Cherdonna Shinatra is a confusing sort of drag queen. In some ways, she’s more of a clown—behold the garish eye makeup, the overdrawn lips, the fumbling and bumbling movements. But she’s also a drag queen who’s a woman underneath: the female-bodied, female-identified Jody Kuehner, a formally trained Seattle dance artist.
This weekend, Kuehner comes to Portland with Worth My Salt, an evening-length performance about existential crisis. “Cherdonna as a character is trying to figure out her worth in the world," Kuehner says, "but in a really abstract sort of way.” In advance of the three-night run, we caught up with Kuehner about Cherdonna’s high aesthetic, misogyny in the drag world, and how exaggerating her femininity has led to more people mistaking her for a man.
What’s Cherdonna’s origin story?
It was pretty organic. I had been doing a lot of work with another dancer, Ricki Mason. We’re both queer people, and we had started diving into more work about gender and gender play. We birthed these characters: Cherdonna for myself, and Lou Henry Hoover for Ricki. Over the last six years, it’s been diving in more. I got hooked, and just felt there was so much to explore in it.
I feel like Cherdonna is an extension of myself in a way that’s not like an “other.” A lot of drag queens are like, “That is a separate character from myself.” But for me it’s a heightened version—more or less myself, or my less censored self.
What else have you discovered during these six years of exploration?
My roots are in the modern dance world, where there’s not as much high costuming. When you go to school for dance, everything’s very pared down and about the body. With Cherdonna, it’s really exciting to have 50 percent be about the aesthetics of the work. It’s kind of like mask work or clowning. I love humor, and I use a lot of that—that comedy-to-tragedy spectrum.
As Cherdonna, you wear all this garish, over-the-top makeup. How did that develop?
When this all started, as a human in the world I was a bit more androgynous, so just wearing lipstick and fake eyelashes was a big deal. As it’s gone on, it’s been addictive. It all has to be more; it all has to be bigger. Even today, in the look I have as Cherdonna, I can still see Jody in there in a way I don’t like. I really want to be masked—but in a fun way, not in a negative way.
Has your offstage look evolved or changed as well?
Not hugely, but it’s helped to work as Cherdonna and be like, 'I can do whatever I want in terms of self-expression.' We put these labels on each other instantly and easily, but I wish people could bounce around more and not have the response of their community be so grand. I think it’d be great if you could walk around one day in 10-inch heels, and the next day in a suit. If there’s something in Cherdonna’s wardrobe that Jody wants to wear, I’ll get a little bit of doubt, but then it’s just like, 'I can do that.' The shoes bounce back and forth, and I have a bunch of vintage '70s dresses that I really love, for both parts of my life.
The Stranger wrote that “Cherdonna is hard to describe, hard to explain, hard to predict, and hard to categorize.” What do you think is so enigmatic or challenging about Cherdonna?
Lately, Cherdonna the character is a bit more clowning than drag, per se. I can have people in my audience who are super into the underground drag scene, young club kids, and then I have people who are my parents’ age, who see I Love Lucy and Carol Burnett in what I do. And then I have the contemporary and modern dance world. It’s a really cool crossover audience. I think, too, that I’ve tried to create Cherdonna as this ethereal being. She has this unexplained nature, and there’s an abstractness to her that I love.
I’ll admit I initially assumed you were a male-identified, male-bodied artist performing as a drag queen—and then I realized you're a woman. We assume drag artists are performing a gender not their own, so how do you see yourself fitting (or not fitting) into the drag scene? How have you come at gender performance?
That’s been an interesting journey for me. I haven’t come at that head-on because it started so organically—Ricki and I were just like, I’m going to do this version of high-femme, and you’re going to do something that looks like a drag king. As I got more interested in this really heightened idea of femininity, I didn’t realize that would make people see more of the masculine side, which is so bizarre to me. The more I exaggerated my female qualities, the more people saw me as a male-bodied person—which I love, but was not my intention. It’s exciting to me when I hear that, because it tells me that this mask I’m making as Cherdonna is fully realized.
As a woman in the drag scene, have you experienced any resistance?
Not in Seattle. I think there’s a larger community conversation about faux queens, and there’s been some conversation online about the acceptance of female-bodied people doing high femininity, and whether you can call it drag or not. Even RuPaul tweeted something—somebody asked about having women on Drag Race, and RuPaul tweeted something like, “We already have that, it’s the Miss Universe pageant.” I love RuPaul—RuPaul is a very important figure, super smart, and very pushing of boundaries—and yet I was like, no, RuPaul, no! I think that with drag and these sorts of expression, it shouldn’t matter what your sex is. Anybody should be able to perform any kind of drag, regardless.
This tradition of drag queens is amazing, and it’s about male-bodied people finding other forms of expression and playing with femininity. And yet there can be these borders where it’s like, only men can do this. So I do think there’s a lot of misogyny in drag queen culture, but I haven’t really experienced that in Seattle.
After one performance in Seattle, a man grabbed your breasts, thinking they were synthetic.
That was so interesting for many reasons. First, I was just like, whoa. But with some drag queens, it wouldn’t be different for them—they would also feel like somebody grabbed their breast. I also had to ask myself, what atmosphere do I want to perform in? Performing in late-night clubs isn’t my favorite, and that’s one of the reasons. There’s this atmosphere that’s exhausting for me. A lot of drag queens really thrive in that wittiness and banter and sassiness, but Cherdonna doesn’t have that—or I haven’t discovered it yet.
Worth My Salt is at the Gerding Theater's Ellen Bye Studio April 29–May 1.