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Queen Be

The 'Sweet Potato' Recipe for Happiness: Live It Up

By Ken Ringle
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, October 25, 2004; Page C01

Some 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 curveballs 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.

Belle of the bawdy: Jill Conner Browne, author of the "Sweet Potato Queens" series, has helped many women start a new chapter in their lives. (Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

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"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 and she's speaking Tuesday night at 7 at Politics and Prose. Against every sort of obstacle, she has managed to write, provoke and inspire millions of women into a therapeutic southern-fried sisterhood of laughter. It must be the wonder of every demographic number-cruncher and marketing mogul.

In the past five years, 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 themselves into about 4,000 high-spirited fan clubs in every state and 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 a kind of Sweet Potato Queen Mecca, where thousands of middle-age wannabe Jills undulate joyfully each year in overstuffed 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, rhinestone tiaras and T-shirts that say, "Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History."

Browne, who five years ago was a debt-burdened, twice-divorced single mother working four jobs, is now pulling in million-dollar book advances, six-figure royalty checks and $50,000 speaking fees. 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 on achieving Sweet Potato royalty:

• Along with Cute Shoes, every woman needs five men in her life: one to fix things, one to pay for things, one to dance with, one to talk to and one for sex. Four of the five can be gay.

• Tragedy deserves food. There are four basic food groups -- sweet, salty, fried and au gratin. Recipes include Twinkie Pie (aka White Trash Trifle).

• "There's nothing wrong with men in general. . . . Most of them are just fine. Really," she writes. But it would be crazy not to manipulate them with sex because "men's brains are migratory and usually located in their summer home, way south."

Further describing Browne's brand of humor, let alone her writing style, is not a job for the timid, but think of it like this: If Mel Brooks and Lily Tomlin were from Mississippi and had a daughter who grew up there in a household with Mark Twain, Dave Barry, Florence King and former Texas governor Ann Richards, she might have looked on life a bit like Jill Conner Browne.

But even more confounding is the power with which the Sweet Potato Queens' grin-and-bare-it philosophy has resonated in readers from Birmingham to Beijing. Her thousands of laughter-liberated followers swap life stories and advice like a sisterly global encounter group on the SPQ Web site's Message Board of Love. They speak of Browne the way women once spoke of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan -- as an empowering force who not only lifts women's spirits but revolutionizes their lives.

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