She always knew how to draw a crowd, and her funeral service carried on the tradition. Whether they came to the Unity Mortuary chapel to celebrate the life of Prdra Austell Hall – Rule High School graduate, devoted son, brother, father and generous friend – or to honor Champale Denise, the glamorous drag queen whose dead-on impersonations of Grace Jones, Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston made her a star for two decades and spawned the slogan, “Ebony Beauty and Grace,” they were there together.
“I would say that Champale Denise was an icon in the gay community,” said longtime friend and former colleague Brian Chandler, who helped care for her during her struggle with lymphoma. “A truly amazing heart and soul. If you ever got the chance to be in his presence, you were blessed. He was just too much fun, and was just everything to me. I never had a sister growing up, but as I got into my adult life, I found my sisters, and Champale was one of them. My heart is so heavy for his daughters and his family. It’s just eating me alive. God gained a mighty soldier when he took that one home, and I know I have a guardian angel.”
(Here’s the thing about this story, this life: Pronouns didn’t matter – not to Champale, and not to her friends. She’s Champale when they talk about her professional persona; but sometimes when they speak of the father, son, friend, he’s something different. And that was fine with him.)
“We talked about that. He never liked to be called Prdra,” said Marlene Lane, who managed the Carousel II, Knoxville’s leading gay bar, for decades. “After the club closed, he told me to keep calling him Champale, and as far as pronouns go, I went back and forth on ‘he’ and ‘she.’ He told me, ‘Don’t ever worry about it. ‘She’s fine.’”
Carl Ridenour (stage name Angel Collins) and Kandi Karrington were her mentors and later her roommates, co-headliners and lifelong friends.
“At first she was kind of rough looking, but everybody saw her potential,” Ridenour said. “She was doing music nobody’d ever done before – sort of the beginning of hip-hop – ‘I’ve got a meeting in the ladies’ room.’ She was bouncy and all over the stage and could really dance. We’d come out of the dressing room and just watch her. We sort of groomed her – helped with makeup, clothes, although most of it she did herself. She developed pretty fast.”
Karrington said Champale developed into a stellar performer and “one of the best (masters of ceremonies) ever. She was an amazing person, so warm and funny and loving. Anytime someone was sick, anytime anyone needed help, Champale was there, because of the heart she had.”
When Karrington moved to Chicago, Champale went to stay with her for a week.
“She threw me out of my own kitchen so I couldn’t learn how to make her baked beans. Getting to show her Chicago was amazing to me, and when I returned home, she was one of the first people who came and saw me.”
Champale became a stalwart in Knoxville’s gay community, volunteering to help when money or moral support was needed. She also became an essential cog in the daily life of the Carousel II, which closed in 2013, the year before her cancer diagnosis. Besides being an on-stage star, she was the show director and worked the day shift as janitor/custodian to make extra money for her daughters, who were never allowed to see her in drag when they were young.
Lane kept up with Champale after the club closed, and was happy to hear that she was excelling in the classes she was taking at Virginia College, although her plan to enter the medical field was soon derailed when she was diagnosed with lymphoma. As she became sicker, people she’d helped in the past stepped up to return the favor. The Edge (one of Knoxville’s newer gay clubs) sponsored a fundraiser to help after Champale became disabled.
Tony Cooper, who performed as Tony “The Talk of the Town” Carlisle, is another longtime friend. He was struck by the atmosphere at the funeral.
“It was packed. We got there early, and pretty soon, every pew was full. Caucasians, African Americans, family and friends. It was very diverse and packed with people who loved and respected her. She touched a lot of people’s hearts and is somebody that won’t be forgotten. I know I won’t.”