“I am what I am — I’m black, I’m gay, and I wear dresses.”
TRQ: The Lady Chablis, Born March 11, 1957
Actress and author, The Lady Chablis was born Benjamin Edward Knox in Quincy, Florida. In her teens she legally changed her name to the one intended for her younger sister miscarried by her mother.
In John Berendt’s non-fiction novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Chablis recounts how she acquired her name. “I said, ‘Ooooo, Chablis. That’s nice. I like that name.’ And Mama said, ‘Then take it, baby. Just call yourself Chablis from now on.’ So ever since then, I’ve been Chablis.”
While Chablis was introduced to wider audiences through her appearance in the novel, and the subsequent film by Clint Eastwood, she had been performing since the age of fifteen. Having met Cliff Taylor, who performed as a woman under the stage name Miss Tina Devore, Chablis moved to Atlanta to stay with him in 1974 at the age of seventeen.
By the time Berendt’s book was published, in 1994, Chablis had relocated to Savannah after receiving a job offer at Friends Lounge. In 1988 she also started performing at Club One. Chablis was making a name for herself locally. However, the book’s popularity expanded Chablis’s fame to a level rare for queer and transgender performers at the time.
Berendt describes in his book meeting Chablis for the first time, in a doctor’s office after she received an estrogen injection. “Her big eyes sparkled. Her skin glowed. A broken incisor tooth punctuated her smile and gave her a naughty look.”
Chablis was able to leverage her fame when negotiating her participation in Eastwood’s 1997 movie. In her autobiographical book, Hiding My Candy, she writes that without being cast as herself, “there wouldn’t be a movie.” Of course, Eastwood did go on to cast Chablis as herself.
Chablis was soon featured in Time magazine, on Today, Oprah and Good Morning America. Before long, Chablis became a popular draw attracting Midnight’s massive fan base to monthly performances. On the night of her last performance, on August 6, Chablis performed to a full house.
The Lady Chablis died on September 8, 2016 at the age of 59, in Savannah. She is survived by two sisters, Lois Stevens and Cynthia Ponder, and two brothers, Charles Whiteside and John Fairley Jr.