Variety is reporting that legendary drag performer The Lady Chablis has died at the age of 59. The heart and soul of Savannah’s famed Club One dance club and a mainstay of the Southern LGBT entertainment scene, the “Grand Empress” rose to national prominence in the mid-’90s, when author John Berendt featured her in his bestselling non-fiction work Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil.
Berendt’s potent true-crime melodrama introduced readers to The Lady by noting “she had both hands on her hips and a sassy half-smile on her face,” a posture Chablis would replicate in Clint Eastwood’s 1997 adaptation of the book. Her only major film role, Chablis’ performance provides a light counterpoint to the film’s murder-laced plot, charismatically flirting with a fish-out-of-water John Cusack and deploying the iconic phrase, “Two tears in a bucket, motherfuck it” as an acknowledgement of the hardships of life. As Berendt noted in a statement memorializing her death today, “Chablis was only half-joking when she said, ‘If I’m not cast as myself in that movie, there won’t be a movie!’”
Outside her work on the screen, Chablis was a prolific performer, appearing regularly at Club One and in drag shows around the country. As gay culture became more mainstream, Chablis also began making occasional appearances on shows like Bravo’s The Real Housewives Of Atlanta. In a 2013 interview, she laid out her thoughts on the evolving nature of the scene, and the increased commercialization of the world of drag:
Now everyone is just impersonating someone, the originality and the personality is gone. I know that there is only one me. People can go ahead and quote my work and say my lines, but no one will ever be me. I don’t want to be in pageants because I don’t wanna be judged. Working with girls who are like, “Miss Gay Universe” used to intimidate me, until I realized I don’t want to be “Miss Gay” anything. I wouldn’t want to be Miss Gay Pride, or Miss Black Gay Pride. I just wanna be called “Miss Chablis” if they don’t wanna call me lady. But I don’t need no labels on me.
Outside performing, Chablis was an advocate for charity, raising thousands of dollars for groups like the American Diabetes Association, and serving as a spokesperson and host for a number of LGBT events. Her death was announced on Club One’s Facebook page, where a eulogy to “The Doll” has also been placed.