SWEET POTATO QUEENS
by: Ken Ringle
The WASHINGTON POST
S OME SEEK GREATNESS AND SOME HAVE GREATNESS THRUST UPON THEM. It is the axiom of the Sweet Potato Queens that by age 40 almost every woman has had greatness thrust upon her just by surviving never mind hitting, all the curve-balls life throws at her.
Therefore, the Sweet Potato gospel goes, instead of succumbing to the too-frequent middle-age female mind-sets of exhaustion, bitchiness and wound-licking, it is incumbent on all such women to get in touch with their Inner Queen and generally smart-mouth their way to an outrageous, regal and beatific better life. Not to mention a good time. “You should never wear panties to a party,’ counsels author and boss queen Jill Conner Browne. Browne, 51, a brown-eyed, six-foot former fitness instructor from Jackson, Miss., is the doyenne of the Sweet Potato Queen movement. Against every sort of obstacle, she has managed to write, provoke and inspire millions of women into a therapeutic southern-fried sisterhood of laughter.
In the past five years, since 1999, her first three books — “The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love,” “God Save the Sweet Potato Queens” and “The Sweet Potato Queens’ Big-Ass Cookbook (and Financial Planner)” - have sold more than 1.5 million copies. Her followers have organized into about 4,000 high-spirited fan clubs in every state in the United States and also, 14 foreign countries, stretching from Alaska (motto of the Halibut Hussies in Valdez: (“Catch and Release”) to Saudi Arabia. They include the Menopause Mafia, the No Regrets Majorettes and the Florida Navel Orange Queens (motto: “Keep Your Navel Queen’). The Jackson, Miss., St. Patrick’s Day Parade, where all this sort of started, has morphed into Sweet Potato Queen Mecca, where thousands of middle-age wannabe Jills undulate joyfully each year in green sequined dresses, red wigs and pink majorette boots.
Her Web site, www.sweetpotatoqueens.com grosses well into six figures peddling such SPQ icons as Fat Mama’s Knock-You-Naked Margarita Mix, tiaras and T- shirts that say, “Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History.” Browne, who just five years ago was debt-burdened, twice-divorced, single mother working four jobs, is now pulling in million-dollar book advances, six-figure royalty checks and at least $50,000.00 speaking fees per engagement. She is also, she says, having a really, really good time encouraging women to laugh their way to taking charge of their lives.
“You can step outside yourself and be someone who doesn’t have a worthless ex-husband, or breast cancer or a kid doing drugs,” she says, “ Life can be a bitch and frequently is, but play is healing. It’s only when we stop playing that we grow old.” Among her tips:
Browne says she never dreamed of being a role model. She insists she is “satanically” lazy, and when asked where she’d like to be in five years, “I always say ‘lying down.’” “In school I always wanted to be 5-foot-2, have red hair, blue eyes, big breasts and little tiny feet. I never got any of that. I never got majorette boots, either.” She assumed rich girls did get majorette boots for their birthdays. But later in life when she met those girls she learned they hadn’t gotten them either.
She’d also never had gotten to be queen of anything, so in 1982 when a restaurant-owning friend decided Jackson needed a St. Patrick’s Day parade, Brown, then nearing 30, decided she’d waited long enough. She’d once offered to be perpetual Sweet Potato Queen of Vardaman, Miss., where the yam is king, “to save them the bother of choosing a new queen every year. Vardaman had never gotten back to her on that, but what the hell. When Jackson’s first St. Patrick’s Day parade rolled down Main Street, there was Jill Conner Browne in a green sequined dress, red wig and, by God, majorette boots on a pickup truck float, together with three friends who decided they should be Sweet Potato Queens, too.
“I was never trying to make someone else laugh, as much as I was amusing myself,” Browne says. “Laughing at problems was part of how we dealt with them in my family So I was writing these columns as much for that as to pay the bills.”
In 1995, her second husband had left her “with no child support and hideously in debt. I had fitness clients starting at 5a.m., I had a young child and an ailing, elderly mother. I was doing all the shopping and cooking and paying all the bills for them, plus driving them everywhere and taking care of the car, the house, the yard, the dogs and cats and writing :the humor columns at night. Then the business journal dropped my column. That $300 a month was my light bill.”
Under prodding from friends she looked up Jo Anne Prichard Morris of the University of Mississippi Press and ‘Threw out the idea of the ‘Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love.’” Morris thought “SPQBL” too spicy for the university press, but a year later, after moving to Crown Books, she called and said Crown editors in New York wanted to see a formal proposal. The editor returned from New York with a two~book contract for Browne and a $25,000 advance. She piled book-writing atop her myriad other tasks and three months later sent “SPQBL” to Crown Books. . It started selling wildly
Browne says she never edits or rewrites anything, and one of the improbable charms of her books is that they read that way.
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