The Lady Chablis

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The Lady Chablis
The Lady Chablis.jpg
The Lady Chablis, 1996
Born(1957-03-11)March 11, 1957
DiedSeptember 8, 2016(2016-09-08) (aged 59)
Other namesThe Lady Jonel
Club performer

The Lady Chablis (March 11, 1957 – September 8, 2016), also known as The Grand Empress and The Doll, was an American actress, author, and transgender club performer. Through exposure in the bestselling nonfiction book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and its 1997 film adaptation, she became one of the first trans performers to be introduced to a wide audience.[1][2]

Early life[edit]

Born on March 11, 1957,[3][4] Chablis grew up in Quincy, Florida. Her parents divorced when she was five, and she was supported by her aunt, Katie Bell, and grandmother, Anna Mae Ponder,[5][6] after her mother moved to Chicago to be a nurse.[7] She did not meet her mother until she was nine, or her father until she was 12.[7] She went on to live with her father in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City in 1969.

She changed her name to "The Lady Chablis" when she was 16 years old and living in Atlanta.[8] "My mom was going to have a baby and she miscarried. The baby's name was going to be La Quinta Chablis and she told me to take the name. I didn't even know what Chablis was."[8]

Chablis' mother moved back to Florida and practiced nursing at Sunland Hospital in Tallahassee. She lived with her mother and her new husband, who owned a dry-cleaning business.[5] Chablis became close to her neighbor, Connie, who offered her a lot of support and a refuge from homophobic troubles at home.[5]


A poster in memoriam of The Lady Chablis on the Jefferson Street wall of Club One. It includes a censored version of her catchphrase, which she uses in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: "Two tears in a bucket, motherfuck it."

Chablis began her career at age 15 in the Fox Trot gay bar in Tallahassee. It was there that she met Cliff Taylor, who performed under the pseudonym of Miss Tina Devore. He was the first male in Quincy that Chablis ever met who dressed up. Taylor offered to have Chablis stay with him if she ever moved to Atlanta. She moved there in 1974 at the age of 17, previously living with her aunt in Tallahassee for about eighteen months.[5]

She began working at the Prince George Inn, a gay-owned restaurant, where she began a relationship with one of her co-workers.[5] She left in 1975 after the relationship ended, and picked up work at Eckerd's Drugstore. After becoming sick for three weeks, she had to leave that position too.[5] A new friend, Linda, saw the decline in Chablis' health and moved her into her two-bedroom apartment. She found another job, this time at a Burlington Coat Factory outlet.[5]

Chablis and Linda moved to Regency Woods apartment complex. Encouraged by her friend's lush life and surroundings, Chablis decided to return to the stage.[5] She eventually found herself at The Locker Room, a bathhouse.[5]

In the late 1980s, a job offer from The Friends Lounge, a cabaret bar in Savannah, Georgia, resulted in her moving south from Atlanta.[5]

She performed at Club One on its opening night in 1988, and was a regular performer there until August 6, 2016, just before she was hospitalized.[9]

In the early 1990s, she moved with her partner, Jesse, to Columbia, South Carolina,[6] where she began working at a new spot, The Menage.[5] The Menage closed after three years, due to new competition, and Chablis did not find much work for a couple of years.[5]

Chablis returned to Savannah, beginning work at new club, The Edge. She lived on Crawford Square.[10]

She was a prominent character in John Berendt's best-selling 1994 book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, during her days working at The Pickup on Congress Street. She left her job in a dispute over pay.

Chablis frequently performed at her "home" nightclub of Club One, where she was known as the "Grand Empress". Chablis traveled the U.S. performing her show, The Doll Revue, at various venues and special events, such as gay pride gatherings. She also appeared on radio shows.

Chablis' autobiography Hiding My Candy: The Autobiography of the Grand Empress of Savannah was published in 1996,[11] a year before she played herself in the Clint Eastwood-directed movie adaptation of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, starring Kevin Spacey and John Cusack.[12]

The Lady Chablis was featured in the closing segment of the Savannah episode of Bizarre Foods America on The Travel Channel. She joined host Andrew Zimmern at several Savannah restaurants including Elizabeth on 37th. In 2012, she was interviewed in Savannah[13] on the local television and internet talk show MAMA Knows Best (season 2, episode 1).[14] On April 19, 2013, Chablis performed for the grand opening of the short-lived Mama's Cabaret in Lewiston, Maine, with "MAMA" Savannah Georgia.

Awards and titles[edit]

In her early career as an entertainer, under the name Brenda Dale Knox, she won multiple titles in drag pageantry including:[15]

  • Miss Dixieland, 1976
  • Miss Gay World, 1976
  • The Grand Empress of Savannah, 1977
  • Miss Sweetheart International, 1989
  • Empress of Atlanta, 1996
  • Miss Cosmo USA, 1997
  • Miss Garden City, 1997
  • Miss Atlanta Universe, 1998
  • Miss Georgia National, 1998
  • Miss Southern States USA, 1998


  • Lady Chablis (1996). Hiding My Candy: The Autobiography of the Grand Empress of Savannah. Pocket Books. ISBN 0-671-52095-4. OCLC 37901705.


Personal life[edit]

Chablis said she did not want any label except her name, "The Lady Chablis",[16] and said she found it hurtful when people called her a "drag queen".[6][1] In his book, Berendt wrote that he met Chablis as she was returning home from having a hormone injection.[17] In her book Hiding My Candy, Chablis said she had not undergone sex reassignment surgery.[18]


The Lady Chablis died on September 8, 2016, from Pneumocystis pneumonia, aged 59,[19][12] at Savannah's Candler Hospital.[9]

On November 5, a special screening of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was shown at Savannah's Lucas Theatre for the Arts, with a tribute to Chablis beforehand. A few of Chablis' gowns were on display in the theatre's lobby. Jerry Spence, the former hairdresser who appeared in both the book and movie, was in attendance. A reception was held at Club One after the memorial service and, after the movie screening, Club One Cabaret held two Lady Chablis tribute shows.[20]


Upon news of her death, several of Chablis' former co-stars made tributes to her. Paul Hipp, alongside whom she appeared in the movie adaptation of Midnight in the Garden, said: "So sad to hear of The Lady Chablis' passing. She was super talented, kind, and laugh out loud funny. She was a true transgender pioneer, way ahead of her time (in the Deep South, no less). This pic of The Lady and me was taken between shots while filming Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil. Feel free to envy our glamour."[21] Chablis was impersonated on the second episode of Season 7 of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars by drag queen Jaida Essence Hall.[22]


  1. ^ a b "The Lady Chablis, Best Known for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Has Died". Archived from the original on September 10, 2016. Retrieved September 13, 2016.
  2. ^ "Transgender performer Lady Chablis dies at 59; portrayed in best-selling book". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 13, 2016.
  3. ^ Griggs, Brandon (September 8, 2016). "Lady Chablis, transgender star of 'Midnight,' dies at 59". CNN. Retrieved September 13, 2016.
  4. ^ The Lady Chablis Sassy Transgender Figure in Savannah Book, Movie Dies at-59." Washington Post, Sept. 9, 2016. Retrieved September 12, 2016.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Lady Chablis (1996). Hiding My Candy: The Autobiography of the Grand Empress of Savannah. Pocket Books. ISBN 0-671-52095-4. OCLC 37901705.
  6. ^ a b c Hinson, Mark. "Flying home with The Lady Chablis was a blast". Tallahassee Democrat. Retrieved October 20, 2019.
  7. ^ a b The Lady Chablis obituary - The Telegraph, October 2, 2016
  8. ^ a b "Female Impersonator, Lady Chablis, Makes Debut" - Amy A. Swann, Savannah Morning News, January 9, 1994
  9. ^ a b "First transgender star The Lady Chablis dies at 59" - USA Today Books, September 8, 2016
  10. ^ "A Square as Reminder of Jim Crow Days". Freeman's Rag. Retrieved March 30, 2022.
  11. ^ Jeffreys, Joe E. (1997). "It's Been a Vintage Year for The Lady Chablis". Dragazine – via Online Archive of California; University of California, Los Angeles Library Special Collections.
  12. ^ a b Chokshi, Niraj (September 8, 2016). "The Lady Chablis, Sassy Eccentric in 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,' Dies at 59". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved September 13, 2016.
  13. ^ Brian Kovalski (Savannah Georgia'Mama. "Brian Kovalski – Lowell (Massachusetts)". Facebook. Retrieved December 5, 2013.
  14. ^ "Domain Default page". Archived from the original on January 6, 2014.
  15. ^ "Lady Chablis". IMDb. Retrieved October 20, 2019.
  16. ^ Wade, Kim (March–April 2013). "Interview with The Lady Chablis". Savannah Magazine. Retrieved February 20, 2020.
  17. ^ Chokshi, Niraj (September 10, 2016). "The Lady Chablis, Sassy Eccentric in 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,' Dies at 59". The New York Times.
  18. ^ Theodore, Bouloukos (1996). Hiding My Candy. New York: Pocket Books. pp. 13. ISBN 978-0-671-52095-3.
  19. ^ Broverman, Neal (September 8, 2016). "Lady Chablis, Trans Icon and Savannah's Grand Empress, Dead at 59". The Advocate. Retrieved September 8, 2016.
  20. ^ "Tribute to a Lady" - David DeCaro, December 20, 2016
  21. ^ Paul Hipp's official Instagram - September 12, 2016
  22. ^ Benutty, John (May 21, 2022). "'RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars' episode 2 recap: The queens double dip in a double-headed 'Snatch Game'". Goldderby. Retrieved May 25, 2022.

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