The Great (Big Hair) Escape

Times Staff Writer

The women flock here by the hundreds, in planes and cars, hauling suitcases and travel trailers crammed with their weekend's fixings: sparkly gowns and shiny crowns, big wigs and fake breasts, light-up palm trees, Jell-O shots -- lots of those -- and more fishnet than in the musical "Chicago."

This afternoon, they will stuff their bras and backsides, zip tight their sheaths, don towering hair and tiaras and, in majorette boots and a queenly frame of mind, turn this city's streets into a noisy, irreverent, sequin-spangled homage to the silly delights of being fortysomething, and still a girl.

They call themselves queens, and they have descended on Jackson yearly in growing numbers as the devoted followers of Jackson humor writer Jill Conner Browne, whose Sweet Potato Queens paperbacks -- sassy survival guides for women -- have struck a chord nationwide with middle-age readers seeking a belly laugh, pithy wisdom on men and aging, or simply a decent margarita recipe.

A shimmering sea of queens clogged the streets for blocks last year, joining Browne and her handful of fellow Sweet Potato Queens as part of a wider Jackson parade held each year around St. Patrick's Day. The parade has become the highlight of the queens' weekend, and the women are now by far the procession's dominant contingent.

The number of visitors is expected to grow this year: Browne's third book, "The Sweet Potato Queens' Big-Ass Cookbook (and Financial Planner)," sits atop the bestseller lists, WB is shooting a television pilot starring Delta Burke, and there are murmurings of a possible talk show from Jackson. Fans mobbed Browne's recent tour. They swarmed bookshops in full queen regalia, toted what Browne calls "suck-up gifts" and, in one case, serenaded her with a full marching band.

But these are more than groupies at a bookstore. The movement took off following the publication in 1999 of Browne's first book, "The Sweet Potato Queens' Book of Love," and the launch of a Sweet Potato Queens Web site that serves as a cozy clubhouse for the far-flung sorority.

The gathering of queens has suddenly become Jackson's biggest tourist event. The visitors represent many of the more than 2,000 chapters from all over the United States -- from the Maryland Crab Queens to the Fabulous Coconut Queens of Plano, Texas -- and as far away as Thailand. More than 1,300 hotel rooms have been booked for this year's event -- a freewheeling fest that previous attendees describe as a combination of spring break, costume party and raucous family reunion.

"It's Disneyland for a weekend for grown-up girls," said Mary Breaux, 42, of Allen, Texas, who calls herself Queen Lulu. "You get to be anything you want to be. It's outrageous, and everything's OK with everybody."

Nurses, lawyers, designers and beauticians -- most of them white and in their 40s and 50s -- leave behind their worldly worries for the opportunity to see and hear Browne, commune with kindred spirits and release their inner queens.

"You see women who in any other setting would never so much as speak to each other bond over a weekend," said Breaux, who was moved to start her own chapter in Maryland a few years ago after her mother-in-law gave her a Sweet Potato Queens book.

Dressed to Chill

Flamboyant costumes are central to the fun. Besides the gown-draped parade is the annual Sweet Potato Queen ball and a separate party called "Pearls and PJs" that is followed by a "panty parade" during which the wearer of the most outlandish undergarments is awarded -- what else? -- a tiara. A Sunday brunch offers a final chance for dressing up.

"We are the middle-aged woman's equivalent of the 'Rocky Horror Picture Show,' " said Donna Kennedy Sones, a clothing designer and one of the seven women from Jackson who are the only full-fledged Sweet Potato Queens. (Under Browne's me-first hierarchy, all the others are merely "wannabes." But they are welcome to create their own queen groups, and to grovel shamelessly in the hope of gaining SPQ status -- which, she points out, will pretty much never happen.)

By shopping on the Web site, adherents can equip themselves with all things SPQ, from rhinestone-edged sunglasses and margarita glasses to T-shirts proclaiming, "Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History."

Empowerment is mentioned often. But if there is a current of feminism running through the movement, it is of a nonconfrontational strain that derives less from politics than from believing what simple lugs men can be, bless their hearts, and from appreciating the affirming power of play.

"The whole essence of it is play -- the dressing up and acting stupid for a little while makes it possible to become somebody else for a while, somebody who doesn't have an ex-husband or breast cancer or a child in therapy," Browne said. "Life for everybody is hard on a good day."

Drinking and Dancing

That sense of playfulness runs throughout, from the official party drink -- the high-octane, vodka-fueled "re-virginator" -- to the four basic food groups of the Sweet Potato Queens: sweet, salty, fried and au gratin. The queens blare music as they parade; favorites are Aretha Franklin and Don Ho.

The goal is a liberating glee not unlike the endless childhood amusement found in an empty refrigerator box. "We believe that we are just a refrigerator box -- a traveling refrigerator box," Kennedy Sones said. "We're entertained by very little."

For Robin Mitchell -- a.k.a. Queen Fifi, boss queen of the Fabulous Coconut Queens of Plano, Texas -- the entertainment involves packing three gowns for Jackson, on top of a small mountain of clothing, accessories and props for her 11 fellow Plano queens, who will bring it all in a U-Haul trailer.

"We let our hair down and forget all our troubles for a whole weekend," said Mitchell, a 45-year-old hairstylist who will be attending her third Jackson parade. "We hug a lot. We drink a lot. We dance a lot."

The recent onslaught of queens has forced the parade's organizer, bar owner and event promoter Malcolm White, to reconfigure the event, known as Mal's St. Paddy's Parade, so all the other participants don't get crowded out.

White created the parade in 1982 and has run it ever since. He said the queens attract out-of-towners to a city whose best-known event previously was the annual Dixie National Rodeo. "They'd never heard of Jackson, Mississippi," he said of the visiting queens. "Now it's one of their favorite places."

Browne, 50, was the original Sweet Potato Queen, joining three women friends in hand-me-down gowns and tiaras and clambering into the back of a pickup truck during that first parade 21 years ago. They grinned and waved in mock-Miss America style. They tossed sweet potatoes to bewildered onlookers as the procession crawled through downtown, bringing traffic to a halt.

In subsequent years, Browne eagerly took her place in the parade but had to cajole friends to join her. Over the years, meanwhile, she watched a second marriage dissolve and was left to support her daughter and mother on meager earnings by teaching aerobics at the YMCA and writing humorous pieces for local publications, including a column in an alternative paper published by White.

"If I had gotten sick or broken something, I'd be living in a box under a bridge," she said.

Friends prodded Browne to do more with her writing and her bawdy, fallen-belle voice. "Many, many a morning, walking the track at 5 a.m., I'd say, 'Jill, get off your butt and write a book,' " Kennedy Sones said.

Humorist Roy Blount Jr. noticed her column in the alternative paper, Diddy Wah Diddy. Her big break came when JoAnne Prichard, who had been a book editor at the University of Mississippi when Browne met her, began acquiring titles for Crown Books and remembered Browne's idea for "The Sweet Potato Queens' Book of Love." A career was born.

"Book of Love" was followed by "God Save the Sweet Potato Queens," published in 2001. The books found a steadily rising readership for Browne's tart, musings on everything from "why Big Hair is desirable" to "the Five Men You Must Have in Your Life at All Times" (a man who can fix things; a man you can dance with; a man who can pay for things; a man you can talk to; and a man to have great sex with). Then, too, there are "Men Who May Need Killing, Quite Frankly."

There are more than 1.1 million Sweet Potato Queens books in print. Sales of merchandise on the SPQ Web site are running at about $40,000 a month.

Love It or 'Change It'

Browne's popularity is at its most feverish among women over 40. (According to the Sweet Potato Queens' credo, anyone younger is "larva.") Her readers have raised families, perhaps suffered through a lousy marriage or two and long ago abandoned all hopes of getting the eye-catching majorette boots they may have coveted as young girls flipping through the Sears catalog. Her often-salty wisdom is simple: For God's sake, have some fun.

"If you aren't loving life, change it," she said during a drive around her Jackson suburb. "Life is too short and too long to spend it doing anything that doesn't make you happy."

Kim Rankin, a 33-year-old jewelry designer from Arlington, Va., will march in her second SPQ parade today. "You've never laughed, squealed or said 'Who are y'all?' more in your life," said Rankin, who goes by Kimmy Darling and heads the Larva Queens, so named because they are in their 20s and 30s.

Rankin has recruited her stepmother, stepsister and the sister of her stepmother -- all from Atlanta -- for this weekend's events and their queenly initiation. This time, she said, "it'll be a literal family reunion."

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