By Cindy Dampier Marisa Salcines
October 07, 1996 12:00 PM

A rags-to-feather-boas hero strikes gold

THE NAME ON HER DRIVER’S LICENSE reads, The Lady Chablis, right next to where it says, Sex: Male. “That draws a lot of attention,” she admits. “Both good and bad.” Not that The Lady Chablis (her full legal name) needs a weird license to get noticed. Interest in the bawdy, 39-year-old female impersonator has been high ever since her appearance as a character in John Berendt’s 1994 bestseller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The true tale of a young hustler shot by his socially prominent lover is set in Savannah and features a colorful cast of local denizens, the most outrageous being the sassy Chablis. Her autobiography, Hiding My Candy, will be made into a movie next year, even as Clint Eastwood gets set to direct a film version of Midnight. Though Chablis recently lobbied for a part—telling Clint, “If you want to win an Academy Award, you better have me in it”—she insists, “Honey, I had no plans for any of this. I was hoping that someday I could start some kind of business, like a cleaning service.”

Instead, says Berendt, she’s “the toast of the town. Everywhere I go, they all know The Lady Chablis.” Born Benjamin Edward Knox in Quincy, Fla., Chablis knew early on she was different. “I looked in the mirror, and I didn’t see a guy,” she says. “I couldn’t live as a man because I was uncomfortable as one.” Raised by her grandmother and aunt while her parents went their separate ways, Chablis moved in with friends at 14 and began dressing full-time as a woman.

Three years later, she started performing a drag act in gay clubs, becoming a big draw once she set up shop in Savannah in the ’80s. It was there that Chablis saw a chance to shake her local-celebrity status the day she met Berendt—a New York journalist she had heard was researching a book set in Savannah—as she was leaving her doctor’s office. “When I saw him, I asked him for a ride,” says Chablis. “I knew what I was doing.”

The two became friends, and she wound up in Midnight. “I’m opening doors for people like me,” says Chablis. “I want to reach people and say, ‘No one is going to bite you. Just come and see what I’m all about.’ ”