The History of Cherdonna Shinatra: From Name to Fame
This weekend, Seattle-based dancer and choreographer Jody Kuehner, aka Cherdonna Shinatra, will take the stage in all her queer drag glory for Clock that Mug or Dusted. It’s sure to be a wild ride, one filled with live installation art, dance, birthday cake, found objects, and a commentary on all things queer feminism. While getting ready for Ms. Shinatra to perform, I feel it’s important to discuss where her stage name derives from and the journey she has gone through to make it to this point.
The first artist in her name is none other than Cher, the Goddess of Pop, known for songs like “I Got You Babe,” and she’s “got” the queer community on her side. Cher has become a gay icon, in part through her son Chaz, but also for her sense of style and fashion. Drag queens—specifically Chad Michaels and Charlie Hides from RuPaul’s Drag Race—have imitated her, feeling that her struggle and story relates to their coming out processes. Madonna, the other half of Cherdonna’s namesake, is another another legend worth talking about. The Queen of Pop, known for bestsellers including “Like a Virgin,” is also considered a gay icon. She was introduced to the queer community as a teenager, and since then, has been a welcome presence. Like Cher, many drag queens have imitated her, seeing her journey to stardom as very similar to their struggles. And then we have Frank Sinatra who, while not necessarily a gay icon, was a legendary singer known for classics like “My Way.” Adding his name at the end of her stage name cements Cherdonna Shinatra as the legend that she is. In discussing the origin of her character, she also offers, “I feel like Cherdonna is an extension of myself in a way that’s not like an ‘other’… For me it’s a heightened version—more or less myself, or my less censored self.”
Cherdonna’s work has been shown in every major venue in Washington State and all over the country, but she hasn’t always been alone in the spotlight. From 2008-2013 she performed with Ricki Mason, also known as drag king Lou Henry Hoover, as “The Cherdonna and Lou Show.” The character of Cherdonna started with Lou in this cabaret-style series of performances which often included dance, theater, drag, burlesque, glitter, and featured celebrity impersonations, including an infamous Sonny and Cher routine. Both artists would transcend their queer identities with how they presented themselves on stage—Cherdonna with her long legs, platform heels, big blonde hair, and copious makeup and Lou as a petite drag king wearing a neat mustached face and all. In a 2016 interview, Kuehner commented on her and Mason’s stage duo’s gender play, noting, “We’re both queer people, and we had started diving into more work about gender and gender play… 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.” Kuehner performing drag as the gender that she identifies with is a revolutionary concept, as it transcends what the audience expects from drag.
Cherdonna eventually went solo with her evening-length work Cherdonna: Worth My Salt. With psychedelic makeup and all, the bio-femme icon brought a show that explored the universal sense of wanting to be one thing and actually being another. In the aforementioned interview, Kuehner noted, “Cherdonna as a character is trying to figure out her worth in the world, but in a really abstract sort of way.” Worth My Salt proved to be an introspective work, where Cherdonna looked inside to see if perception truly is reality. In his review of the piece for the Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger, Brendan Kiley explained, “It’s a bizarre and occasionally discomfiting spectacle that feels both clownishly exaggerated and perversely vulnerable—much like Cherdonna herself.”
More recently, Cherdonna presented Kissing Like Babies where she literally played a sexualized baby. In the uncomfortable but pointed work Cherdonna portrays the patriarchy’s problematic over-sexualization and over-infantilization of women at the same time. The juxtaposition of child imagery with sexual imagery makes it a radical performance, with paradoxical images like an oversized baby bottle (an obvious phallic symbol). In her review for CityArts Magazine, Kaitlin McCarthy wrote, “Kissing Like Babies may not offer up anything we don’t already know—it’s generally accepted, at least among liberal theatregoers…but Kuehner’s unique delivery gives the audience plenty to both laugh at and chew on.”
While she can be a flashy performer as Cherdonna, Kuehner has another side as well. Currently, she gives back to the Seattle arts community, teaching Professional Contemporary Dance at Velocity and working as a choreographer for the LGBTQ youth choir Diverse Harmony. She also developed a workshop called Drag You, which she’s taught nationally to movers of all abilities. Not only do her performances amaze people, but her educational lessons also make sure everyday individuals can be legends in their own right. It’s one thing to name yourself after famous icons and put on shows; it’s another to put that into practice and give back to the community. Cherdonna Shinatra really proves she is among the greats with all of these impressive feats. Cher, Madonna, and Frank Sinatra would all be proud.
Clock That Mug or Dusted
140 N. Columbus Boulevard