Jess Cagle
July 30, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

True story: one day on the set, a veteran movie director was chatting with a young, heretofore unknown actor who’d been cast in a major role in a major motion picture.

They got to talking about the indignities of show business — the paparazzi, the intrusive fans, the mean critics, the kind of stuff the young actor was sure to suffer in the wake of his big break, the kind of stuff that overpaid movie stars like to grouse about. ”But what’s the point of complaining?” said the director. ”The studio gates aren’t there to keep you in.”

I recently remembered this exchange while watching performances by Margaret Cho, the one-of-a-kind Korean-American comedian, and Cher, the one-of-a-kind whatever. Different as these women are, both have been shown the showbiz exit signs time and again — Cho failed at her own TV series, and, until her hit single ”Believe” made her hip again, Cher was seen as an irrelevant industry joke. And you don’t hear either of them complaining. In fact, in their respective venues, each has gotten her act together — once again and against all odds — and is taking it on the road. It’s inspiring, really, since both women are succeeding brilliantly. Now charging through her Do You Believe? tour, Cher struts onto the stage wearing what she calls her ”Braveheart meets Bozo the Clown” outfit. It’s a terrible outfit and she seems to know it, but to Cher garish is destiny, and moments into the concert you’re standing and clapping and celebrating with her, seduced by her rocking opening cover of U2’s ”I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

She sounds great, our Cher, as she moves through a most gratifying array of hits (”The Way of Love”; a medley featuring a great deal of ”Dark Lady”), a thrilling turn on ”It’s in His Kiss,” and current stuff from her new album. She seems to be doing at least most of her singing without prerecorded enhancement, but frankly, I was too busy watching the Solid Gold-ish dancers, the bungee jumpers, and the wigs — the many wigs, which include a silver number that makes her look like some fabulous lit-up sparkler — to give a damn whether her lips were moving. Cher doesn’t like to do more than a couple of songs in the same outfit, so you wait while she puts on a Captain Hook getup, then a slinky ’70s-variety-show-style dress, then some flashy cargo pants. In between changes you see video clips of Cher clowning with the late Sonny Bono and Cher slapping Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck.

Cher does not apologize for making you wait. She makes not one apology for a single gaudy outfit. She does not say, ”I’m sorry” for making you sit through a time-warped Cyndi Lauper warm-up set. Cher actually brags that no one can bomb quite like Cher (the infomercials, she admits, were not the greatest career move). And before she launches into her criminally underrated single ”Walking in Memphis” (accompanied by a music video in which she’s dressed as Elvis … Elvis!), she is happy to tell you what a commercial bomb that song was too. And yet she earns our respect, and not a little gratitude, by reminding us that there is life and Oscars and hit singles and wigs after infomercials, bad movies, personal tragedy, Richie Sambora, and just about any other indignity that falls short of stopping your heart.

There are no bungee jumpers in Cho’s one-woman riot, I’m the One That I Want, which runs Off Broadway until Aug. 14, then embarks on a national tour. It’s just Cho, doing her trademark stand-up material, which stands up surprisingly well, especially the imitation of her Korean mother looking through a gay porno rag at the family-owned bookstore. But to call this a mere stand-up act would do it a disservice.

The meat of I’m the One That I Want is a well-crafted, sometimes very serious turn in which she recounts her experiences on All-American Girl, her misguided 1994-95 ABC series. Told she looked fat by an exec, she dropped 30 pounds in two weeks and ended up in the hospital with kidney failure. When the show was canceled (”and replaced by Drew Carey, because he’s so skinny”), she spiraled into drugs and alcohol and promiscuous sex, until she woke up and thought, ”What kind of f—ed-up, Mötley Crüe, Behind the Music bulls— is this?” Now sober and vying ”to stay here and do this until the next Korean-American, fag-hag, s—-starting girl comic comes up and takes my place,” Cho manages rather miraculously to tell her tale without even a hint of bitterness. And like Cher, she’s learned the secret of showbiz survival. Stars who remain true to their instincts for better or worse — these are the ones that we want. Cher: B+ Margaret Cho: A

Cher’s U.S. tour continues through August; for information, see Cho appears at Manhattan’s Westbeth Theatre Center through Aug. 14 (call Ticketmaster at 212-307-4100) before going on tour (see garet.htm). Unless another Korean-American fag-hag comic takes her place.

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