS crisis on her comedy, and how harnessing her identity as a queer woman of color comic allowed her to overcome even the most devastating personal failures.
America Ferrera, Actress and Activist
Maya Lin, Artist, Architect & Memorial Designer
Margaret Cho, Comedian
AMERICA FERRERA: I was born and raised in Los Angeles. My parents are immigrants from Honduras and they split up when I was quite young. My mother raised six children on her own. Watching her do whatever it took to provide the life that she came here to give us was a real testament of what we're capable of.
I grew up feeling, first and foremost, American. Very aware of the fact that I didn't speak perfect Spanish. The girls who did speak Spanish made fun of me for not speaking Spanish. The very first audition I ever went to wasn't specified Latina. The casting director asked me if I could do it again, but please try to sound more Latina this time. And I was really confused.
I thought, do you want me to speak in Spanish? No, I want you to speak in English. I just want you to try and sound more Latina. And what she was asking me to do was to speak broken English. It became very clear, very quickly that the industry looked at me and saw a brown person, and that there was a specific box for that.
I was playing a young girl whose parents didn't understand her dreams for herself. The fact that it was this 17-year-old chubby Mexican-American girl, who no one would ever imagine would get to be the star of her own movie, I think that really opened up people's ideas of what was possible in terms of storytelling and who got to be the center of their own life.
I went to a professor of mine and started crying and saying, you know, what do I do? It was what I felt completely passionate and drawn to, and then there was go to school, get a really important job, and try and change the world. He said to me that he'd been mentoring a young girl. She was a young Latina girl. He'd been mentoring her for years and he couldn't really break her shell. She came to him and said, "Come watch this movie with me, it's called "Real Women Have Curves."
And so he took some of her friends to see the movie and she was actually going through a very similar thing with her own parents. And so it gave her the opportunity to start that conversation. And they did ultimately support her in her dream to go to college. I had no idea that he knew I was an actress. And he said to me, "She would have never been able to do that if she hadn't seen a reflection of herself." What I realized was that being an actress, it had already become something bigger than me.
Donald Trump announced his candidacy by calling Mexicans rapists and murderers, and talked about attacking women. So as a woman, as a Latina, as the daughter of immigrants, as an American, it did feel like a death of an idea that I had built my American identity around. And that made me realize that there was just work to do.
So what I chose to focus on was empowering communities to use their voices. So often the narratives about social issues leave out the very people who are most impacted by them. There were people on the front lines living these issues and fighting for their communities. And they know much better than those of us who just got woke yesterday.
I gain strength and encouragement from those around me who are being courageous, and brave, and stepping out. I need them to keep doing that, because it's what keeps me going.
ANDREA JUNG: I'm a daughter of two immigrants. So I grew up in a very authentic Chinese household with a lot of traditional values. But they were ahead of their time. I mean, if you got to back to a traditional Chinese heritage or Asian heritage, you know, one might think that this concept, of kind, of women walking a step behind men or not taking important roles. I had grandmother and a mother who used to tell me from when I was extremely young that girls can do anything boys could do.
When I graduated from Princeton, I actually wanted to do something idealistic, like join the Peace Corps. My family didn't have that much money. And so I think they thought, well, that might be nice. But you need to go get a job. I remember through most of my career being either one of or the only woman around an executive table.
My very first interview with Avon was in 1993 with the, then, chairman. His name was Jim Preston. And he had a plaque behind his desk that had four footprints, a bare foot ape and then a barefoot man. And then a wingtip man's shoe. And then a high heel. And it simply said, "The evolution of leadership."
And I asked him before the interview was done, I love that plaque behind your desk. Do you really believe that? And he said Avon is a company that is mostly about women. And we should be one of the first companies someday to have a woman running this company.
The brand at that time was perceived as sort of your grandmother's brand, a little bit of ding dong-- Avon calling. And we did a tremendous amount of heavy lifting to modernize that brand today, from product formulas, product packaging, all the way to some terrific celebrity spokesperson.
I was actually passed over for the job. And I had a life moment-- a career moment If you dive deep in yourself and say, OK, someone else is going to come in and lead the company. And I'll either have to be extraordinarily supportive of that person. Or I can go off and do my own thing. And that decision to stay with a company that I love was probably one of the more important decisions I've made in my life.
About 18 months later it was about 10:00 PM at night. And I got a call from the, then, lead director of the board. And he said, well, congratulations, Madam CEO. And I remember waking my daughter up, who was young at the time, and saying, I've just become the CEO of Avon. And she said, you're joking, right? Go back to sleep. You're dreaming.
Being the first woman CEO, I felt it was a privilege. You know, we have over 6 and 1/2 million independent representatives. And they're mostly women. So I felt the responsibility of showing them that women can make it. I had someone tell me that she was a victim of domestic violence. And that only because of Avon was she able to get her life back together and today can support her children. And today is really a leader in her community.
And every one of those moments. I feel like, wow, I had the chance to be a part of something that actually did something good. There are still fewer women than men in every echelon of business, but it's changing. And it's changing for the positive. And whether it's Meg or whether it's Ginni Rometty at IBM or Ursula at Xerox, some extraordinary women running some very large companies. And that is great, great progress.
CONNIE CHUNG: The business that I've been in requires sticking your neck out. You can't sit back and wait for the story to come to you. You have to go pursue it. Dig, push, and be bold.
My parents and my four older sisters were all born in China. They arrived in Washington, DC. Less than a year later, I was born. In China, all you want are boys. So when they had yet another girl, it was like, eh, all right. I always wanted to be the son that my father never had. So I was going to make Chung memorable. With five girls, I could never get a word in. So I was the quiet little sister.
I'm Connie Chung.
They couldn't believe it when I got into television news and I had to speak to the world. And my father was such a news buff. We would watch Uncle Walter every night, Walter Cronkite. He was the man. So early on, when you could only see my hand holding a microphone-- that's Connie's hand. He was just eating it all up.
It was a little local station, and the only job they had open was for a secretary. And I thought, oh god, typical. I did that for several months, but they had an opening for a writer. It was the late '60s. The Civil Rights Act had passed in '64. There was a heavy push to hire women and minorities. So I became the writer in charge of the assignment desk.
There was this one reporter who was really lazy. So I'd say, why don't you watch the desk, and I'll do the story? I know you don't want to do it. So then I'd do stories. They finally let me go on the air, and then a short time later, CBS News, the network, was getting such pressure to hire women.
So in 1971, I was hired along with Michele Clark, black, Leslie Stahl, a nice Jewish girl with blond hair, and Sylvia Chase, a shiksa with blonde hair. Everybody was a male. I mean, everybody, the staff, the producers, the executive producers, the Bureau Chief, the people we covered on Capitol Hill, the White House, the State Department, men.
We all went through a very rigorous hazing period. There were camera people who, they didn't want to take orders from us. Or else I'd be covering some senator on Capitol Hill, and he'd say, "Well, sweet little lady, what sweet little question do you have for me?" And I just stuck it to him. They pitted the women against each other. Who would get the woman job? Leslie Stahl and I would frequently be told to go cover the First Lady doing something that we knew would never get on the air.
Ed Bradley would go up to the assignment editor and say no. But I really had a hard time saying no. There is this mentality on my part-- the good little girl, fear of being fired, fear of being uncooperative, fear of being the five-letter B word. Every step of the way, there were issues being a woman. The only way we could move forward was to do our job and do it better than anyone else.
- Here's to Connie Chung.
- (SINGING) Here's to LA. News to LA. And from our newsroom comes the history of the day.
- This is the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather and Connie Chung.
DAN RATHER: Good evening, and welcome, Connie.
CONNIE CHUNG: Thank you, Dan. When I was first told that I would be co-anchoring with Dan Rather on the CBS Evening News, I couldn't believe it. Walter Cronkite was my idol, and I always wanted to be Walter Cronkite. I didn't think that that would ever happen. There are always these self-doubts, but I felt like I did know how to do the job. But it was very clear from the beginning that Dan Rather didn't want me there. He would not have wanted anyone there. He was very gracious upfront.
DAN RATHER: See you tomorrow.
CONNIE CHUNG: But you ask someone who's been in the job forever to move over and make room for somebody else, it's a recipe for disaster. It was a constant battle. I would have appreciated it if the boss had said, you know, it's over. I want to tell you face-to-face. But that didn't happen. They told my agent, and then he told me.
DAN RATHER: I'd like to take this moment to wish my longtime friend and colleague, Connie Chung, good luck and godspeed.
CONNIE CHUNG: I lost my dream job. It was completely devastating. Remarkably, though, my husband and I had been working on adoption for a couple years. The firing occurred on a Friday. The next day, we get a call that our son was going to be ours. It was, oh my god. My life just went flip. Lose the job, get our son. Woo! I had a baby when I was almost 50. It worked well for me. Everything that happened in my career was meant to be.
One thing that women really need to remember is sing your praises the way the men do. Sing your own praises. I was indispensable. You're welcome.