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Cherdonna shows there's more than one way to be a woman

Jody Kuehner, left, without her makeup, and Jody Kuehner as Cherdonna, right, with her makeup.
KUOW Photo/Lisa Wang
Jody Kuehner, left, without her makeup, and Jody Kuehner as Cherdonna, right, with her makeup.

The woman with the dirty-blonde pixie cut sits before a mirror.

Plastic bags with jars of yellow foundation and purple and blue glitters sit in front of her. Nine makeup brushes are lined up, waiting to be deployed.

Her name is Jody Kuehner but in an hour and a half, she’ll be Cherdonna.

Kuehner has performed as the character Cherdonna Shinatra for seven years, but this sunny spring afternoon is the first time she has allowed visitors to watch her don the makeup that transforms her from a mild-mannered dancer into one of Seattle’s best known drag performers.

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As a tall, lanky woman in her 30s, Kuehner is an unlikely drag queen. Dressed in a black tank top and stretch pants, you see no trace of the flamboyant Cherdonna, whose name is an homage to two performance icons: Cher and Madonna.

Kuehner arrived in Seattle 12 years ago with a degree in contemporary dance from the University of Southern Florida. She has worked with some of the city’s best-known contemporary choreographers: Pat Graney, Mark Haim, K.T. Niehoff and Dayna Hanson, among others.

Kuehner loves to be in a studio with talented dancers, but as a queer woman (she doesn't use the word lesbian), she wanted to create work that would let her explore her identity. That was the nucleus for Cherdonna.

Kuehner says queer women who wear makeup and feminine clothing often pass as heterosexual in mainstream culture, whether they want to or not. Kuehner emphatically embraces her queer identity, but she wanted to find out how it feels to move through the world in lipstick and high heels.

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[asset-images[{"caption": "Jody Kuehner applies neutral powder over specially-formulated yellow foundation makeup.", "fid": "126690", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201605/cherdonna1.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Lisa Wang"}]]“When I started this seven years ago, I really wanted to be seen in the world as queer,” she says. “I didn’t want to be mistaken as a straight person, I wanted to be with my community, my tribe.”

Initially, Cherdonna wasn't quite as flamboyant as she is now.

“Year one was like, a little bit of lip gloss, barely some eye shadow,” she says laughing. “I was in a more androgynous phase of my life, so putting on even a little bit of lipstick was a statement for me.”

Little by little, Kuehner started to emulate the looks of the drag queens she admired. She even took makeup tips from them. But Cherdonna’s clown-like visage confused at least one fellow drag performer, who confided to Kuehner that he thought she’d applied her false eyelashes upside down.

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Kuehner was taken aback that anyone would assume she hadn’t intentionally glued the lashes to her cheekbones that way. She carefully calculates every makeup choice, from Cherdonna's specially-formulated yellow foundation to the savage swoosh of eyeliner.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Jody Kuehner applies lipstick before laying on the purple glitter in her 1 1/2 hour transformation to Cherdonna.", "fid": "126694", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201605/cherdonna2a_0.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Lisa Wang"}]]Twenty minutes into her makeup routine, Kuehner finishes covering her face in foundation and powder. She grabs a brush and begins to sketch in the outline of an eyebrow, starting an inch above her natural brow line. The line heads toward her hairline, like Divine's boomerang brows in the movie “Pink Flamingos.”

The result is a little menacing, but Kuehner describes Cherdonna as “high femme.”

“That’s what drag queens are – they’re producing high femme stereotypes,” she says. “When I started with Cherdonna, the journey for me was to figure out what my femininity is.”

She does that by pushing the envelope as far as possible.

Most people assume drag queens are men who dress as women – like RuPaul, Divine, or Seattle darlings Jinkx Monsoon and Waxie Moon. Women sometimes perform in male drag. Kuehner’s former performance partner Ricki Mason was the “Lou” in their longtime collaboration “Cherdonna and Lou.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "Cherdonna, in the not-proverbial closet.", "fid": "126695", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201605/cherdonna3.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Lisa Wang"}]]But Kuehner is a woman who performs drag as a woman, and she’s comfortable moving across the spectrum of what it means to be female.

Drag club gigs are Kuehner’s bread and butter; they allow her to survive financially without taking non-dance related work. But drag performances also can be a lot of fun.

“I have a love for high costume, high heels, make-up and big hair,” Kuehner says.

And masking her “Jody identity” is liberating.

“You get to say more and do more and be extravagant,” she says.

Kuehner finishes blacking in Cherdonna’s eyebrows, which now look like hockey sticks. She coats the area between those dramatic brows and her natural ones with peacock blue glitter.

As a stage act, Cherdonna is part clown, part tragic figure. In one performance, she teeters across the stage in spiked heels and a shiny one-piece bathing suit with an American flag motif. She’s shrieking as if invisible furies are at her heels. Cherdonna’s painted-on smile is fixed, but when she looks out at the audience, her eyes betray confusion.

Through the lens of Cherdonna, Kuehner explores gender identity, racism and feminism, topics that resonate in the current political climate. Her goal is to reconnect us with our shared humanity, and to banish the mistaken assumptions we make about one another.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Cherdonna, completed. It takes her 15 minutes after putting on her two wigs to feel comfortable enough to move her head in a meaningful way.", "fid": "126696", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201605/cherdonna4.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Lisa Wang"}]]“I feel so many things that are political problems — racism, gender, women’s rights — are all literally about people making assumptions based on a first look at somebody,” she says.

A first glance at Cherdonna almost always yields questions: Is she a woman? A man? A bit of both genders? That’s exactly what Kuehner intends.

More than an hour after sitting down at her makeup table, Kuehner brushes a final stroke of deep purple glitter inside the exaggerated outlines of her mouth. Her Cherdonna face is complete.

“Should I put on the hair?” she asks.

Kuehner pulls on a behemoth of a wig — a bulbous, bleached blond bouffant. Cherdonna looks like Marie Antoinette, if that French monarch had stuck her finger in a light socket.

Barely a trace of Jody Kuehner remains.

With Kuehner’s transformation complete, we say our goodbyes, apologetic about having put her through this laborious transformation given that no show is scheduled. No problem, she says sweetly. It’s a bit disorienting to hear Kuehner’s soft voice emanate from Cherdonna’s purple mouth.

But it’s not in Cherdonna’s nature to be all dressed up with no place to go. Why waste all that fabulousness?

A few hours after we leave her apartment, she posts a photo to Instagram. It’s Cherdonna, strolling down the street, twirling a rainbow parasol, a gaggle of people in her wake.

A photo posted by Velocity Dance Center (@velocity_seattle) on May 17, 2016 at 4:28pm PDT

Jody Kuehner premiers her newest evening length work for Cherdonna Shinatra on June 2 at Velocity Dance Center on Capitol Hill, as part of the "Made in Seattle" series. She's launched a social media campaign on Instagram to accompany the performance: #Cherdonnasaysyoubeyou.