Lady Chablis helped put Savannah on the map

A skinny individual with a rough complexion and close-shorn hair sat before a mirror, looking unglamorous.

Unglamorous on the outside.

But inside that individual was a creature called Lady Chablis, with a personality beyond fabulous, and an attitude way too epic for that tiny frame.

I saw the transformation before my eyes, during an interview backstage before a drag show in Savannah in 1997. The performer applied powder, rouge, mascara and a feathery wig, and suddenly the magic happened.

Lady Chablis died Thursday at age 60-something, and her death reminded me of a signal moment in Georgia history.

It was the height of the “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” craze. John Berendt’s non-fiction, true-crime novel had been on the New York Times best-seller list for 140 weeks, and had generated its own tourist industry.

Trolleys carried visitors around the city, as guides pointed out the Italianate mansion of gay antiques dealer Jim Williams (tried four times for murder and ultimately found not guilty) while the curious tromped through Bonaventure Cemetery, looking for the “Bird Girl” statue that appears on the cover of “The Book.”

Then we learned that the book would become a film. In May director Clint Eastwood came to Savannah to shoot his movie on location. Excitement ratcheted up. Even locals were having conniptions.

Tourists looking to visit the Savannah scenes glorified by Berendt were redirected to gawk at Eastwood and Kevin Spacey (spot-on as Williams) and John Cusack (playing a version of Berendt.)

There were plenty of places for tourists to check out, including Club One, the gay bar where Lady Chablis, one of the book’s indelible characters, put on a regular drag show, abetted by a team of well-endowed female impersonators. On that May evening in 1997, the regulars at Club One appeared to be outnumbered by straight newbies in cargo shorts and Izod shirts.

This was clearly a crowd that was going to report back to the garden club about their exotic night in Savannah with breathless wonder.

Did Lady Chablis take it easy on these innocents? She did not. The jokes were filthy, hilarious and anatomically correct. The crowd ate it up.

“When you bought your ticket, you paid your homosexual dues, ” she told the delighted audience. “Now you’re one of us.”

I would see her later at a reception featuring stars from the movie and movers and shakers from Savannah, including Floyd Adams Jr., the first black mayor in Savannah’s history.

Movie crews. Drag queens. A black mayor. It seemed Savannah was being dragged into the 20th century, and Lady Chablis had a front row seat.

“Savannah is about to come into the ’90s, ” said Chablis. “We’ve got a black mayor and a black drag queen as a tourist attraction.”

She knew that this Midnight moment was fleeting and special, and she appeared to enjoy every minute of it. Lady Chablis continued to help boost Savannah up through the present day, as a headliner at Savannah Pride and as host of the Miss Gay Pride Pageant.

But that Midnight moment, when Lady Chablis took her permanent place in Savannah’s history, will always be timeless.

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