Today I learned that Chablis passed away on September, 8, 2016. She was a mere fifty-nine years of age. It was such sad news for me. Chablis, a transgendered character from John Berendt’s novel, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and who played herself in Clint Eastwood’s 1997 film adaption by the same name. She was such an inspiration for me in developing the character Brandi in Naked Alliances. I loved that book, and the movie. It’s one of my all-time favorites.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has won many awards: Pulitzer Prize Nominee for General Nonfiction (1995), Exclusive Books Boeke Prize (1995), Ferro-Grumley Award for Gay Fiction (Non-Fiction) (1994), Lambda Literary Award for Gay Men’s Mystery (1995)
I had planned to send her a copy of Naked Alliances. I thought she might find it amusing and enjoyable and appreciate knowing that she inspired others. She was such a character, in both real life, and on stage. I had the pleasure of seeing her perform at one of her annual birthday shows at her favorite nightclub, Club One, in Savannah, GA about fifteen years ago.
John Berendt was one of the first self-published authors of a best-selling book, in 1994, which made it to the movies. His book was picked up by Vintage Publishing House.
I admire both John Berendt and Chablis for the way they managed to tell their story. Chablis, who told Entertainment Tonight in 1996 that she changed her legal name to reflect her long-time stage name (including the “The”), was a drag star who also lived publicly as a woman. Her unforgettable turn in the 1997 movie, which marked the first time that a mainstream American film featured a transgender actor portraying a transgender woman (and did so without pathologizing her or making her a subject of ridicule), led to both ups and downs. This was all before the word “transgendered” took hold.
Chablis, who in the movie is portrayed receiving hormone shots, called her 1996 autobiography Hiding My Candy in reference to the fact that she had not had sexual reassignment surgery, and often joked about her status in her act. But when she came to prominence in the 90s, before terms like transgender had come to the fore and the spectrum of transitions was less widely understood or accepted, she was alternately referred to, even by friends like the author Berendt, as a “a full-time transvestite” or “a preoperative transsexual”, and her fame left her less able to “pass” and more subject to harassment.
I don’t know how she died, but she donated most of her money from the sales of her best-selling book and her shows to diabetes and LGBT organizations.
Berendt, too, issued a statement at the time of her death in which he said that Chablis was the character about whom he was most often still asked. “Chablis could be playful and ironic, but she had a tough inner core,” he wrote. “‘Don’t be fooled by this dress I’m wearing,’ she’d say with a hint of danger in her voice.”
She was born Benjamin Edward Knox in Quincy, Fla., on March 11, 1957, and never finished high school. She took the name Chablis as a teenager. As she recalled in Mr. Berendt’s book, her mother, inspired by a wine bottle label, had intended the name for a younger sister but had had a miscarriage. Ms. Chablis immediately expressed interest in the name.
“I said, ‘Ooooo, Chablis. That’s nice. I like that name,’ ” she was quoted as saying in the book. “And Mama said, ‘Then take it, baby. Just call yourself Chablis from now on.’ So ever since then, I’ve been Chablis.” She had her name legally changed to The Lady Chablis.
Her most recent national media appearance was on an episode of the Real Housewives of Atlanta in 2013, when cast members went to Club One to catch her show and NeNe Leakes asked Chablis to teach cast member Mynique Smith to both read and throw shade.
Southern women are notorious for their uncanny ability to throw shade, or publicly criticize or express contempt for someone to their face without them even being aware it’s happening.
Thanks to the rise of drag culture within the mainstream, the notion of shade has become, for better or worse, prevalent within today’s vernacular. Not to be confused with the art of reading, it is best defined by Dorian Corey in Paris Is Burning. Shade is, according to Corey, not telling someone they’re ugly because “[they] know [they’re] ugly.” Often, shade is thrown with a subtle gesture or eye movement. Side-eye is the easiest to do, but hard to master. It’s about nuance. It’s about attitude. It’s about confidence. And once you recognize it, life is never the same. You become keen to shade, alert for its presence, and ready to throw some of your own.
She was one of a kind, and I can only hope that Brandi might do her justice. The Lady Chablis will be sorely missed.