Yesterday on September 8th, Lady Chablis the legendary drag entertainer and star of the 1994 bestseller and 1997 film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil passed away at the age of 59. The transgender actress had been hospitalized with pneumonia at Candler Hospital in Savannah, Georgia, the city that the drag performer had revolutionized as a hub for LGBTQ entertainment.
Over twenty years ago, Chablis was written in as a character in John Berendt’s non-fiction narrative, Midnight in The Garden of Good and Evil. The story centralizes around Jim Williams, a noted Savannah socialite and antiques dealer who was found guilty of murdering a local male prostitute named Danny Hansford. Berendt wrote Chablis into the book as one of the many eccentric true-life characters and he uses her to better paint the picture of queer nightlife in Savannah. In both the book and the film, Chablis acts as a light-hearted contrast to the more serious themes of the story, with memorable one-liners such as “two tears in a bucket, motherfuck it” and “yes, I am a bitch, and proud of it, honey”. Her performance both on the page and on screen established her as an icon within the drag world, however, Chablis has contributed more to the community than just her work with Kevin Spacey.
In 1996, a year before she graced Clint Eastwood’s rendition of Midnight, Chablis published an autobiography entitled Hiding My Candy: The Autobiography of the Grand Empress of Savannah. In her book, Chablis spills the T on her upbringings in drag, beginning with her introduction to Miss Tina Devore in a Tallahassee nightclub. Devore would go on to become Chablis’s drag mother and in Midnight, Chablis remarks that she got her drag name from Devore, saying “my mama got the name Chablis off a wine bottle. She didn't think it up for me though. It was supposed to be for my sister”. While in Atlanta, Chablis began her transition towards becoming a transgender woman, taking hormones and legally changing her name to Brenda Dale Knox, all while still developing a budding drag career. In his book, Berendt remarks that he meet Chablis at a doctor’s office after a routine estrogen injection, writing that “her big eyes sparkled. Her skin glowed. A broken incisor tooth punctuated her smile and gave her a naughty look”. But it wasn’t just Berendt who was captivated by the queen because after the film’s release she went on to guest on Good Morning America and the Oprah Winfrey Show. Despite her growing fame, Chablis stuck true to her roots throughout the 2000s, headlining Savannah Pride and hosting the Miss Gay Pride Pageant. In 2013, she made an appearance on The Real Housewives of Atlanta, reading the wives to filth before a live audience.
Many have commented on the drag icon’s passing, including the book’s author John Berendt. “She’ll be remembered for her outrageous profanity-laced spontaneity and for being one of the first up-front transsexual personalities to be accepted by a wide audience.” Today we see many transgender actors and actresses beloved by millions on the big screen, however, Chablis and her role in Midnight made her a legend and a role model for others who have followed in her footsteps. And while Chablis was loved by audiences for her role on screen as well as by those who had the chance to watch her perform, the road to stardom wasn’t easy for Chablis. In her autobiography, Chablis explains that performing in Atlanta taught her about the realities of prejudice and she was even arrested for falsification of identification. "They took my purse and my gowns and they took The Doll to jail, honey...", Chablis writes and she shows readers that performing in drag and living as a pre-operative transgender female was not as accepted at the time as it is today.
Chablis continued to perform at Club One in Savannah up until she was hospitalized on August 6th 2016. On social media, Club One paid tribute to their resident queen, sharing that “just as The Book shined the spotlight on Savannah, so too did Chablis shine the spotlight on the gay scene, and especially on Club One. She was Club One’s very first entertainer, officiating our grand opening in 1988, and paving the way for female impersonation in Savannah. No one, however, could outshine the Grand Empress herself.” And while Chablis may no longer be performing on the main stage at Club One, her legacy as a drag performer and transgender pioneer will live on for many generations to come.
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