It’s hard to believe that more than 15 years have passed since John Berendt’s novel of Savannah intrigue, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” first propelled an unlikely candidate to international stardom.
For the past decade, the popularity of The Lady Chablis — the sassy, transgender nightclub performer, who stepped from the pages of Berendt’s book to the silver screen version without missing a beat — was going strong.
But, unfortunately, the world learned this past week that The Lady Chablis passed away in Savannah at the age of 59.
For years, she frequently visited the Augusta area, performing at some of the local gay nightclubs or simply staying with close friends.
While Chablis moved around a lot throughout her lifetime, she once told the Metro Spirit that Augusta would always be on her dance card, owing to the fact that one of her best friends, the late Miss Joan McCoy, once lived here.
As a result of that relationship, Chablis said she still had many close friends in the Augusta area.
“So, (being in Augusta) is like a celebration of Joan’s remembrance,” Chablis told the Metro Spirit in 2000.
Then, of course, there was the other reason Chablis frequently came to Augusta.
“I do still make my visits downtown on Broad Street to the wig stores,” Chablis said in 2000. “I find the wig stores in Augusta are the best. And I’ve been doing this a long time.”
Chablis even made headlines in this area for a traffic bust in neighboring Aiken County.
In 1999, Chablis was stopped for speeding and it was discovered that she was driving without a license and insurance.
The local media played up the arrest and subsequent court appearance in humiliating fashion, going to great lengths to mock her attire and mannerisms.
But, in pure Chablis style, she told the Metro Spirit back in 2000 that the entire ordeal couldn’t have been better for her, professionally.
“When all of that stuff transpired it’s just like I said: How many people do you know, other than me and James Brown, who can get our names in the headlines of newspapers for traffic tickets,” Chablis said following one of her stage shows at Club One in Savannah. “It was illegal now, because I didn’t have no insurance or whatever it was. But that hit the websites and it was in every paper. It was in The Atlanta Constitution, it was in one of the New York papers. My Gran’mama even knew about it and I was trying to keep it from her. That Aiken incident was one of the good things that happened to me because it got me all that publicity.”
Another good thing that happened to Chablis following the popularity of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” was the penning of her autobiography, “Hiding My Candy,” a catch-phrase for keeping the one standout part of her anatomy out of sight.
A still from the movie, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”
As Berendt’s own introduction to “Hiding My Candy” stated, Chablis was a “pre-operative transsexual.”
Chablis was always honest about her conscientious decision years ago not to ever have gender-reassignment surgery.
Of that decision, Chablis, in her book, wrote: “I really didn’t want an operation, didn’t need one. It wasn’t the answer … An operation could only allow my full-length mirror to tell me what I already knew and felt inside, but it wasn’t gonna make those feelings and that knowledge any stronger. Just more anatomically correct. But I couldn’t be the same Lady Chablis without my candy.”
Chablis’ book has seen several printings since its debut in 1996, and is now sold in paperback.
Sue Carswell, the original editor of “Hiding My Candy,” who later became a supervising story editor at ABC’s Good Morning America, said working with Chablis had a big impact on her life.
“She was a trip to work with,” Carswell told the Metro Spirit in 2000. “I mean, she’s Chablis. She’s the ultimate in personality. She is very genuine, and very giving … and very trying. But it seems like when you pick up the phone and talk to her, it’s like talking to an old friend.”
For years, Chablis was extremely interested in making “Hiding My Candy” into a movie.
“I hope that (“Hiding My Candy” movie) goes forward,” Carswell said. “I think Midnight was so extraordinarily popular that I think some people thought we were trying to put out the sequel, and we weren’t. We were just putting out Chablis’ story, because her story is so extraordinary and she stole two chapters in that (Berendt’s) book.”
Chablis was still stealing people’s attention over the past decade, as visitors to Savannah would often line up outside Club One on Jefferson Street to see her shows.
When former Metro Spirit reporter Brian Neill visited Chablis’ show in 2000, it was a combination of lip-synching, cabaret performance and stand-up humor.
Her grace and charm on stage, dancing in elaborate, flowing dresses and sparkling jewelry, seemed aptly to fit her play-on-word title, “The Queen of Savannah.”
That is, until she opened her mouth.
Indeed, much of Chablis’ monologue was raunchy, to say the least. But that’s what the audience had come for.
During the show, Chablis immediately headed for the first unlikely couple in this audience, a middle-aged, conservative-looking engineer and his wife from Atlanta.
At first, Chablis seemed to have designs on the husband, but then told the wife that all takers were welcome.
“I’m a bi-sexual, bi-racial, equal opportunity woman,” Chablis said.
Then Chablis hinted that the wife might be able to bargain with her husband for a better form of transportation if she improved her skills in the bedroom.
“Listen, what kind of car do you drive?” Chablis asked the woman.
“Infiniti,” the woman replied.
“OK girl, you might need to take me home with you so you can be drivin’ a Lexus,” Chablis joked. “OK girl, I’m going to show you. We’re going to get you more than a f—–g Infiniti. I’m serious, we’re going to get the Infiniti and just use that to go shopping in.”
The Lady Chablis
Born Benjamin Edward Knox in Quincy, Fla., Chablis had overcome many obstacles along the road to finally feeling truly at home with who she was.
From severe beatings she received from her mother (whom she deeply loved) and stepfather for her “sissy” behavior as a child, to lurid, but paid-for, “sessions” in the car of a Quincy politician when she was a teen-ager, Chablis earned her pronoun.
Chablis said one of the greatest compliments she ever received was from a former boyfriend, who responded to a friend’s criticism that she was not a woman.
“Someone had said, ‘She’s not a woman,’” Chablis said in 2000. “And he looked, and he said to his friends, ‘No she’s not, but she’s more than a woman.’
“And I was like, ‘OK, now watcha gonna say about that?’”
Life was not easy for Chablis, but she never let the challenges pull her down.
“In my life I have to deal with everything a woman deals with except when it comes to the vagina,” Chablis said. “I don’t have to deal with all those problems birthing babies and monthly cycles and all that mess. That’s the only thing I don’t know about is birthing children and going through the menstrual cycle. But I do know about PMS.
“I am fortunate enough to have everything that a woman has. As a matter of fact I have things that women don’t have that they wish that they do, and they all were given to me. I’m very blessed, because I’m a size 3, I weigh 110 pounds, I wear a size 7-and-a-half shoe, I’m petite, I’m a makeup artist and I do hair. So, I’m the total package.”
The only time Chablis said she would have to explain her identity was when it was time for her to meet her maker.
“And that’s why I say, when I die and go to Heaven I’m still going to be that same person the Lord put down here,” Chablis said in 2000. “The only thing I did was enhance my breasts. I’m on hormone pills, which you know if I stop taking them my breasts will disappear eventually.”
While Club One in Savannah is a gay club, Chablis said roughly 75 percent of her audiences were heterosexual over the past decade.
Part of that acceptance by the “straight” population Chablis attributed to efforts by TV personalities like Ellen Degeneres and Roseanne Barr, to make audiences more aware of the gay lifestyle.
Movies like “To Wong Fu: Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar” and “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” also helped bring female impersonators into the mainstream, though Chablis said she didn’t particularly care for their overly comic depictions of the lifestyle.
However, Chablis encountered several less-than-pleasant receptions in certain cities and states over the years. She detailed one of those, a run-in with the police of an Alabama town, in her book.
But prejudice was never something to stop Chablis from making an appearance.
“If I felt that way, I would have never come to Augusta. That’s everywhere,” Chablis said in 2000. “And see, I not only look at it as a gay thing. I’m also black you know, if you forgot that part. So, all of this is nothing new to me. It’s a social thing that’s gone on for years. I’ve had to go through the black thing, the gay thing, the wanting-to-be-a-girl thing, the work thing.”
One thing people will never be able to say about The Lady Chablis is that she led a boring life, she said in 2000.
“There for a while, every time you saw a drag queen it was some To Wong Fu-looking child — Wesley Snipes or Patrick Swayze,” she said, laughing. “I remember when gay people couldn’t tell people they were gay if they wanted to keep their jobs, but now they can. So it’s just one of those progressions.
“I’ll go anywhere. If they payin’, I’m playin’.”