Originally Published in the March/April 2013 issue.
Take a peek behind the black curtain of Club One with the one and only Empress of Savannah.
Take a peek behind the black curtain of Club One as Kim Wade goes backstage with the one and only Grand Empress of Savannah. » Photography by Beau Kester
The Lady Chablis has held a packed audience spellbound all night. Her sold-out cabaret show at Club One is over but—only now—she seems nervous.
When the curtain falls and the spotlight dims, she meets me in her private dressing room, which is scarcely more than a walk-in closet.
“It’s a mess, but it’s all mine, and I don’t have to share this room with anybody, child.”
She wrings her hands as she suggests that we reschedule the interview. When I ask why, she says she is worried that our photographer will take bad photos and that I will not use the “correct pronouns” in my article. It’s clear that she’s been burned before.
“Is this interview a big deal to you?” she asks me. She puts her hands on her hips and taps her stiletto-clad foot.
Her bluntness startles me. I feel the interview slipping away.
“Yes, it is very important to me.”
“How old are you?” she asks. “Have you ever written anything important?”
I fumble for the right words.
“I’m 37 and I’m trying to start over with a new career,” I stammer. “This interview is a very big deal.”
My interrogator tilts back her head and gasps.
“You’re 37 years old?” She laughs. “Child, I thought you were one of those 20-something students just trying to fill an assignment for school.”
Relief begins to settle over me.
“I have a 12-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son at home,” I venture.
Chablis puts her hand on her chest and smiles.
“You’re a mother? Why didn’t you tell me that before?”
She takes a few steps over to me with her arms outstretched and pulls me in close for a hug.
“I just needed to know something about you so I know I can trust you,” she whispers. Years of bullying, probing and name-calling have made this diva distrustful of reporters. As I close my eyes and try to figure out what kind of perfume she is wearing—Chanel No. 5, maybe?—I don’t blame her.
It’s been nearly 20 years since writer John Berendt brought the larger-than-life character of The Lady Chablis to readers. Two years later, Chablis published her own book, Hiding My Candy: The Autobiography of the Grand Empress of Savannah (Pocket Books 1996). The very next year, she portrayed herself in Clint Eastwood’s film adaptation of the book, which was shot on location in the Hostess City. Since then, demand for this former pageant queen and consummate performer has only increased.
Our hug complete, Chablis steps back and claps her hands.
“Now, let’s get this interview started.”
I don’t even get a chance to ask a question. She simply begins talking, removing her lime green, floor-length jacket to reveal a slim, muscular body that most 30-year-old women would die for. She runs her fingers along the angular ridge of her collar bone and the crystal-beaded neckline of her dress, then settles herself on a worn wooden stool in front of her makeup mirror.
“All those outfits belong to me,” she says, gesturing at the wall behind her, where a rainbow of costumes and jackets hangs on a metal rack. “And the entire top floor of the club is filled with the rest of my wardrobe. I never know what I will wear each night. I just show up and start throwing stuff on.”
But tonight, she tells me, her choices were limited because she didn’t have anyone backstage to help her dress.
“If it had a zipper in the back it was off-limits and I had to make do.”
The table is littered with open containers of blush, powder foundations and a wide array of red lipsticks. A pile of crumpled dollar bills rests next to a fresh vodka cranberry and a discarded long-haired wig.
The Writing on the Wall
Cryptically scrawled messages in black Sharpie cover the gray walls of Chablis’ cramped dressing room.
“I started doing this a few years ago so I could make a record of events in my life,” she tells me.
The messages read “Love you, sis!” and “Smile, bitch.” Some are tender, like the note written with the curly flair of a woman in love: “Chablis and Ralph sitting in a tree kissing 7-8-12.”
As I read, Chablis extends her long muscular arm above her head and points at a message written in black marker that reads: “Get the f–k out!”
“That was for a certain person backstage who didn’t understand how to talk to The Lady and I made sure he saw it every time he walked back here.”
Chablis is quick to declare herself a free spirit.
“I don’t take direction from nobody.” She wags her finger. “Nope. No. No. No. Don’t tell me what to do.”
But, when she looks at the wall beside her mirror and points her red polished fingernail at the words “Totsie Benjamin Vanhorn, 4/30/11,” Chablis stops talking and tears pool at the edges of her baby browns.
“Totsie was my poodle. He was the first pet I ever had and he lived for 18 years,” Chablis says, staring at the name on the wall.
“When we first started filming, I had to leave Totsie at home alone,” she remembers. “I told Mr. Eastwood that he couldn’t stay home alone any longer and he had to come on set with me.” A smile spreads across her face. “John Cusack would hold him for me while I shot my scenes.”
Totsie also became a part of Chablis’ show at Club One. He added another level of comedy and the crowd loved him almost as much they loved his owner.
“He would do his act where I pretended I had a gun and Totsie would put up his paws when I said ‘Stick ’em up,’ then I would say ‘Thank you, Totsie,’ and he would walk behind the black curtain and sit in my dressing room and wait for me to return after the show.”
Chablis takes a deep breath and looks back at the name on the wall. Tears roll down her soft mahogany cheeks, but she bats them away with her false eylashes and immediately tries to break the serious mood.
“Now I got my new dog, Cracker,” she says, wiping away her tears. “I named him Cracker because that’s my favorite snack.” She winks, then shrugs her shoulders in mock innocence.
Time Flies …
Totsie’s passing coincides with the time Chablis says she began to realize she was getting older, too.
I ask Chablis, “In an industry focused on looks, how do you stare down aging?” She laughs.
“I just looked around one day and saw that everyone around me was younger than me.” But this lady proudly announces she never tries to hide her years. She turns 56 in March.
“They say with age comes wisdom and I truly believe that,” she explains. “I feel like it’s my job now to teach young people around me how to behave properly. You know, like ‘Do what I say—I’m your elder!’”
She also takes it upon herself to teach the younger people in the audience how to behave properly.
“Like tonight,” she says. “When that young man was being all mouthy with me.”
(The man in question had interrupted the show, asking Chablis to kiss his friend for his birthday. Her response was simple: “Honey, you can’t afford this. Not even Mr. John Berendt could afford this, so how do you think your broke ass could? Now sit down and shut-up!” And the crowd erupted in laugher.)
“It was my job to put him in his place and explain to him that you can’t be saying stuff like this to a lady,” she says.
Although Chablis claims she is just blessed with youthful looks, she admits her insides aren’t holding up quite as well.
“I quit smoking this year and it has been awful.” A handheld inhaler sits idle on her makeup table. “All those years of smoking really ruined my lungs and I can hardly breathe.”
She places her hand on her chest and tries to take a deep breath, but it’s obvious the air can’t move through her lungs without causing her pain.
“Remember all those years ago when you saw me smoking in Forsyth Park and you said I needed to quit?” she asks attorney Sonny Seiler, her long-time friend and fellow Midnight character, when he stops by with friends for an informal visit.
The charming Savannah legend smiles and nods his head.
“Yes, and do you remember what you said back to me?” he asks with a chuckle.
“I told you to mind your own damn business,” she replies, rolling her eyes.
Chablis looks Sonny in the eyes and we all stop laughing so we can hear her.
“I want you to know I finally took your advice and quit smoking this year.”
“I’m so glad to hear that, darling.”
A moment of silence lingers between the two friends as they smile at each other.
Perhaps they are both thinking the same thought—that almost everyone else from “The Book” has died.
When we’re alone, I finally get to ask the question that brought me here.
“What do you think it means to be a true Savannah woman?”
Right away, Chablis tells me that Savannah women should have “a lot of guts” and should know how to “bite their tongues, know about Southern history and have a plan.” She shakes her finger in the air and adds, “I wish I had made a plan sooner. If it hadn’t been for the book and the movie, I have no idea what I would have done with my life.”
Then she pauses and meets her own eyes in the mirror.
“I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman and I don’t try to be a woman,” she reflects. “I just try to be who I am without all the labels people try to put on you.”
She adjusts her posture on the stool.
“You have to remember that there was a time when I was a young, gay black man living in Savannah. That was when the black folks shopped on Broughton Street and all the whites went to the mall. There were no jobs to be had unless you got ‘lucky’ and your uncle died or a cousin moved away.
“Those were hard times for blacks and gays in Savannah,” she sighs. “I try to remind the youth today that they were lucky to have people like me to pave the way.”
Chablis suspects that growing up in a house full of women had an impact on her self-image.
“There were no men around so I didn’t realize I was feminine,” she remembers. “My grandmother just told me I was ‘different’ when I was about 5 years old. People didn’t talk about sexuality with their children back then.”
Cutting Out the Labels
In fact, Chablis didn’t think much about her sexuality until she was in junior high school and her science teacher looked at her one day and said, “Are you homosexual?” The shock of the question still shows on her face today.
“I didn’t know what he was talking about. I hate that word, ‘homosexual,’” she says. She shakes her head in disgust.
Being a gay man was tough, but being a gay, black man inSavannahproved even tougher.
“Black folks don’t call you ‘faggot’ like the white folks do. They call you ‘punk,’” she says. “Ugh, I hated being called a punk worse than anything.”
Labels continued to haunt Chablis even after fame.
“I was walking through the airport and people would stop me and say ‘Hey, you’re the lady from the movie,” she says. “Then I’d walk away and they would say, ‘That’s the drag queen.’”
Chablis looks down at her dressing room floor, which is littered with 4-inch stilettos she kicked off during her frantic changes between acts. She places both hands over her chest.
“That hurt me so badly to hear people call me a drag queen. I thought celebrity would change the way people looked at me.”
When I ask her what terminology she prefers, my hostess tells me she doesn’t want to called anything but The Lady Chablis—her legal name.
“You shouldn’t label anyone,” she adds soberly.
Tears in a Bucket
Of course, this survivor also knows how to ignore the labels and enjoy life. Her trademark saying, “Two tears in a bucket…” is more than a quip. It’s her mantra, and she feels drawn to speak with young people and pass her hard-won perspective on to them.
She remembers arriving for a show in Rhode Island to find a young lesbian woman waiting to speak with her.
“That girl was just precious. She told me that, because of me, she didn’t feel alone in the world.” Chablis looks at herself in the mirror again. She takes a deep breath and fresh tears begin to spill over her thick eyelashes. “She said her mother read my book to her when she was 8 years old to help her understand what was going on with her.”
In Hiding My Candy, Chablis candidly narrates her childhood and her journey to make peace with her inner turmoil about sexuality.
“God, you know what I would have given to have someone talk to me when I was 8 years old? I just held that girl and we cried together,” she says.
Chablis pauses to wipe her tears on a wadded napkin she used earlier to blot her red lipstick. She straightens her back, gathers her familiar elegant composure and shakes her long, angular finger in the air.
“That’s what it’s all about.”
My new friend swears to me that she won’t do another movie.
“Too much time away from home,” she explains.
She has no plans to appear in Tony award-winner Alfred Uhry’s upcoming Broadway version of Midnight.
“I’m sure it will still be a big hit for my dear friend, Mr. John Berendt,” she enthuses.
But, as she looks toward retirement from Club One in two more years, Chablis already has a plan for her next role in life.
“You know, Club One is the only gay bar I perform in anymore,” she says. “I recently spoke at Vanderbilt University and I feel like that is my true calling in life now. I think I have a chance to reach out to the youth and help guide them to be OK with who they truly are.”
Does this mean the famous performer is ready to settle down? Well, not exactly.
She lifts up a black T-shirt hanging next to her mirror. It has the words “I’m Getting Married, Bitches” embossed across the chest in pink glitter.
“I like to wear this as a joke,” she laughs. “Why in the world would I want to be with the same man for the rest of my life?”
She sips her vodka cranberry, which is now a pale pink. The ice has melted.
“Oh, God, I’m tired. I can’t stay up late like I used to—and plus I had to get here at the crack of dawn today,” she says. (She arrived for the show at 5:30 p.m.)
The Grand Empress of Savannah starts to smooth out her wrinkled pile of tips and take stock of what she’s earned tonight. She tells me she’s ready to take off the wig and costume and go “incog-negro.” But first, she announces, “I need to buy my ladies a round of drinks at the bar.” Tiffany, Layla, Destiny, Blair, Jazzmyn and Motion await. And it’s obvious that, despite her best intentions, The Lady is not leaving any time soon.
Chablis hugs me again and instructs me to tell my children that “Auntie Chablis sends her love.” Still feeling her warmth, I make my way down the labyrinth of narrow stairwells and dark hallways to the Jefferson Streetexit. The streetlights hurt my eyes. As I head home to my family and my bed, it cheers me to know that one Savannah lady is still burning the Midnight oil.