by John Berendt
When Lady Chablis, the African-American transgender comedienne, died last week she had made her mark in ways that neither she nor I could have imagined when we met in Savannah thirty years ago. At the time, I was researching and writing Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. She was working at a club called The Who's Who.
When I first laid eyes on her, she was standing on the curb outside her doctor's office, where she had gone for her weekly estrogen shots. She watched me as I parked my car. In a way that only Chablis could have done, she invited herself into my car while at the same time climbing in and asking for a ride home.
As I drove her home, she told me she performed in drag shows. "You should come and see my act," she said. "I'm not like the other girls. Lip synch isn't all I do. You'll see."
Indeed, she was no ordinary drag queen. After doing alip-synch number, she would come back on stage with a live microphone in her hand and engage the audience in spirited repartee for ten or fifteen minutes, all of it completely unscripted and hilarious. "I like to get up on that stage and run my mouth," she said.
She was her own brilliant creation, and she was not above pushing it to absurd extremes for comic affect.
"I'm not really the person you may think I am," she'd tell the audience, "standing up here in my gown and makeup. No, child, you are looking at a heterosexual white woman. And I am pregnant. My due date is getting' closer, and my young 'un is dropping lower and lower." Her self-mockery made her all the more likable; it also eased the tension for anybody in the audience who might otherwise have felt uncomfortable or even threatened by gender-bending talk.
I found Chablis' presence so compelling, on stage and off, that even though she had nothing to do with the murder case that formed the central narrative of Midnight, I felt compelled to include her anyway. So, I wrote her into my book, and then she more or less ran away with it.
Upon publication of Midnight in 1994, Chablis became an immediate sensation. She was one of the first transgender performers to win acceptance by a general audience. She was invited on "Good Morning America" and "Oprah." Newspapers and magazines conducted countless interviews. In those days, transgender stars were virtually unheard of. The term "transgender" itself had hardly ever been used. But, clearly, something was happening, and Chablis found herself in the middle of it. Six months after the release of Midnight, I mentioned her name at a reading in Sydney, Australia, and a cheer went up from the audience.
As my first and best transgender friend, Chablis was my reference and my touchstone over the course of the next thirty years.
I felt I understood her pretty well, but it was not until 1997, when plans for the movie of Midnight were being discussed, that I fully grasped the emotional depth of her gender identity.
When Warner Brothers announced that Clint Eastwood would direct the movie, Chablis issued a statement of her own. "If I'm not cast as myself in that movie, there won't be a movie."
She had thrown down the gauntlet with her customary flourish, but she was only half-joking. I asked her who she would accept in the role if it had to be someone other than herself.
She thought for a moment. "People are saying it's going be Eddie Murphy, or Will Smith, or Chris Rock or even Ru Paul."
Those, indeed, were some of the names being mentioned at the time.
"If you had to pick one of them, which would it be?" I asked, expecting her to say Eddie Murphy.
Without a moment's hesitation, she said, "Halle Berry, Whitney Houston, or Vanessa Williams."
She saw my look of surprise.
"Now, John," she said, her voice softening. "Hear what I'm telling you. It scares me that if any of those male actors gets to play me, they'll portray me as a drag queen. And then that's how I will always be remembered. But that's not who I really am. This may be hard for you to understand, after knowing me for so long. But, I am not a drag queen. I...am...a...woman. I believe that. And that's why I want a woman to play me."
I saw a thorny, possibly disastrous problem arising. But days later, Clint Eastwood sidestepped the issue, dodged the bullet, and cast Chablis as Chablis.