Cherdonna Shinatra is walking out of the Century Ballroom in a sequined strapless leotard and high-heel wedges. Like any drag queen, she wears a lot of makeup, but Cherdonna's makeup is next-level crazy. The eyelids are many times the size of normal eyelids, making her look like a cross between a woman and a clown and a bug. And her hair is usually lopsided, as if there's just been an explosion on one side of her body. But it's not just the makeup and the wigs and the out-there clothes. There's something else going on with Cherdonna, something bodily, something mysterious and existential and out of control, even though underneath all the spazzing out and falling down is a formally trained dance artist who is very much in control.
So anyway, Cherdonna's wiggling her way out of Century Ballroom. She's just performed in a burlesque variety show with Jinkx Monsoon and BenDeLaCreme and Waxie Moon and Lou Henry Hoover and other gender-benders. She's by herself. Unlike Jinkx and BenDeLa and Waxie, who are men performing as women, and Lou, a woman who performs as a man, the performer underneath Cherdonna is the same sex as Cherdonna. She's a woman appropriating the tropes of men who perform as women. A female completely overdoing it in the femininity department. Even though she gets mistaken for a drag queen all the time, Cherdonna is not a drag queen, technically, but a drag queen trapped in a woman's body. Or a "faux queen." Or a "bio queen." Or a "female female impersonator." Or a "female impersonator impersonator."
But strangers on the street don't know that.
Across the street from Century Ballroom is Cal Anderson Park, and some guys are playing bike polo on the tennis courts. One of the guys sees Cherdonna and calls out, "Nice outfit!"
Cherdonna—friendly to a fault—says, "Thanks!"
She gets a little farther down the sidewalk and the bike polo guy calls out, slightly menacingly, "I bet my dick's bigger than yours!"
Jody Kuehner, the artist who performs as Cherdonna, does not know what to do with this. Does not know what to say. Does not know what this guy is after. "Oh, they think I'm male," she reminds herself when this kind of thing happens. They think she's a skinny man dressed as a woman. The next thought is always worry: How is this going to end? "Are they going to beat me up? And if they find out I'm a woman, will I get raped? What are the implications?"
This is "the scarier side" of being regularly mistaken for a drag queen. Make no mistake—even drag queens mistake Cherdonna for a drag queen. Cherdonna and Jackie Hell performed together three or four times before David Latimer, who plays Jackie, realized Cherdonna was not a boy covered in makeup. "It just never occurred to me that she was actually a girl," Latimer says. "Her look is so outrageous I just automatically assumed it was a guy in drag."
"When he realized," Kuehner remembers, "he was like, 'Oh my god.' Those moments are so funny." She adds, "It's really fun when people don't know what gender I am. But that also makes me nervous."
Another time, Cherdonna was dancing in the cage at the Eagle, a gay leather bar, with Lou Henry Hoover, Cherdonna's collaborator at the time. (They used to perform together as The Cherdonna & Lou Show; they broke up last year.) They finished their dance number, and they were getting out of the cage, and a very drunk older man reached over to "help" Cherdonna by wrapping his arms around her chest and lifting her into the air. Of course, by embracing her this way, he wasn't putting his hands on synthetic breasts; he was putting his hands on real breasts. Kuehner's breasts. He was a "sad, older man, ballistically drunk, nobody's talking to him, by himself, probably goes there every night," Kuehner says. And now he was feeling her up.
"Oh, I think he thinks I'm a drag queen," Kuehner remembers thinking. "To me, I was like, 'Oh my god, I feel so violated.' But that man didn't know. But then again, it's not okay even if it's a guy—like BenDeLaCreme always says to strangers, 'Don't grab my boob.' I just didn't know how to handle it. Oh, it was so terrible!" she says, and the way she says "terrible" is such a Cherdonna way to say it—a fluttering, ecstatic, guttural vocal eruption—I wish I could re-create it here for you in words.
You pretty much can't translate Cherdonna into words. Which is one of the best things about Cherdonna.
By the way: That was not the end of the weirdness at the Eagle. Later that night, while waiting for a cab, Cherdonna and Lou saw that same drunk guy stumble out of the bar, hit his head on the sidewalk, and start bleeding. Then after they got into the cab, "the cab driver was saying weird things" about Lou, a drag king played by Ricki Mason. (Kuehner and Mason met years ago in a dance class at Velocity Dance Center and first performed as Cherdonna and Lou in a three-minute bit for a Velocity fundraiser. Century Ballroom owner Hallie Kuperman saw it, loved it, and produuced their first show.) The cab driver didn't seem interested in Cherdonna, but he did seem bothered by Lou. He kept saying, "What are you?"
Kuehner thought, "Okay, this might get funny or it might get really weird." The cab driver refused to start the meter until he was told what gender Lou was.
"So after a block, we hopped out," Kuehner says. "And I was like: 'Whoa, that night was so creepy. I don't even want to do club gigs anymore.'"
She's sitting in her apartment on Capitol Hill as she says this, wearing flip-flops and a tank top and fake eyelashes on one eye, staring into her makeup mirror.
And then she adds, "But, of course, I did."
Cherdonna is hard to describe, hard to explain, hard to predict, and hard to categorize. She doesn't fit in neatly anywhere. This is as difficult for the artist as it is for the character.
Club gigs aren't right because they usually require performing on a small platform with very little room to move, and Kuehner is a dancer before anything else. (Also, she's not a big fan of drinking.) But serious dance venues aren't right because—aside from dancing for choreographers like Pat Graney and Mark Haim—Kuehner doesn't do serious. "As much as I have tried to make work that's serious, I don't," she says. "I can't. I've tried. It always has a comedic element to it. Always. I've tried."
Drag shows aren't a perfect fit for Cherdonna because she's not doing drag—she could never be a contestant on RuPaul's Drag Race, for example—even though she's a fierce lip-syncher. (She lip-synched an entire monologue by David Schmader at Northwest New Works last spring.) But burlesque shows aren't quite right either, because burlesque has broad formulaic conventions, and Cherdonna doesn't do formulas. It's no wonder that Cherdonna always stood out in burlesque variety shows; for all Lou Henry Hoover's talents, Lou is predictable, a cartoon, an easy-to-comprehend character. Cherdonna is not predictable or easy to comprehend, which makes her far more interesting to watch.
Nevertheless, Kuehner loves drag queens—and the campy diva culture around them. "I was kind of looking for the most generic drag-queen idea," she says about naming Cherdonna. Whenever someone asks her how to pronounce it, she's incredulous: "How do you pronounce it? It's Cher and Madonna! It's the dumbest idea! Can't they see?"
And drag queens love Cherdonna. Jinkx Monsoon, anointed America's top drag superstar last year by RuPaul, told me, "Any time someone asks me who my favorite drag queen in Seattle is, I say Cherdonna Shinatra." With a twinkle in her eye, Jinkx added: "It's kind of a political answer so I don't get in trouble with any other drag queens. But she is one of my favorite people onstage. I could watch her make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich."
That might not be far from what Cherdonna ends up doing in Worth My Salt, her first-ever evening-length solo show, at Velocity Dance Center this October. (Velocity developed the work through its Made in Seattle program. It plays October 17 through 26.) Food is a theme in Worth My Salt, or at least it was during rehearsals in July and August. At one, I watched Cherdonna squeal at the sight of a box of Nilla Wafers, do various physical things in relation to it that I wouldn't be able to translate into words, speak to it in English and some Cherdonna-specific language, and then destroy it with excessive, inexplicable glee—with the high heels she was wearing. It was a glee tinged with darkness. Ripped-up cardboard and pulverized Nilla Wafer dust flew through the air and scattered across the dance floor.
But just because something was in a rehearsal a few months ago doesn't mean it's in the show. Kuehner's artistic process pretty much consists of making things and discarding them, over and over. For example, for a while she was thinking there might be a Viking bit. "I was like, 'Oh there's going to be a Viking moment, and I'm going to have a meat stick and a mug,'" Kuehner says. "You picture Vikings not having great motor skills." And then what happened? "I was like, 'Where would that go? Why would I represent Vikings?' It just kind of stopped. But the movement expression might come back, or show up in another piece. Most of the time, I have this idea that's good for two seconds and then I'm like, 'Well, that's not going to work.' I let things go more than I stick to them."
One of the things Kuehner loves about the choreographer Dayna Hanson, whom she describes as a mentor, is that she's "not very precious. She'll make something and destroy it."
Kuehner held a work-in-progress rehearsal for Worth My Salt over the summer and invited a dozen artist friends to watch and give feedback. Hanson was among them. We started talking about how impossible it is to describe Cherdonna, and tried and failed to identify what it is about Cherdonna that's so transfixing. Hanson said the first time she saw Cherdonna perform, "I went, 'Oh boy.' I was just riveted. And I'm really easily bored and really easily grumpy. And one of the things I noticed is she could just stand there, and move her shoulders, and shift her weight, and it was just riveting."
But what is it? What is it, exactly? Hanson told a story about seeing "a kid with cerebral palsy who was so rubbery and wiggly" once. "He couldn't stand and he was rolling around on the floor saying something I couldn't understand, and what I finally figured out he was saying was 'Don't stare at me.' And I thought, 'Oh my god, I'm such a loser.' There was this thing he couldn't control about how he moved. I don't know if it's pity, or if it's 'I'm not in your shoes and I don't know what it's like...'" Hanson's voice trailed off.
Then she said, "Cherdonna is a crazy creature who lessens your anxiety about being weird."
Sarah Rudinoff, a performer who was at the rehearsal, said, "You see her mind working, but she doesn't get it out. You see it in her body. She has a revelation, but she struggles to verbalize it, so you see it go into her... toe."
Peggy Piacenza, yet another performer who was at the rehearsal, agreed it was impossible to put Cherdonna into words, and when I begged her to, she said: "I—I—I think—Cherdonna lives in us all, I think. I think she allows me to be me. And yet it's so psychological. It's not just funny. There's a whole other thing going on. Something deeply disturbing or haunted or sad. You recognize the effort of being."
Right before the rehearsal started, someone carrying a cucumber salad in a ceramic bowl tripped and fell, and the ceramic bowl shattered. It was hard to look at the ceramic shards and cucumbers in dressing and not think: That is so Cherdonna. There were several dancers in attendance, and I was trying to ask them not-dumb questions about dance and how Cherdonna does it, because she has extensive training in contemporary dance, and teaches at Velocity (where she was the operations manager for five years), but all I could think about was the shattered ceramic bowl and how someone looks when they're mid-fall. Falling is one of Cherdonna's main moves. And a ceramic bowl of cucumber salad that's just shattered is her spirit animal.
Kuehner, 34, has lived in Seattle for 10 years and performed as Cherdonna for five. She was raised in Colorado and has tattoos of Colorado wildflowers to prove it. "Then we moved to Florida and it was like the end of my life." She struggled to make friends. At a seventh-grade talent show, she performed to C+C Music Factory's "Everybody Dance Now"—and got booed offstage. ("Like literally booed off the stage. And it was good! I'm a good dancer.") She got a BA and a BFA in dance from the University of South Florida, followed one of her dance teachers there to Seattle, and set about deconstructing what she'd learned.
"Cherdonna is like the other way of being a person—what if I had no control?" Kuehner says. "I get to be in public and roll around on the floor. Throw a tantrum. Crush things. There's a lot of permission when you're in a mask. I've destroyed things. I broke a bunch of lamps. I smashed a champagne bottle. I broke a mason jar. I kicked a mini-piano over, and the leg broke off it."
"Clearly she has a very individual voice," Hanson said. "You don't look at her dance vocabulary and go, oh, she's obviously influenced by X, Y, and Z."
"She constantly surprises me," says choreographer Wade Madsen, who met Kuehner years ago when she came to his class. "Everything from how hilarious she is to how exquisite a technician she is to the freedom she has."
Pressed for more specifics, Madsen says, "In one movement, I can see classic jazz to an abstract shape from Graham to a release improvisational slow movement to a grounded moment in yoga. Is she, in her mind, going, 'I'm going to do this and this and this and this?' I don't know. I think it's more like she's constantly investigating. 'Where can I start a movement, and end here?' Cherdonna's movement when she's big and it's almost out of control—it's not even human-looking. It's like something abstract is inside of her, moving her body. It's funny to see that, it's amusing, but we all have abstract places in us that make us come to a decision."
It's not just dancing she does differently than other choreographers. The way she uses sound is different, too. A lot of choreographers create something and then add sound at the end of the process, or have a musician come in and compose accompaniment on top of what's already been created, but for Kuehner, sound comes first—as inspiration and as source material. In Worth My Salt, she'll be lip-synching to a Diane Keaton monologue from the 1987 movie Baby Boom, when Keaton is flipping out in the snow. Why Keaton? Why Baby Boom? "She always has this flighty, nervous energy in a lot of her movies," Kuehner says. "And what makes Baby Boom still work for me is its datedness. It's wrong or dorky or something. Old stuff is a little less cool because now we know things or whatever. But there's something in that that I like. Something about the perspective I really like."
Of course, the way she uses her face is different from other dancers/choreographers, too. "Part of drag and part of clowning is using your face," she says one day while putting on makeup. "In modern dance, this is so expressive," she says, holding a makeup brush under her chin and gesturing to everything below it. "But this is just neutral," she says, pointing to her face.
Not so with Cherdonna. With Cherdonna, the face and the body are locked in a war over who can express the most.
As for how she learned to do makeup, if she can be said to have learned to do makeup: "I learned just from watching. A lot from BenDeLaCreme. And Lou Henry Hoover. I asked Ben, 'Can you help me with shading? Or some technique?' And he's like, 'No. I think Cherdonna's Cherdonna because you don't have any technique.' And I'm like, 'Ben!' And he's like, 'No.' So a lot of it comes from watching Ben and going, 'Oh, he does that. So I'm going to do that, even though I don't know why.'" She smiles. "I was kind of annoyed, but now I appreciate it that Ben did that."
Cherdonna's makeup is just one more way she stands out from the other girls. Not only does she "not" have makeup technique, she purposefully gets her makeup wrong—she wears weird yellow blush (that Atomic Cosmetics makes custom for her), and triplicate false eyelashes on top of her eyes, and upside-down false eyelashes below them. When the drag queen Jackie Beat visited Seattle for gay pride this past summer, "She said, 'Can I give you a tip?' She's like, 'You've got your eyelashes on upside down.' But that was the point. Because my makeup's not natural. And she's like, 'Huh.'"
Kuehner realizes that all the playing around she does with high-femme drag stuff may signify more than she is intending. "It's almost like these are my props for my modern-dance piece, and they mean all these other things that I'm learning about."
One time, someone told her, "You're a faux queen," and she got offended. "No I'm not!" she said. And then later, embarrassed, she realized, "Oh yeah, I guess I am."
But it's not like she's some straight girl crashing the queer party. She has a girlfriend of two and a half years, and they live together. Kuehner describes her own gender presentation as "shifting all the time," having been through a "baggy men's clothes" phase, followed by "a goth period," followed by an "outdoorsy hippie" period, followed by whatever period she's in now. (Sweaters and dance pants and flip-flops, if my interactions with her are representative.) But the high camp aesthetic has always been tantalizing to her. She remembers as a little kid in Colorado being taken to a shoe store by her mom to buy snow boots, and instead picking out a pair of spike-heeled red leather shoes. "And my mom was like, 'Okay, no'... When I first started Cherdonna five years ago, I thought of it as a place where I could express my femininity—like, 'Oh, this is what my femininity looks like. Okay, cool.'"
Madsen thinks Cherdonna is "not male or female, in a way. And that's where I love it because it blurs that line between a man doing outrageous drag and a woman commenting on him... Jody's always going: What are the rules? How can I break them?"
For a while, Cherdonna had a double—another performer named Beth Graczyk, who dressed in Cherdonna makeup and Cherdonna clothes and a Cherdonna wig and stood next to Cherdonna at public appearances, which was completely baffling and brilliant because it inspired doubt in everyone else. (Especially if you were a little tipsy—am I seeing double? Is this real?) Early in the development of Worth My Salt, Kuehner took the idea even further, making doubles for her double. She had five other women dress like Cherdonna and rehearse with her, and one night she said, "'Okay, we've been in the studio together, let's go to BenDeLaCreme's viewing party [of RuPaul's Drag Race] at Century Ballroom! Okay! Put these ponytails on! Put these leotards on!' Before we even got to the event, just seeing them look a little bit like me, I was like: 'No fucking way, no, no, no, this is not it. I don't want to go out with this group. This is not what I want to do.' It was screaming at me, No. I haven't had quite that strong of a reaction to something. It was like: No, not doing this. And literally the next week, I was like, 'Thanks for your time, I'm moving in another direction.' And I let them go."
That's just one of the many elaborate ideas she's developed and discarded in the buildup to Worth My Salt. When I told her how much I loved the thought of all those doubles, she said, "It might be a separate idea." There was a dance rationale behind cutting them, too. "Basically I was trying to really take what I do that's so improvisationally based and turn it into something that is set. And teaching other people how to do it would force me to figure out how to make it set. Can I do this thing and have that movement be set, but have it look off the cuff? But then when I got in the process with these other dancers, it was me just kind of teaching what I do, and there wasn't a lot of room for me to figure out what I want to do with it. It was keeping me from taking the next step with the character."
What is the character, anyway? What is Cherdonna doing? And why is she doing it like that? Does she have a backstory? Does she live here in the present with us? Is she from some alternate reality?
"Honestly, I shy away from giving her backstory because I think it becomes a restriction," Kuehner says. "She's just here and now, always. There's something in the mystery. Or letting people come to whatever conclusion they want." When I mentioned that Cherdonna doesn't fit in anywhere, that maybe not fitting in is Cherdonna's main theme, Kuehner agrees, but says Cherdonna wouldn't. "Cherdonna thinks she belongs, but everyone else thinks she's the odd man out."