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!
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.)
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.”
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!!!