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Cha-U-Kao: The Clownesse

The Clownesse
c. 1890s, France

Here at Scribblewits, we love a lady clown! In the late 1800s, female clowns took the spotlight in the USA, England and France. Cha-U-Kao was one such clown. We don’t know a ton about her, but here’s what we do know!

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Cha-U-Kao was a gymnast, contortionist, dancer and all-around goofball. She appeared at the extravagant Moulin Rouge in Paris. She also performed at the Nouveau Cirque, a technological marvel that featured electric lighting and a hydraulic system for aquatic stunts.

We don’t know Cha-U-Kao’s real name, but it’s said that her stage name “was in fact a phonetic transcription of the French word “chahut” (an acrobatic dance derived from the cancan) and evocative of the chaos she caused whenever she came on stage.” (Thanks, Christie’s.)

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Our funny, chaotic Cha-U-Kao was an out-and-proud lesbian. It’s also likely she was a sex worker, which was common for women in the carnival and cabaret scene.

The famous bohemian artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec portrayed Cha-U-Kao in several gorgeous drawings and paintings. Art historian Marcus Verhagen writes that Toulouse-Lautrec portrays the tension between Cha-U-Kao’s dual roles as “sad clown” and “carnival queen.”

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She was also photographed by Toulouse-Lautrec’s friend Maurice Guibert. You can see her showing off her contortionist skills here. The fact that we have photographs of Cha-U-Kao is mind-blowing!!!