If it were possible to put Jody Kuehner in a room with Cherdonna Shinatra, their positive energies would probably compound exponentially to the point of an explosion of rainbows and glitter. I’m sure of it. It’s not possible, of course, because the artist and dancer underneath Cherdonna’s wig and makeup up is none other than Kuehner herself.
It’s a relief, then, to see that the wizard behind the curtain, so to speak, is every bit as delightful as her drag counterpart. And, thankfully, far more eloquent.
While she’s best known for portraying the wild and kooky drag queen with eye makeup that would put Tammy Faye to shame and hair that could stop a bullet, Jody is also an accomplished dancer, dance instructor, and part-time nanny.
“It’s fun,” she confirms, when I question her role as a child care professional. “It’s a lot! I get all of my work done in two days, so I do really intense, money-making work as a nanny, and then I have five days to just work on art.”
Although, even when she’s not working on her art, she still kind of is.
“It’s great research in some ways,” she explains. “The two year old is all about duration at that age, and sometimes we’re playing (a game) where she runs away and hides, and I say ‘Where’s V?’ and she says ‘Here I am!’ and she runs, and jumps up, and I toss her in the air, and I wonder: ‘How long can we do this?’ Because a lot of parents are like: ‘Ok, one more time, then let’s move on.’ And so for me, I’m like: ‘Alright, let’s just do this! How long are we gonna do this?'”
Jody tells me that she’s very interested in duration, and how she can make it part of her Cherdonna performances.
“We were at a coffee shop the other day,” with her two year old charge, she tells me, “and she had crayons. It was this cycle where she’d say ‘Blue’ (holding up a blue crayon) and I’d say ‘Blue,’ and then she’d color, and she’d say ‘I like it.’ And then she’d put it away, and she’d say ‘Green’ (grabbing a green crayon) and I’d say ‘Green,’ and she’d say ‘I like it.’ And I was thinking ‘Ok. I’m just gonna let this go. How long can this go on?’ And sometimes for a long time! It’s awesome! It’s really cool, and interesting for me.”
“And then the other stuff is just being responsible for human beings,” she admits, “which is really freaky. But I like it.”
So is she interested in having children of her own at some point? She’s thought about it, she tells me.
“I’m interested in the experience of birthing a child,” she explains, “but I’m just so into this other… I don’t think I want to give up my time in that way.”
Hers is an understandable response. Art, as most artists can attest to, is a jealous lover. And there’s something to be said for the relationship between bringing an art piece into existence and having a child. Both require some effort, some planning, and some luck. And art, like a child, has a tendency to take on a life of its own once its been created.
I’m interested in making art, mainly dance work, in character form, or with high costuming or high makeup, and have a real, loud, visual element. And that’s called Cherdonna, for me.”
The 35 year old native of Fort Collins, CO, says that she’s wanted to be a dancer “forever,” training in studio dance, tap, jazz, and ballet since she was a kid. She’s a graduate of the University of South Florida in Tampa, and it was one of her professors there, who’s now running the grad program at UW, that helped her land in Seattle. Although, like most aspiring artists, she did briefly flirt with the idea of moving to New York.
“I tried to go to New York,” she mentions. “I went for a couple of weeks, looked for an apartment, and I was just like ‘I don’t make enough money!’
After 10 years in Seattle, I wonder, does New York still hold any interest for her?
“New York still has part of my attention,” she admits. “When Seattle stops challenging me or giving me what I want, then I’ll go somewhere else. Dance wise, it’s just been so fruitful.”
Fruitful, indeed. In addition the years she’s spent developing the Cherdonna character, first in partnership with drag king Lou Henry Hoover, and now as a solo act, she’s danced for Pat Graney and Mark Haim. She teaches modern dance at Velocity Dance Center, and makes regular appearances in DeLouRue productions such as Homo For The Holidays.
Cherdonna, though, is where she’s currently directing the majority of her artistic energy right now.
“I really want Cherdonna to be an art project,” she says. “I know in the drag world you’re really trying to create a brand. I want to create a brand, but I also want it to be open to whatever I do as Jody, so that there’s room for Cherdonna to look different ways. I’m interested in making art, mainly dance work, in character form, or with high costuming or high makeup, and have a real, loud, visual element. And that’s called Cherdonna, for me.”
That’s what I love about Cherdonna, that everybody feels like they have a personal relationship with Cherdonna.”
It makes sense to think of Cherdonna as an art project. To even the casual observer, she’s much more than a mere drag character. Her bouncy personality and penchant for physical comedy clearly has strong roots in Jody’s dance training. It’s hard to fumble and fall like she does and not actually get hurt. Jody, of course, makes it look easy.
Developing the character as a brand is a smart idea, also, given Jody’s artistic aspirations.
“I don’t care so much about it being ‘Cherdonna has blonde hair with a a side twist.’ That’s kind of thing I want to step away from, and, for me, it’s going to be pretty gradual. So even with this last show I’m like ‘Yeah, I’m really gonna go,’ and still, it turned out that I really didn’t actually go that far. So it’s a learning process for me. I do know where I want the trajectory to go, but I also have to learn about it in the process.”
That trajectory is definitely upwards, if her most recent solo show, the well received Worth My Salt, is any indicator. So what does the future hold for Cherdonna?
“I’m interested in so many things! I have a lot of little projects that I’m interested in doing, and I picture them all being as Cherdonna. As far as what happens within them, it’s open. What my costuming ends up like, or my makeup, or my wig; all those things are unknowns. So I don’t necessarily see a particular thing. And with that, there are things that I feel very strongly about Cherdonna that I’m also trying to navigate.”
One of those things, she shares, is the desire to expand on the range of the Cherdonna character, and to possibly explore Cherdonna’s darker side.
“What would Cherdonna do,” she asks aloud, “if she was not taking into consideration that viewer. But that’s what I love about Cherdonna, that everybody feels like they have a personal relationship with Cherdonna, and that they’re afraid of what’s gonna happen, but not what’s gonna happen to them as an audience member, they’re afraid of what’s gonna happen to Cherdonna. And that I’m really interested in.
How much can I get aggressive or get gritty, and always bring it back around to myself so that I don’t completely alienate the audience. And also I’m like ‘Why? Why do I want that?’ It’s all a question. And what if I did go all the way there? And how much is that important to me? It’s important for me to keep that dynamic.”
Cherdonna, again, is more than a drag character, crossing over the line into dance, burlesque, and performance art. It’s even possible to see, I point out, the relationship between Cherdonna and the tragic clown figure; always suffering, but somehow turning things around and making it work, at least for the audience.
“I love that idea,” Jody enthusiastically confirms, “and would like to continue that process. If I were to yell at an audience member, that maybe they’d have a moment of ‘Oh god, they’re yelling at me and I’m having these feelings,’ but then it just goes on line upward and becomes funny, or that they can move through that and move on to the next idea. I think those things are things that I’ve always been doing and interested in, but they’re just so, that they’re so much to still learn, and do.”
Building comedy out of tragedy and discomfort has long been the domain of the clown and the court jester. It’s a great way to build to a cathartic moment with your audience, especially with a sympathetic character like Cherdonna, a character that the audience already has a relationship with. And, goodness knows, there’s certainly no shortage of tragedy and discomfort these days.
“Yeah,” she agrees, “and how to have that and not have any of my pieces feel like you’re reading my diary. I don’t want to go into that realm. I want to keep it universal, and personal, to people in the audience.”
Jody’s genuine passion for Cherdonna is clear in the way she becomes so animated when she talks about her. That genuine passion is evident when she becomes Cherdonna, as well, which is one of the reasons why watching Jody perform can be such a joy for the audience. It’s apparent that Jody has big plans, as well, to more fully mine the possibilities that the character really has. It’s an exciting thought. With what ever trajectory Jody intends to take Cherdonna on, though. she’ll definitely do it with passion and enthusiasm. That much is clear.
You can get a first hand look how Jody is expanding Cherdonna’s character soon, as Cherdonna as been tapped by Gay City and Three Dollar Bill Cinema to host their 10th Annual Academy Awards Party at the newly remodeled Seattle Cinerama on Sunday, Feb 22. The party is a great chance to both catch Cherdonna in action, as well as enjoy the awards ceremony broadcast on the big screen. It’s also a benefit for two of Seattle’s most prominent LGBTQ non-profit organizations. To buy tickets, or for more information, check here.