Cherdonna Shinatra performance footage courtesy of Jody Kuehner
When performance artist Cherdonna Shinatra takes the stage — or the gallery floor, or the garden hose at your neighborhood car wash — all heads turn. Towering in heels, puffy-blonde bouffant, supersized pink lips and lashes that resemble caterpillars on steroids, she is everything but subtle. And after the initial jolt to the senses, many are left pondering the person beneath.
The irony for Jody Kuehner, the artist who performs as Cherdonna and identifies as a woman and queer, is that the more she exaggerates — or in her words, “explodes” — feminine stereotypes, the more people assume that the person underneath the makeup is a cis-gendered man.
"The larger I get with it, the more people are confused about what sex I am underneath."
“In the birth of Cherdonna, I was more of an androgynous person in my day-to-day life. And so for me it was exploring what femininity is and can be,” she says. “The larger I get with it, the more people are confused about what sex I am underneath. So I feel like when I get the furthest into femininity, people see me as more male. Which is bizarre!”
Kuehner has been described as a female female-impersonator, but the description speaks less to the artist’s intent and more to what audiences are accustomed to in performance: men dressed as women. Kuehner’s exploration of femininity has led to the creation of an abstract persona that exists in another realm, who possesses a childlike spirit not limited by gender binaries.
Cherdonna, a name that combines two of her favorite icons, Cher and Madonna, was developed when she began collaborating with Ricki Mason, who explored an alternate persona named Henry Lou Hoover. For several years, the duo performed as “Cherdonna and Lou,” until parting their separate ways and embarking on independent projects.
Kuehner is a classically trained dancer, having studied dance at the University of Florida. She’s been a staple in the Seattle dance scene since 2003, performing with several groups and choreographers including d9 Dance Collective, K.T. Niehoff and Pat Graney. She also teaches modern and contemporary dance at Velocity Dance Center. For her work as Cherdonna, she received the Stranger Genius Award in 2015 for Performance.
Kuehner doesn’t see Cherdonna as separate from her own identity. Like Cherdonna, she is extraverted, fun-loving and wants to connect with others. Unlike her alter ego, she is mellower and can be shy at times. Kuehner sees Cherdonna as a part of herself that has permission to explore concepts outside of social norms.
“All parts of Cherdonna are things that I’m interested in as Jody, I just get permission as Cherdonna to explore them. I want to participate in society… Cherdonna doesn’t have to and that’s really exciting territory, and really exhausting.”
"Cherdonna’s gonna come at you and is gonna love you to death."
As Cherdonna — and Kuehner — evolve, she continues to explore how to connect and engage with audiences in ways that challenge their assumptions at first glance.
“Audiences come in and see this wacky character that they’re kind of unsure about, but by the end it’s like ‘We’re friends!’ Cherdonna is the total opposite of the Seattle Freeze. Cherdonna’s gonna come at you and is gonna love you to death.”