It’s Sunday, February 4 at 8:30 p.m. Chuckie Sleaze, the founder, host and producer of Clown Cult — Brooklyn’s new immersive bi-monthly clown show — appears on stage in full face paint, ripped leggings, a ruffled collar and a floppy little crown. She grabs the mic, welcomes the sold-out crowd, then dives into tonight’s “Five Cs”: Consent, Clapping, Cash, Confetti and, of course, Clown.
Almost all 100 people packed into the upstairs venue of Purgatory, an eccentric dive bar on the far edge of Bushwick, are disguised in elaborate face paint. They’re wearing polka-dotted tutus, brightly colored wigs, pink velvet bodysuits, knee-high socks, rainbow sweaters, oversized ties and red circular noses. They paid $15. They are prepared.
They came to clown (Photo by Stephanie Keith)
“We’re here to celebrate the little clown inside of all of us,” announces Sleaze. “Now give it up if you’re a virgin!”
A quarter of the room raises their hands as two “stage kittens” pass out shiny party hats to first-time attendees, then directs them to find a more experienced clown to share their most embarrassing story with.
“You don’t have to be embarrassed,” Sleaze reminds the audience. “You can just laugh it off!”
‘The clown falls so you don’t have to’
For Sleaze (née Charlotte Chauvin), clowning is an artform accessible to all.
“Anybody can do it,” she says. “It’s a choice, it’s an action, and there’s no bar for entry. You don’t need to be trained in France. There’s no gatekeeping.”
Still, compared to drag and burlesque, clowning makes up a tiny portion of the nightlife scene in New York, and is mostly confined to one-off events and a handful of performance spaces, such as Bushwick’s circus-themed nightclub House of Yes, an alternative art space called Rubulad and The Stranger, a new club in midtown Manhattan.
“There’s a ton of drag shows, a ton of burlesque shows, but I can’t think of one other clown show in New York,” Sleaze says.
Chuckie Sleaze, Your host for the evening (Photo by Stephanie Keith)
Sleaze, who has spent years performing immersive clown shows under big striped circus tents at music festivals across the country — Okeechobee, Hulaween and Electric Forest — wants to show Brooklynites what it means to be a clown and provide adults a space to indulge their inner child.
Clowning, she believes, is actually the most approachable artform.
“There’s room for mistakes, there’s room to play, and there’s room for imperfection. The clown falls so you don’t have to.”
‘A space to discover clown’
Sleaze, 26, began building her community of clowns around Rubulad, where she and other local nightlife performers threw immersive parties like “Night of 1,000 Clowns,” which featured famous Coney Island sideshow acts such as Pink Velvet Witch and Maggie McMuffin, both of whom performed at Clown Cult’s first shows.
Eventually, Sleaze used her reputation among clowns and nightlife performers in New York to organize the show she’d been dreaming up. This past June, she launched Clown Cult at Purgatory. The queer owned-and-operated space possessed the perfect oddball vibes and ties to Brooklyn’s fringe music and drag scenes to welcome a large crowd and become Clown Cult’s unofficial home.
Photo by Stephanie Keith
The first show “felt kind of like a religious service,” says McMuffin, with the crowd joining in on group chants, eager to decipher each gag. When McMuffin reenacted the end of Ari Aster’s “Midsommar,” adorned in a bear costume sprouting flowers, she invited the audience to cry and scream with her. No one hesitated.
Four shows in and the group is attracting loyal followers — what Sleaze calls a happy side-effect of the cult theme.
Sleaze has also made a point to hire performers new to clowning. “I want to give performers a space to discover clown and express it,” she says.
“It’s so fun to see someone who has never done clown but is very eager and has a lot of ideas get to have a stage and the support to play with that,” adds Cochina Divina, a frequent Clown Cult performer who only discovered the artform upon joining the group.
By inviting stand-ups, musicians, drag artists and burlesque performers of different races, ethnicities and sexual orientations to try out their own clown act for a live audience, Sleaze is attempting to introduce Brooklynites to as many clown-types as possible.
For Sleaze, the future of Clown Cult resembles a new home for first-time clowns, supplementing live shows with instructional workshops and movie nights, culty late night candle-lit gatherings in Prospect Park and offshoot performances at music festivals.
Confetti and ham sanitizer
As the crowd cheers and blows notes from their bugle horns, the first performer descends the pink-painted stairs in a thigh-length psychedelic mushroom sweater, a floofy hot pink collar and glittering celestial face paint. Typically a stand-up comedian and drag performer, An Artist Named Darius performs Black History-inspired puppetry and a stunning drag rendition of Tyla’s “Water” that transitions powerfully into “Wade In The Water.”
As Darius moves back through the sea of clowns, everyone showers them with handfuls of multicolored confetti. (At Clown Cult, patrons buy confetti bags with their tip money, so no one is throwing dollar bills all over the place.)
Audience and performers are almost indistinguishable (Photo by Stephanie Keith)
“We all have a little clown inside of us, that’s why we’re here tonight, and I have brought forth some amazing clowns to encapsulate what a clown is for you,” Sleaze tells the audience, welcoming more performers to the stage, including Humanette, who is making her burlesque debut as a human popcorn popper.
Slurping soda from a dented Five Guys cup, the performer begins to strip, inviting clown hands to grab popcorn from their cartoonishly puffy boxer shorts. After the popcorn is gone, a screen drops from the ceiling and Sleaze plays Humanette’s original film, which depicts her lathering dildos in Tabasco, mayonnaise and “ham sanitizer” while joke-orgasming to clown honks and whistles, showcasing a wild blend of burlesque, sex, and clown-weirdness.
Toward the end of the film, someone at the bar shouts “This is gay culture!”
The inherent power of the clown
The first time local abstract musician and Clown Cult member Meadow Le’Elle put on clown makeup was before the group ever existed.
“I was scared and had to create a barrier between me and the audience,” they say, adding that whether you’re a performer or an audience member, “people are proud that they made themselves into a work of art.”
Some of the clowns now integral to Clown Cult hadn’t tried clowning until meeting Sleaze and becoming involved in the group.
“I never had a drag family,” says Mt. Aloofa, one of the “stage kittens” at the February show. “They took me in and put me in my first clown fit. Now all of my drag is clown-based — you go where you’re supported.”
Juicy, a frequent collaborator of Clown Cult by way of Frick Frack Blackjack, a nomadic clown casino that hosts “No cash, No limits” blackjack games in which audience members barter objects and services in place of money, thinks popular clown characters like Bozo have reduced most people’s understanding of clowns.
“A clown is a person who brings fun wherever they go, they encourage people to be silly and hold space for weirdness and out-of-the-box performance,” Juicy says. “There are so few opportunities for people in this day and age to be weird and silly.”
McMuffin, who found clowning during a tumultuous time between high school and college, believes that “the inherent power of the clown” involves using freedom of expression to grant others access to a part of themselves they were repressing or unaware of.
“This is a place where people who have never been accepted get to be themselves,” says a two-time Clown Cult attendee and student at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “The imagery around clowning and jesters allows people to be silly and fun, yet chic and sophisticated.”
Photo by Stephanie Keith
Diversity and in-clownsion
While clowning is a historically white artform, dating back to works by Shakespeare (and up through racist blackface performance and minstrelsy) Clown Cult continues to attract “more minorities,” according to Juicy, including people of color, nonbinary people and LGBTIQA+ people.
“I would hope that the cis-hetero-white community would feel welcomed, but I can’t say there’s a ton of that,” she says, laughing.
“A lot of queer communities jump on anything that gets called ‘monstrous’ and take it for themselves and make it into something fun and an expression of otherness,” adds McMuffin, reflecting on the ongoing resurgence of clowns in popular culture since “It” was released in 2017, followed by “Joker,” “It Chapter Two,” and several movies featuring DC Comics’ character Harley Quinn.
Performers of color involved in Clown Cult say they are aware of the artform’s roots and are supportive of Sleaze’s attempts toward creating a space for all types of people to redefine who can be a clown.
“I do not put any white clown face on,” says Le’Elle. “I am Black and I want people to know that I’m Black and I enjoy being Black and I’m also going to dress like a clown.”
Meadow Le’Elle (Photo by Stephanie Keith)
The cult clowns on
After a rigged juggling competition and additional sets by Allie Saint Surreal, Meadow Le’Elle and Mx. Ocean Lore, the night’s performers stand together in a shower of confetti while Sleaze lets the audience in on the secret of clowning.
“The clown character within you is if you were never told ‘no’ as a child.”
Mt. Aloofa scurries around the room handing out deflated balloons. Sleaze orders everyone to think of a time they were told no, and blow.
“What’s something you’re denying yourself right now?” Sleaze asks. “Let’s dig a little deeper.”
The crowd, with their balloons now plump and gleaming, groans and shouts out answers. “Sleep!” “Cheeseburgers!” “My true self!”
The balloons (and nos) are released into the air all at once. For a few seconds every inch of space is taken up by flying colors, whistles and the blair of squeaky horns.
Sleaze leads the chant — “Clown Cult, Clown Cult, Clown Cult!” — and everyone joins in.
Here are a few more scenes from the recent Clown Cult event. For upcoming events, follow them on Instagram.