The legendary drag performer Lady Chablis – a fixture at Club One in Savannah and drag centerpiece of “Midnight in the Garden and Evil” – died on Thursday.
The death of the iconic performer was announced by Club One, where Lady Chablis has performed since the club opened nearly 30 years ago. She died surrounded by friends and family at St. Joseph's/Candler Hospital, according to WTOC. She was 59.
“Chablis always wanted to give the audience, be it 15 or 1500, the best that she had. With her declining health, she regretted that her body wouldn’t allow her to give more,” Club One said in a Facebook post on Thursday.
Lady Chablis has been in failing health for some time. In a 2013 appearance on “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” she looked frail. Though that didn't stop Lady Chablis from twirling for the Housewives.
“Lady Chablis is the original drag queen in Savannah, Georgia. She is history honey,” NeNe Leakes said during the episode.
Earlier this year, Lady Chablis described her shows as “not for the faint of heart.” Via the Savannah Morning News:
“They are not for the faint of heart,” Chablis said. “They’re not vulgar, but I do use flights of fantasy. I talk about everyday things and there’s nothing nasty. It’s fun and very glamorous.”
She also told the media outlet that the attention that came from playing herself in the 1997 movie version of John Berendt's book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” was a mixed blessing.
“In a good way, it made me famous,” she said. “It got me to places I never imagined I would go …”
But there was a downside to the fame, too.
“It took away my securtiy and privacy and trust,” Chablis said. “Also, it put me in the limelight where I had to wear that label ‘drag queen.’ I’ve never been comfortable with that label.
“That sort of brought me out of the closet. I had to come to terms with that.”
Chablis was born on March 11, 1957 in Quincy, Fla., according to her Wikipedia page. In 1996, she wrote “Hiding My Candy: The Autobiography of the Grand Empress of Savannah.”
The death of Lady Chablis comes nearly a month after Diamond Lil, who died Aug. 9 after battling cancer. The pioneering performer, also from Savannah, paved the way for modern day drag in Atlanta.
The Lady chablis, who stole hearts – and the spotlight – in Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil, passed this morning surrounded by friends and family.
In his Best Selling novel, known in Savannah as The Book, John Berendt wrote that when he first met The Lady Chablis, “she had both hands on her hips and a sassy half-smile on her face,” a pose that would grace many stages.
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.
With the success of “The Book,” Chablis shot to stardom. She was a guest on Good Morning America, and was interviewed by Oprah. She insisted to USA Today that she would play herself in the movie – or there would not be one. She’d be the first to tell you that she stole the show in Clint Eastwood’s 1997 adaptation. Since then, thousands of visitors have come to Savannah, visiting the locations in The Book, and crowding into Club One to see her.
In 1996, she released her autobiography “Hiding My Candy,” dubbed by her publisher as a cross between The Color Purple and Cinderella. The Doll loved to cook, and included several of her favorite recipes at the back of her book, like Brenda’s Kickin’ Chicken.
She has long been a giver to the community. Throughout the 2000’s, she worked closely on various campaigns for the American Diabetes Association, donating thousands of dollars raised by her performances to the cause.
She was the headlining entertainer for Savannah Pride’s inaugural celebration, and hosted their Miss Gay Pride Pageant. She would go on to perform, donate and contribute to many LGBT charities throughout her career.
Chablis always wanted to give the audience, be it 15 or 1500, the best that she had. With her declining health, she regretted that her body wouldn’t allow her to give more. Chablis is survived by her sister, Cynthia. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family, who request privacy during this time of grief.
UPDATE | Lady Chablis last performed at Club One on Aug. 6, just before she was hospitalized, according to the Associated Press. She died of pneumonia, said Cale Hall, Club One's co-owner and a friend of Chablis since the 1980s.
“She was a breakout star, no doubt about it,” Hall said. “I think it was the pure honesty she gave people. She didn't hold her tongue. She told you what she thought.”
Lady Chablis was born Benjamin Edward Knox but legally changed her name to The Lady Chablis around the time author John Berendt's book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” became a movie in 1997, according to the AP.
Berendt also noted that while Chablis could be playful and humorous, “she had a very tough inner core.”
“She would always say, 'Don't be fooled by this dress I'm wearing,'” Berendt said. “When Clint Eastwood announced he was doing the movie, Chablis made an announcement of her own. She said, 'If I'm not cast as myself in that movie, there won't be a movie.' So he cast Chablis as Chablis.”