Inside Brooklyn’s Very Own Immersive “Clown Cult”

It was shortly after 8pm on Sunday, June 30, when I arrived at Purgatory, a queer owned-and-operated dive bar and music venue in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I put on my costume (a red foam nose) and found myself face-to-face with other similar, though more elaborately dressed, individuals wearing white face paint and drawn-on smiles. As I climbed up a narrow staircase bathed in red light, a towering clown in a thong fishnet suit and whiteout contact lenses descended past me, and at the top, I was greeted by a giddy clown with golden ram horns protruding from their head who handed me a party hat and a noisemaker. 

This is the Clown Cult — a bi-monthly immersive variety show dedicated to celebrating the art of clowning. Founded last June by Charlotte Chauvin, who is better known by her stage name Chuckie Sleaze, the recurring event gathers dozens of clowns, including both newcomers and veterans of the craft, for a humorous night of frivolity and revelry, chock-full of rubber chickens, confetti, balloons, and whip-cream pies.

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“It’s all about becoming more and more clown,” Sleaze told Hyperallergic, explaining in an interview that the event aims to help participants discover “the power in cringe” and the joy that comes with embarrassment. 

“There’s this famous clown phrase, ‘The clown falls so you don’t have to,’” Sleaze said. “The clown slips on the banana peel, gets the pie to the face, falls on their butt, and then you get to laugh with an audience of people all around you laughing and feeling joy and being entertained by this clown’s embarrassment.”

As an art form, clowning has a long history, dating back thousands of years to Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece, but its revival in Clown Cult is “entirely novel,” according to Queens-born nightlife photographer Patrick Arias, who has been documenting the clowning parties over the course of the past year. Arias told Hyperallergic that they were initially drawn by the opportunity to get to “document something [they] never had before.”

“I’ve seen my fair share of individual clown-themed drag acts, burlesque acts, and nightlife personalities, but never an entire night centered around [clowning] and all the different forms it takes,” Arias said.

Unlike stage acts and circus shows, Clown Cult blurs the line between the performers and the audience by immersing participants in campy silliness and light-hearted humiliation that comes in the form of Rocky Horror-esque rituals like a virgin initiation and on-stage activities such as a balloon animal competition. Each show varies from the last, making every Clown Cult experience a one-of-a-kind venture into clowning.

And pushing back against clowning’s racist ties to blackface and minstrel shows, these events are all about inclusivity and diversity, attracting participants of all races, genders, and sexual orientations. For Clown Cult’s one-year anniversary, a sold-out show featured a roster of queer performers who delighted audience members with eccentric drag shows, strip teases, amusing dances, and humorous lip-syncs.

“I think a lot of people — queer people especially — are drawn to clowns, whether archetypically or by clowning themselves,” Brooklyn-based drag queen and multidisciplinary artist Mx. Ology told Hyperallergic, adding that when they first attended one of the Clown Cult events in February, they instantly felt “a sense of kinship and togetherness.” 

“To be in a space where everyone’s letting their clown out (even if only once a month) is so meaningful to me,” Mx. Ology said, adding that it’s very ​common to leave the shows having made a few new friends. This trend appeared to be the case for other recently recruited Clown Cult members, like Just E! and Lampwrecked, who told me that they have enjoyed meeting other artists and creatives at the bi-monthly shows.

Later this month, the cult will host its eighth event, a free clown dance party at the Brooklyn nightclub House of Yes, which also hosts the long-running Dirty Circus variety show. 

Mx. Vagabond, a multidisciplinary performer who has been helping work Clown Cult’s events, told Hyperallergic that their suggestion for newcomers is “to let your freak flag fly and go in with an open mind and ready to play.”

“A lot of us are forced to grow up too fast and being silly, goofy, and weird is taken away from us,” Vagabond told Hyperallergic. “Clown cult gives you a space to live out your childhood dreams and fantasies and not take life so seriously!”

“Except for silliness,” Vagabond noted. “That, we do take very seriously.”


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