Shock waves ran through the LGBT community as word spread that one of our most beloved entertainers has passed. The Lady Chablis, the iconic nightclub performer best known for her turn in the 1997 film adaption of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, has died. She was 59.
Club One, the Savannah, Georgia, hot spot where Chablis famously performed, announced her death on Facebook, Thursday. A friend, Cale Hall, further confirmed to the Associated Press that Chablis was suffering from pneumonia, and had been hospitalized for the past month.
Chablis (née Benjamin Edward Knox) rose to prominence as the unlikely star of John Berendt's bestselling, 1994 non-fiction novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which centered around Savannah and its inhabitants. A friendship with Berendt led to a starring role in "The Book" – as it's called in the southern city – and a spotlight at 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," the venue said in their statement. "No one, however, could outshine the Grand Empress herself."
Berendt, who said Chablis was a "transsexual" in his book, told the AP that he is still regularly asked about Chablis.
"At that time, transsexuals weren't that well known and weren't that well understood," he explained. "There weren't that many in show business. And she was one of the first to be accepted by a wider audience."
Two years after Brendt's book, Chablis penned her own memoir, Hiding My Candy, where she claimed that she had not undergone gender reassignment surgery. However she publicly used female pronouns when referring to herself and had her name legally changed to The Lady Chablis.
In one of her final interviews, Chablis said she didn't like labels when it came to her gender or sexuality and found it hurtful when people called her a "drag queen," despite getting her start as a drag performer.
"I don't know what it's like to be a woman and I don't try to be a woman," she told Kim Wade. "I just try to be who I am without all the labels people try to put on you.
"That hurt me so badly to hear people call me a drag queen," she continued. "I thought celebrity would change the way people looked at me."
In 1997, Chablis made her big screen debut, portraying herself in the Clint Eastwood-helmed film adaptation of Midnight, which also starred John Cusack, Kevin Spacey and Jude Law.
"The legacy that she wanted to leave was one of 'believe in who you are and never let the world change who you are,' " her sister, Cynthia Ponder, told the AP. "Love yourself first and respect yourself first and others will love and respect you."
According to Club One, Chablis worked closely with various charities, most frequently the American Diabetes Association. She also proudly helmed the Savannah Pride Festival in its inaugural year, even hosting their Miss Gay Pride pageant.
"Chablis always wanted to give the audience, be it 15 or 1500, the best that she had," the club said. "With her declining health, she regretted that her body wouldn't allow her to give more."
Her final performance was on Aug. 6, according to the AP.