I ventured over to the Bushwick art estate of Cheeky Maa—the underground fashion icon, queer sex symbol, and “Multitalented Freak” you’ve probably seen, gracing some dance floor or runway, champaign bottle in hand—to discuss art, love, trauma, sex, and their recent photo series collab with photographer and stylist Anna Bloda.
Our acquaintanceship has spanned years and has always been incredibly warm, but I had never witnessed them out of their club accouterment. Sure, I’d seen her play golf with floggers and balloons at 5 am at a Taco Bell. I’d seen her sneak in the backdoor of E11EVEN, so naked and stunning that the strippers made it rain on her. I’d seen her hang upside down from an F Train pole, narrowly missing tourists with her red-hot cigarette cherry… but, in comfortable PJs and thick socks, a star-shaped pimple patch decorating her cheek? Never!
Lounging in her bed and chain-smoking, surrounded by her S&M-styled stuffed animals, she explained how the shoot had organically come to fruition out of a desire for the two old friends to collaborate. What had started as a semi-casual photo shoot, because of these two’s closeness, became instead a documentation of heartbreak and recovery.
“When we got there it just got very emotional,” Cheeky explained. She had recently endured a personal romantic tragedy and began opening up to Anna about it. “Anna represents really strong women, which as an AFAB, I can connect with.” Co-styling, with Anna shooting, they put together a piece that portrayed a femme’s journey to regain their power.
The first photo in the series portrays a closeup of a wounded bosom and bloodied white dress, with a posture of sultry vulnerability. From here we see Cheeky evolve in her reclamation of power; with the outfits more outlandish, the poses more aggressive, and the blood imagery dissipating. Finally, we see her in a bent burlesque stance, the dress from the first image undamaged and pristine. A visual metaphor for emotional healing. The images themselves are a sort of neo-pin-up; a modern take on the classic tough-femme portrait.
“At the time of taking [these] photos, it was all still very new,” they said, alluding to their recent entanglement with a young cis man. Coming out of COVID and a general sense of loneliness had put them into a vulnerable position, which many of us can relate to this past year. “It’s so lonely in the city,” she explained. This man, the first cis man she’s dated since high school, came into her life hot and heavy and emotional as fuck. She quickly found herself infatuated and “dicknotized.”
“What was so good about it?” I asked.
“Maybe this is too gross,” she said, gemmed teeth gripping her cigarette in a mischievous smile. I was sure it wasn’t, so she continued. “On one of my first sexual encounters with this person, I had my period. I’m like into that… I don’t mind fucking in some blood. I think it’s super-hot, and I’d never met someone that was down. But when we got home, he threw me onto the bed, pulled my pants down, pulled out my tampon, and fucking sucked the blood out of my tampon and ‘ptui!’ spit it all over me.”
Erupting into laughter, she stubbed out her cigarette. “I was like, ‘shit, you just spit my own pussy blood on me.’ That was it… I like … fell.” She lay back laughing again before she paused, getting a bit more serious. “Five days into meeting me, he said he was in love with me, and I didn’t say it back, but I did start to feel that way.”
Quickly things went south, with some peripheral abuse allegations against the man rising within the larger community, and Cheeky not totally sure what to think. “I was like, ‘you’re telling me a story, but I don’t know if I believe you.’” Beyond that, many issues that can arise in open relationships began to tarnish their feeling of trust and intimacy. These issues erupted one night at a party, causing their break-up. Basically, the young man lied about sleeping with someone else and chose to go behind Cheeky’s back, instead of being upfront. This was, of course, a huge ‘no-no’ in their arrangement. But, the real trauma was just beginning.
“A week later I found out I was pregnant,” she said. Having dated very few AMABs, this was a wholly new experience for Cheeky. As their mind flooded with questions about money and support and abortion and life choices, they went to the doctor to be examined, who realized that something was very wrong.
“They thought I was having an ectopic pregnancy,” she said. An ectopic pregnancy is where a fertilized egg implants outside of the uterus and after a certain point is fatal without surgery. Even with surgery, it can lead to a host of other issues, including in rare cases, infertility. The whole process was terrifying and added insult to injury in an already emotionally jarring fuck-boy saga. “I went into anesthesia thinking I was going to wake up with half my uterus gone.
“When I told him about it, he was just like, ‘oh, I’m busy, I’ll call you about it later,’ and never called.” This cavalier dismissal of their pain, left them feeling used, abandoned, and alone.
“I don’t regret anything. Sometimes things have to end that way to show you that things aren’t right.” She went on: “I’m a very sexual person and it’s hard for me to disconnect that just because the sex is good, doesn’t mean it’s good for me.”
Living her life became more difficult, with her career centered on being the self-assured life-of-the-party. “I’m a powerful person, and people always assume, I’m just, like, ‘good.’”
I, perhaps foolishly, asked her if she had any advice for people dealing with these emotions. To which she replied: “Don’t forget that you hold your own power. No one can take that from you, even if it feels like they can, that’s very temporary. No one’s worth that.”
She then looked at me a little side-eyed. “That was so corny,” she said, as we both started laughing.
“It is!” I said. “But it’s real, and it’s important for people to hear.”
“Yea, but really,” she said, still wearing that smile, but her large charismatic eyes misting over, the hint of budding tears in their recesses. “I’ve gotten to the point in my life where I don’t want my trauma to control my day-to-day choices. I don’t want to be scared because of the things that have happened to me.”
I think that this is what this series really shows us; that healing and recovery are a fight. That there isn’t a quick fix or effortless rise from the ashes. We have to decide to grow, decide to heal, decide to re-empower ourselves. We have to crawl and tear and scream our way out, with art, performance, and self-reflection as some of the best tools we have.