Before Laverne Cox, There Was The Lady Chablis

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The jury is still out on whether or not The Lady Chablis was a drag queen or a transgender woman. She's been called both by journalists and the LGBT community alike. Chablis certainly lived her "T," her truth, as it was referred to in Clint Eastwood's 1997 film "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."

Born Benjamin Edward Knox in 1957, the Florida native was a popular drag performer in Savannah, Georgia when, in 1994, she was unexpectedly thrust into the national spotlight. It was during this period that she legally changed her name to The Lady Chablis — the name was inspired by a bottle of wine.

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Fame came her way when author John Berendt's book "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" became a runaway best seller, remaining on the New York Times best seller list for several years. Berendt told a darkly humorous tale about one of Savannah's most infamous real life murder trials — the city's richest man, who lived his life deep in the closet, was charged with murdering a young hustler who may have been his lover. As the story unfolded, Berendt also exposed some embarrassing truths about Savannah's eccentric population.

The Lady Chablis was the book's most colorful character. She was a drag performer with a brilliant wit and a somewhat shady past — Chablis delighted in shocking people with her "T." Through it all, she maintained an impressive level of dignity and self-respect. Despite her over-the-top flamboyance, Chablis came across as one of the few Savannah residents who was honest about who she really was.

Chablis relished the attention which came her way, appearing on Oprah and Good Morning America. Her regular performances at Savannah's Club One became the hottest ticket in town. When Warner Brothers announced that Clint Eastwood would be directing a film adaptation of Berendt's book, Chablis actively campaigned to play herself. She won the role.

The Lady Chablis became the first out, T identified actor to star in a major Hollywood studio film. Though she was a seasoned club performer, the film marked her debut in a scripted drama. She not only held her own among a cast which included Hollywood heavyweights John Cusak, Jude Law and Kevin Spacey, she actually stole the show. Chablis' persona was mesmerizing — it was impossible to turn away from her when she was on screen. Audiences loved her. A star was born — or should have been.

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For reasons unknown, The Lady Chablis' Hollywood career began and ended with "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." She didn't receive the Oscar nomination she so richly deserved. She never made another film. Was it homophobia? Perhaps. Chablis' brief brush with movie stardom happened during the same year as Ellen DeGeneres' historic coming out. DeGeneres' once popular sitcom was soon cancelled, and DeGeneres had a difficult time in finding work until her chat show put her back on top a few years later. In 1997, Hollywood wasn't quite ready to embrace LGBT performers.

Chablis went back to Savannah and performed at Club One until about a month before her death from pneumonia on September 8, 2016. She was 59 years old. Her obituaries noted that her final performance played to a packed house. Though she remained a star in Savannah, The Lady Chablis was forgotten by the public at large, and by a film industry that should have embraced her unique personality.

Nearly two decades after The Lady Chablis burst onto the silver screen, transgender actress Laverne Cox was nominated for two Emmy Awards: one for her work as an actress in the hit Netflix series "Orange is the New Black," and another for producing the documentary "The T Word," Cox has also graced the cover of Time Magazine, among many other honors. Cox, the first transgender person to become a bankable Hollywood celebrity, is without question a trailblazer who continues to open doors.

But let's not forget that a little over fifteen years earlier there was The Lady Chablis.


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