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Thursday 27 October 2016

Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil star The Lady Chablis dies aged 59

Published 08/09/2016 | 19:46

The Lady Chablis twirls for the crowd awaiting the stars of the film Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil (Scott Bryant/Savannah Morning News via AP)
The Lady Chablis twirls for the crowd awaiting the stars of the film Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil (Scott Bryant/Savannah Morning News via AP)

The Lady Chablis, the transgender performer who became an unlikely celebrity for her role in the 1994 best-seller Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, has died aged 59.

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Chablis' sister, Cynthia Ponder, confirmed she died at Candler Hospital in Savannah, Georgia.

A close friend, Cale Hall, said Chablis died from pneumonia and had been in hospital for the past month.

A modern, non-fiction take on Southern Gothic storytelling, author John Berendt's Midnight thrust Savannah into the pop-culture spotlight.

And the sassy, blunt-spoken Chablis rode the book's popularity to a level of fame that was rare for transgender performers at the time.

"The legacy that she wanted to leave was one of 'believe in who you are and never let the world change who you are'," Ms Ponder said. "Love yourself first and respect yourself first and others will love and respect you."

Chablis insisted on playing herself in the 1997 Midnight film directed by Clint Eastwood. That same year she published an autobiography, Hiding My Candy.

Berendt's book had no shortage of quirky, true-life characters - a voodoo priestess, a man who tied live flies to his lapels and a piano player with an encyclopaedic command of 6,000 songs. Chablis was easily the most popular, Berendt said.

"She's the one that people asked me about most often," Berendt said. "At that time, transsexuals weren't that well-known and weren't that well understood. There weren't that many in showbusiness. And she was one of the first to be accepted by a wider audience."

Her birth name was Benjamin Edward Knox, but she legally changed it to The Lady Chablis around the time of the Midnight movie, said Hall, who knew Chablis since the 1980s.

In his book, Berendt describes first meeting Chablis as she left a doctor's office following her latest oestrogen injection. "Her big eyes sparkled. Her skin glowed. A broken incisor tooth punctuated her smile and gave her a naughty look."

Chablis tells Berendt she is a showgirl. She describes her act and reveals the origin of her name.

"I dance, I do lip sync, and I emcee," Chablis says in Midnight. "(Expletive) like that. My mama got the name Chablis off a wine bottle. She didn't think it up for me though. It was supposed to be for my sister."

Chablis had performed at Club One in central Savannah since its opening day in 1988, said Hall, the nightclub's co-owner.

When Midnight mania hit in the 1990s, her act became a popular draw for tourists lured to the Georgia coast by Berendt's book.

Hall said Chablis gave her final performance at the nightclub on August 6, just before she was taken to hospital with pneumonia.

"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."

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."


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