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THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

The Great (Big Hair) Escape

Sweet Potato Queens and wannabes converge in a Southern city to strut their stuff in an irreverent celebration of life's silly delights.

March 15, 2003|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JACKSON, Miss. — 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

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