“Can I have your undivided attention please? Do I have your attention?” That’s what Lady Chablis, sorry The Lady Chablis, asks of the crowd in a dark nightclub in Charleston. She jokes about getting in the beam of the spotlight, kids that she doesn’t belong in the dark. She’s wearing a tight leopard print dress with a plunging neckline and oversize drop earrings. Spotlight or no spotlight, she commands attention and not just by request. Her purpose of quieting the crowd in this moment is not to perform, but to thank them for coming. Lady Chablis is a showgirl. She’ll perform later. She’s performing now. And she’ll perform when she leaves.
Lady Chablis is, in clinical terms, a preoperative transsexual. She is a full-time transvestite and takes hormone treatments to maintain her ladylike figure, but she has never had gender reassignment surgery. Born Benjamin Edward Knox, The Lady Chablis started dressing as a woman in her early teens. It wasn’t long before Chablis found her drag mother in a Tallahassee nightclub, the woman that would help propel Chablis on the unexpected path to fame. From there she moved to Savannah, Georgia for a headlining show gig. It was in her new hometown where she met author John Berendt who was there writing his bestselling nonfiction book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a story as much about the eccentric personalities of Savannah as it was about a true crime in the area – the murder of a young male prostitute. As you might expect, Chablis is one such personality. When they first met, the Lady climbed in Berendt’s car, demanded he drive her home, and introduced herself with the same flair and brashness that eventually led her to interviews on Good Morning America, Oprah, and even to the big screen with Clint Eastwood and John Cusack to play, who else, The Lady Chablis in the adaptation of Berendt’s famous book.
Estimates indicate tourism of Savannah increased by 49% because of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Busloads of tourists come to peer through the Spanish moss in hopes of seeing one of the local eccentrics, but they all know where to find Lady Chablis. Tourists, many who have never had a gay club experience in their lives, flock to her main stage, Club One. Chablis has even been forced to schedule early shows for the senior citizens passing through Savannah on the book tour.
They see exactly what they expect to see, and hear what they expect to hear. Chablis is gorgeous, dressed to the nines and heavy with sequins and rhinestones. She has a flair for the ostentatious and a mouth like a sailor, only with infinitely more sass. Words like “bitch” and “pussy” come up as often as her hemline. She’s flirty and confident and playful. But most of all, she is brazenly herself.
As John Berendt puts it, “Chablis knows who she is. She has taken enough trouble to create herself, so there is no ambiguity, no stumbling over pronouns. Chablis is not a he. She is not an it. She is a she.”
From the outside though, what Lady Chablis has created stands in total opposition to what she is biologically. Chablis refers to herself as a “heterosexual white woman,” which is, objectively speaking, not even remotely true. On any level. Her identity as heterosexual white woman is an explicit denial of her entire biological makeup. To be fair, Lady Chablis herself defines the “uptown white woman” identity as a persona that can be applied to all women, regardless of color. She claims it’s merely the persona of a “classy extravagant and glamorous woman” with “big cars” and “big rings.” But that seems like an easy way out. It ignores the glaring white in the title, or perhaps, absorbs it. It forgets the reversal of sexuality and even geography. She could have simply chosen “uptown woman.”
But that would defeat the purpose. The strength of The Lady’s persona comes from the tension between her external appearance and her internal identity. Through all Lady Chablis’ assertions that she’s a heterosexual white woman, there is a kind of gripping honesty in denial. It acknowledges the sometimes-discomforting truth that we are more than we appear, that we’re more than flesh and bones and categorizations of our sexuality. And suddenly the spotlights, the microphones, the bedazzled gowns and calls for attention all make sense. The Lady Chablis is outrageous because she needs to be. For people to understand who she really is in mind and spirit, they’ve got to listen. Oh, and she makes sure people do.
Berendt, who has been good friends with Chablis since she hopped in his car the day they met, writes that, “Chablis is a performance artist who is her own work of art. She is well aware that she has created an illusion, and she takes great pains to maintain it,” and “Like most people who take extraordinary measures to recreate themselves regardless of what others think, Chablis is confident and self-assured. She has always been this way in my presence – sassy and boldly assertive.” Is it any wonder that when casting Clint Eastwood’s film adaptation of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Lady Chablis played her own part?
Chablis’ 24-hour gutsiness and unyielding self-assurance make her a beloved character of Savannah by locals and tourists alike. She is a hilariously beloved nightclub performer. Berendt writes that “school children, couples, and society ladies all troop in to see her. She is asked for her autograph wherever she goes.” This heterosexual white woman in mega heels, who has a real dick, a real personality, and takes pills to ensure that her, as she puts it, “titties are real” has captured the adoration of fans around the country and it’s precisely because of the conviction she has in her own authenticity. This is a woman who, in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, is wiling to go before a court of law to testify her “T,” or her inner truth, which is this: “I have a man’s toolbox but everything else about me is pure lady.”
Lady Chablis’ 1997 autobiography, “Hiding My Candy”
Lady Chablis’ official website
Roger Ebert’s 1997 review of Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil
Lady Chablis at Club One
Lady Chablis in the South Magazine
LA Times 1996 article “ Fame Finds The Lady Chablis in Savannah, GA”
Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.